Back in March, as lockdown began, hastily written notes were placed in the windows of shops and businesses on high streets across the country.
They announced an unavoidable shut down with no certainty about how or when they could re-open.
This is every business’ nightmare, but for three long months, it has been their waking reality.
Now, for some parts of our economy, the notes are beginning to come down, and the shutters are beginning to come up.
But for others, the crisis is still not over.
We are still in the middle of the greatest crisis in a generation one where our government, sadly, has been too slow to act. Too slow to lockdown. Too slow to ramp up testing. And too slow to get PPE to our brilliant frontline workers.
As lockdown restrictions begin to ease, attention is turning to the economic impact of coronavirus.
Labour is very clear: the government cannot afford to be too slow.
Britain needs a Back to Work Budget with a focus on jobs, jobs and jobs again.
What we are hearing from the government on the economy is worrying.
Worrying that – yet again – they plan to take a hands-off approach to helping business and people’s livelihoods.
Worrying that the Chancellor is reported to have said he “shouldn’t be picking winners.”
As if supporting a local pub or family-run restaurant, that has been boarded up at the direction of government is somehow cheating the natural order of things.
Worrying that some press reports suggested the Chancellor was considering putting off his Summer Economic Update, in order to wait and see what happens this weekend, when more of the lockdown lifts. Even though many other countries announced weeks ago, their recovery packages, focused on backing the green jobs of the future.
Waiting to see is not a strategy.
The OECD’s Global Outlook report published last month, made for sobering reading.
It suggested that the economic hit on the UK due to the coronavirus would be the worst of all industrialised nations.
And, that unemployment levels in the UK could be the second worst in the industrialised world.
Just as the hit to our population’s health from coronavirus threatens to be one of the worst of all industrialised countries, so our economy stands at a crossroads.
This is not a time to wait and see.
In Leicester this week we have seen the first major re-imposition of lockdown.
The government promised these lockdowns would be local.
But the reality is they are being driven from Whitehall.
We still do not have a functioning track, trace and isolate system.
And local authorities are not getting the data they need in the time they need it.
The experience in recent days and weeks in Leicester is a familiar one in our response to this crisis. Muddled. Confusing. With a refusal to bring in local authorities and too slow – much – much too slow.
We desperately need and want government to get this right.
Lives and livelihoods depend upon it.
Because for as long as there is confusion and delay in the public health response, many people will stay away from our high streets and out of our shops, pubs and restaurants.
At this time of continued national crisis, Labour is determined to act as a constructive opposition.
So, in that spirit, I call on the Chancellor to acknowledge the impact of the slow health response on our economy and do something about it.
Today we call on government, to lay out plans to extend support schemes for businesses and people in areas like Leicester that are forced into local lockdowns.
These support schemes should serve as economic sandbags, ensuring localised second waves of COVID-19 don’t wash away businesses and jobs in their wake.
Labour has also repeatedly set out constructive solutions when it comes to test, track and isolate, including changes to sick pay, so people are not having to choose between self-isolating and providing for their families.
And we have repeatedly called for clear public health messaging – with unambiguous and strongly-enforced guidance.
These solutions are critical to reducing infection and to building trust and aiding our economic recovery.
We have also set out the fiscal measures Government should take, to first secure, and then turbocharge our recovery.
Instead of the limited ‘Summer Economic Update’ promised next week, we need a real Back to Work Budget.
It must focus on preventing unemployment, supporting the unemployed back into work, and creating the jobs of the future, so that when we emerge from this crisis, Britain is ready to come back even better than before.
We already know many of the policies which can prevent and combat unemployment, and the long-term costs unemployment incurs.
And we know that many other countries announced their economic recovery packages not just days, but weeks ago.
Already we are falling behind others.
This is no time to wait and see: it’s the time to act in our country’s interest.
Labour supported the Job Protection Scheme and self-employed schemes – indeed, we called for them.
We also called for an exit strategy.
But as with the lifting of lockdown, what we have now is an exit without a strategy.
First, government must abandon its one-size-fits-all wind-down of the Job Protection and self-employed schemes.
We need a targeted strategy that acknowledges that workers in struggling sectors cannot and should not be treated the same way, as workers in sectors that are already back to full capacity.
This is not about ‘picking winners’, in the Chancellor’s words.
It is about protecting those who have lost – through no fault of their own. It is about giving people across the country a fair chance.
The reward for months of sacrifice cannot be a redundancy notice.
This week we saw a wave of companies announcing enormous job losses – because the government is refusing to shift from its one-size-fits-all approach.
Smaller companies have a shorter redundancy period. To avoid the same flood of redundancy notices for workers within smaller companies later on this month, government must act now – and abandon its one-size-fits-all approach.
When we talk about our economy, it can feel distant and remote: interest rates and budgets and spreadsheets. It is anything but.
The economy is our jobs and family incomes.
It is our high streets and our communities.
It is the things that add meaning and character to the places we live and love.
It is small business owners, who have put their life and soul into building their businesses.
It has been heartbreaking to hear from many of them in recent weeks. How they feel their businesses slipping through their fingers because of a temporary lack of cash flow, even though with the right, targeted support now, they would be perfectly viable in the long term.
That frustration, that anger, at working hard all your life, playing by the rules, doing the right thing, waiting your place patiently in the queue. Only to find it snatched away from you by a combination of this terrible crisis and government’s refusal to help.
Supporting them now isn’t about picking winners.
It’s about basic fairness.
Government must also act now to provide support for those who have become unemployed.
Instead, the DWP are re-introducing sanctions at a time when there are more than eight people unemployed for every vacancy.
This government seems completely divorced from the scale of the unemployment crisis facing us.
It must speedily put in place the ‘active labour market policy’ that already operates in many other countries, and which our JobCentres do not have the capacity to provide.
Government must also act now to support the jobs of the future.
And here we need guarantees of delivery, not just warm words.
In 2015, the Conservative government promised to huge fanfare 200,000 new homes for first-time buyers. Not a single one of those homes was built.
The Conservatives have talked and talked: they have not built.
If you could construct houses out of Conservative press releases, promises and hot air, the housing crisis in this country would have ended years ago.
Instead, the rate of homeownership has fallen, and almost 800,000 fewer households under-45 own their own home now, compared to in 2010.
The Conservatives have talked and talked: they have not built.
And on the green infrastructure that every region and nation of this country is crying out for, there have been promises and paper commitments, but precious little action.
The Conservatives have talked and talked: they have not built.
Two years ago, the National Infrastructure Commission published an assessment. There has been no official response.
And this week the Prime Minister tried to claim he was creating a ‘New Deal’. Most of it was re-announcements of things we have heard before.
So, it wasn’t really ‘new’.
And, when we cut through the bluster and looked at the detail of what the Prime Minister was actually offering, it works out at less than £100 investment per person.
So, it’s not much of a deal either.
Ten years of Conservative government. Ten years of talk. Ten years of inaction.
Instead of yet more promises and yet more talk, we need a laser focus – on jobs, jobs, jobs.
To deliver on jobs, the Chancellor’s statement must meet four key tests.
First, it must focus, not on re-announced, re-hashed prestige projects, but on supporting high-quality jobs.
The test of a project can’t be if it piques the interest of the Prime Minister’s closest advisor.
Instead, projects must involve local firms. They must give the local workforce new skills and training. They must lead to material improvement in the quality and availability of local employment.
And, programmes to support employment must be measured against the success of schemes like the Future Jobs Fund, and reflect the different challenges faced by young workers, older workers, and particularly impacted areas of the UK.
Second, the Chancellor’s statement must buck the trend of the last ten years and rebuild economic resilience right across our country.
As a recent report noted:
“[t]here is little chance of a so-called ‘bounce-back’ in areas such as Pendle, Burnley, or Barnsley where local authority service spending has fallen by 53 per cent, 51 per cent, and 35 per cent over the decade in real terms”.
And public support for ailing companies must come with good-value strings attached, to support local employment, to keep value in the UK by avoiding dividend payments, share buybacks and the use of tax havens, and to adhere to strong environmental requirements.
Third, every single project must be consistent with the drive to net-zero – so we can build the green jobs of the future.
Last week’s Committee on Climate Change report showed how far behind the UK is falling – now is the time for action.
Just as the German, Danish and South Korean stimulus packages have focused on green technologies, so must the UK’s, if we are to avoid falling behind other countries.
And fourth, any benefits of investment now must not be cancelled out by poor decisions later.
Because, while the Prime Minister says now that those who have borne the brunt of the crisis will not be called on to pay for it, we’ve seen the opposite over the last ten years.
Since this dreadful virus struck, we have seen who our key workers really are.
Those who staff our NHS; those working in our emergency services; those keeping supermarkets open; and the elderly and vulnerable cared for.
Our keyworkers are the people keeping bins collected, children educated, and the country safe.
Those on the frontline of this crisis have heroically risen to the challenge over the last few months – but, for many, that follows a decade of reductions in pay, security and living standards.
Over the last ten years, the gap in income and wealth has increased, and living standards for low and middle-income people have stagnated – at the same time as taxes for the very best-off have been reduced.
So finally, government must commit, at the very least, to not increase taxes or cut support for low and middle-income people, during the period while we recover from this crisis.
Because just like the small business that fears for its future, what people want – what they deserve – is fairness.
We cannot go back to business as normal.
We cannot “wait and see”.
We cannot have more empty promises.
We cannot have more inaction.
We need a response which recognises the scale of the challenge we face.
And the first step in this, the first move to get Britain back on its feet, needs to happen now.
Britain needs a Back to Work Budget – one that focuses on jobs, jobs, jobs.