The Labour leader said that a decade of austerity had left public services ill-equipped to deal with the pandemic during a ‘call Keir’ virtual town hall meeting with around 150 residents in Glasgow.
Asked about the weekly clap for carers every Thursday at 8pm, the leader of the opposition said he and his wife, who works for the NHS in occupational health, found it “an emotional moment”.
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Sir Keir said: “What we can’t do is clap on a Thursday and go back to business at the end of this. Many people we’re clapping have been underpaid and undervalued for years. We owe them more than a clap on a Thursday.
“We cannot go back to austerity,” he added. “We’ve got to think very differently, economically, about what we value. Not putting enough into the NHS, and certainly not enough into our care sector – that’s got to change. This crisis has exposed who the key workers really are. And there’s going to have to be a reckoning at the end of it.”
He was also urged to “scrutinise the Tory government” during the coronavirus crisis and hold the prime minister to account for his handling of the outbreak.
The Labour leader said: “I’m trying to provide constructive opposition, which means supporting the government where that’s the right thing to do … but to challenge where we see mistakes or when the government is going too slowly.”
Sir Keir – who has called on the government to extend the coronavirus job retention scheme – said he feared “most businesses” would have to start consultations on redundancies with furloughed staff within the next week or so because they have to give employees proper notice.
Urging the chancellor to take further action, he warned “the good work of the last few weeks is going to be lost, if all we’ve done is delay mass redundancies”.
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Asked by one Scottish voter whether he supported the introduction of universal basic income (UBI), the Labour leader said the focus should be on “managing the system we’ve got” during the crisis rather than trying to introduce anything new.
Thursday’s Zoom session did have some awkward moments, despite Sir Keir telling people in Glasgow they should be “as frank as you like”.
One voter told him it had been a “massive mistake” for Labour to line up with the Tories during the Scottish independence referendum, while another wondered whether he could “be more like Nicola [Sturgeon]” in communicating effectively.
A former Labour voter – who said she had partly “defected” to the SNP because of the party’s clear opposition to Brexit – asked Sir Keir: “What are you going to do to woo me back?”
Pointing out that the UK had now left the EU and “the debate between Leave-Remain was over”, the Labour leader promised he would continue fight for a relationship with the EU “that’s right for our economy”.
Sir Keir and other opposition parties spoke to Boris Johnson over the phone on Thursday about easing the country out of lockdown. Giving little away, a spokesman for the Labour leader said the call had been “constructive” and the Labour leader had stressed the importance of establishing a national consensus.
Elsewhere, Labour’s shadow health secretary Jonathan Ashworth called on the government to implement a health inequalities strategy to protect deprived and BAME communities and tackle the hidden health effects of the virus.
It comes after data from the Office for National Statistics (ONS) showed black people are more than four times as likely to die from Covid-19 than white people, before accounting for age and wealth factors, after which black people were twice as likely to die.