May I start by sending my best wishes to all friends and constituents for 2021.
It is so hard to be starting the year back in a national lockdown, but so essential if we are to prevent the NHS being overwhelmed while we give every chance for the vaccine programme to roll out successfully. Over the past few weeks, it has become clear that the virus has mutated in a way that means it spreads much more rapidly and widely, and this week, daily cases have topped 60,000 for the first time. We have to take urgent and drastic action, and stay at home to slow the spread.
But it’s not just because of the emergence of the new variant that we are having to take such tough action now. The government’s repeated failure to get a grip of the virus, being too slow to introduce a circuit breaker in the autumn, then relaxing the rules too quickly at the beginning of December, has led us inexorably to where we are today.
Thankfully, though, we are now seeing vaccinations beginning to take place, and there is a route out of the horror of this pandemic. I pay huge tribute to the scientists, health workers, volunteers and regulators who have been working flat out to introduce life saving vaccines at such incredible speed. As at 3 January, over 43,000 vaccinations had been carried out among care home residents, the over 80’s and health and social care staff in Greater Manchester. Gradually more and more people will be invited for vaccination, with the priority being to reduce the mortality rate.
One really difficult aspect of the new lockdown is that schools and colleges will open only to vulnerable and critical workers’ children at least until halfterm. This is a horrible situation to find ourselves in once again, and everyone is desperate to have children back in school as soon as possible. Children aren’t more susceptible to the new variant of the virus than they were to the old version, but the rapid way in which it spreads led scientists to advise the rate of infection in the community as a whole could not be brought under control unless colleges and secondary and primary schools closed to most students. I know there’s anxiety about early years settings, which remain open to all children, but the evidence that closing them too would make a difference to the infection rate doesn’t seem to be so clear – we are asking government for more information about that.
The enormity of this decision, and that GCSE and A level exams due to take place this summer will now be cancelled, meant that in my shadow cabinet role as Labour’s education spokesperson, I had to return to parliament this week to answer a statement on the matter from the secretary of state. There are many really complicated consequences to deal with, and my Westminster team and I are working on a range of matters, from pressing the government to make sure all children have access to digital devices for home learning to asking questions about the mass testing programme for schools and colleges. Meanwhile, colleagues in other teams are working on the financial support needed by families and businesses to enable them to survive another lockdown. It’s been an exceptionally busy start to the new year.
While so much was happening on covid, it’s been easy to forget that we reached the end of the transition period of our exit from the European Union at the end of last month. Getting a deal with the EU to cover our future relationship before the year-end deadline was therefore vital, not least to prevent the introduction of tariffs on goods flowing to and from the EU that would increase prices for consumers and hurt jobs, and to maintain access to European criminal justice systems to manage cross-border crime. At very nearly the last moment, on Christmas Eve, the prime minister announced that a deal had been agreed. It’s a desperately thin deal, it doesn’t include services (like finance and architecture) that account for a large proportion of UK exports, it doesn’t give us access to all criminal records, it doesn’t do away with the need for more red tape and checks as goods cross into the EU, or between Great Britain and Northern Ireland. But the alternative to the thin deal was very stark – no deal at all. That would have been disastrous for the country, and though I have fought every step of the way for the best possible deal for the UK going right back to 2016, with nothing else left on the table, and with a very heavy heart, I voted last week in favour of this deal. For a future Labour government, it will however be a starting point for what we want to be once again a much richer relationship with our EU neighbours.
Finally, I’m sure you’ll have shared my utter horror and disbelief at the scenes on Capitol Hill in Washington on Wednesday night. This was a bitter lesson in where the vicious populism of President Trump was always going to lead. As we start the new year, I have never known politics, here in the UK and around the world, to be more divisive, desperate, unstable and challenging. But the news that the Democrats won both senate seats in Georgia, that they will control both the house of representatives and the senate, and the election of Joe Biden and Kamala Harris, gives hope for better times to come.