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Covid: Protect family incomes, Starmer urges ministers

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Publishedduration1 hour agomedia captionSir Keir Starmer calls for families to be put “at the heart of our recovery” from the coronavirus pandemic.Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer has urged the government to “protect family incomes” as it deals with the economic effects of coronavirus.In his first speech of the year, he demanded teachers, the armed forces…

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media captionSir Keir Starmer calls for families to be put “at the heart of our recovery” from the coronavirus pandemic.

Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer has urged the government to “protect family incomes” as it deals with the economic effects of coronavirus.

In his first speech of the year, he demanded teachers, the armed forces and care workers are left out of the public sector pay freeze.

Sir Keir also called for tougher restrictions to be considered for tackling coronavirus.

The Conservatives said ministers were “already taking steps” to help people.

With coronavirus restrictions and lockdowns shutting thousands of businesses, the economy was 7.9% smaller in October last year than it had been six months earlier.

And the government’s independent forecaster, the Office for Budgetary Responsibility, predicts that unemployment will rise to 2.6 million by the middle of this year.

In his speech, Sir Keir attacked the government for “having been found wanting at every turn”, accusing Boris Johnson of being “indecisive” and acting “too slow” over further lockdowns and support for business and families.

He said: “The British people will forgive many things. They know the pandemic is difficult.

“But they also know serial incompetence when they see it – and they know when a prime minister simply isn’t up to the job.”

Asked by the BBC’s political editor Laura Kuenssberg whether the government should tighten restrictions, such as closing nurseries, Sir Keir said there is “probably is more that we could do [and we] may have to get tougher”.

But he did not outline what measures he would recommend, instead saying it was “time to hear from the scientists what else can be done – and that probably should be done in the next few hours”.

‘Make a real difference’

The Labour leader said ministers must “protect family incomes and support businesses” from the economic effects of previous restrictions and the current lockdown.

He added policies must “make a real difference to millions of people across the country” and “put families at the heart of our recovery”.

Sir Keir argued the £20-a-week rise given to Universal Credit claimants last April must continue beyond this April’s cut-off point.

Council tax increases in England of up to 5% this April must not happen, he said, while calling for the ban on evictions and repossessions to be extended.

The government’s pay freeze for at least 1.3 million public sector workers – which does not apply to NHS frontline staff and those earning below £24,000 a year – must not go ahead, said Sir Keir.

“I know this isn’t everything that’s needed,” he added, “and after so much suffering we can’t go back the status quo.

“We cannot return to an economy where over half our care workers earn less than the living wage, where childcare is among the most expensive in Europe, where our social care system is a national disgrace and where over four million children grow up in poverty.”

An opposition leader has no policy leavers to pull. They have to rely on words to persuade the public they are worthy of power.

With the next general election an eternity away, Sir Keir Starmer knows the question of competence matters far more to voters than ideology right now.

The Labour leader was unsparing in his criticism of the government’s handling of the pandemic – accusing the prime minster of serial incompetence, dithering and delay.

Sir Keir said the government could reverse planned changes to council tax and universal credit to ease the financial pressure on families.

But pressed on how lockdown might be different today if he was in No 10, the Labour leader mirrored the government’s messaging.

He said there was “probably” more that could be done around nurseries and estate agent viewings, but Sir Keir’s mantra was listen to the scientists.

It’s what ministers say endlessly too.

Sir Keir argued that, just as a Labour government “built the welfare state from the rubble” of World War Two, a future one can “secure our economy, protect our NHS and rebuild our country so that Britain is the best country to grow up in and the best country to grow old in”.

But Conservative Party co-chairman Amanda Milling accused Sir Keir of “calling for actions the Conservatives are already taking in government”.

“We have delivered an unprecedented £280bn package of support to protect jobs, livelihoods and public services through this pandemic,” she added, including the furlough scheme, the temporary increase to Universal Credit and extra funding for councils.

“The Conservatives will continue to put families and communities at the heart of every decision we take as we deliver on our promises to the British people,” Ms Milling said.

In his Spending Review in November, Chancellor Rishi Sunak warned that the “economic emergency” caused by the pandemic had only begun.

He promised to take “extraordinary measures to protect people’s jobs and incomes”.

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