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House of Commons Hansard
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Oral Answers to Questions
18 March 2020
Volume 673

Northern Ireland

The Secretary of State was asked—

Budget 2020

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1. What assessment he has made of the effect of Budget 2020 on the Northern Ireland economy. [901559]

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The Budget is a fantastic boost for Northern Ireland as we support the Executive to deliver on the public’s priorities, providing substantial investment for Northern Ireland’s economy with an additional £216 million in 2020-21. The economy will benefit from the announcements on tax cuts, including an increase to national insurance thresholds and the employment allowance. Since the Budget, we have also heard yesterday’s announcement, which will result in an additional £640 million for the Northern Ireland Executive, taking total covid-19-related Barnett consequentials to more than £900 million.

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Northern Ireland has the highest prevalence of mental illness in the UK. The Government pledged money to Northern Ireland as part of the confidence and supply arrangement to address those challenges, but that money has not materialised. What discussions has the Secretary of State had with the Chancellor in relation to that funding, and do the Government intend to keep their promise?

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The hon. Lady makes an important point. We all want good support for mental health and to see people with mental health issues getting the right support and healthcare. As I have outlined, we have a very substantial Budget for the Northern Ireland Executive, and I hope we will be able to see good provision. I spoke to the Health Minister yesterday about covid-19, but the issue that the hon. Lady raises is one of those that we will continue to have conversations about.

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The link between health and the economy is now automatic because of the coronavirus situation. If I had been asking the Secretary of State a question about health in Northern Ireland two weeks ago, I would have pointed out that there is a £600 million shortfall in bringing the Northern Ireland health budget up to speed. How much money exactly will be put into that budget to ensure that the health system there is robust against coronavirus, and to build up the capacity that it ought to have so that it catches up with the rest of the UK?

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As the hon. Gentleman will know, a key focus for the Northern Ireland Executive is how we improve, and how they improve, health support for people across Northern Ireland. Quite rightly, everybody’s focus at the moment is primarily on not only wider health issues, but the specifics of dealing with coronavirus. The Executive have been hugely focused on that, including the Deputy First Minister, the First Minister and the Health Minister, all of whom I spoke to yesterday. That is where the focus is. There is a substantial budget—as part of the “New Decade, New Approach” deal, there is £2 billion of support for the Northern Ireland Executive, and I hope that we will see a really improved health service for the people of Northern Ireland.

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The Secretary of State has to do better than this. The amount of money that has been made available for coronavirus and health generally is not enough for the needs of the people of Northern Ireland. Will the wider moneys available guarantee support for those who cannot get sick pay and cannot pay their rent, and guarantee that those whose small businesses are under pressure will still be in business when we get through this crisis?

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I say gently to the hon. Gentleman that there is £2 billion linked to the “New Decade, New Approach” deal. As I said, last week’s Budget announcements will provide £900 million for the coronavirus situation. That is a substantial amount for Northern Ireland, on top of the money that the Executive already have. I share his desire to see the Executive delivering strong and good healthcare for Northern Ireland, and we will work with the Northern Ireland Executive on that.

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May I appeal to the Secretary of State, in his work with the Executive on the Budget and the economy, to have a strong focus on farming? It is at difficult times like this that people realise fully the importance of food security to our nation, and to every family and household in this country. We need to ensure that we look after our farmers in Northern Ireland and across the whole United Kingdom.

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My right hon. Friend, with her huge experience in this area, is right regarding the United Kingdom and particularly Northern Ireland. I held a roundtable conversation with people in the agricultural sector in the last week or two, looking at what we can do to ensure that they can be successful both now and as we go through the process of leaving the European Union, because food security is important for the United Kingdom. The agricultural sector is hugely important in Northern Ireland, and I will continue to work with it to ensure that it is successful.

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The Secretary of State is right to highlight some of the positive announcements in the Budget last week and yesterday’s emergency measures, but does he accept that a huge opportunity was missed by not mentioning anything about air passenger duty? The Chancellor said last night that he will engage with the Transport Secretary imminently about what we can do to protect the aviation industry. The loss of Flybe was hugely significant to regional connectivity, and the Government will have to move on air passenger duty in the weeks to come.

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The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right about the challenges, and we are very focused on ensuring that connectivity continues. This is a hugely important issue for us, and it is good that some of the routes that Flybe has vacated have already been picked up by organisations such as Loganair and Eastern—and hopefully by others as we go forward. With coronavirus, this is a particularly difficult time for the airline industry, which is why the Chancellor and the Transport Secretary are focused on it. I have spoken to the Transport Secretary and he is acutely aware of the importance of ensuring that we keep strong connectivity.

The hon. Gentleman is not entirely correct, in that the Budget outlined that the Treasury is taking forward a piece of consultation work around APD. I understand people’s determination to see that delivered; the Chancellor is very aware of it. We are very alert to the work that we have to do, and we will continue pressing on the importance of connectivity between GB and Northern Ireland.

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The Northern Ireland economy is much more heavily based around the public sector than those of other parts of the United Kingdom, and covid-19 may make the situation even more acute. What further fiscal measures can be taken, in anticipation of a post-coronavirus future, to ensure that we redress that balance and make the Northern Ireland economy far more self-sufficient?

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My right hon. Friend makes a very important point. Despite the challenges we that all face —internationally and here in the UK—due to coronavirus, there are really good opportunities in the wider economy for Northern Ireland. He is right about the differential between the private and public sectors, which is one of the reasons why we have put such substantial support into the city and growth deals, which offer a huge opportunity for economic growth in Northern Ireland and job creation through the private sector. Obviously, we have the very substantial package that the Chancellor announced last night, including some very important and large numbers—circa £900 million for Northern Ireland —and I will repeat the point that the Prime Minister and the Chancellor have made: for the benefit the United Kingdom, we will do whatever it takes.

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On air passenger duty, I reiterate the concern about stresses on small and regional airports such as Belfast. What goes on in Belfast links with Southampton and Bournemouth. I know that the Secretary of State is very alive to this, but will he have conversations with the Transport Secretary to find out when the review on APD will be brought forward?

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I can assure my right hon. Friend that the conversation between myself, the Transport Secretary and the Chancellor on the issue is ongoing. We are very focused on ensuring that there is good connectivity around the whole United Kingdom. I appreciate that Eastern is an important airline for connectivity around various regions. A number of other airlines are looking at picking up the routes for Belfast. We must also make sure that we have good connectivity with Derry/Londonderry and other places around the whole United Kingdom. We will look to deal with that as quickly as we can despite the challenges of coronavirus, which will make this a very difficult time for the airline industry, as per the Chancellor’s comments last night.

Electric Buses

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2. What discussions he has had with the Secretary of State for Transport to ensure that new electric buses supported by the Government are built in (a) Northern Ireland and (b) other parts of the UK. [901560]

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Northern Ireland is renowned for bus manufacturing, including Wrightbus’s New Routemaster hybrid model, which is famously operating around London today, and I know that the new owners are pioneering hydrogen technology. As part of “New Decade, New Approach”, the UK Government are providing £50 million to support the roll-out of ultra low emission public transport in Northern Ireland. I am in no doubt that Northern Ireland manufacturers will continue to lead the way in developing these next-generation buses.

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I thank the Minister for that reply, and it is very welcome that money is going to electric buses and, indeed, ultra low emission buses, including hydrogen technology, but when I contacted my local bus company, National Express, it confirmed that the 29 vehicles already ordered are being built in Britain, but would not commit for future orders. It went on to express a hope that capacity would grow with demand—not just from it, but from other operators. Does the Minister agree that there is a real role for the Government here, and will he push for a whole of Government and industry approach to ensure that cash flowing into electric and low emission buses benefits bus builders in the United Kingdom, including Wrights in Ballymena?

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The right hon. Gentleman makes a very good point. As he will know, the Prime Minister announced new funding to overhaul bus links in England and made a commitment to at least 4,000 new zero-emission buses. We want to work with the industry to ensure that those buses are flowing through to orders to all those UK companies, including, as he says, Wrights in Ballymena.

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I agree whole- heartedly with the question that has just been asked. On an immediate strategy for bus builders and bus operators, the Government could underwrite Transport for London, Birmingham buses, Translink and National Express, encourage them to make the orders that they have already indicated that they wish to make over the next year, and put at least £100 million of liquidity into manufacturing in Northern Ireland and across the UK overnight. That would cost the taxpayer nothing— they are paying for this anyway—but it would allow manufacturers to continue and employees to have surety of employment and the ability to put bread on the table. I urge the Government to adopt this strategy.

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I always listen carefully to the hon. Gentleman’s representations, and I am very happy to discuss that with colleagues at the Department for Transport. Further details are being developed alongside our national bus strategy, which we expect to publish later this year, but I absolutely understand the importance of the issues he raises and, as I say, I am happy to undertake that discussion.

Ireland/Northern Ireland Protocol

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3. What recent discussions he has had with representatives of the Northern Ireland business community on the Ireland/Northern Ireland protocol and future trading arrangements with the EU. [901563]

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The Government are committed to engagement with the business community in Northern Ireland in relation to the protocol and our future trading arrangements with the EU. I have had the opportunity to engage with a range of business representatives in Northern Ireland in recent weeks, and I look forward to continuing positive and constructive discussions in the weeks and months ahead.

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The Secretary of State says that there will be no border down the Irish sea or across the island of Ireland. The fact that the Government are intent on diverging from existing standards, however, means that checks of some sort will have to take place in Northern Ireland. What kind of checks does he think will be necessary? On the basis that there will be very real barriers to trade, will he take personal responsibility for the ensuing mess?

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The hon. Gentleman should have more faith in our ability as a country to deal with technical matters. We are considering the best way to ensure that we implement the protocol, and we will discuss that with the EU in the joint committee—the specialised committee created under the withdrawal agreement, which will meet for the first time very soon. We are clear that Northern Ireland is part of the United Kingdom and we will have unfettered access.

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I am sure that we all wish to give our best wishes to my hon. Friend the Member for North Dorset (Simon Hoare), the Chair of the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee, who is making good progress following hip surgery. I hope that I will not have to deputise for him for much longer.

What discussions has the Secretary of State had with those involved in the Lough Neagh eel fishery, who face the triple challenge of an uncertain trading future with the European Union, the effect of the coronavirus on their important markets in Belgium and Holland, and the possible re-designation of the European eel under convention on international trade in endangered species regulations once we have left the European Union?

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I add my good wishes to my hon. Friend the Member for North Dorset (Simon Hoare), who is recuperating. I have been in contact with him this morning; understandably, he continues to take a keen interest in the issues of Northern Ireland.

These are unprecedented and challenging times for many sectors. The Chancellor has announced a package of support for business and indicated further measures, if required, for the coming days. I will raise the issue of the specific group mentioned by my right hon. Friend the Member for Scarborough and Whitby (Mr Goodwill) with the Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs. I assure my right hon. Friend that my hon. Friend the Minister of State has been dealing with this and met that group recently, and we will continue to take this forward.

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On a recent visit to Belfast, EU officials and Michel Barnier made it quite clear to the business community that they expected a hard border in the Irish sea and, secondly, that they expected the Government to start implementing the things that need to be done to put that in place. Given that the Government have a different interpretation of the withdrawal agreement from the EU, will the Secretary of State assure us that no steps will be taken to put a physical, administrative or electronic border in the Irish sea, which would disrupt trade between Northern Ireland and Great Britain?

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The right hon. Gentleman makes an important point. I am happy to be very clear about this. We are determined to deliver on the agreements not only in the protocol, but in the Good Friday/Belfast agreement, so that we ensure there is no border between the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland, and there will be no border between Northern Ireland and Great Britain. Northern Ireland is part of the United Kingdom. There will be no hard border in the Irish sea.

Abortion Services

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4. If he will make an assessment of the effect of the collapse of Flybe on the ability of women in Northern Ireland to access abortion services in England. [901564]

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The Government have been engaging on this issue with the British Pregnancy Advisory Service, which is contracted to provide booking services for women travelling to England to access abortion services. Flights have been rebooked for anyone affected by the collapse of Flybe to ensure access for women and girls. The Government continue to fund all the costs of the procedure, including travel and, where needed, accommodation. We are also working closely with the devolved Administrations, the Department for Transport and airlines to identify opportunities and to encourage them to act quickly to fill routes that are vital for local communities and business. As my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State mentioned, a number of routes have already been taken up.

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I thank the Minister for that answer but, of course, abortion was decriminalised in October 2019 and we now see the lost opportunity of this medical procedure not being provided over the last six months in Northern Ireland. The failure to do that means that we are now in a much more difficult position with covid-19. Has the Minister given any more thought to what other action he could take to ensure that services are available to women in Northern Ireland?

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The Government are under a clear duty to deliver abortion reform for Northern Ireland, consistent with section 9 of the Northern Ireland (Executive Formation etc) Act 2019, which requires that evidence-based protocols are adopted for the provision of services in Northern Ireland. Those regulations will be laid, and the deadline for that is the end of this month.

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In the current circumstances, the priority of my party is to protect human life, including that of the unborn child. The Minister will be aware of concerns expressed by members of my party, including the First Minister, about the decision to press on with regulations on abortion in Northern Ireland, despite the Assembly being restored and this being a clear breach of the devolution settlement. Will the Minister heed the calls from Northern Ireland politicians for this matter to be dealt with by the Assembly, not this Parliament?

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I recognise the strong views on all sides on this issue. I also recognise the constitutional challenge, but the deadlines within which we have to act were clearly set by Parliament. It was clear that if the Assembly was not in place by the deadline in October, the Government would be under a legal obligation to lay the regulations by March. That is the obligation under which we are acting.

Customs

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5. What steps the Government are taking to ensure consistency in customs regulations throughout Northern Ireland and Great Britain. [901565]

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Northern Ireland is in, and remains part of, the United Kingdom’s customs territory. The protocol makes that clear. It ensures unfettered market access for goods moving from Northern Ireland to Great Britain, and the arrangements we introduce will reflect that. We will discuss the implementation of the protocol with the EU at the joint committee later this month.

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At a time when many people have sadly been thrown into economic turmoil, it is incredibly important that wherever the Government can eliminate economic uncertainty, they do so. There is no area more clouded by uncertainty due to our departure from the EU than the Irish border and its regulatory future. Given that the Government have committed to doing “whatever it takes”, will the Secretary of State commit to removing that uncertainty by extending the Brexit transition period by one year?

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I do not think that anyone around the United Kingdom would thank us for extending the period. The election was very clear in giving us a mandate to deliver on our manifesto pledge to leave the European Union, and we are determined to do that. The certainty that we can give to business is that Northern Ireland is, will be and will always remain part of the United Kingdom’s customs territory and will have unfettered access.

Strengthening the Union

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6. What steps the Government are taking to strengthen the Union. [901567]

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10. What steps the Government are taking to strengthen the Union between Northern Ireland and the rest of the UK. [901573]

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The Government have made it clear on many occasions that we will never be neutral in expressing our support for the Union. I believe that the UK Government working with the restored Executive to continue making Northern Ireland a great place to live, work and do business is one of the best ways we can strengthen its place in the Union. As part of the Union, Northern Ireland benefits from being part of the world’s sixth largest economy, and that allows for the pooling of risks and the sharing of resources to fund public spending, such as on defence, education and our national health service.

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These are unprecedented times and our Union is incredibly precious to us. I am sure that the Minister will join me in welcoming the additional powerful financial support for Northern Ireland from the UK Government that was announced by our right hon. Friend the Chancellor for Northern Ireland to deal with covid-19.

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My hon. Friend is absolutely right. There is a strong package of measures to support the UK economy at a very difficult time. The Chancellor has said that the Government will do “whatever it takes”. Yesterday’s announcement, as we discussed during last night’s Adjournment debate, will result in an additional £640 million for the Northern Ireland Executive, taking the total covid-19-related Barnett consequentials to more than £900 million.

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In the absence of a functioning devolved Government in Northern Ireland, the Northern Ireland (Executive Formation etc) Act 2019 made it a legal requirement for the UK Government to implement an abortion framework before the end of March this year. The Government are yet to respond to the consultation that they set up to inform the framework. However, in the spirit of devolution, does my hon. Friend agree that now that the Northern Ireland Executive is up and running, this should rightly be a matter for the devolved representatives?

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The Government understand the strength of feeling about this issue. We have always been clear that the best way to bring forward reform in this area would have been for the Executive and Assembly to take that forward in the best interests of Northern Ireland. However, the Government are under a clear legal duty, which this House put on it, to make regulations that provide lawful access to abortion services in Northern Ireland by 31 March 2020. To comply with the legal requirement, we will shortly lay regulations in Parliament. It will be a matter for the Department of Health in Northern Ireland to commission the new services.

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I know the Minister will agree that underlying the strength of Northern Ireland are commitments to the Good Friday and Stormont House agreements. This morning the Secretary of State made a statement about legacy. That seems to override the need for five-party consultation on this matter, and to override the need for co-operation between the Governments here in London and in Dublin. When will the Secretary of State come to the House so that he can be questioned on this matter of enormous importance to the future—if you like—of the Union, and certainly to stability in Northern Ireland?

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Our commitment to the Good Friday agreement and its successors is absolutely intact and 100%—and the Secretary of State is, of course, answering questions in the House today—but it is also clear that the first step we are taking on this is to engage with the parties and, indeed, with the Irish Government. That is clear from the written statement that the Secretary of State has published.

Environment Strategy

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7. What discussions he has had with representatives from the Department of Agriculture, Environment and Rural Affairs on the development of a Northern Ireland environment strategy. [901568]

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The UK Government are committed to prioritising the environment. As a world leader in tackling climate change, we are the first major economy in the world to legislate for a net zero target. Following the restoration of the Northern Ireland Executive, Northern Ireland Ministers have been in contact with Executive Ministers on a range of issues. The Department of Agriculture, Environment and Rural Affairs, which leads on environmental issues in Northern Ireland, has recently sought views on an environment strategy for Northern Ireland, and I understand that a summary of its findings will be published in spring this year.

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In its submission to the consultation, Sustrans said:

“It is unacceptable there is no specific climate change legislation in Northern Ireland”

which

“would allow specific policies to be developed to meet emissions targets and adapt…to… risks.”

Given the close connection between the climate emergency and the natural environment emergency, is it not time that Northern Ireland was able to legislate so that it could develop its own climate strategy?

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The hon. Lady has raised an important point. We want to work closely with the Northern Ireland Executive on this issue. Clearly these are devolved issues, and I think that the Executive’s response to the consultation on environment strategy will be key to addressing that question.

Ireland/Northern Ireland Protocol

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8. What recent discussions he has had with the Prime Minister on the implementation of the Ireland/Northern Ireland Protocol in the European Union (Withdrawal Agreement) Act 2020. [901571]

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9. What recent discussions he has had with the Prime Minister on the implementation of the Ireland/Northern Ireland Protocol in the European Union (Withdrawal Agreement) Act 2020. [901572]

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We continue to consider the best way to implement the protocol, and I will be discussing that with the EU in the joint committee and specialised committees. I am in frequent contact with the Prime Minister as we prepare for these meetings.

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Last month it was extensively reported that the Prime Minister had ordered his officials to “get round” the Northern Ireland protocol. I accept that his Government have said that they will comply with their obligations, and rightly so. Can the Secretary of State tell the House whether the Prime Minister said those words, or anything remotely like them?

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I always find it best not to take as writ whatever rumours may be picked up in any newspaper article. What can be taken as writ is what we have said at the Dispatch Box and what we have said as a Government. There will be unfettered access between Northern Ireland and Great Britain, and Northern Ireland is part of the United Kingdom’s customs territory.

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What discussions and consultations has the Secretary of State had with the new Northern Ireland Executive about the protocol, and what specific—I emphasise the word “specific”—input will they have on its implementation?

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Obviously I talk regularly to the Northern Ireland Executive, particularly the First and Deputy First Minister. I currently speak to them several times a week on a range of issues. We have discussed the protocol, but we will also be discussing it with the European special committee. We are determined to deliver on the protocol in a manner that ensures that there is no border down the Irish sea, and that there is unfettered access for the whole United Kingdom.

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I know the Secretary of State will agree that the coronavirus crisis is causing deep and genuine concern to businesses, communities and individuals across Northern Ireland. Given that burden and the current real uncertainty, does he not also agree that now is not the right time to impose new customs and trading arrangements in Northern Ireland, and that the Brexit transition phase must now be extended well beyond the end of this year?

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I refer the hon. Lady to the answer that I gave a few moments ago. The British public want to see us deliver on our promises, and the Prime Minister is rightly determined to ensure that we do that. The best certainty that we can give businesses in Northern Ireland is that, as part of the United Kingdom, they will continue to have unfettered access, and to benefit from the trade deals that we seek to establish around the world.

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Can the Minister further outline the plans in place to ensure that, post December 2020, the UK works and moves as one entity and that Northern Ireland is not precluded from alignment with its biggest market, mainland GB?

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We are absolutely determined to make sure we deliver the protocol in a way that, as we have said, ensures we deliver on our word that Northern Ireland has unfettered access to Great Britain, is part of the United Kingdom economy, is part of the United Kingdom customs union and will benefit from our trade deals around the world.

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Order. I would like just to make a very short statement.

Those watching our proceedings will have noticed that our attendance today is significantly below the normal numbers. I have discussed with the usual channels ways in which we can limit the number of people crowded together to ensure maximum safety. We are all doing our best to keep Parliament sitting and to follow Public Health England guidance.

Prime Minister

The Prime Minister was asked—

Engagements

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Q1. If he will list his official engagements for Wednesday 18 March. [901609]

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The whole House will want to join me in paying tribute to Lance Corporal Brodie Gillon, a reservist medic of the Scottish and North Irish Yeomanry, who was tragically killed in Iraq last week. My thoughts and deepest sympathies are with her family and loved ones at this very difficult time.

This morning I had meetings with ministerial colleagues and others. In addition to my duties in the House, I shall have further such meetings later today.

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Like many others in the United Kingdom, my constituents in Aylesbury are understandably deeply concerned about covid-19, and I pay tribute to staff at Stoke Mandeville Hospital, Bucks social services and everyone in the community who is helping those with the virus or in isolation. Can my right hon. Friend assure the people of Aylesbury, and everybody in the country, that the Government will take whatever action is needed and spend whatever money is needed to save lives and protect livelihoods?

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I join my hon. Friend in paying tribute to the staff at Stoke Mandeville and to all the staff in our fantastic NHS for the way they are coping at this extremely difficult time. We not only put another £5 billion into the NHS last week, as he heard from my right hon. Friend the Chancellor, but we will certainly do whatever it takes and provide whatever funding is necessary to help our NHS through this crisis and, indeed, to support the whole country with Government-guaranteed loans, as he will have heard yesterday.

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Thank you for your statement, Mr Speaker. I thank MPs for the very responsible approach they have taken to today’s Question Time by sitting a suitable distance apart to avoid cross-fertilisation of this horrible disease.

I also want to join the Prime Minister in paying tribute to Lance Corporal Brodie Gillon, who was killed in Iraq last week. Our thoughts are with her family and friends.

Today people are mourning the loss of loved ones, and many more will be suffering from the effects of coronavirus, including those already losing work or losing their jobs who are worried about whether they can keep a roof over their head. Our greatest thanks must go to the frontline medical and public health staff who are fighting to combat the spread of the disease, to the public servants, particularly postal workers, who have made such sacrifices today, and to the cleaners who are providing vital support. We must also thank those working round the clock to make sure our shops and warehouses are stocked with the essential food supplies that everybody needs.

We on these Benches will do our duty to hold the Government to account. Together, we need to ensure that the most effective action is taken to protect people, and it is in that spirit that I ask questions of the Prime Minister today.

Every member of the public will make sacrifices in the effort to stop the spread of coronavirus, but those on low pay, self-employed workers and small business owners are understandably worried. Sue wrote to me this week. Her family is in isolation, and she says the current £94.25 a week statutory sick pay is

“not enough to pay for their food shopping.”

Can the Prime Minister do what the Chancellor repeatedly refused to do yesterday and pledge to increase statutory sick pay to European levels?

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I thank the right hon. Gentleman for the way in which the Opposition have approached the issue generally and for the co-operation so far between our Front Benches on this matter. As he rightly says, this is a national emergency, and we are asking the public to do things and take actions in a way that is unprecedented for a Government in peacetime, and perhaps even unprecedented in the last century.

When we ask people to take action to isolate themselves if they or a member of their household has the disease, or to take steps that jeopardise businesses and cause people to risk losing their job, it is absolutely right that, whatever their circumstances, we should ensure workers get the support they need. So in addition to the package of business support that my right hon. Friend the Chancellor outlined yesterday, we will be working with the unions and colleagues across the House, and bringing forward further measures to support workers of all kinds throughout this crisis.

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UK sick pay levels lag far behind those of European counterparts. The Scandinavian countries are giving many people 100% of wages during this crisis, and I hope that when the Prime Minister brings forward proposals on this they will reflect the reality of people’s lives—you cannot feed a family on 90-odd quid a week. Those people are therefore putting everybody at risk because they have to go out to work in order to put food on the table. In order to claim statutory sick pay, workers need to prove that they earn a minimum of £118 per week, so I hope that when the Prime Minister brings forward proposals he will give confidence to the millions of people who work in low-income jobs, are in insecure work or are self-employed, and will commit to extending very much enhanced statutory sick pay to all workers.

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As I have told the House before, of course we will ensure that nobody is penalised for doing the right thing, protecting not just themselves but other members of society and making sure that our NHS is able to cope. Clearly, statutory sick pay will, typically, be supplemented by other benefits, but I repeat what I said to the right hon. Gentleman: as the state is making these demands of the public and of business, it is only right that throughout this period we should be doing whatever it takes to support the workers of this country throughout this crisis.

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What it takes is a recognition of the social injustice and inequalities that exist in this country, and I hope that when the Prime Minister makes the proposals on statutory sick pay levels that will be recognised. A quarter of the people who are most crucial to support us in the crisis, social care staff, and almost half of home care workers are on zero-hours contracts, so they are therefore automatically not entitled to sick pay. By not extending statutory sick pay to all workers, the Government are forcing social care staff—the people who could, unwittingly, be transmitting the disease among the most vulnerable in our community—to choose between health and their own hardship.

Yesterday the Chancellor, unfortunately, offered nothing to the 20 million people living in rented homes, including 3 million households with children. These people are worried sick that they will not be able to pay their rent if they get ill, lose pay or feel that they need to self-isolate. It is in the interests of public health, of the health of all of us, that people do not feel forced to go to work in order to avoid eviction when they know that they may be spreading this terrible disease, so will the Prime Minister now confirm that the Government’s emergency legislation will protect private renters from eviction?

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The right hon. Gentleman is making a series of very powerful points, and I can indeed confirm that we will be bringing forward legislation to protect private renters from eviction. That is one thing we will do, but it is also important that, as we legislate, we do not simply pass on the problem, so we will also be taking steps to protect other actors in the economy.

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We look forward to seeing the details of that, because we all represent private sector tenants in our constituencies and we know the stress that they are going through now. They need something to be said urgently about this issue, so I hope that the Government will say something as soon as possible. Today would be appropriate.

NHS staff and those who work in the care sector are on the frontline of caring for patients suffering from coronavirus. Sadly, however, those workers have no idea whether they are transmitting the virus themselves—they may not be obviously suffering from it, but they could still be transmitting it—whether they are ill or not, and what effect it will have when they return to work on the frontline. Will the Prime Minister please explain why the Government are not prioritising the testing of all healthcare staff—those in the NHS and those doing such a vital job in the care sector?

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In point of fact, we are prioritising the testing of NHS staff, for the obvious reason that we want them to be able to look after everybody else with confidence that they are not transmitting the disease. This country is actually far ahead of many other comparable countries in testing huge numbers of people. We are increasing our tests from 5,000 a day to 10,000 a day. It may be of interest to the House to know that we are getting much closer to having a generally available test that will determine whether or not someone has had the disease. That will truly be of huge benefit to this country in tackling the outbreak.

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The World Health Organisation said “test, test, test.” We should be testing on an industrial scale. When I met the Prime Minister on Monday evening, he assured me that 10,000 tests were going on per day. That is better than none, obviously, but it is nowhere near even the number of people working in the NHS and the care sector. It is a massive undertaking and I wish there was a greater sense of urgency from the Government in getting testing available for all staff.

NHS staff are obviously on the frontline, and many are scared because the guidance has been changed to say that they do not need to wear full protective equipment when caring for patients. A senior doctor has said:

“The rest of the world is providing staff with full protective gear and we are restricting it”.

This is a doctor saying, “I am scared.” We should not be scaring doctors and nurses. Is there or is there not a policy for them to have full protective equipment? I believe that that should be the case.

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Quickly, on testing, I can reassure the right hon. Gentleman that we are moving up to 25,000 tests a day.

On personal protective equipment for NHS staff, the right hon. Gentleman is absolutely right to raise the issue. It is obviously of huge concern to everyone that our NHS staff should feel that they are able to interact with patients with perfect security and protection, so there is a massive effort going on, comparable to the effort to build enough ventilators, to ensure that we have adequate supplies of PPE, not just now but throughout the outbreak.

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Generations to come will look back on this moment and they will judge us—they will judge us on the actions we take now. Our response must be bold and it must be decisive. The market cannot deliver what is needed; only collective public action, led by Government, can protect our people and our society. That collective action must not allow the burden to fall most on those who lack the resources to cope, as happened after the financial crash. People across the country do understand the need for temporary restrictions on our way of life to protect us all, and we will work with the Government, but the Prime Minister must understand that that will require balancing action to protect the most insecure and vulnerable, in the interests of public health as well as of social justice. The health of us all depends on the health of the most vulnerable, so I ask the Prime Minister: will he step up now—not tomorrow—and give support to those vulnerable people who live on the margins of our society, who are vulnerable themselves and make us all vulnerable, and give them the support and the assurance that they are desperately searching for today?

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Indeed I can, and that is why we have announced another £500 million to go straight to councils to help them immediately with the needs of the poorest and the most vulnerable; that is why we have announced immediate cash injections into business, to help them through an unquestionably very difficult time; and that is why will be bringing forward further measures to ensure that every worker receives support throughout this difficult period.

Be in no doubt: the right hon. Gentleman is right to draw attention to the unprecedented nature of this crisis. We are asking the public to do quite extraordinary things and we are asking business to shoulder quite extraordinary burdens. But the more effectively we can work together to comply with the very best scientific advice, which is what has actuated this Government throughout the crisis—which is what has guided this Government throughout the crisis—the better our chances of relieving the burden on the NHS; the more lives we will save and the more suffering we will avoid; and the quicker we will get through it. Be in no doubt that—the right hon. Gentleman is absolutely right—this is an enormous challenge for this country, but I think the people of this country understand what they need to do to beat it. They also, I think, understand that we will beat it, and that we will beat it together.

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Q2. In November, the Prime Minister and the Secretary of State for Health and Social Care came to visit us at Bassetlaw Hospital in Worksop to see the excellent work done by our local NHS. We were delighted to hear of a £14.9 million investment to upgrade our accident and emergency department. Will the Prime Minister update us on progress on that, and will he and the Secretary of State accept an invitation to see the work when it is completed? [901610]

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I congratulate my hon. Friend on what he is doing for Bassetlaw Hospital. I remember going to talk to the wonderful doctors and staff at Bassetlaw. They explained in great detail their fascinating plan for improving service for their patients. I am absolutely determined to support him and them in their ambitions. That is why we have already put £15 million into expanding emergency care capacity in Bassetlaw. My right hon. Friend the Health Secretary is working intimately with Bassetlaw to take forward the whole project.

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I associate myself with the remarks of the Prime Minister on the killing of Lance Corporal Brodie Gillon.

This is an unprecedented emergency and it requires an unprecedented response. I welcome the fact that parties across the House, and Governments across these islands, have worked together as we attempt to protect all our peoples. It is the right approach and it is the least the public expect and deserve from us.

Yesterday the Chancellor announced a £330 billion financial package for business. Today the UK Government need to announce a financial package for people. Members from six parties across the House have expressed support for a temporary universal basic income to help everyone, especially freelancers, renters and the self-employed. Using the current tax system, will the Prime Minister stand up and give a commitment today to provide people with the security of a universal basic income?

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First, I want to thank the right hon. Gentleman for the spirit in which he has spoken. Indeed, there is a huge amount of collaboration going on across all four nations of this country, as you can imagine, Mr Speaker. We are in lockstep.

What I would say on the right hon. Gentleman’s appeal for basic income is, do not underestimate the value to people of the measures that we have already announced that will support business, keep jobs going and make sure those businesses continue in existence. That must be the first step. As I have said repeatedly now to the right hon. Gentleman, the Leader of the Opposition, it is important that throughout the crisis we take steps to support workers. The right hon. Member for Ross, Skye and Lochaber (Ian Blackford) is quite right and the suggestion that he makes is, of course, one of many such suggestions.

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I thank the Prime Minister for his answer. There is a willingness from all of us to work together as we go through this crisis, but thousands of people are already losing their jobs. It is happening today. Millions will face the same threat. They need reassurance and support, and they need it today. They need an income guarantee.

We must not repeat history. People are worried about their bills and about keeping a roof over their head. In the last financial crisis, the banks were bailed out, but ordinary people were not. The Prime Minister has it in his power to protect people’s incomes and provide them with peace of mind. At this time, an emergency universal income scheme would do just that. Will he at least commit to meeting all of us who support that proposal to discuss how we can protect the incomes of all our peoples?

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Yes, indeed. I can make that commitment and I said as much in my earlier answer to the right hon. Gentleman. It is very important that, as we go forward, we try to enlist a consensus in this House about how to support people throughout the crisis. I agree profoundly with what he said about not repeating history. It is very important that, as we ask the public to do the right thing for themselves and for everybody else, no one, whatever their income, should be penalised for doing the right thing, and we will make sure that that is the case.

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Q3. I welcome confirmation that routine Ofsted inspections will be postponed, and will the Prime Minister join me in commending schools, leaders and teachers on all they have been doing in supporting families through this crisis? [901611]

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I pay a particular tribute not just to our amazing NHS, but to our teachers and everybody who works in our schools for everything that they have done to keep our schools going throughout this difficult crisis so far. Of course we will do everything we can to remove burdens on schools, and Ofsted is one in particular that we can address. The House should expect further decisions to be taken imminently on schools and on how we make sure that we square the circle of ensuring that we both stop the spread of disease, but relieve, as much as we can, the pressure on our NHS.

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Q5. My NHS colleagues on the frontline are already stressed with the pressure that they face. Last night I visited my father in a care home, and I am acutely aware that I may have fed him for the very last time. We are in unprecedented times. I want to know where was the forward planning for PPE for our NHS and care staff. Where is the testing for medics? Why are we waiting so long for mass testing and why are social distancing measures merely just suggestions? Prime Minister, it is right that we have all put party loyalty aside to work together during this time of national crisis, but we must scale up the response. Without good leadership, people in this country will start to panic. There must be no more time for delay. The time to act is now. [901613]

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I completely agree with what the hon. Lady says, and I thank her for all the work that she does in the health service. I can certainly tell her that we have stockpiles of PPE equipment and that we are proceeding—it is very important for the House to understand this—in accordance with the best scientific advice, and it is the timeliness of those measures that is absolutely vital in combating the spread of the epidemic, and indeed that is how we save lives. I am delighted that the UK’s approach has been commended today not just by Neil Ferguson of Imperial College, but by Dr David Nabarro of the World Health Organisation.

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Q4. The weeks and months ahead will test us all and stretch society to its limits, none more so than the national health service, which is working day and night to care for the sick and to save lives, but together we will get through this. Will my right hon. Friend update the House on his efforts to bring together a coalition of manufacturers to supply the NHS with the ventilators and other essential medical equipment it needs to treat the most adversely affected patients during this pandemic? [901612]

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As the House will know, there is already a coalition of British manufacturers that are now working together at speed to supply the ventilators that we need. We already have 8,000, and we are moving rapidly upwards, and I will keep the House informed of developments.

Rhondda

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Q8. If he will visit the Rhondda. [901616]

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I thank the hon. Gentleman for his invitation. I am happy to consider his invitation to Rhondda and will take it up.

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What I really hope is that the Prime Minister will look at the whole coronavirus crisis through the eyes of the Rhondda, because we have a large number of sole traders, chippies, electricians and plumbers. We have a lot of people in very insecure employment. We have got lots of people who are elderly and people who are on very low incomes and have next to no savings. Many people have already been laid off this week or are worried that they are going to be laid off in the next fortnight, so we really do need the Prime Minister to address these matters.

If I am honest, I do not want to be partisan, but it does feel as if we are a bit of an afterthought. I really beg the Prime Minister to look through the eyes of the Rhondda, because I think he would then double sick pay so that it is a sensible figure. I think he would introduce something like a summer version of the winter fuel allowance so that the elderly get some help. I think he would probably introduce some kind of VAT holiday for sole traders. I know he hopes, and we all hope, that the whole of the country will bounce back quickly after this, but I say to him that after the floods and the poverty that we have historically suffered in the Rhondda, communities like mine will find it phenomenally difficult to bounce back if he does not take that kind of action now.

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The hon. Gentleman speaks powerfully and passionately and, in my view, wholly rightly for the people of the Rhondda. I can tell him that our thoughts in this Government are with the people of the entire country in helping everyone to get through this virus. We will do, as I say, whatever it takes to support business and, as I said in my earlier answer to the right hon. Gentleman the Leader of the Opposition, also to support individuals and families. I welcome the agreement of the right hon. Member for Ross, Skye and Lochaber (Ian Blackford), the leader of the Scottish National party that we should do it on a cross-party basis.

Engagements

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Q6. As the Member of Parliament for Grenfell Tower, I would like to thank my right hon. Friend for the additional £1 billion in the Budget for cladding remediation. Moving on to today’s events, can he assure me that his Government will do absolutely everything to support the economy, businesses large and small, the self-employed and individuals, including those on low income? Now is not the time to be squeamish about public sector debt. [901614]

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I can certainly give my hon. Friend that reassurance.

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Q12. I welcome the measures, but yesterday’s statement offered nothing for the self-employed. My constituency of Vauxhall has an estimated 30,000 self-employed workers, and a lot of those people already feel the financial pinch. They cannot wait days for the Government to announce something, so will the Prime Minister today announce a guarantee of measures that will fully compensate all self-employed workers in this crisis? [901620]

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I repeat the answer I have given several times to several of the hon. Lady’s colleagues: we will do whatever it takes to ensure that all workers are protected throughout this crisis.

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Q7. Like so many colleagues, I extend my thanks to the NHS and all the frontline staff, but also offer my thanks to the Prime Minister, the Chancellor and the Health Secretary for their leadership in this crisis, which is warmly welcomed by many in my constituency. The news from the major food retailers this morning was welcome, but many over-70s and people who are vulnerable or self-isolating will be concerned that they will still have problems with access to food and medicines throughout this period. Will he confirm what the Government are doing to ensure that all retailers and pharmacists are going to prioritise those groups throughout the whole of this virus crisis? [901615]

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We are extending the hours in which deliveries can be made, and we are talking right now with the Pharmaceutical Services Negotiating Committee about ensuring that pharmaceutical goods get at the right time to the customers who need them.

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Q13. In response to covid-19, there are reports from across the globe of antiretroviral drugs being tested alone and in combination with varying degrees of reported success. In light of that, can the Prime Minister advise the House what resources are being made available for drug security and development and clinical trials in the UK? What efforts are being made by him for the UK to work in concert internationally? Does he agree that the prize on this occasion must be the victory and not patents and profits? [901621]

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I endorse completely the sentiment that the hon. Gentleman has just expressed about the need to do this collectively. The Government have announced a £46 million package of investment for finding a vaccine. As I have just said, a huge amount of work is going into investing in test kits, and those are changing and improving the whole time. The House will be reassured to know that this work is being done at an international level. We are working with our EU partners, the G7, the G20, the World Health Organisation and the International Monetary Fund—everybody is working together on the very issues that the hon. Gentleman raised.

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Q9. As my right hon. Friend has said, combating this virus will require a huge national effort to support doctors and nurses in hospitals, and community carers looking after the most elderly in their homes. Can the Prime Minister assure me, and my constituents watching and listening in Warrington South, that the Government will do all they can to save lives, protect frontline NHS staff and keep the most vulnerable people in our society safe? [901617]

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Yes. My hon. Friend identifies exactly the three priorities of this Government.

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Defeating the coronavirus must be the top—indeed, the only—priority for the foreseeable future. There is already huge anxiety across the UK. Businesses are facing unprecedented challenges and uncertainty, so, regardless of leave or remain, how quickly will the Prime Minister recognise the inevitable and seek at least a one-year extension to the Brexit implementation process?

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Our priority is to deal with the coronavirus epidemic. The other matter that the hon. Member mentions has, as he will know, already been legislated for.

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Q10. Like other town centres across the UK, Burnley has been seeing the evolution of its high street through mixing retail with leisure, which plays a significant role in increasing footfall, and supporting small and medium- sized enterprises. With that in mind, I thank the Prime Minister and my right hon. Friend the Chancellor for the measures announced in the Budget and yesterday. Will the Prime Minister commit to doing whatever it takes to support our SMEs, so that once we get through this challenge our high streets can buzz once again? [901618]

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I can indeed confirm that that is exactly why we have cut business rates. We are making very considerable sums available for small and very small businesses precisely to protect the high street and the enterprise environment on which so many jobs depend.

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I am sure that the Prime Minister will agree that protecting our NHS staff at this crucial time is of maximum importance. At least one GP surgery in County Durham this week received surgical masks from the NHS with expiry dates of 2016 on the box. In other cases, labels had been stuck over the top, extending the expiry dates on the boxes. What assurances can the Prime Minister give not only that surgeries get the equipment they require, but that it is actually effective once they get it?

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To the best of my knowledge, all the equipment we are sending out is of the correct standard. I would be happy to look at the case that the right hon. Gentleman mentions. As I said earlier, we have stockpiles of PPE, but are making huge efforts to ensure that we have enough for the outbreak ahead.

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Q11. The Chancellor yesterday unveiled a wide range of measures to tackle coronavirus. Does my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister agree that it is vital that we do whatever we can to get through this as a country? [901619]

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I wholly endorse what my hon. Friend has said. We will do whatever it takes, and we will beat it together.

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Apart from rent arrears, eviction from a private tenancy—a section 21 no-fault eviction—is the biggest reason for homelessness. On Friday, I met a 77-year-old woman who had lived in her home for 15 years, and a couple caring for a sister with Down’s syndrome. Both households were due for eviction today. Will the Prime Minister ask the courts to stop section 21 evictions to take the pressure off hard-pressed councils and these really worried families?

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The hon. Member is absolutely right to raise this matter, and that is why I said what I did to the Leader of the Opposition. We will indeed be bringing forward legislation to address this point.

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Q14. In my constituency, we have enlisted voluntary sector providers to join the council in providing support to the most vulnerable residents in combating the coronavirus. Can the Prime Minister confirm that local authorities such as mine in Bromley, which are at the forefront of this, will be given clear guidance in respect of safeguarding and Disclosure and Barring Service checks for volunteers, as that will allow us to deploy more volunteers when and if the need arises? [901622]

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My hon. Friend is absolutely right, and that is why we are speeding up DBS checks, so that they can be done in 24 hours. I want to thank and congratulate all the boroughs throughout this country for the way they are harnessing those volunteers.

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The Prime Minister talked about supporting families. Will he show his solidarity for households headed up by a single breadwinner with dependent children? Saturday is National Single Parent Day, which was initiated by Ronald Reagan in 1984. Will he join the right hon. Member for Romsey and Southampton North (Caroline Nokes), who is my friend in this, on the steps of Old Palace Yard immediately after Prime Minister’s questions to show that, old or young, rich or poor, big or small, all families matter?

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I could not agree more strongly with what the hon. Lady said. Whether I will be able to join her, I am not sure; I will have to look at my diary. I think I have a date with you, Mr Speaker.

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Q15. I thank the Prime Minister and his team for the sure-footed way in which they are approaching this crisis. Given what is unfolding in northern Italy, and the very real prospect of our brilliant NHS staff being overwhelmed in a matter of weeks, what age and comorbidity criteria are being drafted that will govern access to intensive care and ventilators? [901623]

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My right hon. Friend raises a very important point, but it is one that is not unknown to the medical profession, and we will be relying on the clinical decisions of those medical professionals.

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On the matter of “whatever it takes”, it takes more than three-word slogans, and in this case it takes a bit of war socialism. We need to get money into the pockets of the workers. Has the Prime Minister seen early-day motion 302, which I have proposed, about bringing in a temporary universal basic income to support workers and get money to where it is needed?

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I hear the hon. Gentleman loud and clear. He echoes a point that was made by the right hon. Member for Ross, Skye and Lochaber (Ian Blackford). Of course, that is one of the ideas that will certainly be considered.

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My right hon. Friend is rightly engrossed day to day in dealing with the developments of covid-19, but I would like to ask him to cast his mind a little further forward. The chief scientific adviser and the chief medical officer have been clear that the best solution to this is a vaccine, but the chief scientific adviser has said that that could be as much as a year away. He has also suggested that, until that vaccine is available, it may be difficult to ease restrictions successfully. Does my right hon. Friend agree with that analysis, and if so, what does a sensible exit strategy look like?

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The objective of the Government and of our scientific advisers is to depress the peak of the epidemic, to ensure that we get through it, so that we come out on the other side, and that we do that as fast as possible. That is why we are taking all the measures that we have announced. That is why we have announced the package of business support that we have. I am not going to give a timescale on it, but that is the strategy, and I am absolutely certain that it will succeed.