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Lucy Cowie

This week in the UK - 5th February 2021

Cladding

On Monday, a debate was called by Labour to discuss urgent action to protect flat owners with unsafe cladding, after reports of spiralling costs placed on owners who cannot leave their accommodation. There is growing concern amongst Tory MPs as well as Labour, despite Johnson ordering his party to abstain from a vote on Monday. The government has confirmed it will provide extra funding to help homeowners, although hasn’t stated what this help will be.

Labour has called for a special task force to address this, and it was a major topic of discussion during PMQs on Wednesday. One of the reasons this is still such an important issue, three and a half years after Grenfell, is that the UK government has recently deemed more materials as unsafe. This has led to a building safety crisis, in which home-owners are having to pay incredibly high sums to stay safe, such as a 'waking watch', where a fire warden is employed to alert residents in the event of a fire.

Image: Frank John from Wikimedia Commons

Starmer’s attempt to bring back voters

A leaked report on electoral strategy and research commissioned by Labour this week has caused issues for the leader of the opposition, Sir Kier Starmer. Despite Starmer enjoying higher personal ratings than other Labour leaders of the past ten years, there is concern within the party on how to build back a successful coalition after the major losses in December 2019. The document called to make "use of the flag, veterans [and] dressing smartly" to win back red wall seats, which caused significant backlash online.

For example, Labour MP Clive Lewis stated "The Tory party has absorbed UKIP and now Labour appears to be absorbing the language and symbols of the Tory party.”

The report also brings back a focus for Labour to rebuild a successful coalition, having sought to avoid too strong criticism or party politics over the past year of the pandemic. It shows how coronavirus has shifted the political landscape of the UK, to have a week in which Labour have called for stronger border controls and appeals to patriotism.

Image: Chris McAndrew from Wikimedia Commons

Borders (again)

The government has confirmed hotel quarantine rules will begin from 15th February, after facing strong criticism this week for delaying measures. More information will be released this coming week, but it follows Labour accusing the Conservatives of ‘risking lives’ on Thursday. The Shadow Home Secretary, Nick Thomas-Symonds, criticised the government’s inability to take action quickly enough in a letter to Home Secretary Priti Patel.

The policy announced last week has yet to be implemented; with hotel owners and border force alike claiming to have heard nothing from the government. There had been some confusion about when measures will come into force, and it’s likely to cause further debate next week on why it’s taken so long since the announcement.

At PMQs on Wednesday, Kier Starmer asked why the border policy doesn’t go further, citing statistics from the first wave that show only 0.1% of virus cases came from China, as opposed to 62% from France and Spain. The Labour leader asked why Johnson thought this time would be any different- and why he thought the virus only came to the UK on direct flights.

Kier Starmer has also called for the government to avoid repeating mistakes from first lockdown, and not to ease restrictions too early. This has come about from the continuous debate on schools, which the PM is under pressure by some conservative backbenchers to reopen earlier than the 8th of March.

Scotland

The Scottish government has faced criticism this week for lagging behind the UK in its vaccine rollout. Scotland has vaccinated around 14% of its population, as opposed to 18% in England; making Scotland around 200,000 people short when population is taken into account. Although figures are beginning to catch up, there will continue to be questions for the Scottish government on why the rollout has been slower.

The Scottish government also announced its intention to send some pupils back to school on the 22nd February. Primary 1-3 and very small numbers of exam year pupils are expected to go back, contingent on virus levels continuing to fall. It’s unusual to see the Scottish government ahead of the UK in relaxing Covid restrictions, and it will present significant logistical challenges. Sturgeon has suggested restrictions can be carefully and gradually eased around the beginning of March, but this is also very dependent on virus rates.

Scotland has been waiting on the UK government to confirm its policy of imposing hotel quarantine for all countries, rather than the UK’s specific list. The First Minister suggested that over the summer covid had almost been eliminated in Scotland, but the second wave began as borders were kept open and people were able to travel from abroad. However, practically this may be difficult to impose: very few international flights come straight into Scotland, meaning international travellers might have to quarantine in England first.

Finally, the internal divisions in the SNP have continued this week over gender recognition legislation. Sturgeon tweeted an unscripted video last week where she emphasised the SNP's commitment to trans rights, after it emerged young people were leaving the party due to transphobia. Joanna Cherry was removed from the front bench this week in a reshuffle due to her strong opposition to Sturgeon's policies, causing a significant rift within the SNP.

Finally, if you want to know how the UK government is attempting to keep the union together: the Union unit is now being led by Oliver Lewis, a key figure from the Vote Leave campaign. This appointment is unlikely to go down well in Scotland, given the strong opposition to leaving the EU shown in the 2016 referendum.

Going into next week, expect more discussion on who could be next for vaccines once the most vulnerable have received their first jag. It’s likely teachers will be high on the list, especially with pupils beginning to return to in-person teaching within a month.