Coronavirus: Suspend rent and mortgage payments for people affected by disease, Jeremy Corbyn says

Labour calls for slate of social measures to help cushion economic impact of pandemic

Jon Stone
Policy Correspondent
Saturday 14 March 2020 23:03 GMT
Coronavirus: Can herd immunity help the UK battle the outbreak?

The government should bring in a payment holiday for rent and mortgages as part of its emergency legislation to support people affected by coronavirus, Labour has said.

In a letter to Boris Johnson, Jeremy Corbyn also called for improvements to sick pay, the suspension of requirements at jobcentres, and support for food banks distributing supplies.

The call comes amid concern that people with the virus may continue to work rather than self-isolate because of the cost of staying at home, making the pandemic worse.

Ministers are drawing up plans for emergency legislation to help fight the virus, reportedly including powers to detail infected people and force schools to stay open. They will also launch a new public information campaign from Sunday.

But arguing that tackling the pandemic “demands political as well as scientific judgements”, Mr Corbyn called for a slate of social protections to cushion the economic blow that the disease would have.

“In recent weeks, we have sought to avoid fuelling public panic and to support the vital work of officials and health and scientific advisers. We are committed to ensuring we fully contribute to the collective effort to protect public health,” the outgoing leader of the opposition said in his letter to the prime minister.

“However, this crisis demands political as well as scientific judgements and clearer public communication based on greater transparency of scientific and behavioural evidence and modelling than has been provided to date.”

Measures suggested by Labour include:

• Full sick pay and lost earnings protection from day on for all workers, including the self-employed and those on low pay

• A general increase in statutory sick pay to bring it into line with amounts paid in other European countries, which Britain currently lags

• Ending requirements to attend universal credit interviews at jobcentres in all cases, suspending sanctions, and cutting the waiting period for new benefit claims from five weeks to one

• Government support for local authorities working with food banks in the purchase and distribution of food stocks

Some of the proposals reflect measures already taken in other countries: Ireland has expanded its sick pay benefit in light of the virus. RBS, NatWest and other lenders have already said they will allow customers to defer mortgage payments, while the government relaxed some requirements to attend jobcentres at the Budget last week.

Improvements to sick pay announced by the chancellor last week were fairly modest, however, and still leave self-employed workers uncovered and the statutory rate at one of the lowest levels in Europe.

Mr Corbyn has asked for a meeting with the prime minister to discuss the issues. On Saturday the opposition party also backed a call by the GMB trade union to requisition beds in private hospitals for use in the NHS, which is expected to strain under the numbers set to be infected.

Ministers are expected to announce a new public information campaign about the virus next week, following call from shadow health secretary Jonathan Ashworth that the government “move into the explain phase” of their programme to reassure the public.

Under public pressure on Friday evening the government signalled that it was likely to bring in restrictions on mass gatherings next week, a policy it has spent the week downplaying the effectiveness of.

The government’s chief scientific advisers have said alternately that implementing widespread “social distancing” policies now could either have little effect, or undermine efforts to build “herd immunity” among the British population.

But with the UK increasingly isolated in Europe as one of the few states not to bring in tough measures, Whitehall sources say some restrictions are likely to come in from next week – though details are yet to follow.

Both the World Health Organisation (WHO) and the EU’s European Centre for Disease Control and Prevention (ECDC) recommended the rapid implementation of social distancing measures last week, while most of Britain’s neighbours such as Ireland, France, Denmark and Belgium have followed the international advice.

Health Secretary Matt Hancock said on Saturday night that it was inevitable that more people would become infected.

“Coronavirus is the biggest public health crisis we have faced in a generation. It continues to spread both in the UK and around the world and we need to accept that sadly, many more of us will become infected," he said.

“The government and the NHS are working 24/7 to fight this virus. We must all work together and play our own part in protecting ourselves and each other, as well as our NHS, from this disease. This expanded campaign will focus on ensuring the public knows exactly what they should be doing to keep themselves and others safe.

“Washing hands regularly for 20 seconds or more remains the single most important thing an individual can do, but we now also need to ask anyone with a high temperature or new continuous cough – however mild – to isolate yourself and stay at home for seven days. You should continue to follow our online clinical advice and not going to A&E or your GP if you develop mild symptoms.

"Combating this virus will require a national effort - we all have a role to play to slow its spread and protect the elderly and the vulnerable."

The public information campaign rolled out by ministers is expected to include TV adverts featuring Chief Medical Officer Professor Chris Whitty, who has appeared alongside the prime minister at press conferences. The adverts will be voiced by actor Mark Strong, who played Captain Smith in the film 1917.

Dr Yvonne Doyle, Public Health England’s Medical Director said:

“We know that novel coronavirus affects the most vulnerable the most and so it is absolutely vital that we do everything we can to protect them. This new guidance sets out what we can all do to help save the lives of those most at risk.”

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