Two weeks ago, when I was elected Labour leader, I made a promise to the British people that under my leadership my party will act in the national interest, help steer us through these difficult times and strive for the good of our country. I meant it.
The coronavirus pandemic is the biggest challenge we have faced in a generation. It is a health crisis, an economic crisis and – for many – a personal crisis. Behind every death is a family that has been shaken to its core.
At this time of national crisis, Labour’s duty – my duty – is to support the national effort to save lives and protect livelihoods.
The crisis in our care homes has gone unheard for too long, in part because we do not know the full scale of the problem, writes Keir Starmer (file photo of nurse holding a patient’s hand)
That’s why I supported the Government’s decision to introduce the lockdown and why I backed last week’s decision to extend it for another three weeks.
The lockdown is extremely difficult for all of us. There is no doubt about that. But it is necessary to defeat the coronavirus and the Government can be assured of my support on that.
Equally, my duty is to call the Government out when I believe mistakes are being made, when decisions are being taken too slowly or when the most vulnerable are not being heard. The purpose of this challenge is not to score party political points but to ensure mistakes are rectified and progress is speeded up.
In that spirit, we all have to accept mistakes have been made. I fully accept that any government would find this situation challenging. But the Government was too slow to enter the lockdown. It has been too slow to increase the number of people being tested. It has been too slow in getting NHS staff the critical equipment they need to keep them safe.
We need to make sure these mistakes are not repeated.
And this week has exposed how the Government has been too slow to respond to the growing emergency in our social care services.
Residents of crisis-hit Stanley Park Care home in Stanley, County Durham, which has lost 13 residents in recent days, enjoy a performance of classic wartime songs to lift their spirits
We have all heard the harrowing stories of the virus spreading through care homes, relatives unable to say their last goodbyes and staff poorly paid, equipped and protected to provide essential care. Ministers have promised action – that is welcome – but it needs to go further and faster.
First, our carers need to be kept safe. We have all been struck by the extraordinary service and dedication of our key workers during this pandemic. They are the best of us. These are people who are quite literally putting their lives on the line to care for our loved ones. But too many of them are being left exposed because of shortages of personal protection equipment (PPE).
The Government says it is doing everything it can to supply equipment. I do not doubt its sincerity. However, there is a mismatch between the statements coming out of Downing Street and the realities for staff on the ground. That needs to come to an end, and fast.
Second, we need more information. The crisis in our care homes has gone unheard for too long, in part because we do not know the full scale of the problem. That is why we urgently need Ministers to publish daily figures on the number of deaths in care homes. That is the only way we are going to know who has fallen victim to the virus, how fast it is spreading and the scale of response that is needed.
Third, testing, testing and more testing. Matt Hancock’s announcement that all care home residents and staff with symptoms would be tested is welcome.
But many of us will be asking why on earth was this not done sooner? A council leader I spoke to last week told me that of its 5,000 social care workers, only ten had been tested. That is astonishing.
We have all been struck by the extraordinary service and dedication of our key workers during this pandemic (file photo of nurse helping colleague to put on PPE)
As other countries have proven, testing is a vital weapon in our armoury to contain the infection and it will be central to any strategy to lift the lockdown.
Ministers promised 25,000 tests a day by mid-April, but that target was missed. Now they are promising 100,000 by the end of the month. They are unlikely to meet that target.
Many care homes are feeling overwhelmed, particularly those with an outbreak of the virus. I have spoken to care workers who are concerned about looking after coronavirus patients who have been discharged from hospital, because of the infection risk. The Government should ensure that where there is capacity at the new NHS Nightingale hospitals, it is made available for those who need it most, including care home residents.
Finally, we need a clear plan for what comes next.
The lockdown has been extended and I support that. But we need to have clarity about what is going to happen next.
Other countries have begun to set out a roadmap to lift restrictions in certain sectors of the economy and for certain services, especially social care, when the time is right. This of course must be done in a careful, considered way with public health, scientific evidence and the safety of workers and families at its heart. But the UK Government should be doing likewise.
We also need to make the case for a better, fairer society. Every week, we stand at our doorsteps to clap for our carers. We do so with pride, gratitude and a deep sense of national unity and purpose.
But, when we get through this – and we will get through this – we cannot return to business as usual. For too long, social care has been neglected. Our care workers left underpaid and undervalued. Our relatives denied the dignity they deserve at the end of their life.
We need a new settlement for social care. We can’t have another decade of this being thought ‘too difficult’ for politicians to solve.
We must go forward with the ambition and determination for a better society that puts dignity and respect at the heart of how we care for the most vulnerable – and how we properly reward our key workers and those who work in our public services.
That is how we can repay the debt we owe to all of those who have sacrificed so much during this crisis. That is how we can rebuild the better society the British people deserve. That is what I am determined to deliver.