This article originally appeared in the Telegraph.
We are at a crossroads in our national effort to defeat the coronavirus. Infection rates are rising, hospital admissions are climbing and families across Britain are increasingly anxious about the looming threat of a second national lockdown.
At this moment of national crisis, people want hope that there is light at the end of the tunnel. Families want to know that they will be able to send their children to school, grandparents want to know that they will be able to see their grandchildren at Christmas and businesses want to know that they have a future.
This is the moment when we needed maximum confidence in the Government’s approach. People aren’t asking for miracles – they just want to know that the Prime Minister has a plan and a strategy in place. However, what we have seen in recent weeks is a Government that has lost control: lost control of its message; lost control of testing; and – crucially – lost control of the virus.
I understand the need for local restrictions. We have long argued that the only way we can curb the spread of the virus and keep the economy going is by having a targeted response that can tackle local outbreaks and reduce the infection rates. However, something is going seriously wrong with the Government’s approach at the moment. Out of the 20 areas of the country that have been in restrictions for at least two months, 19 have seen the infection rate go up. That is a sign of significant failure.
We are a great country. We should not have one of the highest death rates in the world or one of the worst recessions. Nor should it be inevitable that we have to impose further restrictions. But, because of the Government’s serial incompetence, further restrictions are becoming increasingly likely and, sadly, necessary.
The Government has got to get a grip of this situation urgently before it spirals out of control.
First, we need to guarantee local leaders are in the room and involved in decisions about restrictions in their area. At the moment the Government is operating under the misguided, arrogant and counterproductive view that ‘Whitehall knows best’, that decisions can be made behind closed doors, without any real consultation or by even picking up the phone to those on the frontline.
The party that was elected on a promise to level up is instead talking down to huge swathes of the country. This is fuelling public frustration and resentment in the system.
Second, we have got to fix testing. We can only control the virus if we know where the virus is. That is why I said a few months ago that the Government needed to spend the summer, when cases were much lower, building a testing system that works. They failed to do so, distracted by a series of fiascos of their own making. Now we hear stories of families struggling to get a test and, when they do, having to wait days for a result.
We don’t need a world beating testing system, we just need one that works. That is why I have said repeatedly to the Government that it needs to invest in NHS and university labs to expand capacity, and to put local public-health teams in charge of contact-tracing. We also need to ensure routine, regular testing for high-risk workplaces and high-transmission areas, with results within 24 hours to improve infection control, including for NHS staff, teachers and carers.
Finally, we need to give people confidence that there is a strategy in place. It was an act of gross irresponsibility for anonymous Number 10 sources to tell a few newspapers on Thursday about plans to impose further restrictions on millions of people, without any detail, without any consultation and without any statement from the Prime Minister. This has significantly added to the sense of confusion, chaos and unfairness in the approach that is being taken.
Families who have already sacrificed so much during lockdown will now spend the next few days anxious and worried about whether they will be able to see each other.
Businesses, which have stepped up to help our country and economy through this pandemic, will face a weekend of uncertainty about whether or not they will be able to stay open.
People will be confused about whether or not they can go to pubs and restaurants. The government has not lived up to its side of the bargain.
When I was elected Leader of the Labour Party, I said that we would be a constructive opposition, with the courage to support the Government where that’s the right thing to do, and the courage to challenge the Government where mistakes are being made. I stand by that commitment.
However, that approach only works if the Government, for its part, is constructive and competent, able to learn from its mistakes and willing to take the decisions that are necessary in the best interests of the British people. For too long, the Government has failed to acknowledge obvious problems, treated challenge with contempt, ploughed on with disastrous consequences and then sought to blame others for its own mistakes. If we are to find a constructive way through this pandemic, that has to change.