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Covid-19 Update

Volume 674: debated on Tuesday 24 March 2020

With permission, Mr Speaker, I would like to make a statement on covid-19. The spread of coronavirus is rapidly accelerating across the world and in the UK. The actions that we took yesterday are not actions that any UK Government would ever want to take, but they were absolutely necessary. The goal is clear: to slow the rate of transmission in order to protect the NHS and save lives. Our instruction is simple: stay at home.

People should only leave their home for one of four reasons: first, to shop for basic necessities, such as food, as infrequently as possible; secondly, to exercise once a day, for example a run, walk or cycle, alone or with members of the same household; thirdly, for any medical need, or to provide care or help to a vulnerable person; and fourthly, to travel to and from work, but only where it cannot be done from home, and employers should be taking every possible step to ensure that staff can work remotely. Those four reasons are exceptions to the rule. Further guidance is available on the website.

I want to be clear that where people absolutely cannot work from home, they can still go to work. Indeed, it is important that they do so in order to keep the country running. Key workers, for example in the NHS and social care, pharmacists and those in the medicines supply chain, should go to work, unless they are self-isolating because they or someone else in their household has symptoms. We will be publishing guidance later today to explain the steps that employers must take to ensure that employees are safe, including making sure that there is a 2-metre gap between workers wherever possible.

In addition, all non-essential shops and community centres are closed as of today, and gatherings of more than two people in public must stop. These measures are not advice; they are rules. They will be enforced, including by the police, with fines for non-compliance starting at £30 but up to unlimited fines.

I want to update the House on the shielding that was introduced yesterday. We are writing to up to 1.5 million of the most vulnerable people in the UK to advise them that they will need to shield themselves from the virus in the coming months. We will provide targeted support for all those who need it so that they have the food supplies and medical care they need to make it through. Guided by the experts, we will look at the evidence and continually review the effects of the measures.

We are engaged in a great national effort to beat the virus. Everybody now has it in their power to save lives and protect the NHS. Home is now the frontline. In this national effort, working together, we can defeat this disease. Everyone has a part to play. I commend this statement to the House.

I thank the Secretary of State, as always, for advance sight of his statement. As he knows, yesterday we called on the Government to move to implement the enforcement of social distancing measures, so the Prime Minister was quite right last night to call for people to stay at home.

May I put to the Secretary of State a few quick questions? The virus thrives on inequalities. It is the most vulnerable, without financial security, who are especially at risk. I therefore urge him to consider abolishing prescription charges for the duration of the outbreak, especially for those with conditions such as asthma. We are very mindful of the mental health implications of asking people to stay at home, and we are also deeply concerned about the potential for domestic violence to increase. What support is available on those two fronts?

We also need clear and unambiguous advice around which workers can and cannot go out. The Opposition would call for just key workers to be able to go to work. We have seen Sports Direct, for example, insisting that its workers turn up today. We are hearing stories about warehouses insisting that agency workers turn up and about construction sites not putting in place social distancing measures. That is putting workers at risk, and it is putting the lives of us all at risk. We need clear enforcement; if we are telling people that they will be fined for leaving their house, why are we not fining employers for insisting that their employees turn up to work when they should be staying at home? My right hon. Friend the shadow Chancellor will be putting more points to the Government about income protection in the debate later today.

Let me quickly turn to personal protective equipment. I understand the efforts the Government have made, but there are still NHS staff saying that they have no access to adequate PPE. We still have hospital chief executives expressing concern that they do not have access to FFP3 masks, that they are not getting the visors and sanitisers they need on time and that, when they do get masks, they are different from the previous masks, so staff have to be retrained. I urge the Government to move heaven and earth to get the PPE our staff need to the frontline. We also need PPE in social care. We are beginning to see outbreaks of covid-19 in social care homes. What support is in place for the residents of care homes, and when will we get the PPE that we need into the social care sector?

Enforced social distancing is welcome—we called for it—but in many ways it is a blunt tool without ramping up testing and contact tracing. That is how countries such as South Korea have managed to suppress the virus. We are still testing only around 5,000 people a day. We do not have enough community testing. We are still not testing enough NHS staff. As the World Health Organisation has instructed the world, test, test, test.

Leaked emails today suggest that, on Sunday, the Government were asking to borrow research institutions’ testing kits—we have called for that, and we do not disagree with it—but the emails also said that the Prime Minister had said:

“there are no machines available to buy”.

Many of our constituents, and indeed NHS staff, will be asking why we did not procure machines and kits sooner.

On intensive care capacity, there are reports today that the ExCeL centre will be turned into a field hospital of 500 beds and that staffing ratios for intensive care are being relaxed. We understand that, given the staffing demands we face, but if we are setting up more field hospitals, will the Secretary of State tell us what oversight there will be? That change also means that more of our specialist staff will be stretched further—we understand why—but what guidance will be in place? Will the Secretary of State update the House on how many intensive care beds are now open, and how many more will be opened; how many ventilators we have, and how many more will be purchased; how many beds with oxygen we have; and what the current extracorporeal membrane oxygenation capacity is?

Will the Secretary of State quickly update the House on an issue that has emerged overnight about access to abortion care, as a result of some of the implications of the Coronavirus Bill? Will he assure the House that women who want access to abortion care will continue to be able to get it?

Our constituents are worried; our constituents are fearful. I hope the Secretary of State understands that when we put these questions to him, we are doing so because we want the national effort to defeat this virus to succeed.

I will go through the answers to the questions the hon. Gentleman reasonably asked. He asked about the most vulnerable. A programme of work is under way to ensure that those who need support because they are staying at home—especially those who are victims of domestic violence—get that support. It is incredibly important and difficult work, but we are doing what we can in that space. He also asked about prescription charges. Only around a fifth of people pay prescription charges, so those who are the least able to pay already get free prescriptions.

The hon. Gentleman asked about Sports Direct. Sports shops are not essential retail, and therefore they will be closed. I have seen a bit of the noise that has been going on around today about Sports Direct in particular. I want to be absolutely clear that sports kit is not essential over the next three weeks, so we will be closing Sports Direct, along with other non-essential retail. He also asked about fines for corporates as well as individuals—absolutely, those fines are available if that is necessary.

The hon. Gentleman asked about protective equipment, and he is quite right to do so, because as we discussed yesterday, having protective equipment for staff on the frontline—especially those in the NHS and social care, but also in other frontline services—is very important. We are moving heaven and earth, and the military involvement is ramping up the delivery of that equipment. He asked specifically about social care. I am glad to say that the current plan is to get protective equipment to all social care settings by the end of this week, and then we will have to keep going. We have put in place a hotline. If someone needs PPE and they are not getting it, they should call the hotline so that we know where the difficulties are in getting PPE to the frontline, and we can respond to those calls and get it to them. I feel that very strongly.

The hon. Gentleman asked about testing. As we have discussed many times, we are ramping up testing as fast as we can, including buying millions of tests. My team are currently buying these tests, which we will make available as quickly as possible. He asked about there being no machines ready to buy. I do not recognise that at all. I have not seen any leak, and I would not want to comment on a leaked email—certainly not one that I have not seen. It is true that we are bringing testing machines together to provide a more efficient testing system, and I am grateful to the universities that have put these testing machines into the system. This is a national effort, and they are playing their part. We are also buying machines where we can.

The hon. Gentleman asked about staff ratios, which have been publicised this morning. It is true that we are having to change the standard staff ratios for delivery of certain types of procedure, including ventilation. The reason is that we cannot easily train somebody to intubate a patient and put them on a ventilator. We are training those who we can train to the standards necessary, but this is an incredibly difficult task, and it is therefore safer to have the doctors who are trained to do it and experienced in doing it doing it to more people, with more support staff than in normal circumstances. That is absolutely necessary to respond to the quantity of need, because this is a very specialist part of the NHS and of medicine that suddenly has much bigger demand than could ever have been envisaged outside a pandemic scenario.

I pay tribute to the staff who will be working much more intensively and who are putting their vital skills at the service of the nation in order to save lives. I am grateful to all those who have worked with the royal colleges to ensure that we get these ratios right and stretch the capabilities we have as far as we safely can in the circumstances. Finally, the hon. Gentleman mentioned abortion. We have no proposals to change any abortion rules as part of the covid-19 response.

I thank the Health Secretary for the superhuman efforts he has taken to resolve the issues around PPE in the last week. The evidence is that we are in a much better situation now than we were a week ago. He will not mind if I follow up what the shadow Health Secretary said about testing. The concern is that we appear to be testing on a daily basis virtually no more people than we were over a week ago, when the commitment was to increase the daily number of tests from 5,000 to 25,000. Given that this is a vital part of the success of the suppression strategies in South Korea, Taiwan, Singapore and Hong Kong, can he give us an estimated date when we will get back to routine covid-19 testing in the community of all suspected cases? Even if that is three or four weeks away, a date means that there is a plan, and without a date, people will not be confident that this really is the plan.

Although I was not in the Chamber, I heard the comments that my right hon. Friend the Chair of the Health and Social Care Committee made about this yesterday, and he is right to push on this issue. I am not going to give him a date today, because we are in the middle of buying the tests that are needed, especially the new tests that have just come on stream. I have been able to give him the update that we have now purchased millions of these tests, which will arrive in the next days and weeks. I will be in a position to give him a more concrete timetable, and I will make sure he gets that as soon as we can make it public.

I extend our continued thanks and gratitude to all who are working around the clock to help keep us all safe, and to look after us and the most vulnerable in our communities. I also extend our thanks to the millions of people who have already acted on the Government’s advice to stay at home. The importance of that cannot be stressed nearly enough, because that is what we all need to do to protect our friends and families and the vulnerable people in our communities. It is deeply unfortunate that some employers, such as Sports Direct, seem to be acting in an entirely irresponsible manner, and I welcome the Secretary of State’s comments about that.

In looking to see what more we can do, will the Secretary of State outline when he expects all frontline NHS staff to have the PPE that they need? We need to do everything we can to support them, given the extent of the risks that they are facing. How many additional ventilators have we managed to procure since the Prime Minister put out the call to manufacturers? Are the Government planning to accept the EU’s offer to share in central procurement of ventilators, testing kits and PPE?

Scotland has a number of qualified doctors and nurses who arrived in the country during the refugee crisis. Will the Secretary of State commit to talking to the Home Secretary about what possible actions could be taken to relax the existing rules, to allow those qualified medical professionals to support the country that they have adopted as their home?

In the light of the outcome of the Keeling study, which was published by the Government on 20 March, is the Secretary of State ensuring that we have rapid and effective contact tracing? The review showed that such action could reduce the number of people infected by each case from 3.11 to 0.21, and that would be a significant step towards greater containment of the current outbreak.

Finally, I stress to the Secretary of State the need to impress on other Cabinet members the urgency of finding support for the self-employed, who are still waiting to find out what position they will find themselves in. We know that people with no financial backing come under pressures that may have an impact on their health, which would put further pressure on the system.

On the last point, there was an urgent question about exactly that issue. It really is a matter for the Treasury. The hon. Gentleman is right that contact tracing is incredibly important, and the amount of contact tracing that we have done is one of the reasons why we have managed to be behind other European countries in the curve. At this stage in the epidemic, it is not possible to have contact tracing for everybody, as we can when there is a very small number. We are looking at how we can do that better and enable individuals to contact trace, including by using technology.

The hon. Gentleman asked about refugees. I do not know whether he was in the Chamber yesterday, but that subject was brought up and I said that I would look into it. I will get back on that as soon as I can.

The hon. Gentleman asked about the number of ventilators. We started with around 5,000 and we now have more than 12,000, which we have bought. We have also made the call to arms for manufacturing capability to be turned over to ventilators, and that has been very successful.

I strongly endorse and support the backing of the Scottish Government and the SNP in the UK-wide approach to getting the message out to everybody that the most important thing anybody can do is stay at home.

I commend the Secretary of State for his heroic efforts in our defence so far. Given that the proscription on travel is now legal and not simply a recommendation, will he give us some clarification on what is meant by the care exemption, and confirm that it does not apply just to professional carers? At the moment, and since special schools have been closed in the last week, a great deal of support has been given from one family to another, for example in providing respite care for special needs children. That is very important and the people doing it are often being very responsible about self-isolation, which they are already applying to their families. Will that continue to be possible, and will my right hon. Friend enable it in future?

I will say three things in response to my right hon. Friend’s questions. On special schools, one of the carve-outs in the closure of schools was keeping open schools for those who are vulnerable, including those with special educational needs. The Bill includes a power to enable us to move from that position, but we do not propose to exercise it unless absolutely necessary. The position therefore is that if someone wishes to send their child to a special school, that is fine. It was one of the specific carve-outs. In the same way, if a key worker needs to send their child to school and cannot look after them at home, schools are available.

My right hon. Friend asked about care. I want to make it clear that for people who are volunteering in response to covid-19 and those who are caring, even if their responsibilities are unpaid or informal, they are okay to do that and should do that. They should stay more than 2 metres away from others wherever possible, but that has to be a practical instruction, because of course we need to care for people. As I said in the statement, travel allows for caring, and I want to make it clear that volunteering in the response to covid-19 is a legitimate reason to travel. For example, the increasing numbers of volunteers in the NHS are important. Although it is not paid work, it is work in the national effort to respond to covid-19.

My third point is that the Patient Safety, Suicide Prevention and Mental Health Minister is sitting next to me and close to me, because she has recovered and all the evidence shows that people cannot catch covid-19 twice, at least not in quick succession. I welcome her back to her place.

Following on the volunteering theme, I know that the Government have already made arrangements for schools and given advice that volunteers may still go in for certain purposes. Will the Secretary of State expand that to cover organisations such as Samaritans, which uses volunteers to travel to call rooms? Will he make it clear that it is acceptable for volunteers to do that?

Yes, it is acceptable. It is right that volunteers in that sort of work, for example Samaritans, should travel to do it.

The Secretary of State will know that, following the Prime Minister’s statement yesterday, all tourism and leisure providers have closed. I commend those in my constituency that closed before the advice was given, in order to protect people. However, those who take lots of deposits are obviously being pressed by our constituents to return that money, and that may put them in financial distress, but equally our constituents need the money back, given their financial circumstances. I accept that the Secretary of State may not have an answer for me now, but will he at least commit to take the issue away and see whether an answer is forthcoming, perhaps with the support of the Treasury?

Yes, I will get my right hon. Friend an answer from the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy.

The Independent Food Aid Network oversees the work of many food banks, and I listened carefully to the Secretary of State’s comments about volunteering. That organisation is worried about the closure of community centres and churches. Will he reassure it that its valuable work and volunteers will be covered by the guidance?

Like my honourable colleagues, I commend the Secretary of State’s superhuman efforts. On the subject of procurement, may I say two things? First, he will know that the Public Health England change of guidelines has caused some concern. Will he ensure that they are clear to people? Secondly, a senior A&E consultant reminded me that they need more blood gas machines as well as more ventilators.

It is good to see the Under-Secretary of State for Health and Social Care, the hon. Member for Mid Bedfordshire (Ms Dorries), back in her place—I am not sure whether the Secretary of State still needs to have 2 metres distance.

May I press the Secretary of State on personal protective equipment? I hear what he says, and it is good that the military are being involved in the distribution, but is there enough PPE available for all healthcare workers and social care workers? If not, what is happening with manufacturing and the procurement from around the world, because we are told there is some available from around the world?

Yes, we have a huge quantity that we hold ready for an eventuality such as this. That was, in fact, enhanced in our no-deal preparations, but of course we are also using that up, so we are buying to make sure that those stocks are replenished.

I am very reassured to hear that by the end of the week care settings will all get PPE, which is not what the leader of my council was being told recently. I accept the Secretary of State’s reassurance: it is really good news. Can he further reassure me that the PPE, when it arrives, will be to the right specification, in particular FFP3 respirator masks and not simply paper masks, which are next to useless?

If there are specific concerns about the non-delivery of PPE to council settings, I want to know about them through the hotline that we have set up precisely to short-circuit such problems having to be brought to my attention on the Floor of the House. Let us fix them directly. On the second point, it has got to be the right stuff according to the clinical guidelines.

We have been told that by the time covid-19 peaks, 44,000 women will need access to early medical abortions. Women should not have to leave their homes during lockdown to access basic healthcare, so will the Secretary of State commit not to oppose moves in the other place to enable individual healthcare practitioners to certify abortions and to reinstate the regulations that were put up for a short while on the Government website last night, so that we can have use of abortion medication and one practitioner being able to prescribe on the phone?

Care homes are being asked by local authorities to contract for block bookings of beds, but at the moment they would bear the liability if something were to go wrong—if residents were to come to them with the infection. May I urge my right hon. Friend to look urgently at the question of whether an indemnity can be provided?

I will get back to my hon. Friend on that very, very important point. I am grateful that he raised it with me privately earlier, and I am sorry that I have not been able to get a reply in time.

I thank the Secretary of State for his statement. Will he join me in commending Pact House, a charity in my constituency in Stanley, which is delivering meals and food to the elderly with some 90 volunteers? It contacted me this morning because it is concerned that the building it operates from may need some type of certificate to keep operating, following the announcement yesterday. Can he clarify the position? Will it just be allowed to open, or will it have to apply for some sort of letter to say that it can operate?

As long as it is operating within the guidelines that the Prime Minister outlined in his address to the nation last night, which are set out in detail on the website, it is doing the right thing and does not need any further certification.

One of the glimmers of light in these troubling times are the amazing community volunteer projects that have sprung up in all our constituencies. The Secretary of State will be pleased to learn that on Sunday, we set up a “shopital” outside Worthing hospital, and I spent several hours selling rice, spuds and, crucially, loo paper to more than 100 ambulancemen, nurses and doctors. Should not that sort of arrangement be happening anyway with the supermarkets and with the new scheme delivering food packets, to make sure that NHS workers for whom going shopping at eight o’clock in the morning during the “golden hour” is not appropriate can get on with their job much more easily?

I did not know that my hon. Friend was engaged in that sort of activity on a Sunday morning, but I am delighted that he was. Making sure that we get hot meals to NHS staff who are working often many more shifts than gives them time to make a good meal is incredibly important. It is something that we are working hard on, but I am really glad when it happens spontaneously, as well as when we try to sort it from the Department.

I thank the Secretary of State for his statement. I am being inundated, as I am sure many other Members are, in relation to small firms that are still insisting on their staff going in and undertaking roles, including fitting windows and doors, and those that are saying, “Well, the business is coming in; we’re going to stay open and carry on making new work,” despite having to travel house to house to offer what is fundamentally a non-essential service. Will the Secretary of State raise this issue with the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy and other Ministers to ensure that those small firms, which arguably do not need to be working, are keeping their staff at home?

The Secretary of State is doing an excellent job and is being incredibly responsive, despite what I appreciate must be the huge volume of correspondence coming into his inbox. He is damned if he does and damned if he doesn’t. However, there is confusion about whether people should be going to work or not. From both a health and an economic perspective, as a business owner I would much rather have a short, sharp shock, with everything closed down for 30 days to get this disease under control and allow the Secretary of State to get his testing and tracking in place and defeat it.

I agree with what my hon. Friend has said—and not just the first bit—but I repeat what I said in my statement. I want to be clear that, where people absolutely cannot work from home, they can still go to work. Indeed, it is important that they do so to keep the country running.

That is the nub of the confusion, because I am hearing reports from constituents and from elsewhere in the city that, for example, workers in call centres for outbound sales calls—which will undoubtedly be disruptive to those self-isolating at home who receive them—are being asked to come in and work in cramped conditions, which we know exist in such places. Should those employers not be taking advantage of the Government’s furlough scheme, so that their employees do not have to come into work? Is it not the case that no employee should be punished for doing the right thing and following the Government advice to stay at home?

That sort of activity can technically be done from home and, where work cannot be done from home, employers should be following the guidelines to keep people more than 2 metres apart.

There are many essential jobs and repairs that need to be done in people’s homes by workmen. So long as those homes are not specifically shielded or self-isolating because of suspected disease, and so long as the proper social separation is maintained, surely those ought to proceed, ought they not?

If they are essential, yes, but the aim here is to try to absolutely push down the speed of transmission of this disease over the next few weeks, to get a grip on its spread. That means that, while we have set out four reasons why it is reasonable to leave one’s home, people should stay at home if they do not have a good reason.

I will not read the text message that I have received from my hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Yardley (Jess Phillips) because it contains unparliamentary language. However, further to the reply given to my hon. Friend the Member for Brentford and Isleworth (Ruth Cadbury), I think the Secretary of State needs to give the House a clear explanation as to why it was yesterday that clear guidance was provided by the Government on access to abortion early in the day, only for it to be removed from the Government website later in the day. Why is that? Why are the Government not listening to the royal colleges, and why are they making it more difficult for women to get access to an essential procedure during this time of crisis?

Will my right hon Friend confirm what the advice is on visiting loved ones in hospital? Will he also confirm that Rutland is not a “hospital desert”—as reported by Sky News, which has concerned my constituents, who have access to Leicester and Peterborough—and urge the media to be cautious about deeply unhelpful and sensationalist reporting?

Does the Secretary of State not agree that the attempt to alter the abortion regime through the Coronavirus Bill is not the right use of those measures? Any change to abortion legislation, which is almost the last protection for our unborn children, deserves adequate scrutiny and appropriate debate, which is not possible right now. Will he, for the record, assure me that no changes to that legislation, which regulates life and death, will be made in this way through stealth and opportunism?

I repeat an answer that I have given before: there are no proposals to change the law around abortion.

Sorry to return to the “going to work” point, but last night the Government were saying, “The only reason you may leave home is to go to work (if you’re a key worker)”, but then the part in brackets changed to “but work from home if possible”. I think that is where there is confusion. People are not sure what they can and cannot do. That is a pattern that we have, sadly, seen repeated, and which has led to “lockdown/not lockdown”. Could the Secretary of State say what the advice is again? I am not wishing to cause trouble; I am just looking for clarity.

The Prime Minister was clear in his address to the nation; I have been clear in my statement today; and the guidance on is absolutely clear on this point.

Many hon. Members are not here because they are being responsible and allowing some of us to represent them, so that we can observe proper social distancing. My hon. Friend the Member for Sheffield, Heeley (Louise Haigh) has asked me to raise the issue of irresponsible employers. She tells me that the Home Office in Sheffield is requiring workers to come in to do word processing and administrative work that could be done at home. Will the Secretary of State undertake to communicate my hon. Friend’s concerns to the Home Secretary, and if what my hon. Friend describes is the case, ask the Home Secretary to put a stop to it straightaway and set a good example?

Will the Secretary of State join me in paying tribute to the army of volunteers in Bournemouth and across the country—the individuals, businesspeople, charity groups and local organisations—who want to be part of the solution, and to help the elderly and vulnerable, allowing us to adapt to this new way of life? Yesterday, a 30-day lockdown was spoken of; this will require some form of enforcement. Can he say what role the armed forces might play in that?

The armed forces are doing an absolutely fantastic job of supporting civilian efforts, for instance in the NHS on the logistics of delivery of protective equipment and much more; but the armed forces will not be involved in the enforcement of the law. That is for the police, who will levy fines, starting at £30 and escalating if people continue to flout the rules.

One of my constituents is a home carer who has been unable to get PPE. She stopped working because her daughter has asthma, and obviously she is concerned about the potential for passing on the virus. I am pleased about what the Health Secretary said about the availability of PPE, but people such as my constituent, and their employers, need to know how to get hold of it. He said that that information would be on the website, but not everybody knows about the website. Could he improve awareness of how to find out this information, and make sure that we have access to the website and the phone number?

I will make sure that the hon. Gentleman gets the phone number, so that he can pass it on to his constituent, and so that others in the same circumstances know how to make that happen.

NHS workers are on the frontline of this battle, at huge personal risk. Many have returned to the NHS especially to fight coronavirus. Does my right hon. Friend agree that when this is over, we need to find an appropriate way to recognise and honour their bravery?

Yes. My hon. Friend makes an incredibly important point, which is that we as a nation owe a debt of gratitude to those who work in the NHS, and we need to constantly search for ways to show it, so that they all know how much we value the work that they do.

I echo the points made by the hon. Member for Thirsk and Malton (Kevin Hollinrake) about an absolute shutdown, and absolute clarity for the public. Does the Secretary of State agree that we urgently need to get more FFP3 masks out there? That is what the frontline health workers are demanding, because they are terrified by the prospect of this crisis. The masks provided to the construction industry would be suitable for healthcare workers, I understand.

I will look into that point. The masks need to be clinically right; it is not for me to make that decision, but I will take this up with the chief medical officer.

May I personally thank my right hon. Friend and the Department for the rapid response he has given to every inquiry that I have made on behalf of my constituents? I also praise the NHS in Dorset and, of course, throughout the country for all the fantastic work that everyone is doing in the face of this appalling virus.

First, we are still having problems getting PPE; I heard the Secretary of State say that the phone line, to which he kindly referred me, is still the best way to try to follow up on that. Secondly, supermarkets are impossible to get hold of so that food banks can go online to request regular deliveries. Is there some way that we can get a message to all supermarkets to help out in that regard?

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for his first point. He is right that the hotline is the best way to sort out the PPE supply issues. I am told that it has already responded to more than 2,000 inquiries, is moving through inquiries fast and has a lot of people on the other end of the line to make sure that people can get hold of somebody. I shall take up the latter point with my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs.

I commend my right hon. Friend for the sterling work he is doing. Will he provide some clarification on the definition of essential retail? The general store that purchases a freezer and says that it is a food store quite clearly is not, but the garden centre that incorporates a farm shop that may serve a local community might well be.

These things will inevitably end up being a judgment at the boundary, but if there are two types of shop in one organisation, we will sometimes require some parts of it to close. If there is a café in a shop that sells essential supplies, the café must close but the essential supplies part can stay open.

I, too, praise the Secretary of State and his wonderful team for their heroic efforts in fighting this killer virus. Will he confirm that volunteers such as those in the Holme Valley Covid Mutual Aid group, who are providing shopping services, delivering food parcels, picking up prescriptions, posting mail and dog walking, should continue to supply those services for their community, in a safe way?

Yes, they should. They should stay 2 metres away from other people, wherever possible, but we are actively encouraging the voluntary effort in support of covid-19 and we actively support it.

I thank the Secretary of State for all he is doing and I thank the thousands of retired nurses who have answered his call to come back to the NHS, but may I just raise a wrinkle in my constituency of Newcastle-under-Lyme? A nurse wrote to me who is 58 and retired at 55. She has returned to work for 16 hours and is happy to work full time, but she is concerned about the possible effect on her pension. Will the Secretary of State and the Chancellor of Exchequer work together to look at the situation and make sure that there are no financial barriers to heroes such as her coming back to work for our NHS?

Yes. We solved several of the problems in the pension system at the Budget, and there are further solutions in the Bill. I have not come across any further problems in respect of pensions, but if my hon. Friend writes to me with the individual case, I will check that that is the case in that instance, too.

On Saturday, I met the chief executive and the incident management team at the Queen Elizabeth Hospital in King’s Lynn in my constituency, where sadly two patients who tested positive for covid-19 died last week. I pay tribute to the dedication of all the staff who are, as the Secretary of State knows, working in buildings that need more investment. Will he make sure that those on the frontline continue to get the PPE that they need and have more access to ventilators?

Yes, absolutely—on all counts. I just want to add my thanks to all those working on the frontline, and throughout the NHS and social care, to my hon. Friend’s thanks to those in King’s Lynn. I also put on the record my thanks to my extraordinary civil service political and Public Health England team, who have done amazing work and continue to work incredibly hard in response to this crisis.

Will my right hon. Friend join me in paying tribute to our fantastic NHS staff at Blackpool Victoria Hospital? Some private firms in my constituency have offered free or discounted parking to NHS staff, to help them out in these difficult times. Will he commend those firms and encourage others to do the same to make sure that it is as easy as possible for staff to get to work?

Yes, I will. I pay tribute to all the staff at Blackpool hospital. I met some of them during the election campaign and I know that they are working incredibly hard in preparation for what is to come. I absolutely commend all those who are giving free parking to NHS staff and we are looking at what we can do to make that happy occurrence spread more broadly across the NHS.

Bill Presented

Contingencies Fund Bill

Presentation and First Reading (Standing Order No. 57)

Mr Chancellor of the Exchequer, supported by the Prime Minister, Steve Barclay, Jesse Norman, John Glen and Kemi Badenoch, presented a Bill to make provision increasing the maximum capital of the Contingencies Fund for a temporary period.

Bill read the First time; to be read a Second time now, and to be printed (Bill 123) with explanatory notes (Bill 123-EN).