Today marks the next stage in the lifting of restrictions on what we can safely do. It is really good news for families who will be able to meet and hug again and for businesses like pubs, restaurants, theatres and cinemas that are now able to open. I welcome the ending of restrictions on the number of people who can attend funerals and care home residents being able to have up to five named visitors and more freedom to visit outside their home.

There is no doubt that the lockdown and the huge success of the vaccination programme have reduced the spread of Covid and we can see that in the significant reduction in the number of people in hospital and dying. I want to pay tribute to the NHS, including all the staff in Leeds, who have worked so hard to vaccinate so many people. I had the chance to visit the vaccination centre at Elland Road and I was really impressed by the friendly welcome and the efficiency of the team there.

However, a lot of people still remain to be vaccinated, and we know that there is a higher take-up in the white community than in some ethnic minority communities even though they are at greater risk from Covid. It is really important that as many people as possible get vaccinated to protect not just themselves but also those nearest and dearest to them.

And there is a cloud on the horizon in the form of the Indian variant of Covid. We know that it is now present in the country with particular pockets in parts of London and places like Bolton and Blackburn. It seems that it spreads even faster than the other variants we have already seen and further evidence is awaited on whether the illness it causes is worse. The Government has made it clear that the final stage of easing the lockdown may be affected by what happens with this new variant and that we may well see an increase in cases this autumn, and that is why I think we have to proceed cautiously.

There’s no doubt in my mind that ministers were late in imposing the strictest quarantine restrictions on India where this variant has come from and there still isn’t proper financial support for people who have to self-isolate at home. We know that faced with the choice between isolating and not having enough money coming in to pay the bills and feed their families, some people will go to work because they feel they have no other choice. We need a ‘surge vaccination’ programme, as is now being implemented in Bolton, together with retrospective and forward contact tracing and paying proper sick pay and support for people to isolate.

The other thing that I am concerned about is that as the moratorium on evictions comes to an end, there are many people who have not been able to pay rent – both families and businesses – and we have to find a way of enabling them to stay because the economic damage of businesses going bankrupt and families evicted will be considerable.

The Prime Minister has now finally announced that there will be a formal judge-led public inquiry into the handling of the Covid outbreak but it will not start until spring 2022. I understand the point about striking the right balance between taking evidence soon and not getting in the way of staff who are still fighting the pandemic, but I think that next spring is too late and certainly the families who have lost loved ones would like to see the inquiry begin as soon as possible. It must also have the confidence of bereaved families from the outset, particularly in determining the terms of reference.

Together with the wonderful team in my office, I have continued to deal with a huge amount of casework from people affected by the outbreak, whether it is travel problems, businesses and families in difficulty, problems with getting vaccinations and many other things and I will continue to do so.

If I can be of any assistance then, as always, please don’t hesitate to get in touch.

Best wishes

Hilary Benn
MP for Leeds Central

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