Welfare support and employment rights take on this new meaning – Rachel Reeves

AS the coronavirus pandemic reaches its peak in the coming days or weeks, many people will face the most testing and anxious time of their lives.

Sports Direct and Newcastle United owner Mike Ashley has been accused of bad business practice during the coronavirus crisis.

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Doctors and nurses, and all those working in our NHS in Yorkshire and across the UK, are locked in a daily battle to save lives and restore to health those badly hit by the virus.

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The vast majority will recover and fewer lives will be lost if we obey the warnings to stay home and observe the social-distancing rules if we have to go out.

Online retialer Asos has been accused of flouting social distancing rules.

Everyone working in the health service and social care is doing an amazing job, even though many are still waiting on Government promises of more protective equipment and greater testing so staff can return from self isolation to the frontline.

There are also many other people working in our communities to help support those in the greatest need. In my Leeds West constituency, organisations doing fantastic work include Armley Helping Hands, Bramley Elderly Action, New Wortley Community Centre, St George’s Crypt, the Kirkstall Valley Development Trust and Forward Leeds, to name a few.

We also owe a huge debt of gratitude to the delivery drivers, supermarket staff and transport workers who enable frontline NHS staff to get to work and keep food on our tables.

Once we have beaten coronavirus and start to rebuild our economy, we must look again at how we value and pay those on whom we are all now relying.

Leeds West MP Rachel Reeves.

One lesson is that some of those on the lowest wages and in the most precarious jobs are the people we need most when the going gets rough.

Faced with an often- impossible task to keep their businesses afloat, most employers are doing their best for their staff. But many small businesses are being let down by the banks and the Government’s business-loan scheme doesn’t yet seem to be getting money to firms who need it to survive.

However, the behaviour of some (often big businesses) has been appalling. Mike Ashley had to apologise and make a U-turn after trying to keep his Sports Direct stores open when other non-essential businesses were told to close.

Pub-chain owner Tim Martin had to backtrack after suggesting his staff get a job at Tesco while his pubs were shut before later relenting.

Online fashion retailer Asos has faced a huge backlash from workers in Barnsley about an abject failure to observe social- distancing rules.

In my role as chair of Parliament’s Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy Committee, I’ve been contacted by more than 2,000 workers.

Many were concerned their firms were flouting social- distancing guidelines. That should worry us all.

It is vital businesses that are not essential ensure people can keep at least two metres apart if they are unable to work from home. If they cannot guarantee that, they should not open.

On job losses, firms should only make people redundant as a last resort and instead furlough workers who will be entitled to at least some of their pay. At a local level, my team is doing its best to help everyone affected by the coronavirus crisis – whether it is small businesses trying to keep their heads above water, workers who have lost their jobs, or those still at work but scared they may fall ill because social-distancing guidelines are ignored. I am responding to all with advice and the best support possible.

On top of that, there are people from Leeds West who are stuck overseas and struggling to get home.

I am in constant touch with the Foreign Office, helping constituents trapped in Cyprus, Latvia, Pakistan, Peru, India and as far away as Australia and New Zealand.

I am also helping constituents with concerns ranging from how the elderly and vulnerable will get essential food to whether they qualify for statutory sick pay or universal credit.

This is a hugely difficult time for so many. This period of enforced isolation means many people are cut off from all human contact. Coronavirus is a medical emergency but its legacy will include its impact on our emotional and mental 
well-being.

As part of my work with the Jo Cox Foundation, set up in memory of my good friend who was murdered nearly four years ago, this week I met online organisations who are coming together to tackle loneliness through a new “Connection Coalition”.

It will be a way to help us build and maintain social connections to tackle the scourge of loneliness.

When this virus is defeated, the problem of loneliness will still be with us and we must step up the work to tackle that.

For most of us, this isolation is temporary and often shared with our family.

However, for far too many people isolation and loneliness is their daily life. That has to change.

We will get through these terrible times by leaning on each other, through kindness and by following the guidelines.

After the pandemic, we need to think again about employment rights and welfare support, how we reward frontline workers and how we tackle everyday loneliness and social isolation.

I hope we can then look forward to better times to come.

Rachel Reeves is Labour MP for Leeds West and chairs Parliament’s Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy Committee.

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