Lots of people have been getting in touch to ask about my position on the Government's decision to move to Plan B and the votes in Parliament this week. Due to medical reasons I was unable to be in Parliament to vote, however, I wanted to set out my position on this important matter.
I completely understand and share the worry, concern and anger that local people and businesses are feeling about the introduction of further restrictions and the impact this will have on people’s lives and livelihoods after the most challenging 20 months imaginable.
This would appear to be an all too conveniently timed attempt to distract from the disgraceful revelations about Christmas parties in Downing Street last December, and other pressures the Government are facing. The timing of this announcement will fundamentally undermine confidence in the public health messaging and put people’s lives at risk as a consequence. Boris Johnson and his Government have fundamentally lost the moral authority to lead our country.
When it comes to the need for measures such as the expansion of mandatory face coverings and the return to home working we must be guided by the science – which is a sensible way to proceed until we know more about the potential impacts of the Omicron Variant on illness severity and vaccine efficacy.
It is important to be clear that the proposals laid before Parliament do not in any way amount to a “vaccine passport”. The proposals are for a Covid certificate that takes into account either vaccination status or proof of a negative lateral flow test (which are freely and widely available in the community) in order to enable people to access certain large venues and events. It will not be used to regulate access to essential services. Whilst I did have concerns about previous proposals solely based on vaccination status, these concerns have been allayed thanks to concessions secured by the Labour frontbench to include proof of a negative test result.
On the issue of mandatory vaccination for NHS staff, I believe that the best approach – as with all vaccinations – is to encourage and persuade people to get jabbed and that all NHS staff who are eligible should get the vaccine. Whilst I entirely understand concerns that have been raised about mandatory vaccinations for staff, this must also be balanced against the need to ensure that the most vulnerable patients in our hospitals are kept safe. The Government must now redouble efforts to persuade and encourage staff to get vaccinated, including supporting those who are vaccine-hesitant. They must also work with the trade unions and Royal Colleges to ensure that this does not lead to a deepening crisis in recruitment and retention when our NHS is already under huge pressure.
Restrictions that have a direct and damaging impact on our local businesses must come hand-in-glove with financial support to save livelihoods. As an absolute minimum, the Treasury should ensure that they are ready, at a moment’s notice, to introduce whatever financial measures are necessary to support businesses in need. They should also reverse the shameful cut to the £20 Universal Credit uplift immediately and as a matter of moral principle and good economic sense.
As South Yorkshire Mayor, I have fought hard throughout the pandemic for our region to get the vital economic support needed to help businesses through incredibly challenging times and will continue to do so as we enter this next stage of the pandemic.
These new restrictions must be put to good use, to save lives and prevent the need for more stringent restrictions further down the line. That must mean a rapid expansion in the booster programme to ensure that all those aged 18 and over who are eligible are invited for an appointment by the New Year. This should also involve an increase in the use of community hubs, pharmacies, walk-in centres, and pop-up vaccines hubs to ensure that as many people as possible can get jabbed as quickly as possible. Furthermore, there must be a national effort to ensure that all children who are eligible receive a dose by the end of the Christmas holidays.
The vaccine is safe, effective and proven to save lives and prevent serious illness. Everyone who is eligible should do the right thing and get boosted. If people have any medical worries about the vaccine, they should speak to their GP, and nobody should rely on dubious and dangerous sources of misinformation online. The vaccine is the safest and surest way to keep our country open and save lives and livelihoods. Let’s get everyone boosted!