As we continue to navigate the coronavirus crisis, it’s clear that there is a long way to go before talk of isolation and social distancing is a distant memory. In fact, deputy chief medical officer Dr Jenny Harries let slip last weekend that we could be waiting for six months before life in the UK returns to normal.
With the global number of confirmed coronavirus cases now reaching over one million, and 33,718 people diagnosed in the UK, Covid-19 looks set to dominate Boris Johnson’s premiership and media discourses for the foreseeable future. With that in mind, here are the four things you need to know about what has been another historic week for Westminster.
This week has undoubtedly been a momentous challenge for the UK government. With Boris Johnson leading the country from isolation in Number 11, it seems daily press conferences with his team have not been enough to suppress criticism of the government’s current provisions for both testing and personal protective equipment (PPE).
As we have seen, extensive testing regimes have played an important role in curbing coronavirus infection rates in countries such as South Korea and Singapore. As a result, questions are being asked as to why the UK has not yet been able to adequately increase its testing capabilities. As of Wednesday evening, only 2,800 NHS staff had been tested for the disease, with total testing rates reaching around 10,000 per day in the UK, compared to 70,000 a day in Germany.
In response to this mounting criticism, last night, health secretary Matt Hancock emerged from isolation to update the country on the government’s most recent strategy for tackling the pandemic. In his speech, Hancock outlined his ‘five pillar’ approach for testing in the UK, which he hopes will result in 100,000 tests being delivered each day by the end of April.
The five-point plan focuses on increasing swab testing through government and private sector networks, as well as introducing antibody testing for those who may have become immune to the virus. These measures will also be supported by plans to track the spread of the disease, and to build a British diagnostics industry to increase testing capabilities.
The announcement was welcome news for most, as concerns over testing were not sufficiently combatted by Boris Johnson’s home videos. That said, several opposition MPs have highlighted that the new figure of 100,000 tests a day is still far cry from the 250,000 daily tests that were promised by the prime minister just a few weeks ago. Labour MP Dawn Butler has also been very vocal the topic of testing key workers, as she revealed her uncle passed away as a result of catching coronavirus whilst in hospital.
The government is therefore likely to face continued challenges over how it will deliver on these ambitions over the coming weeks. Many critics have already started to question how the government will deliver on its targets, and when we might see actually the introduction of measures such as immunity wristbands that could bring an end to our lockdown lifestyle.
The economic impact of the pandemic has also remained at the forefront of political discussions this week, as Rishi Sunak announced the extension of business interruption loans to small and medium size businesses. This commitment was then followed by Hancock’s announcement that £13.4 billion worth of historic NHS debt will be wiped to help NHS trusts fight the virus. Although a timely announcement, the plans had already been discussed at a January meeting called by NHS England and NHS Improvement, and have been under consideration for over a year.
The Financial Times has also reported that up to half of businesses could look to utilise the government’s job retention scheme over the coming months as the economic impact of the pandemic begins to kick in.
Yesterday, British Airways confirmed that it will be temporarily suspending over 30,000 members of staff, with Nissan and McDonalds also putting large numbers of staff on furloughed pay. The current figures suggest that the number of people on the government scheme will far surpass the Treasury’s estimate of three million people, or just ten per cent of the private sector workforce.
With this large uptake of government support for wages, over 900,000 applications for universal credit and the cost of tackling the coronavirus, how long will the government be able to continue with these financial support schemes, and what will the corona bailout mean for the government’s plans to level up post-Brexit Britain?
One thing we can look forward to this week is Saturday night. Yes that’s right, the labour leadership results will provide a welcome break from coronavirus news, as we look to usher in a new opposition leader.
It seems like a lifetime ago that Labour announced its leadership elections. However, with front runner Sir Keir Starmer likely to take up the reins tomorrow evening, it seems a new opposition figurehead will arrive just in time to hold the government to account during one of the most challenging times in recent history.
It’s no secret that the government has faced a lack-lustre opposition for the past few months at the hands of Jeremy Corbyn. It is therefore likely that Boris Johnson will be facing a step-change in scrutiny next week as an emboldened and empowered Labour party comes back under new leadership. The timing of this could not be worse for the prime minister, as he faces an uphill battle in fighting the pandemic whilst dealing with criticism on both sides of the political spectrum.
As with any new leader, there will also be a new cabinet. Despite murmurings of a significant shake up, Starmer has steered clear of offering any clear indication of who would be joining him on the front benches. That said, it’s likely that leadership hopeful Lisa Nandy will secure a top job if Starmer does take home the trophy, with other members of the Labour Together group looking like promising candidates.
Finally, as we all adjust to the new normal of doing laps in the garden and videoconferencing until we are blue in the face, so too must our parliamentarians. This week, House of Commons speaker Sir Lindsay Hoyle called for parliament to operate virtually if MPs are unable to return to parliament on 21 April.
Parliament is already making history, with the cabinet hosting its first entirely virtual meeting over Zoom this week and select committees operating over video sharing platforms. There are, however, restrictions on the number of so-called virtual evidence sessions, with parliamentary authorities still working to increase capacity.
For some MPs this is a temporary necessity, and they hope to be back walking the corridors of power as soon as possible. However, for some members the introduction of online voting has been a long time coming, and the current situation poses an opportunity to update parliamentary working in line with modern technology.
Whichever camp you may sit in however, it seems the speaker will be establishing a working group after the crisis has passed to see what lessons can be learned from the pandemic to prepare parliament for the future. In the meantime, it seems there will be an uphill struggle to implement a virtual parliament, as implementing a new digital democracy in Westminster is hampered by a lack of resources, staff and wifi.
As we all know, we have not yet hit the peak of cases here in the UK. Therefore, it’s inevitable that things will have to get worse before they get better. However, as we begin to settle into our new routines and the government starts implementing new testing regimes, there is hope that these measures could help us turn the tide over the coming weeks and months.
Although the full impact of economic and health prevention measures is yet to be seen, we can only hope that by the time parliament is expected to return from recess there has been some improvement in our fight against the coronavirus.