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Prime Minister

Volume 673: debated on Wednesday 18 March 2020

The Prime Minister was asked—

Engagements

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.

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?

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.

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?

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.

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.

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.

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?

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.

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?

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.

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.

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.

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?

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.

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)

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.

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?

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.

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?

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.

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)

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.

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)

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.

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)

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

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

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.

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

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)

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)

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.

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)

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.

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 the 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)

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.

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)

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?

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.

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)

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.

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?

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.

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)

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

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?

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.

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)

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.

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?

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.

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)

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.

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?

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.

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?

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.