Instead of opposing Johnson's shambolic tiers, Starmer's abstention is letting the anti-lockdown Tory rebels and scotch eggs dominate the debate, writes Terina Hine
Today MPs get to vote on the new coronavirus tier system - or in the case of Labour, not vote. The debate both inside and outside parliament is entirely focussed on the economy, as if the health of the economy can somehow be separated from the health of those who work and support it.
Shamefully this debate is taking place on the same day it was confirmed that there have been more than 72,000 excess deaths during the pandemic. If we were to include those yet to be officially counted the figure would stand at over 80,000.
In the week ending 20 November (latest available data) excess deaths rose to 21% above the five year average. Deaths rose in all major settings - care homes, hospitals and private homes - and Covid was mentioned in over 20% of all deaths, the highest percentage since mid-May, and spread across the entire country.
And although we were still in a national lockdown, over 100,000 new Covid cases were recorded last week.
So while MPs argue over the economic fallout from the tier system - who is in and who is out - and the media discuss whether a scotch egg is a substantial meal, Covid continues to circulate. The growth rate of infections may have slowed but the virus is definitely still here.
The government is deeply divided about which way to turn and the country is at yet another crisis point. So what is Labour doing? Proposing solutions? Demanding substantive support and extended health measures so families and workers can cope? No. They are abstaining. Again.
Instead of Labour leading the opposition, the national argument is being led by the right wing Covid Recovery Group (CRG) - the anti-lockdown group of Tory backbenchers whose only concern is with the economy and their personal profit margins. They accuse the government of inflicting “collective punishment” on the wealthy they represent: residents in Tunbridge Wells are being penalised because the deprived areas of Kent - areas where people live in overcrowded housing and are unable work from home - have seen a surge in cases.
Gone is the mantra that we are all in this together. Today it is time to blame the poor. As with all infectious diseases, Covid thrives with inequality and poverty. To find where the most deprived regions of the UK are located, look no further than the Covid heat map.
What is needed to stem surges in poor regions is strategic support. Evidence from Liverpool shows the mass Covid testing pilot failed to reach the poorest communities - in some parts, only 4% of residents turned up to be tested.
Why? Because workers cannot risk a test. No work, no pay. Workers need financial support to isolate. Yet in some of the worst Covid hotspots more than half of those who apply for such support are rejected. In Yorkshire and Humber over 60% of applications were rejected, in Liverpool it is closer to 80%.
The opposition has proposed neither an alternative plan nor strategy, nor demanded more funding. We know the UK economy can recover, that workers can be supported, and jobs saved - to allow the debate to be led by the CRG is an outrage. We cannot bring back the 80,000 who have already perished, but we could prevent thousands more dying.
But rather than addressing the issues of wealth and health inequality, the Tories, with Labour’s support and the cooperation of the media, are playing a blame game, focussing on penalties and on which business or region can escape restrictions, and of course distracting us with the trickiest question of all: whether a scotch egg is a starter, a main or just a snack.
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