House of Commons
Wednesday 26 February 2020
The House met at half-past Eleven o’clock
[Mr Speaker in the Chair]
Oral Answers to Questions
The Secretary of State was asked—
I think all of us, on both sides of the House, recognise that the system does not always work as well as it should. We all have casework that would indicate that. Our ongoing commitment—indeed, I was doing this back in 2011—is to make sure that, where people do struggle with the system or fall through the gaps, we act quickly, efficiently and humanely. Any cases that the hon. Lady or other Members have where that is not happening, please raise them with us and we will take them up with the Department for Work and Pensions.
The unemployment rate in Wales is at a record low. There are 144,000 more people in work in Wales than in 2010 and 90,000 fewer workless households. The Government are committed to driving further economic growth and levelling up across the UK, including west Wales.
As we prepare to celebrate St David’s Day, now is a good moment to celebrate the enormous and excellent progress that has been made in reducing unemployment in Wales. Does my right hon. Friend agree that what is really encouraging is the fact that the long-term lag between Welsh employment levels and the UK average has now closed, with more people in Wales going out to work than ever before?
I am grateful to my right hon. Friend and constituency neighbour for raising this issue. He will be as pleased as I am that the figures in his own constituency, when compared with 2010, are as good as they are. It is absolutely right that the Government’s job, in collaboration with the Welsh Government if that is necessary, is to ensure we create the circumstances where that trend continues. He has my absolute assurance that that will be the case.
Will the Secretary of State provide the House with specific details on how many people have been affected by the catastrophic flood damage to residential properties and businesses across Wales, and exactly how much has been lost to the Welsh economy so far?
I should start by saying that, during the visits to flooded areas made last week by the Under-Secretary of State for Wales and I, we were, as one would expect, completely bowled over by the professionalism, resilience, determination and expertise of numerous agencies and individuals in coming to terms and dealing with the particular problem the hon. Lady raises. She should, I hope, be pleased to know that I have had a number of meetings with the Welsh Government and council leaders in areas affected by these unusual—unfortunately, not as unusual as we would like—weather events. It is fair to say that the Welsh Government are still assessing the extent of the damage and exactly what is necessary by way of rectification. We have said, and we will repeat our commitment, that when the Welsh Government come to us with absolutely watertight figures and explain exactly what they need from us, we are ready to help in whatever way we can.
First Minister Mark Drakeford and his Welsh Government Ministers have visited flood victims and have already pledged an initial £10 million from the Welsh Government’s severely restricted budget after 10 years of Tory cuts. Yet last month, at short notice, the Treasury took back £200 million from the Welsh Government because of recalculations of Barnett consequentials. The Prime Minister has not bothered to visit flood victims in Wales, but could he at least return that money to the Welsh Government to help to clean up the damage?
I have to say that, if I was a business or individual affected by the events of the last few days, the last thing I would expect to hear in this House is the politicisation of a very difficult situation. The conversations I have had in face-to-face meetings with First Minister Drakeford in Cardiff have been constructive. He has at no stage made the observations the hon. Lady has made to me. We have made it absolutely clear that as soon as the damage is assessed we are ready to assist, notwithstanding the fact that this is a devolved responsibility, and it is absolutely right that we as a UK Government should respect the devolution settlement. I will just finish by saying that local authority leaders—[Interruption.] I will leave it at that point.
HS2 will do next to nothing for north Wales and worse than nothing for south Wales. Yet only six miles of HS2 railway line will cost more than the crucial, first-of-its-kind tidal lagoon in Swansea, rejected by the Minister’s Tory Government. I am sure the Secretary of State agrees that low-carbon electricity generated in Wales should power the transport of the future. What will he do to get Wales-wide tidal lagoon projects back on track?
As the right hon. Lady knows—she may even have been at the debate that I hosted in this Chamber where we discussed the matter into the early hours of the morning—it is undisputed that a tidal lagoon has a future in the UK, and in particular in Wales. The difficulty that we had over the tidal lagoon project in Swansea was in relation to the company proposal itself. So I hope that she can be reassured that this is part of the energy mix—it is part of the renewable commitment that we have made. The tidal lagoon is still under discussion.
I hope the Minister will join me in congratulating Wales Week co-founders Dan Langford and Mike Jordan on again providing excellent opportunities to celebrate Welsh business and culture in London and 21 other places around the world. I am sure the Minister will also agree that his Government have a crucial part to play in supporting Welsh businesses by ensuring that they are not undermined by future trade negotiations. Will he reassure us that, in pursuit of trade agreements with both Trump’s America and our nearest trading market, the EU, the Government will not trade off Welsh animal welfare and food standards in favour of chlorinated chicken?
A lot of the strength of the mid-Wales economy is predicated on trade with border towns such as Shrewsbury, which is currently very badly flooded. Does the Minister accept that more needs to be done between his Department and the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs to work together to alleviate the terrible problems of flooding on both sides of our border?
My hon. Friend makes a very good point. The answer is yes. The answer lies in greater collaboration and co-operation across a wide range of agencies, and even those that he has mentioned. I believe we are learning some stark and important lessons from this, and I agree with his assessment.
Regulatory Divergence from the EU
Far from lowering standards, the UK already exceeds the EU minimum requirements in several areas, including on workers’ rights and environmental targets. We will continue in that vein, with an independent trade policy, and in so doing, unleash the enormous potential of the UK and Welsh economies.
Over 60% of Welsh exports are destined for the EU and dominated by key industries vulnerable to divergence related to trade barriers—agricultural machinery and transport equipment, to name but two. So instead of actively trying to circumvent the Prime Minister’s own withdrawal agreement, why are not the Government pursuing the regulatory alignment that is crucial for Welsh businesses and exporters?
We of course voted to leave the European Union, and that meant voting to leave the customs union and voting to leave the single market. I am quite surprised by the hon. Gentleman’s question, because I should have thought that he would be the first to agree with me that a nation that leaves a union will want full control of its regulatory and trade policy. That is a matter of principle, which I would have expected him and his colleagues to be in full agreement with.
I share the Minister’s enthusiasm that we can now exceed EU regulations—that is, have better regulations than those set by the EU. Does he agree, though, that the Government’s agenda is proof of our commitment to maintaining the existing high standards that are independent of EU law, and that it is not only businesses that could benefit from that regulatory divergence?
I fully agree with my hon. Friend. Outside the European Union, we are looking forward to exercising the freedom to set some of the highest standards in the world on animal welfare, health and safety and workers’ rights, thus making Britain one of the best places in the world in which to live, work and invest.
Tomorrow, the Government will publish their position on the EU trade negotiations. That is of particular importance to the automotive sector in Wales. Just to give the Minister an example, if there were to be 5% tariffs on import/exports and 2.5% on components, it could add £1,000 to the costs of production on a car and put jobs at risk. So can he confirm that the Government are seeking tariff-free access for the automotive sector to the single market and that, if that is not obtained, the Government will have a contingency plan in place to support jobs in that sector in Wales?
The hon. Gentleman is right to raise the importance of the automotive sector to south Wales and he is correct in saying that the Government are seeking a full free trade arrangement that will allow full access to the European market. If for any reason the EU does not realise that that is in its interests—it exports more cars and automotive parts to us than we do to the EU—I cannot absolutely say what will happen, but it will be at the forefront of my mind and the minds of all my colleagues that we would want to support the automotive industry in south Wales.
Cross-border Transport Links
Earlier this week, we announced 2,000 extra weekday seats on CrossCountry trains between Cardiff and the midlands. We have already reduced journey times by 14 minutes on the Great Western main line between Swansea and London, and connectivity to north Wales will benefit from the introduction of HS2, which will shorten journey times and drive economic growth throughout the region.
I thank my hon. Friend for that answer. As well as rail links—not just the ones he mentioned, but the offshoots from the Great Western line to Guildford and Gatwick—does he agree that to unleash Wales’s potential it will be critical to improve links between the M3 and M4, as Transport for the South East has recently recommended?
My hon. Friend is absolutely right to draw attention to the importance of the road network, particularly the M4, to increasing economic productivity in Wales. I hope that Labour Members are aware of the importance of the M4 and will encourage the Welsh Labour Government to accept the borrowing made available to them to build the M4 relief road in south Wales.
The western rail link to Heathrow would really help people travelling from Heathrow to south Wales and could get passengers from Reading to Heathrow in less than 30 minutes, but progress has been badly delayed. When will the construction work on the line properly begin?
I am unable to say when exactly it will begin, but I can assure the hon. Member that it is our policy to make sure it begins. I fully recognise the importance of the links between Heathrow and Reading and the importance of that for the rail network across Wales, which will see £1.5 billion spent on it during control period 6. Overall, he will welcome the fact that we are making the biggest investment in our rail infrastructure in the country since Victorian times.
Bank Holiday: 23 June
I suppose this was inevitable in a way. My experience of businesses and residents in Wales is simple: they have an exciting future and are keen to get on with the new opportunities that face them. They do not request or want extra opportunities to reminisce about the past.
Public Bodies: Buying British
Apologies, Mr Speaker, for the novice performance from the Front Bench.
Now is an excellent opportunity for public bodies, Departments such as the Ministry of Defence and the NHS to buy British goods, products and services. Projects such as the £500 million F-35 repair programme in north Wales and the 2 million tonnes of steel needed for HS2 have the potential to level up regions and strengthen the Union.
In an answer a few minutes ago, the Secretary of State’s ministerial colleague was extolling the importance of the automotive industry to Wales, yet Welsh police forces are buying heavily from France and Germany. Given that we have come out of the EU, should we not be taking the opportunity in that sector and across public procurement to support British jobs and workers?
I can completely agree with the right hon. Gentleman, and that opportunity is now simpler, given that we have left the EU. Our job here and with the Welsh Government is to make sure that those procurement rules reflect the fantastic products Wales has to offer.
Welsh construction and civil engineering firms frequently complain that EU procurement regulations effectively preclude them from bidding for contracts in Wales. Can my right hon. Friend confirm that, when we have completed the transitional process, everything possible will be done to ensure that Welsh firms have the chance to bid for those contracts?
If we want to maximise the benefits of HS2 for Wales, which will require about 3 million tonnes of steel and new high-speed trains, will the Secretary of State lobby the Department for Transport to procure Welsh and UK steel and trains from CAF in Newport for the project?
Yes, that will definitely be an objective of the UK Government. As the hon. Lady knows, we take the future of the steel industry in Wales extremely seriously, and I want to ensure that every opportunity it has to contribute to UK infrastructure projects is taken.
Crickhowell, in my constituency, was badly affected by last week’s floods, and we have a lot of small businesses struggling to get back on their feet. Along with public bodies, will the Secretary of State join me in urging all consumers to buy British and buy local?
I know that my hon. Friend’s constituency was particularly hard hit by recent weather events, and her recognition of that is to be commended. I also completely agree that everything we need to do as a UK Government, in collaboration with our colleagues in Cardiff—I keep making this point—will deliver the sort of result that she is seeking.
We know that for every pound spent with a small or medium-sized enterprise 63p is re-spent in the local area, as opposed to some 40p for every pound spent with a larger chain or business. What steps will the Government take to enable public bodies in Wales to buy more local goods, products and services?
Part of the problem has been caused by the restrictions imposed on us by our relationship with Europe. The change in those terms will free up the opportunity for the UK and Welsh Governments to ensure that procurement rules are changed as well, and to unpick the problems to which the hon. Gentleman has referred.
I have already held constructive discussions with Welsh Government Ministers on various issues, including cities and regional growth deals, which have the potential to create jobs and economic growth in Wales and strengthen cross-border working to benefit both sides of the border.
Many residents of Aberconwy, and, indeed, north Wales as a whole, rely on good road and rail links along the north Wales coast. Does the Minister recognise the importance of that east-west axis and the connections that it offers with England so that people can have contact with families, public services, work and, dare I say, even the Crewe hub as part of HS2?
We certainly recognise the importance of those east-west links in both north and south Wales, as will be clear from the improvements in the rail and road infrastructure and the growth deals. I recently had a chance to see cross-border working in action when Dŵr Cymru was taking water in from English counties in order to ensure that fresh water continued to run in Monmouth after the floods, and I pay tribute to it for that, but I can assure my hon. Friend that we will recognise the importance and benefits of cross-border working because we are a Unionist party.
As the Secretary of State will know, Henry VII landed next door to his constituency, and he grew up in in Raglan Castle, in the Minister’s constituency. He then gained the Crown at Bosworth Field, which brought about the Tudor dynasty. Has the Minister considered promoting the history of our modern royal family by creating a Henry VII trail?
That is an excellent and interesting idea. I know that the hon. Gentleman is an expert on sporting history and the contribution that boxing has made in Wales, but I had not realised that he was also interested in Tudor history. I look forward to discussing that with him outside the Chamber.
My hon. Friend said that he recognised the east-west links between north and south Wales and England, but links with mid-Wales are also important. The Cambrian line—the Shrewsbury to Aberystwyth line—needs a signalling upgrade. Will he convene a meeting with me and other interested parties?
It is always a pleasure to meet my hon. Friend, who has done a fantastic job in lobbying for better east-west links in his own constituency, and I shall look forward with interest to hearing what he has to say. No doubt those in the Treasury and the Department for Transport will also take a keen in interest in the subject.
Wales took the brunt of the storm last week, and hundreds of people in my constituency lost absolutely everything, because they have had to make a choice between buying food and paying the insurance bill, and they are completely uninsured. Rhondda Cynon Taf Council alone—just one local authority—is going to have a bill of £30 million. What is the point of a United Kingdom if the United Kingdom will not stand by Wales financially when we really need it?
As my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State has already said, he has had meetings with the First Minister. At the moment, there is no way of knowing exactly what the cost of those floods will be—I know that the chief executive of Monmouthshire was unable to tell me—except that it will run into millions of pounds. We have already moved to ensure that people who receive compensation will not see any impact on their benefits. We absolutely stand with Wales, but as the hon. Gentleman will appreciate, it would be impossible for us to go marching into Wales to tell the Welsh Government what to do in what is a devolved area. We stand ready to support the Welsh Government in any way, but they need to come forward with a set of costs and explain exactly how that money will be spent.
Victims of Sexual Violence
I am proud that this Government have recently announced that victims of rape and sexual assault will be helped by a 50% funding boost for specialist support services. That will provide additional funding for the vital services offered at six rape support centres across Wales.
I welcome the Government’s announcement, which will go some way towards ensuring that more people receive the support and advice that they need in order to recover. I am also pleased to hear that two of the support centres that will benefit from this funding are in north Wales. In November last year, the Wales Audit Office reported that victims and survivors of domestic abuse and sexual violence were being let down by inconsistent, complex and short-term services in Wales. Does my right hon. Friend agree that we need to work towards having a Wales where no one is turned away?
Last year, thousands of cases of revenge porn were brought forward to the police in Wales, but only a handful of those cases went to court, because victims do not have the advantage of anonymity and also have to prove malicious intent. Will the Secretary of State ensure that he has discussions with the relevant Minister on the forthcoming online harms Bill, so that the problem of women in particular being subjected to internet porn—basically, pornography being thrown out on to the internet without their consent—is sorted out properly?
I was fortunate enough to visit St Athan last week, where I met my right hon. Friend the Member for Vale of Glamorgan (Alun Cairns) and military personnel. My officials have been working closely with Ministry of Defence and Welsh Government officials to secure the future of bases in Wales, and they are making good progress with St Athan.
MOD St Athan has been designated a key element of the defence estate across the United Kingdom, but the Welsh Government are refusing our armed forces ongoing use of their existing site. Will the Secretary of State impress on the First Minister the importance not only of the economic benefits that the armed forces bring to the community but of the role that they play in the defence of our nation?
I can absolutely offer that guarantee, and I can go a little bit further. The blockage between the MOD and the Welsh Government has started to loosen, and there now seems to be some progress. I very much hope that we can achieve the objective that my right hon. Friend wants, which is a substantial military footprint at St Athan.
The Secretary of State for Wales is due to meet the Secretary for State for Transport in the coming weeks, when they will discuss how we can build on the new superfast rail service between south Wales and London and the improved connectivity that HS2 will bring to north Wales.
Of course, I am talking about south Wales, and I am sure that the Minister will welcome the support that the Welsh Labour Government are giving to the St Mellons parkway project to the east of Cardiff. Will he ensure, in his discussions with the Secretary of State for Transport, that as many GWR cross-border services as possible can stop there, as well as services from competitors?
The hon. Gentleman makes an important point, and I would be happy to discuss it with him. I can absolutely assure him of our commitment to rail infrastructure in south Wales as well as in north Wales, which is why we have spent an extra £1.5 billion during this control period and laid on thousands of extra seats between London and south Wales.
PIP Assessment Centre: Accessibility
I have written to the relevant DWP Minister, and I know that he has plans to meet local MPs to discuss assessment centre access in the region. The Government will support Capita to ensure that it finds a suitable, long-term site in north Wales.
The disability centre, which moved to Rhyl without consultation, is now back in Bangor in my constituency, housed temporarily in a museum. Does the Secretary of State agree that that would also be an apt location for the Government’s disability benefits system?
The Prime Minister was asked—
The whole House will want to join me in extending our condolences to the families and friends of those who sadly lost their lives as a result of Storm Ciara and Storm Dennis. We will also want to thank all those who are providing support to tackle the impact of the storms, including the Environment Agency, local authorities, our emergency services and our armed forces.
This morning I had meetings with ministerial colleagues and others. In addition to my duties in this House, I shall have further such meetings later today.
I associate myself with the Prime Minister’s thanks to all those helping in the aftermath of Storm Dennis—[Interruption.] It has brought record high water levels in the Rivers Severn and Trent, and over 100 properties in my constituency have been flooded, bringing misery to those affected. As we speak, the Severn has just breached its banks at Bridgnorth. Will the Prime Minister use his influence in the Budget and in the comprehensive spending review later this year to increase infrastructure spending on flood defences for at-risk communities as part of his determination, in this year of COP26, to show global leadership in taking action on climate change adaptation and mitigation?
Indeed I can, and I thank my right hon. Friend. We have been ensuring that the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government is able to extend the Bellwin scheme where appropriate. Of course, we are also investing massively in flood defences—£2.6 billion has already gone in and, as he knows, we have pledged to commit another £4 billion to defend this country against flooding.
My thoughts are with those across the world who are suffering from the coronavirus. I praise medical and emergency staff all over the world for what they are doing to try to stop the spread of the disease. I hope that public health services in Britain will get the resources they need; there is an urgent question on this topic after Prime Minister’s Question Time—[Hon. Members: “It is a statement.”]
Thousands of people across the country are still struggling with the devastating impact of the floods. I pay tribute to the work of the Environment Agency, the Scottish and Welsh Governments, council staff, the fire service, and the huge number of community volunteers who have pitched in to help their neighbours. Does the Prime Minister agree with the Conservative leader of Derbyshire County Council that he has turned his back on the people affected by the floods?
Since the flooding began, this Government have been working flat out night and day to ensure that the people of this country get the support they need. We have activated the Bellwin scheme, ensured that businesses get the rate relief that they need and, as I told the House just now, put £2.6 billion into flood defences, with £4 billion more to come.
“You can’t give local authorities the clear message you are going to support them and then turn your back on them”—not my words, but the words of a Conservative council leader. When I visited Pontypridd last week, I saw at first hand the damage and destruction that the floods have caused to people’s lives, homes and businesses, but the Prime Minister was silent, sulking in his grace-and-favour mansion in Chevening. After two weeks of flooding, memes are being produced, asking not, “Where’s Wally?” but, “Where’s Boris?” When is he going to stop hiding and show people that he actually cares, or is he too busy going about some other business? If he is too busy, he could send his chief adviser, Dominic Cummings. I am sure that he would be very well received in all the flooded areas.
I am very proud of the response that the Government have mounted over the past few days. We convened the national flood response centre on 14 February. Since the flooding began, there has been a constant stream of ministerial activity led by my right hon. Friends the Secretaries of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs and for Housing, Communities and Local Government. No one should underestimate the anguish that flooding causes, and of course it is an absolute shock to the households that are affected, but it is thanks to the measures that this Government have put in place that 200,000 households have been protected from flooding. We do not hear that from the right hon. Member.
During the election campaign, I wrote to the Prime Minister demanding that Cobra be convened to deal with the floods at that time. He very reluctantly agreed and eventually did call a meeting of Cobra. The situation across the country is now even worse than it was then, and no Cobra meeting has been called. Is he just pretending to care when he does not really care at all, because there are no votes on the line at this moment?
As the right hon. Gentleman knows perfectly well, there has been a stream of ministerial meetings since the flooding began. The national flood response centre was convened on 14 February, and I have been directing things, as he perfectly knows. Cobra is a reference to Cabinet Office briefing room A, which is not the only room in which meetings can take place.
The issue is very serious for people around the country whose homes are being flooded. They need help and support. They do not need trite answers like that from their Prime Minister.
Time and again, communities and lives are being put at risk and the Government simply refuse to acknowledge the scale of the problem. Does he agree with his hon. Friend the Member for Shipley (Philip Davies), who said the Government have done “precious little” to stop the floods happening again?
Let me repeat for the benefit of the right hon. Gentleman that this Government have a fantastic record of investing in flood defences and will continue to do so. The reason we can do so, the reason we have been able to commit £2.6 billion for flood defences and the reason we are able to pledge another £4 billion is because this Government are running a strong, successful and robust economy, which he would ruin.
If that is the case, why are the Government investing less than half the money the Environment Agency of England says is necessary to improve flood defences across the country? It says that £5.6 billion is needed. So far as I am aware, the Government are investing less than half of that.
I have visited many areas and many households, and do you know what, I have learned a lot from visiting the victims of floods—the Prime Minister should try it one day. They have told me that they cannot afford the insurance on their homes, as costs have skyrocketed. Recent studies have shown that 20,000 homes are not protected by the Government’s insurance scheme and are also not protected by flood defences. That is 20,000 homes with no insurance and in danger of being flooded imminently. Is it not time that the Prime Minister found a very urgent solution to this problem?
Just imagine what it is like to live in a home that is in danger of being flooded when you cannot get it insured and, if you own it, you cannot sell it and cannot move—you are totally stuck. They are looking for the Government to help them out at their time of crisis.
The right hon. Gentleman is perfectly right in the sense that there are particular problems to do with insurance, as anybody who has visited a flood-affected household will know. Flood Re, on the other hand, has provided cover for over 164,000 households since 2018-19.
Since last December’s events, we are now looking at what we can do to protect households that do not have proper insurance, but the right hon. Gentleman also knows that there are measures in place to ensure that householders get £500 and £5,000 to compensate themselves for the worst damage that flooding can do. That is cash we can put in thanks to the investment we have made in flood defences, which, believe me, would be beyond the capacity of any Government led by the right hon. Member.
The Welsh Government have done their best to step up to the crisis, despite the underfunding from Westminster. The Prime Minister was keen to pose for cameras when there was a crisis on during the election, but he often goes AWOL: he was late to respond to the London riots because he was on holiday; he was on a private island when the Iranian general was assassinated; and last week he had his head in the sand in a mansion in Kent. The hon. Member for Calder Valley (Craig Whittaker), another of his colleagues, said that it “is not good enough”. How can the country trust a Prime Minister, a part-time Prime Minister, who last night was schmoozing Tory party donors at a very expensive black-tie ball instead of getting out there and supporting the people who are suffering because of the floods? This Government need to step up to the plate, invest in defences and ensure that there is real insurance for people whose homes are being ruined by these floods as we speak.
The right hon. Gentleman asks what this Government have been doing in the past few days, so let me tell him. Not only have we been investing massively in flood defences and compensating those who have suffered from flooding, but we have been stopping the early release of terrorists; we have restored the nurses’ bursary; we are beginning work on 40 new hospitals; and we are recruiting 20,000 more police officers. We can do that because we have a strong and dynamic economy, with employment at record highs, unemployment down to the lowest levels since the early ’70s, wages going up and home ownership up. What are the Opposition doing? They are still deciding—[Interruption.] Listen to them jabbering away.
Quite right, Mr Speaker. They are jabbering away, because they still cannot decide whether or not they want to be in the European Union, and the hottest topic of debate in the Labour party is what job the right hon. Gentleman should have in the shadow Cabinet after the leadership election. They are engaging themselves in narcissistic debate about the Labour party. We are getting on in delivering on the people’s priorities.
I take that issue very seriously, and I thank my right hon. and learned Friend for raising it. We are giving local authorities more powers to reject intentional unauthorised development, and we will consulting on the details of those proposals in a forthcoming White Paper. I hope he will contribute to those consultations.
This week, we learned that 40% of small businesses in Scotland employ more than one EU national. Immigration is crucial for Scotland’s economy, so it is no wonder that the Scottish Government’s proposals for a Scottish visa system have been universally welcomed by businesses and charities alike—even the Scottish Tories think it is a good idea. The Prime Minister rejected these proposals within a few short hours. Does he now admit that that was a mistake?
It was not only I who rejected the proposals, but, of course, the Migration Advisory Committee. That is because we are bringing forward a very sensible proposal, which the people of this country have long desired, whereby we take back control of our immigration system with a points-based system. The right hon. Gentleman has important concerns to raise, and we will ensure that everywhere in this country—all businesses, all agricultural sectors and all the fishing communities of this country—will be able to access the labour and the workforce that are needed, under our points-based system. But what would be the height of insanity would be to proceed with the Scottish National party’s solution of a border at Berwick between England and Scotland.
Once again, the Prime Minister shows that he is utterly delusional. Let us look at the reality: Scottish Care has said that the Prime Minister’s damaging immigration plans “shut the door” on enabling people to be cared for in their own home. The general secretary of the GMB union says that the plans
“could genuinely tip some businesses over the edge.”
Scotland’s National Farmers Union says that its evidence has been “disregarded” by the UK Government. The Scottish Tourism Alliance says that the plans will have a devastating impact on Scotland’s workforce. Senior figures in the UK Government have said that what the Scottish Parliament decides “doesn’t matter one jot”; if the Prime Minister thinks that the Scottish Parliament does not matter, do Scottish businesses matter?
Of course Scottish businesses matter, and the way to do well by them would not be to tax them with the highest tax rates in the UK; it would be to run a sound economy in Scotland and to have an educational system that does not leave Scottish children lagging behind through no fault of their own. This Government will get on and deliver a working immigration system for the whole of this country. [Interruption.] The right hon. Gentleman shouts at me from a sedentary position, but he would be better off getting on with delivering for the people of Scotland, rather than continuing with his ceaseless and vain quest to break up the United Kingdom, because he will not succeed.
I thank my hon. Friend for rightly raising the issue of rail connections between Maidstone East and the City. In addition to the £48 billion we are putting into the railways, my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Transport has just indicated to me that those connections are his highest priority.
It of course brings me great joy to congratulate Solihull Borough Council on its path-breaking leadership. The council is of course following in the footsteps of the national Government and my right hon. Friend the Member for Maidenhead (Mrs May), who led the way in setting a target for carbon zero by 2050. This Conservative Government are going to leave our country and our environment in a better state for the next generation.
I am of course very happy indeed to look at that case and for us to do whatever we can to help with that individual case, but I must say to the hon. Lady that, in the round, universal credit has helped and is helping 200,000 people into work. An estimated 1 million disabled households will get around £100 more per month as a result of universal credit. I am proud to stand by our record of helping people into work and off welfare. As I said before, I am more than happy to look at the case—
I am not going to comment on the vituperation that is meted out by the Opposition party, but what I will say is that all voters should be treated with respect and with humility. I congratulate my hon. Friend on the hard work that he is doing for the people of Mansfield: £10 million for West Nottinghamshire College; £20 million for road improvements; £5 million for proactive lung health screenings; and up to £50 million in a new town deal and future high streets fund. In my view, the people of Mansfield are well served by him.
My hon. Friend is absolutely right about the vital importance of buses and their transformative power, but as for the detail about what will happen in Penistone and Stocksbridge, she will have to await the upcoming national bus strategy, which will be along very shortly.
I am grateful to the right hon. Gentleman for his question. I can tell him and the House that, of course, I have engaged—just last week—with President Xi of China, repeatedly with Prime Minister Modi of India and also, of course, with President Trump on this subject, but there will be an intensifying drumbeat of activity in the run-up to Glasgow.
My right hon. Friend will no doubt remember with the same fondness the conversations that we had when he was outlining his plan for global Britain. I welcome very much what he has been saying about the defence review that is now planned and his priority on having a strategy first foreign policy-led review. Will he please make a statement to this House so that the views of this House can be heard, bringing together trade, aid, foreign affairs and, of course, defence?
These are not promises: these are what we have already done. It is thanks to Conservative action on climate change that we have reduced CO2 output by 43% on 1990 levels since 2010, and the economy has grown by 73%. Some 99% of all the solar panels installed in this country have happened under this Conservative Government. In 1990, this country was 70% dependent on coal: today, it is 3%—and Labour would reopen the coalmines.
John Downey, the IRA terrorist responsible for the Hyde Park bombing in 1982, which killed 11 soldiers, received a letter of comfort from the Government and his trial collapsed. Corporal Dennis Hutchings received a letter in 1974 saying that he would not be prosecuted in connection with a shooting incident that took place in Northern Ireland. He was then investigated again in 2011 and told there were no further grounds for taking any action. Does the Prime Minister accept that if Dennis Hutchings goes to trial on 9 March, all the assurances, promises and manifesto commitments will amount to nothing more than meaningless empty platitudes?
It is to rectify matters such as the one to which my hon. Friend draws the House’s attention that this Government are finally bringing in a law to prevent the vexatious prosecution of our hard-working, hard-serving veterans when no new evidence has been produced.
In addition to the 40 new hospitals that we are building—[Interruption.] Yes. As part of the £33.9 billion initial investment that we are making—the record investment that we are making in the NHS—I can tell the hon. Lady that Epsom and St Helier University Hospitals NHS Trust will receive £500 million to redevelop its estate and world-class facilities on that site.
Will the Prime Minister promise to resist in all circumstances the sell-out of our fishing communities, so that we can ensure that on 1 January next year we take back control of our fishing waters and become an independent coastal state once again?
The hon. Gentleman is right to raise the issue of flooding in Wales. Of course it is a devolved matter, but none the less the Government are committed to working flat out with the Welsh Administration to ensure that everybody gets the flood relief that they need. Yes, of course, that cash certainly will be passported through.
Dudley is set to receive £25 million investment via the Government’s towns fund, and we are looking to use the money to secure a university campus near the town centre. Will the Prime Minister lend his support to this scheme in order to level up and generate greater opportunity for Dudley people and the greater Black Country?
The hon. Gentleman raises a crucial issue that I am particularly concerned to defend and advance. That is why I was pleased to appoint my hon. Friend the Member for Gillingham and Rainham (Rehman Chishti) as our special envoy for freedom of religion or belief. I would be more than happy to meet the hon. Gentleman to discuss protecting those of a Christian faith in India and around the world.
The Prime Minister will know of the appalling misery that the residents of Shrewsbury are facing, with the deluge of floods that have affected our town. I am pleased that the Under-Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, my hon. Friend the Member for Taunton Deane (Rebecca Pow), who is the Minister for flooding, is visiting Shrewsbury tomorrow; she is doing an excellent job. Will the Prime Minister ensure that the proposals put forward to the Government for a more holistic approach to managing the River Severn are looked at seriously because Shrewsbury cannot continue to suffer this level of economic damage, with repeated floods?
My hon. Friend is absolutely right to raise the concerns of the people of Shrewsbury. Everybody can see how serious the problem now is with the Severn. I will ensure that the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, working with the Environment Agency, takes the necessary steps.
Actually, I have the highest respect for Professor Marmot and did a lot of work with him in London—we did a huge amount there to reduce health inequalities and inequalities in life expectancy—but I do not deny that there is more to be done. That is why this Government are absolutely committed to uniting and levelling up across our country, with the biggest ever investments in the NHS and massive investments in education and early years provision. I make absolutely no apology for the campaign for levelling up that we are about to undertake. Let me repeat this point to the House: there is only one way we can fund and achieve this aim, and that is to have a strong and dynamic economy. I would rather have a country and a society where we believed in hope, opportunity and the importance of work, rather than welfare and benefits, and that is our approach.
It has been eight years since I last stood to speak as a Back Bencher, and it is a privilege to do so again. When I left these Benches, it was to become a Minister in the Treasury, and it seems apt that I went back to whence I came: the circle of life. I am very proud to represent the good people of Bromsgrove, and I will of course continue to do so. I will also continue to champion the causes that I believe in most, albeit from outside the Government. I confess that I had hoped to have a little longer to make a difference from the inside, so—with thanks for your permission to make this statement, Mr Speaker—I thought it would be appropriate to briefly explain, first to the House, why I felt that I had to resign as Chancellor of the Exchequer. I would also like to take this opportunity to thank all colleagues in this Chamber and beyond for their messages of thanks in the last two weeks, and to thank my family for their love and patience over the last few years.
I came into politics to give something back to the country that has given me so much. While I do not intend this to be my last chapter in public life, whichever form that may take, I am immensely grateful for the trust and the support of colleagues in all the roles that I have had. After first holding two ministerial positions within the Treasury, and then returning as Chancellor, I have had the huge privilege of running four Departments. Each taught me more than the last, and it shaped my understanding of government. I can look back and say to myself, very sincerely, that I have never once made a decision—or, indeed, given advice on a decision—that I did not believe was in the national interest. You see, Britain’s democracy and economy are strong because of its institutions and its people. Conservatives especially believe that no particular person, or even a Government, has a monopoly on the best ideas. It is through these checks and balances of credible institutions—be it the Treasury, the Bank of England, the Office for Budget Responsibility, or, indeed, this House—that we arrive at sensible decisions that are in the national interest.
Now, when reflecting on the dynamic between No. 10 and No. 11, it is natural to look at past relationships. There is no one size that fits. Any model that works, or does not, depends on the personalities that are involved just as much as the processes. It depends on the mutual respect and trust that allows for constructive, creative tension between teams. It is that creative dynamic that means that it has always been the case that advisers advise, Ministers decide, and Ministers decide on their advisers. I could not see why the Treasury, with the vital role that it plays, should be the exception to that. A Chancellor, like all Cabinet Ministers, has to be able to give candid advice to a Prime Minister so that he is speaking truth to power. I believe that the arrangement proposed would significantly inhibit that, and it would not have been in the national interest. So while I was grateful for the continued trust of the Prime Minister in wanting to reappoint me, I am afraid that these were conditions that I could not accept in good conscience. I do not intend to dwell further on all the details and personalities—[Interruption]—the Cummings and goings, if you will. [Laughter.] Much of this commentary was just gossip and distraction, and now it is in the past.
I very much hope that the new Chancellor will be given the space to do his job without fear or favour. I know this: that my right hon. Friend the Member for Richmond (Yorks) (Rishi Sunak) is more than capable of rising to the challenge. He worked for me as a Local Government Minister and as Chief Secretary, and I could not have asked for a better working relationship. Indeed, I had lobbied the PM for him to be given the role as Chief Secretary, and to keep it at the recent reshuffle—but I did not get my way on that one!
My right hon. Friend the Prime Minister has won a huge mandate to transform our country, and already he is off to a great start: ending the parliamentary paralysis, defeating the radical left, getting Brexit done, a points-based immigration system, and an infrastructure revolution. Now our party—our Government—has a huge opportunity and responsibility ahead. We need a resolute focus on long-term outcomes and delivery, not short-term headlines. The Treasury as an institution—as an economic Ministry—should be the engine that drives this new agenda. Since last summer, it has done just that, from planning properly for Brexit, to bringing in a generational step change in infrastructure investment; from rewriting the Green Book to better favour our regions, to long-term thinking on human capital and designing the blueprint for levelling up across our country. I am incredibly proud of the scale and speed of the work that has already been done.
But the Treasury must also be allowed to play its role as a finance Ministry, with the strength and credibility that it requires. I am a proud low-tax Conservative, and I always will be. Already, our tax burden is the highest it has been in 50 years. It is fair to say that not everyone at the centre of Government always feels the pressure to balance the books—it was ever thus. But the Treasury has a job to do. It is the only tax-cutting Ministry. Every other Department has an in-built incentive to seek and spend ever more money—not that I did that when I ran Departments, of course. I see that my right hon. Friend the Member for Maidenhead (Mrs May) is agreeing with that. But trade-offs have to be made somewhere.
At a time when we need to do much more to level up across generations, it would not be right to pass the bill for our day-to-day consumption to our children and grandchildren. Unlike the US, we do not have the fiscal flexibility that comes with a reserve currency. That is why the fiscal rules that we are elected on are critical. To govern is to choose, and these rules crystallise the choices that are required to keep spending under control, to keep taxes low, to root out waste and to pass the litmus test that was rightly set in stone in our manifesto of debt being lower at the end of the Parliament.
While I am of course disappointed not to be finishing what I started, I look to the future not with apprehension but with great optimism. We on the Government Benches have a shot at achieving nothing less than wholesale renewal for our economy, our society and our country—a chance to give everyone an opportunity to live up to their full potential, wherever they live and whatever their background; to put people, place and social justice at the heart of a more human capitalism; and to bring our country together as one nation. I know that this is a shared vision, and I firmly believe that my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister has the tenacity, the energy and the skill to see it through. I want to leave the House in no doubt that he has my full confidence, and the Government my full support, to get it done.
On a point of order, Mr Speaker. Would it be in order for me to thank my right hon. Friend for the grace with which he has just spoken and his immense service to this country in several Departments, and to remind him that he has friends and admirers on all sides of the House of Commons?
On a point of order, Mr Speaker.
With your permission, Mr Speaker, I would like to update the House on covid-19, or coronavirus. As of this morning, 7,132 people in the UK have been tested for the virus. So far, 13 people in the UK have tested positive, of whom eight have now been discharged from hospital. We expect more cases here. As planned, 115 people left supported isolation at Kents Hill Park in Milton Keynes on 23 February. All tested negative for covid-19. On Saturday, 32 people from the Diamond Princess cruise ship were repatriated and taken to Arrowe Park, where they will remain in supported isolation. Four of those have tested positive and been transferred to specialist centres. British tourists are currently being quarantined in a hotel in Tenerife, and the Foreign Office is in contact with them.
We have a clear four-part plan to respond to the outbreak of this disease: contain, delay, research and mitigate. We are taking all necessary measures to minimise the risk to the public. We have put in place enhanced monitoring measures at UK airports, and health information is available at all international airports, ports and international train stations. We have established a supported isolation facility at Heathrow to cater for international passengers who are tested, and to maximise infection control and free up NHS resources.
The NHS is testing a very large number of people who have travelled back from affected countries, the vast majority of whom test negative. In the past few days, we have published guidance for schools, employers, first responders, social care and the travel industry on how to handle suspected cases. If anyone has been in contact with a suspected case in a childcare or an educational setting, no special measures are required while test results are awaited. There is no need to close the school or send other students or staff home. Once the results arrive, those who test negative will be advised individually about returning to education. In most cases, closure of the childcare or education setting will be unnecessary, but this will be a local decision based on various factors, including professional advice. Schools should be guided by the advice on the gov.uk website, and contact their regional schools commissioner in case of queries. I can tell the House that in the coming days we will roll out a wider public information campaign.
While the Government and the NHS have plans in place for all eventualities, everyone can play their part. To reiterate, our advice is for everyone to take sensible precautions, such as using tissues and washing hands more. Yesterday we updated our advice to returning travellers from northern Italy—defined as anywhere north of, but not including, Pisa and Florence—as well as from Vietnam, Cambodia, Laos and Myanmar. Those returning from Iran, the lockdown areas of northern Italy and the special care zone in South Korea should self-isolate and call NHS 111, even if they have no symptoms.
We are working closely with the World Health Organisation, the G7 and the wider international community to ensure that we are ready for all eventualities. We are co-ordinating research efforts with international partners. Our approach has at all times been guided by the chief medical officer, working on the basis of the best possible scientific evidence. The public can be assured that we have a clear plan to contain, delay, research and mitigate, and that we are working methodically through each step to keep the public safe. I commend this statement to the House.
I thank the Secretary of State for advance notice of his announcement and for sight of his statement. Again, all our thoughts must be with those who have been diagnosed with coronavirus—covid-19—in the UK and across Europe, and again we reiterate our support and put on record our thanks to all NHS staff and public health staff, as well as to the chief medical officer for the leadership he is showing.
The World Health Organisation has warned that countries are “simply not ready” for a pandemic. There has now been significant spread of the virus across the European continent—in Italy in particular, but other cases have been identified in Austria, Croatia and Switzerland. This is clearly now very serious. Yesterday there did appear to be a little bit of a discrepancy, if I may say so, between the travel advice from the CMO and the Secretary of State. Can the Secretary of State clarify for the House what exactly the travel advice is for those travelling or seeking to travel to northern Italy? I think that would be welcome.
We welcome the Secretary of State’s plans for Heathrow. Could he explain to the House why that facility is proposed only for Heathrow, and why similar facilities will not be in place at other major airports, particularly the bigger airports such as Manchester and so on? The Secretary of State mentioned the situation in Tenerife. We are all obviously very concerned about the situation there. Could he offer a little more detail about what advice and support are being offered to British nationals at this hotel?
I note what the Secretary of State says about schools, and I entirely understand it, but we do have several schools in England and Northern Ireland shut completely at the moment for a deep clean, after students and teachers returned from skiing trips. I understand that schools should check relevant websites and get local advice, but does the Secretary of State expect advice to be sent to schools from the Department for Education? If schools have to start shutting, will the Government consider arrangements for alternative schooling provision for those affected?
Will the Secretary of State update the House on how many specialist and extracorporeal membrane oxygenation beds are available across the NHS? We know that the NHS is under intense pressure at this time of year—indeed, today the BBC is running a story about people waiting on trolleys in hospital corridors and so on. The Nuffield Trust has warned that there is “little in the tank” to cope with coronavirus, and Public Health England has announced that tests for the condition are being increased to include people displaying flu-like symptoms at 11 hospitals and 100 GP surgeries across the UK.
Will community trusts and clinical commissioning groups fund the extra work related to coronavirus from their existing baselines, and is the Secretary of State making representations to the Treasury for additional emergency NHS revenue resource in the coming weeks? Will he update the House on how much has been drawn from the capital facility for hospitals to develop specialist pods to quarantine patients, which he announced in his previous statement?
I reiterate that the Opposition want to work constructively with the Government on this issue. We are broadly supportive of the steps taken by the Secretary of State, and I hope he understands that we are trying to be constructive in our questions. We continue to thank all NHS staff for their work at this difficult time.
I join the hon. Gentleman in reiterating our thanks to all NHS and Public Health England staff, and others, who have been working so hard on this issue. I also express my thanks to the hon. Gentleman, and to every Member of the House with whom my Ministers and I have had dealings. In each and every case, everyone has taken a responsible and proportionate approach. This is not a political matter; this is a matter of keeping the public safe, and everybody in this House has played their part.
Plans are in place in case of the virus becoming a pandemic, but it is not yet certain that that will happen. The plan is still in the phase of “contain”: we aim to contain the virus both abroad and here at home, and prevent it from becoming a pandemic, while of course ensuring that plans are in place should that happen. On travel to Italy, our advice is that all but essential travel is not recommended to the quarantined areas of northern Italy. The advice for people returning from northern Italy is clear: those returning from the quarantined areas should self-isolate, and those returning from the rest of northern Italy should self-isolate if they have symptoms. I hope that advice is clear, and it is available on the Government website.
The hon. Gentleman asked about Heathrow, and we have expanded the availability of supported isolation facilities. Just having Arrowe Park and the facility at Milton Keynes is not appropriate for individual travellers whom we think need to be quarantined, but at the moment those numbers are low, which is why we need only one facility. We chose a facility near Heathrow because that is the point of biggest throughput, but we do not rule out rolling that out more broadly if we think it necessary.
The Department for Education has repeatedly issued advice to schools—I am glad to see the Minister for School Standards in his place—and we issued revised advice this morning. Our goal is to keep schools open wherever we can, as long as that protects the public. Our wider goal is to have minimum social and economic disruption, or disruption to the NHS, subject to keeping the public safe. The message that we do not have a policy of blanket school closures is important. Unless there is specific professional advice, or until there is a positive test, schools should stay open and follow the advice on the gov.uk website. If they have queries they should contact their regional schools commissioner.
The hon. Gentleman asked about the availability of testing, and as far as we know, we now have testing sites at all A&E facilities across England. We are also planning to introduce home testing, some of which has started already, so that people do not have to go to the pod in front of A&E—that pod has been placed there to ensure that people do not go into A&E, where they might infect others. Home testing is the safest place to be tested because people do not have to go anywhere, and that will allow us to roll out testing to a larger number of people. The hon. Gentleman asked about the available funding. Funding is available from the Treasury. So far we have used it for capital funding, but we will obviously keep this issue under review.
There has been a roll-out to a wider number of laboratories, and we are working through plans for wider commercial diagnostic testing. We are working with around a dozen private companies, and using private diagnostic testing companies, not least because globally there is a search for a “by the side of the bed” testing capability. At the moment, all testing is done in labs, which means that someone has to take a swab to the lab and get the result. We want testing capabilities that involve a bit of kit by the bedside of the patient, so that tests can be run onsite. There is a global search for that capability, but it does not yet exist. We are putting funding and support into making that happen, and I hope we will soon get to that solution.
Worldwide we are looking at about 80,000 cases of coronavirus. That is 10 times the number that we saw with SARS, which suggests it is a very infectious condition. Will the UK Government liaise with international partners to ensure accurate reporting? It is critical to map the spread of coronavirus, and there will be a danger that some countries under-report because they are afraid of economic impacts. Has any consideration been given to using thermal detection technology at Heathrow, and for that to be spread across more sites? We can no longer think that this only involves people who come from a few countries—people follow different routes, and almost everyone coming in would need to be screened.
As the Secretary of State said, there is only a small window of opportunity when it is possible to prevent or contain the initial spread of coronavirus. As I have previously said, I am concerned about not self-isolating asymptomatic people, particularly when we are aware that the case that spread the condition to others in the UK involved someone who was not significantly symptomatic. We do not know what the prodromal phase of coronavirus is, and people could be spreading the condition without our knowledge. The advice must be clear.
Does the Secretary of State recognise the confusion there is that those returning from certain parts of north Italy must self-isolate, even if asymptomatic, but those coming from China do not need to self-isolate if asymptomatic? That is causing confusion and we may end up behind the curve. If containment is to work, we must be ahead of the curve. Self-isolating does not count as illness, so will the Government send a clear message to employers, so that those who are advised to self-isolate will still be paid or receive sickness cover? Otherwise, there will be people who feel that they must go to work, because they simply cannot afford to have no income for two weeks.
The Secretary of State suggested that he would not go to wider northern Italy, and the Chief Medical Officer suggested that people with health conditions should not go there. Travel insurance kicks in only when the Foreign and Commonwealth Office gives clear guidance. Will that guidance be changed to state that people should not be travelling to wider northern Italy, and other areas, so that people are not disadvantaged by not having travel insurance if they choose not to put themselves, and indeed all of us, at risk of the disease spreading?
The hon. Lady is right with regard to concerns about under-reporting, especially in some countries. I am afraid I do not recognise some of her clinical observations, and I do not recognise the idea that we should change travel advice between China and Italy. We should base travel advice on expert clinical evidence. I am very happy to ensure that she receives a full briefing from medical experts, so that she can get the clinical points right.
On thermal detection, rather like stopping flights this is against clinical advice. The clinical advice is not to undertake thermal detection, because we get a lot of false positives. Indeed, the only country I know of in Europe that undertook thermal detection at the border was Italy and that is now the scene of the largest outbreak.
Finally, the hon. Lady made a very important point about people in work and self-isolation. Self-isolation on medical advice is considered sickness for employment purposes. That is a very important message for employers and those who can go home and self-isolate as if they were sick, because it is for medical reasons.
Mercifully, nobody in this country has yet died of coronavirus, but every year 600 people die of seasonal flu. In the phase to which my right hon. Friend refers, is he redoubling our efforts to ensure that the elderly and the vulnerable in particular are vaccinated against seasonal flu, therefore perhaps mitigating pressures on our national health service in the event that coronavirus becomes more of a problem here and makes demands particularly on intensive care beds?
My right hon. Friend is absolutely right. The vaccination rate was, I think, at a record level this year, and it is very important. The simple measures that everybody can take, such as washing hands and using tissues, protect us against flu as well as coronavirus.
The four people who were welcomed to Arrowe Park Hospital developed symptoms subsequent to coming to this country, despite being tested extensively before they were allowed to fly. Does that cause the Secretary of State any worry? Will he say what that might mean for whether people are infectious before they are symptomatic?
It is my job to worry about all those things. The answer is that that sequence of events confirms to me the importance of quarantining people. I know that there were some concerns about quarantine, but I think it showed that we were dead right to quarantine people because it turned out that they tested positive during the quarantine. Mr Speaker, I just want to put on the record my thanks to the hon. Lady, and everyone in her constituency and the Wirral more broadly, who have risen to this challenge.
Constituents have been writing to me with regard to travel advice. They are planning holidays to countries that are currently affected and for which the travel advice is to isolate on return if symptomatic. Some do not want to go on those holidays because, understandably, they are genuinely frightened, but they cannot reclaim the money because the travel advice is not saying that they cannot go. If they do go, they then have to isolate when they come back, which effectively lengthens their holidays and creates significant difficulties in relation to their responsibilities. Will the Secretary of State advise my constituents on what they should do in that circumstance and what discussions have taken place with the Foreign Office on this matter?
Decisions on precise travel advice for each country is of course a matter for the Foreign Office, but I can tell my hon. Friend that all those considerations are taken into account. We have to base decisions on the best possible science and clinical advice.
What assessment have the Government made of the potential economic consequences of the spread of the coronavirus, globally as well as in Europe and in the UK? The Secretary of State will know that northern Italy is in lockdown and that other countries with a much greater spread of the disease have provided an economic stimulus because whole areas are shutting down. We are not there at all in the UK, but has he discussed this issue with the Treasury, because the potential impact on growth and the nervousness of financial markets is very real?
The hon. Lady is absolutely right to raise this issue. I have of course talked to the Treasury and the new Chancellor of the Exchequer on this question. Another important consideration is that overreaction has economic and social costs too. We have to keep the public safe, but we need to act in a way that is proportionate, so that does come into our considerations. My primary goal is to keep the public safe—of course it is—but we also have to take into account other impacts. For instance, as I set out in the statement, schools should stay open, with no blanket ban, unless there are specific reasons for them not to. Closing a school does not just have an impact on children’s education—there are wider social and economic impacts too.
I thank the Secretary of State for the very responsible way he is handling this very serious situation. He is clearly working very closely—as his predecessor did and I did when I worked with him—with Professor Chris Whitty, the chief medical officer, and following the evidence. That has to be right. Last time the Secretary of State made a statement to the House, he said that he felt it would get worse before it got better. I think that that has been borne out by events. What level of personal responsibility should individuals and employers take—there are alternatives to travel, especially business travel, where there are technological solutions—to help with containment?
That is a very wise question and my hon. Friend is absolutely right to ask it. The NHS has a very important role to play in responding to this crisis, Public Health England is leading the public health response brilliantly, and Professor Chris Whitty, as chief medical officer, has done an amazing job over the past two months and is one of the finest epidemiologists in the world, but the truth is that everybody has a role to play, from the simple action of washing hands all the way through to responding in a sensible and proportionate way. It is important to dwell on that.
I join others in thanking NHS staff in advance for the work they will have to do to contain and deal with the coronavirus. Will the Secretary of State join me in commending the work of Professor Gilbert and others at the Jenner Institute, who are working tirelessly to develop a vaccine? As he said in his statement, the NHS 111 service is now in effect the frontline service. We may have received text messages from our GP surgeries telling us to contact them first. What are we doing to ensure they are properly staffed and trained? Finally—this is very important, Mr Speaker—will he join me in condemning those who are hurling racist abuse at British Asians, both in Oxford and elsewhere? There is a worry that we could racially profile those who may have this disease and that is not acceptable. We all need to calm down.
I abhor any racist attacks that people might say have resulted from this situation. The circumstances do not matter—racism does not help; it hinders any response. I can assure the hon. Lady that 111 staff have the support they need and we have back-up plans. That is all part of the plan and 111 is responding brilliantly. Thank goodness we have 111. It is only a couple of years old and it is absolutely delivering in these circumstances. Everybody in the country knows that if they are worried that they have coronavirus they should call 111.
I pay tribute to the Secretary of State at this very difficult time. His statement was very measured. He mentions four means: containment, delay, research and mitigation. Containment and delay come with serious economic and social disruption, and we are seeing that in the markets at the moment. I would say that what we must be doing the most is mitigation. This is a very strange virus with a very long period between infection and symptoms. The number of interactions people make during that two-week period—perhaps even longer—will be innumerable, and that makes thermal testing, which is often the first way forward, difficult to analyse. Will the Secretary of State, the chief medical officer and other international experts look seriously at whether this is simply A. N. Other flu virus that is difficult and problematic, but recoverable from?
I thank my hon. Friend; I will certainly do that. I agree with him on the importance of mitigation. The mitigation strand is really about what would happen should this become a full-scale pandemic, and the very significant impact that that would have on the country— including, of course, on the NHS. On the purpose of the delay strand of this work, even if we do not succeed in containing the virus, we want to delay its arrival so that it does not all arrive in one big peak, but arrives over time so that we can better cope with it. Of course, the contain strand is about trying to stop that happening at all.
As the House knows, I was in self-isolation last week because Harry Horton of ITV alerted me to the fact that there had been a confirmed case at the UK bus summit, which I attended. I rang 111 and the advice was that, if I had been in contact with the person who had coronavirus, I should self-isolate, but if I had not, I need not. Yet no agency could confirm or deny whether I had been in contact. So more work on tracking needs to be done. Will the Secretary of State consider developing, like the Chinese Government, a tracking app to help people in that situation?
I am very happy, subject to consent, to look at that. I would also say that the way that contact tracing works is that, once the positive case is identified, you trace out from the positive case, rather than starting from the wider population—including attendees at the bus conference—and focusing in. Contact tracing was undertaken in the correct way. Indeed, the majority of cases that we have found in the UK have been found through the proactive contact tracing undertaken by Public Health England; that commends its approach.
I thank the Secretary of State for the statement. Obviously, this issue affects all our constituencies, so can he confirm that he will continue to provide further information to the House as the situation develops and as more information becomes available to us, so that we can keep our constituents’ minds at rest that everything that can be done is being done?
Yes, absolutely; of course I will keep the House and the wider public updated. That is an incredibly important part of our work. Of course, for any colleague, my door, and that of the Minister for Public Health, my hon. Friend the Member for Bury St Edmunds (Jo Churchill), is always open to answer any questions.
That is a very important subject. In fact, I have been working on that in the past 24 hours, to ensure that tech companies, social media companies, Google and others promote the right answers to questions about coronavirus. Most of the social media companies—we have been in contact with them—have behaved in an exemplary fashion, ensuring that information from, for example, the NHS gets promoted.
I commend my right hon. Friend for his statement today. Following on from the previous question, it is clear that everybody has heeded the advice to self-isolate, but exactly what self-isolation might mean for certain groups—such as a family in which one person may be symptomatic, or groups of university students—is difficult to ascertain. I urge my right hon. Friend to pursue a public health initiative.
We updated the advice on exactly what self-isolation means earlier this week. It does, for instance, mean going home, and if other people live with you at home, trying to keep out of contact with them. It means, obviously, not going on public transport, leaving the house as little as possible, and trying to get other people to do things like collecting groceries. It also means, within a house where lots of people are living, trying to stay away from others living in that house. I appreciate that that is, practically, challenging and difficult—as a father of three small children, I get it—but that is the goal of self-isolation.
I thank the Secretary of State for his statement. What communication is his Department having with the devolved Administrations concerning precautions? Schools, such as one in my constituency, are flummoxed, not knowing how to manage the situation. What is he doing with the ports in Belfast to ensure that precautions are put in place?
The Secretary of State mentioned financial support. Will he outline whether there will be additional support for Northern Ireland if this disease comes to Northern Ireland?
Public health crises such as this are a UK-wide reserved matter, but we have had excellent working with all the devolveds, particularly the new Administration in Belfast. They join our weekly Cobras. We will have a Cobra this afternoon at which they will be present. Some matters—especially in the mitigate strand of work—are of course devolved, such as schools and healthcare. We work very hard on that, and I am sure that we will ensure that any financial consequentials are appropriately dealt with, too.
We heard what the Secretary of State told the hon. Member for Wimbledon (Stephen Hammond) about a person who is self-isolating keeping away from other family members, but what is the advice to the other family members about whether they should go about their normal business—go to work or go to school if they are children—in those circumstances?
The Health Secretary is absolutely right that containment of covid-19 is very important. In that vein, will he keep under review isolation facilities being made available at London Gatwick airport, which of course has many flights to and from both Asia and Europe?
The Irish authorities have already advised the Irish Rugby Football Union to call off the Six Nations game against Italy, which obviously affects the north, as it is a Northern Ireland team as well. England are due to play Italy in the Six Nations in a few weeks. What discussions has the Secretary of State had with his colleagues in the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport and with the sporting authorities about advising what to do in relation to the Six Nations championship and other sporting events?
Obviously, DCMS is involved in the cross-Government decision making on these things. Our goal is to minimise social disruption—of which this is an important part for any rugby fan—subject to keeping the public safe. These are difficult balances to strike sometimes, and I will be discussing the matter with the new Secretary of State at DCMS.
I thank my right hon. Friend for what he has said, particularly in relation to schools. He may be aware that a school in my constituency has closed as a precautionary measure, after students returned from northern Italy. Would he contact both me and the school to reassure parents and staff?
I would be very happy to discuss the specific case with my hon. Friend—either I or the Public Health Minister, my hon. Friend the Member for Bury St Edmunds (Jo Churchill)—and I am looking into that specific example. A small number of schools have taken that step. I understand why they have, and it is of course a decision for the head, taking into account local factors. We are putting in place, through the regional schools commissioners, the structures to make it possible to ensure that every school can get the advice it needs, but in the first instance every school should go to the website, because there is a huge amount of advice on that.
What action is the Minister taking to ensure that the support and communication being given is adequate and clear to British nationals currently quarantined in the hotel in Tenerife, and to their families, who are rightly worried?
It is a very important question. We are getting as much information as we possibly can, through the Foreign Office, to those who are in Tenerife. As I announced in the statement, we will shortly be strengthening our domestic communications programme to ensure that people have all the information they need.
I was very pleased when, yesterday evening, the Health Minister took me aside and said how well the whole of Milton Keynes had reacted to hosting a quarantine centre, and he was right of course. The professionals in the NHS— clinical and managerial—were fantastic, as were the officers in the council. I think we should recognise that the whole health team—the Secretary of State and his Ministers, advisers and officials—and, indeed, parliamentarians on any Bench in this House, have reacted incredibly well to this situation. So can the Secretary of State reassure us that this is part of the UK being the best prepared—or among the very well prepared —in the world to deal with this kind of outbreak?
My hon. Friend is right about Milton Keynes. The people of Milton Keynes have done exactly the right thing, and I would add to his list Milton Keynes University Hospital, which has done a brilliant job. More broadly, I would also add the media, who have in very large part responded in an incredibly responsible way to a very big story. We have detailed operational plans for dealing with this situation, including if it gets much worse, and those plans are worked on and updated in response to all the information we get, but part of the plan is about the behaviour of people and how people respond in this House and in the country. Thus far we have seen an exemplary response. I hope that continues.
Many wedding dresses in this country are designed here but made in China, and wedding dress companies in the UK, including in my constituency, have found it difficult because the factories in China have closed; they are suffering as a result. I am aware, having married many women in my time—when I was a vicar—that this is time sensitive. There is a real danger that many of these businesses will suffer enormous financial loss, not to mention the impact on the families. Will the Secretary of State chase up replies from Ministers in other Departments to ensure financial support for those companies?
The hon. Member raises an important point and through the medium of the wedding dress makes a much broader point, which is that many things are made in China, especially drugs and pharmaceuticals and clothing, which means that the impact in China will have an impact here through the supply chain problems. I am working with the Treasury on the appropriate response. Containing the virus will obviously have health benefits, but it will have economic benefits, too.
The hon. Member for Cardiff West (Kevin Brennan) nicked my question about the number of cancelled sporting events around the world, which the Secretary of State will be aware of, but can he be clear about the advice to those who host or attend these events in order to prevent the spread of coronavirus? Can he confirm that, contrary to rumours on the internet, 111 call handlers are not advising people to go to their GP?
People should call 111 if they are concerned; they should not attend A&E or go to their GP, unless 111 has correctly told them to do that. The 111 call handlers are highly trained. There are GPs at the other end of the line to make sure people get the best advice. It is the place to go to.
Having experienced the outbreak in my home town of Brighton and Hove, I would like to commend the work of the Secretary of State’s Department, his officials and public health officials across the country. In particular, I would like to thank the Under-Secretary of State for Health and Social Care, the hon. Member for Bury St Edmunds (Jo Churchill), who personally went beyond the call of duty to keep me and my colleagues informed at every step. I am convinced that the strategy that was unfolded in our city was the correct one, but what was not quite good enough was the explanation given to residents of why that strategy was chosen. Those who came into contact with people with coronavirus were contacted proactively, but those in the same space who were concerned had no information at all. Is this something that will get better?
Yes. The hon. Gentleman is right to praise my colleague. It is a pity, Mr Speaker, that you did not call him earlier, because she has just left the Chamber. He is right; we are constantly learning. Communication in this area is always a challenge, because we have to get some quite technical information over to a large number of people in a very short time. We do our very best, but we are constantly learning from what goes well and what goes badly, so I would love to hear more from him about how we can improve.
That is right. We have an existing public information campaign to explain to people that the best thing to do is to call 111, but we will be strengthening that. In particular, we want to persuade people to wash their hands more and to look out for themselves, especially if they have a sneeze, in order to slow the spread; we want to explain what they should to do if they think they are infected. It is incredibly important that we get this information out across the whole population.
I welcome the level-headed clarion certainty in the Secretary of State’s approach to this difficult event; it gives confidence to many people across the country. Cambridge House Grammar School in my constituency had to send pupils home yesterday. It appears to have acted absolutely by the book in terms of the advice given, so I welcome the communication between the Department of Health and Social Care here and the Departments of Education and Health in Northern Ireland, and I hope it continues. With regard to the game to be played on Saturday between Italy and Ireland, many Ulster players and Ulster fans are following that closely. His counterpart in the Republic of Ireland, Simon Harris, has said the game should be stopped, but the Department here has taken a much more level-headed approach and said it will monitor the situation. The IRFU, which will ultimately take the decision, does not seem to know what to do. Can the Secretary of State give clear and clarion advice to the IRFU?
I will ask the chief medical officer to speak to the Republic of Ireland chief medical officer and to ensure that the best and appropriate clinical advice is given. Rather than me giving advice from the Dispatch Box, I will ensure we get the best clinical advice and join up with the Republic.
I hear what the Secretary of State says about how people should go about their ordinary lives if they have not tested positive, but where parents self-isolate while awaiting testing, should their children go to school before they know the outcome of the test? Schools being what they are, it is bound to cause alarm. Should children not be kept away until such time as the all-clear is given?
It is best here that we follow the clinical advice, which is as I set out. One of the good things about the covid-19 coronavirus, compared with similar illnesses, is that it seems to be much less impactful in terms of symptoms on children, which is good news, because with the flu it is normally the other way around. That observation underpins the clinical advice. We need to listen to the scientists.
We should thank Border Force, which has done a fantastic job, and the staff at the international ports. We are constantly engaged with them, through the Department for Transport—and the Home Office in the case of Border Force—to ensure they get the right information and support, but if the hon. Member has any specific worries, I would be happy to answer them.
The Secretary of State and the Government have done a fantastic job on public information, but does he agree that it would be helpful, given our reach on social media and through our constituency surgeries, if Members were to put up posters and broadcast the necessary information to our constituents in our tweets and elsewhere on social media in order to maximise that reach?