May 13, 2020 Blog

We have lost time – but we can still save lives, and build a better Scotland

Let me restate the Labour position on the crisis. We stand together across party lines in support of the national effort, and we want all Governments to succeed in beating the virus. Defeating Covid-19 is our top priority, so no word or vote from us will be anything but an honest attempt to help in the national effort and the national emergency that we all face to save lives.

That is why we support the Government’s position on the lockdown. For the avoidance of doubt, we support the Scottish Government’s stance that was made clear at the weekend on the “stay at home” lockdown message and on the precautionary approach. That is why we welcome the reintroduction of test, trace, isolate. We have always said that the widespread testing of people is the key to controlling the virus. That is a basic principle of public health and of infectious disease prevention and control.

The Scottish Labour Party’s concern is that we have lost time when we could have moved to lockdown earlier, which could have saved lives. We have lost time in the routine, regular and speedy testing of key health and social care workers. We have lost time in building up the capacity and the infrastructure for a test, trace and isolate policy. That policy should not be simply the guide for an exit strategy; it should have been a guiding principle throughout the pandemic, and it has now become an urgent priority. We have lost time because the country did not have an adequate supply of PPE—that has been the message from the front line in critical areas of health and social care. PPE, hospital supplies, pharmaceuticals, swabs and testing kits should all have been waiting, but they were not. We have lost time, and for that there will be a reckoning.

When the history of these times is written, it will also record a popular mood for change. We have seen over the past seven weeks the potential to adapt to change and to co-operate. We have seen the reaffirmation of the need for a brighter vision of a better future, based on communities that are not divided but united, because people’s understanding of what matters in life has changed irrevocably. Our understanding must be that we are living in a different world from the one that we left behind seven weeks ago.

For some people, that different world is one in which the old indulgences of consumerism and materialism have been replaced with a new re-acquaintance with quietness and nature. However, far too many people have seen changes for the worse, such as those with limited personal savings that have gone, so poverty and indebtedness are up, along with new hardships and new burdens. We are facing a massive rise in long-term unemployment, the potential collapse of town centres, night-time economies going bust and youth unemployment at levels that have not been witnessed for decades, so, for many, an uneasy feeling persists across the country. There are looming worries about the gap in public finances and about not just present but future job losses. Moreover, the pandemic is a common public health danger that take the form of not just a physical but a mental health threat.

Those are common challenges that we must work together to overcome. We are waging a war against the virus but, in so doing, we are fighting for the values of unity not division, of co-operation not competitiveness. Among the workers on the front line—those who are in that war and in the trenches—we have witnessed immense self-sacrifice, great devotion and a common humanity from people who are fighting to defeat a virus with tenacity and courage. We can take that spirit of hope and new-found energy and solidarity and apply it to the post-pandemic world. That world will be based on values that have been re-found in society. Those values need to be reflected in the path and the actions that are led by the Government and reflected in a new understanding of our interdependency, so that we do not return to the homelessness and rough sleeping of the harsh winter before this lockdown spring; we strive to eradicate poverty and inequality in all its forms with renewed energy and vigour; and we resolve to tackle the underlying weaknesses in the Scottish economy.

The wheels of industry lie silent and will not be so easily re-started as some people believe. It is an economy that will have to be reimagined, with new emphasis on investing in, and so diversifying, our manufacturing base. It means a plan for the economy, starting with a plan for a return to work, on a sector-by-sector basis, that is strategic, thought through and, above all, safe, instead of the arbitrary message, “If you cannot work from home, go out to work,” because, as the Scottish Trades Union Congress has said, that approach is nothing less than “dangerous”.

As we saw at the start of the pandemic, and as we will see in even greater numbers at this stage of the pandemic, working women and men are being forced to make an impossible decision: to go out to work and expose themselves and their families to a heightened risk of infection or to stay at home without pay and face dismissal.

I predict that the events of the next few days will lay bare once again the perils of the laws of the workplace in this country, which demand urgent reform. We have to revalue the work of carers, of NHS staff and of supermarket workers, too. It must be a re-evaluation not just of their remuneration but of their status in our society and their job security.

We will explore other real and difficult questions in this debate. How will schools open and then operate while keeping pupils safe? How will we plan the restart of broader NHS services in a way that will keep staff and patients safe? How can we rebalance investment to meet the needs of the people, because the public realm and collective wellbeing do, in the end, matter to individual welfare? How can we forge a new social contract among Government, unions and employers?

Those are not questions of the future—they need answers now. That is the task and responsibility not just of this Government but of this Parliament. We will rise to that challenge and make that change only if we do it together.

Finally, we are regularly told that we will emerge stronger from the pandemic, but what about the people we have lost? I say that we must never forget those wonderful friends and relatives who are no longer with us. It is in their memory that we have a duty to build that better future.