Labour's unlocking problem

7 July 2021

1:20 AM

7 July 2021

1:20 AM

Labour is unhappy with the government’s plan for unlocking, with leader Sir Keir Starmer calling it ‘reckless’. In the Commons this afternoon, shadow health secretary Jon Ashworth and then shadow education secretary Kate Green complained about the statements from their ministerial counterparts.

Ashworth treated fellow MPs to the slightly bizarre spectacle of him waving a paper Sajid Javid had written on pandemics while at Harvard, which seemed an incongruous political stunt. All the more discordant is the party’s stance on unlocking, which seems to be to complain about it happening while offering a plan that isn’t vastly different. It is urging the government to keep mandatory mask rules to stop infections rising still further, is demanding better sick pay, and is fretting about the possible incidence of long Covid. But beyond that, Labour isn’t asking for restrictions to be reintroduced or the roadmap to be slowed any further. It isn’t clear how much this would really reduce infections by.

Better sick pay, Ashworth argues, would mean that people would self-isolate when told to because they can afford to do so. Masks appear to offer some protection, but the rate at which cases are rising currently with masks still mandated shows that if the party really wants to slow infections, it would need to demand more stringent measures, which it clearly feels it cannot.

Another question that Ashworth and colleagues haven’t been able to answer is this: When would be a better time to unlock? The justification offered by the government for its current timetable is that it is better to do so just as schools break up and before the autumn surge in other infections. There may well be a better date, but Labour hasn’t offered it.

Mind you, neither has the government been clear about how it will stop infections rising, which is something Kate Green pointed out when she responded to Gavin Williamson’s statement on changes to school bubbles. The Education Secretary had announced that bubbles would end from 19 July, meaning large groups of school children won’t be sent home merely because one of them tests positive for the virus. Instead, Test and Trace will get in touch with pupils who are contacts of those who test positive and advise them to take a PCR test. Students will also be expected to take regular lateral flow tests.

Given the Health Secretary expects there could be around 100,000 cases a day over the summer, there will still be a lot of children having to isolate at home in September because they have tested positive. While the two main parties have slightly different stances on unlocking, neither has the answer to stemming the flow of infections.

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