Accusations of chaos and incompetence continue to dog the Government as they stumble from failure to failure in dealing with the Coronavirus.

Keir Starmer was clear on day one of his leadership of the Labour Party back in April that he would support the Government where they are getting it right, but challenge them and hold them to account where they get it wrong.

At a time of pandemic, thats the very least the British public would expect from Her Majesty’s Opposition; to work constructively and present alternative approaches, in the national interest.

When Keir Starmer called for a circuit breaker three weeks ago, he was proposing a short and effective intervention to drastically cut the number of contacts between households as the “R-rate” rose. With the first week aligned with the school half term, Labour’s proposals, backed up by many in the scientific community, would maximise effectiveness while minimising disruption to children’s education.

So, it was bitterly disappointing to see the Prime Minister’s response to our suggestion, and our offer of cross-party working, as opportunism. Fast-forward to last weekend, another televised address from 10 Downing Street, the Prime Minister performing another of his well-practiced u-turns, following a leak believed to be from within his own Cabinet to the press.

But the decision to block a circuit-breaker was shared by the man next door living in Number 11.  Along with Boris Johnson, Rishi Sunak’s stubborn refusal to address problems of his own making until the last possible minute is risking lives, costing jobs and causing chaos.

Only days earlier, the Government said workers under regional restrictions would only receive two thirds of their pre-crisis income because 80% was impossible – the country could not afford to subsidise Northern workers forced to stay at home. But, as soon as restrictions were introduced in London and the South East of England, everything changed!

Over a million people have lost their jobs since the crisis began, and many more are expected, yet the Government still hasn’t acted to fix Britain’s broken safety net to help them. The Chancellor, held in high esteem by many people for his interventions early on in the crisis, is now well and truly stuck in a cycle of denial, dither and delay.

There were huge holes in the Government’s support packages in the first lockdown, especially for many self-employed people. But there is still no new support for those excluded from support since this crisis started.

The safety net is at risk of becoming thread-bare. Yesterday I learned from the mental health charity Mind, that anyone who does not attend or participate in a telephone assessment for Employment and Support Allowance or Universal Credit will risk having their benefits reduced or cut off altogether. This would affect thousands of disabled people including many with mental health problems.

 

When telephone assessments were first introduced in March, the DWP put in a safeguard so that no disabled people would see their benefits stopped if they missed a telephone assessment or were unable to take part due to Coronavirus. But we now know this safeguard for some of our most vulnerable has been rescinded by the Government.

The burden will now be on disabled people to prove they have a good reason for missing an appointment. If the DWP does not accept their proof, they risk seeing their benefits stopped.

 

Research from the Money and Mental Health Policy Institute has found that over half of people with mental health problems find engaging over the phone difficult or impossible. The same proportion say they need support from others in order to engage with benefits agencies over the phone. This change brings with it the real risk that people with mental health problems will see their benefits cut-off during a winter lockdown.

Here in the North East we were asked to make big sacrifices to get the virus under control under Teir-2, and we saw some early signs of progress. But as we move into a new national lockdown the Government must play their part to protect jobs and guarantee that no-one will be at risk of losing their benefits this winter.