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Volume 674: debated on Wednesday 25 March 2020

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.

First, I wish to pay tribute to the Prime Minister and his Ministers for navigating my constituents through these unprecedented times with their decisive action. I also pay tribute to my constituents and those working in the NHS for their truly heroic work. No one can afford to be complacent at this time, and I applaud my right hon. Friend’s address to the nation on Monday, which reinforced the need for us to stay at home and protect our NHS in order to save lives. Will he assure me that the Government will ensure that people have the support they need in order to do that?

I fully echo my hon. Friend’s tribute to our amazing NHS workers, and it is in order to protect them and help them that we are taking the extraordinary measures that this country is. I repeat my advice to the nation, which is to stay at home, protect our NHS and save lives.

Thank you very much, Mr Speaker, for making the best arrangements possible today to ensure not only that as many Members as possible can ask questions, but that the Government are held to account, which is the function of Parliament.

Many more people will be mourning the loss of loved ones as a result of coronavirus this week. Our hearts go out to all of them and to those suffering from the disease at the present time. Across our country people are working day and night to keep us safe, fed and warm: our wonderful NHS staff; police; firefighters; prison and probation workers; teachers; civil servants; local government staff; and social care workers. All of them are showing the value of public service. They are the unsung heroes, keeping the transport system running, the post delivered, utilities running and our supermarkets properly stocked. I wish to give a special mention to one group who are usually ignored, forgotten and decried as “unskilled workers”—cleaners. All around the country, and in this building, they are doing their best to keep our places hygienic and safe.

Over the past few weeks, I have asked the Prime Minister many times what action is being taken to ensure that testing is being prioritised, and I have received assurances that everything that could be done was being done. Yet a leaked email shows that it was just three days ago that the Prime Minister wrote to UK research institutes to ask for help, saying that there were “no” testing machines “available to buy”. Why was that not done weeks ago, if not months ago, when the Government were first warned about the threat of a global pandemic? What action is now being taken to get testing machines?

Perhaps I could begin by pointing out that this is the right hon. Gentleman’s last Prime Minister’s questions, and it would be appropriate for me to pay tribute to him for his service to his party and, indeed, to the country over the last four years, in a very difficult job. We may not agree about everything, but no one can doubt his sincerity and his determination to build a better society. I pay particular tribute and thanks to him and all his colleagues for their co-operation in the current emergency as far as possible across party lines.

I very much agree with what the right hon. Gentleman said about cleaners. They do an extraordinary job and they deserve all the protection and support that we can give them in this difficult time.

On testing, the right hon. Gentleman is quite right that testing is vital to our success in beating the coronavirus. As the Secretary of State for Health and Social Care has explained many times, we are massively increasing our testing campaign, going up from 5,000 to 10,000 to 25,000 a day. In answer directly to the right hon. Gentleman’s question, testing has been a priority of this Government ever since the crisis was obviously upon us—for weeks and weeks.

I thank the Prime Minister for his very kind remarks. I believe in a decent, socially just society. He was talking as though this was a sort of obituary—just to let him know: my voice will not be stilled, I will be around, I will be campaigning, I will be arguing and I will be demanding justice for the people of this country and, indeed, the rest of the world.

We can protect the health of us all only if we protect the health of our carers, yet the Sue Ryder charity, which provides care to people with neurological conditions, has said that its workforce is depleting daily as it has no access to tests. When will all social care staff have access to regular testing? They are very important and obviously very vulnerable in this crisis.

The right hon. Gentleman is entirely right. I do not want to repeat what I just said, except to say that social care staff, in common with NHS staff and, indeed, other public sector workers, need to be tested as fast as possible. The answer to his question is that we will do it as fast as possible.

Obviously, if carers have to self-isolate because they suspect they have the disease and cannot get a test, their work is lost for a week and those who need care and support do not get it during that time.

There are reports that care-home workers are being turned away from supermarkets in relation to priority shopping and not being allowed to buy more than certain items that they desperately need to feed their residents. What is the Prime Minister’s plan for making sure that care workers can get the vital food and supplies that they need for the people they are caring for?

As the right hon. Gentleman and the House can imagine, we have been in regular contact with all the retailers—all the supermarket chains. I had a conversation with all of them a couple of days ago, and they were absolutely determined to ensure that key workers do get time in supermarkets. If there is a particular problem, I will raise it with them again.

I hope the Prime Minister will, because care workers are on the frontline looking after the most vulnerable people in our society. Keeping our care homes safe and well should be, and must be, an absolute priority.

The Prime Minister has been saying for quite a long time that NHS staff will get the equipment they need, yet the Health Care Supply Association—get that: the Health Care Supply Association—has been forced to use Twitter to ask DIY shops to donate protective equipment to NHS staff. This is an appalling situation. When will NHS staff, social care staff and community nurses, and all other staff relating to healthcare, get the PPE equipment that they absolutely, desperately need?

The right hon. Gentleman is absolutely right to raise this issue, which I know has been a concern. We had a long meeting on it this morning. I am assured that not only are the stocks now there but the Army is now distributing the supplies to all the NHS staff and all the hospitals that need it, and in the past 24 hours has distributed 7.5 million pieces of equipment.

It is important that they get that equipment because, yesterday, 77% of NHS chiefs who responded to a survey said that the lack of staff testing and staff shortages were the two biggest areas of concern for them.

Last week, the Prime Minister stood in this Chamber at the Dispatch Box and said that he would

“protect private renters from eviction.”—[Official Report, 18 March 2020; Vol. 673, c. 995.]

He absolutely said that, yet some renters will be getting eviction notices as early as next week. The Prime Minister appears to have gone back on his word. Will he now, finally, absolutely ban evictions for six months in line with the renewal period of the emergency legislation, which is going through its parliamentary process at the moment?

The right hon. Gentleman raises a very important point about the need to protect renters, which is why I answered in the way that I did last week. We have actually gone further now, as he knows, by lifting up the local housing allowance to the 30th percentile of median rent, which will be very important for many people on low incomes across the country, but we are also, as he knows, making sure that no-fault evictions are no longer legal, and that is part of the Bill.

Unfortunately, that is not the reality on the ground, as many of my colleagues will point out. Constituents are getting in touch with us, saying that they are being threatened with eviction now. They are in rent arrears because they cannot work during this shutdown over coronavirus. To be absolutely clear about this, will the Prime Minister make sure that it is legislated that nobody can be evicted from the private rented sector during the first six-month period of this emergency?

I will continue my questions shortly in the second part of this session, but I just want to ask this question of the Prime Minister. Many British people abroad feel a bit abandoned by their Government, with many fast running out of medicines, with the host countries in lockdown, with flights and accommodation being cancelled, and with insurance either about to expire or not covering the much-needed costs until they are able to return home. These British citizens have a right to turn to their own Government for help. Hour-long delays on phone calls are not acceptable. These people feel abandoned. Will the Prime Minister update the House, as the Foreign Secretary was asked to do yesterday, on what his Government are doing to bring people home and to provide the emergency costs for the medical needs that many British residents abroad have at the present time?

The right hon. Gentleman can take it that we are certainly doing everything we can to bring back British citizens from abroad. A huge operation is going on now to repatriate them, as he will have heard from both the Health Secretary and, indeed, the Foreign Secretary. We are also protecting renters in spite of what he says. We are doing everything that we can to protect our fantastic NHS. As a society and country, we are doing a quite extraordinary thing: for the first time in our history, to get through this crisis, we, as a country, are putting our arms around every single worker and every single employee in this country. It is a quite unprecedented step and he will be hearing more about that—[Interruption.] I know that there are concerns about the self-employed, but he will be hearing more in the next couple of days from my right hon. Friend the Chancellor.

The right hon. Gentleman said something the other day about how this country would come through this experience changed, and changed for the better. On that, he and I completely agree. We will get this country through this crisis with these exceptional steps, and I can tell him that we will do absolutely everything that it takes. We will do whatever it takes to get our country through this together. We will beat this virus together, but the most important advice that I can give him as he retires—[Interruption.] I am delighted to hear that he is not retiring. That will be warmly welcomed by his successor. The most important thing that we can all do is stay at home to protect our NHS and to save many thousands of lives.

Q2. I thank my right hon. Friend for his leadership and the leadership of his Cabinet at this incredibly difficult time and for the announced package of measures that will support millions of people and protect them from financial hardship. As he has just said, the Government’s advice is clear: stay home to support the NHS and to protect lives. Will he help more people to make the right decision by giving an absolute assurance to the 5,000 self-employed people in Mansfield that he is seriously considering taking measures that will help them to do that? (901750)

I thank my hon. Friend very much for raising that matter. He is entirely right. As the right hon. Gentleman, the Leader of the Opposition, has just said, that is uppermost in people’s minds. We have produced a quite incredible package to support the businesses and the workforce of this country. We do need to ensure that we protect the self-employed as well, and he will be hearing more about that in the next couple of days.

I must say, in response to the questions from the Leader of the Opposition, that we all need to do what we can to bring all our people home, and that needs to happen now.

The Prime Minister said that the UK is putting its arms around all our workers. I hope that that will become the case because, as of today, it is not. This morning, the Resolution Foundation estimated that one in three people in self-employment—a total of 1.7 million workers—are now at risk of losing their income. In Scotland, that means that 320,000 self-employed people are deeply concerned about their jobs and the families they support. Last Friday, the Prime Minister and his Chancellor promised the self-employed that help was coming. Only yesterday, the Chief Secretary to the Treasury told them,

“we have not forgotten you—help is coming.”—[Official Report, 24 March 2020; Vol. 674, c. 207.]

These are the same promises that have been made for weeks now, yet they, and we, are still waiting. Can the Prime Minister explain why a package of support for the self-employed was not put in place before we announced the lockdown?

As the right hon. Gentleman will understand, we have done a huge amount already to strengthen the safety net for everybody in this country—not just those who are currently in employment—with a package so that they get 80% of their earnings up to £2,500 per month. This country has never done anything on that scale before. We have increased universal credit by £1,000 a year, as he knows. We have deferred income tax self-assessments for the self-employed until July, and are deferring VAT until the next quarter, as he knows. There is also access to Government-financed loans. But there are particular complexities of the self-employed that do need to be addressed; they are not all in the same position. All I can say is that we are working as fast as we possibly can to get the appropriate package of support for everybody in this country. That is what we are going to do, and we will get through this together.

The Prime Minister knows that we want to work with him on this, but there is frustration because we have gone into lockdown and workers are without income. This is an emergency. The truth is that the health and economic costs of this virus are deepening by the day. People deserve strong leadership, financial support and straight answers. As we stand here, these people are losing their incomes. Telling them to wait another day simply is not good enough.

In Norway and Denmark, wage support schemes have already been extended to cover the incomes of the self-employed. In Germany, there is a €50 billion programme to ensure that the self-employed do not go bankrupt. In Ireland, the self-employed are eligible for a special pandemic payment of €350 a week. The Scottish Government have written to the Chancellor, asking him to expand the job retention scheme that he announced last week to include the self-employed. Will the Prime Minister confirm that, when the Chancellor eventually does announce measures, there will be parity and equality of support between the already announced job retention scheme and the new scheme for the self-employed? They must not be left behind, Prime Minister.

The right hon. Gentleman is making a very important point. I totally share his desire to get parity of support. I remind him that we have extended mortgage holidays, and are giving all sorts of help and interest-free loans to everybody across the whole country. There are particular difficulties with those who are not on PAYE schemes, as I think the whole House understands. We are bringing forward a package to ensure that everybody gets the support they need. That is the way to get this country through this. But, if I may say so, the better we tackle the epidemic now—the more vigorously we are able to suppress the disease now—the faster we will come through it, and that means—[Interruption.] Yes, it certainly means testing, but it also means staying at home, protecting the NHS and thereby saving lives.

Q4. Wolverhampton has sadly already seen many cases of covid-19, and I am sure the Prime Minister would like to join me in thanking all the staff at New Cross Hospital in my constituency. Will he thank the many volunteers coming forward to help their neighbours in Wolverhampton, but also say to the few people who are trying to flout the advice to stay at home that their actions will cost lives? (901754)

I would indeed like to thank all the staff at New Cross Hospital in Wolverhampton for everything that they are doing, as I thank everybody in the NHS across the whole country. Just since yesterday, when we asked for volunteers to come forward, we have seen a huge number of people—170,000—asking to volunteer to do whatever they can to support, and tens of thousands of doctors and nurses are coming back to our fantastic NHS. I pay tribute to every one of them, some of whom, if I may say, are in this House of Commons.

Q3. The Prime Minister will understand that there is considerable concern about the situation at Northwick Park Hospital, which serves my constituents and many others, given the critical incident there last week and, tragically, that it has recorded one of the highest levels of deaths so far. Will he therefore tell the House when he expects the staff at the hospital to have access to the high-grade personal protection equipment they need, and, crucially, to testing equipment as and when they need it in order to keep them safe, to prevent the risk of cross-infection and to keep their loved ones safe? (901752)

The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right to raise the issue of Northwick Park. It has had a consignment in the last few days, and we will keep those supplies coming.

Q6. There is no doubt that our nation and our world are under attack from an aggressive virus that intends to infect every one of us—sometimes with deadly consequences. It seems to me that in uncertain times we need clarity and leadership, and I want to commend the Prime Minister for the leadership and clarity that he has given in the messages coming from Government. We know them all very clearly: to protect the NHS and to save lives by staying at home.Will the Prime Minister confirm that he will lift the measures imposed at the earliest possible opportunity, once he knows that our nation is safe? (901756)

Yes, of course. We keep those measures under constant review. The more the whole country is able to work together to conform with those stipulations, the faster we will get on top of this and the faster we will come out of it.

Q5. Through the Prime Minister, may I thank Ministers, particularly from the Department of Health and Social Care, who have been working very constructively with Members from across the House in these difficult times? Those Ministers have asked us to report back difficult situations in our patches. In that light, I would like to draw attention to the fact that the Oaklands care home in my constituency has had a really difficult time lately. A 94-year-old resident developed the symptoms of coronavirus and requested a test. Ten days later, when the test finally happened, 14 of the 20 residents were exhibiting symptoms. Seven of the staff were off sick so that they could self-isolate—they were agency staff who had also been working in other care homes. None of the protective equipment requested had arrived. Can the Prime Minister tell the House on what date the 80,000 care homes around Britain can expect tests to be carried out on the day symptoms emerge and on what date every single person working in those care homes will get the protective equipment they need? (901755)

On the test, as I said earlier, the answer is that we want to roll that out as soon as we possibly can. On the personal protective equipment, the answer is by the end of this week.

Q7. Can my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister assure me that he is in regular contact with supermarkets and food suppliers to ensure that goods are getting to the shelves, where they are needed? Will he join me in calling on people to take only what they need, not to stockpile and to stamp out the disgusting scourge of black market profiteering? (901757)

Yes, indeed. The profiteering is something that we should be looking at from a legislative point of view in this House, as has happened before in this country. I can tell my hon. Friend that the supermarkets do have adequate supplies; as he knows, our supply chains are very good. We have relaxed delivery hours, but it is very important that in their shopping everybody acts reasonably and considerately of other people.

I would like to convey Plaid Cymru’s thanks to the health workers, social care workers, teachers, cleaners and all those who are fighting this virus on the frontline. Today, an elderly constituent telephoned my office in dismay, as she and her husband are struggling to get food. Both are vulnerable and both are self-isolating according to Government advice. They have been told that the next available food delivery slot is 16 April. What support can the Government offer to ensure that vulnerable people in remote and rural areas such as Ceredigion are prioritised for food deliveries?

I am told that there is an army of local volunteers delivering food supplies, but if the hon. Gentleman wishes to communicate that case directly to us, we will take it up.

Q8. Does the Prime Minister share my concern that the contractors for HS2 Ltd are not following the very clear Government advice on coronavirus? This is not, to be clear, about the rights and wrongs of HS2; it is about the safety of us all. My constituents have seen contractors blatantly fail to follow the rules about social distancing, and have observed them coughing over concerned residents, causing great distress. Should they stay at home to save lives? (901758)

We have been very clear that everybody should work at home if they possibly can, and construction should only take place in a way that is in accordance with Public Health England and industry advice.

Charities, including those on the frontline of our national response to coronavirus—those working with the seriously ill, the elderly, the young, victims of domestic violence and providing food to the vulnerable—are in dire straits and face a £4.3 billion drop in income. Furloughing staff providing essential services to the vulnerable is, frankly, not an option. When will the Prime Minister come forward with an urgent package, as my hon. Friends the Members for Cardiff South and Penarth (Stephen Doughty) and for Lewisham, Deptford (Vicky Foxcroft) and 150 colleagues from eight parties across the House have been calling for, so that those charities can continue their life-saving work?

The hon. Member is absolutely right to pay tribute to the work of the voluntary sector and the charitable sector. They are crucial to our national response to this crisis, and my right hon. Friends the Culture Secretary and the Chancellor are looking at a package of measures to support charities as well.

Q9. I commend the Prime Minister and all those on the frontline for their handling of this situation. I have raised with him previously the importance of reaching out to all the elderly and vulnerable who live alone, regardless of their health, so that no one is left behind. May I raise with him, as a former Foreign Secretary, the plight of the British Council? It is running out of money. It has had to cease its commercial activities and its reserves will be exhausted within weeks. Can he make funding available? (901759)

I came to love the British Council when I was doing the job that my hon. Friend refers to. We will continue to support it in any way that we can, and we are actively looking into what we can do.

When all of this is over, I think the Prime Minister will genuinely have earned himself a proper break on a paradise island, and in that regard I commend to him the paradise islands of Orkney and Shetland, where we have a fantastic tourism offer that has built up over many decades, but which has at its heart tour guides, craft businesses and small food and drink businesses, who are overwhelmingly self-employed. Will the Prime Minister give an assurance today to those self-employed people that, when the offer of help comes, they will not be in any worse a position that they would be if they were in employment?

I cannot in all candour promise the House that we will be able to get through this crisis without any kind of hardship at all, but I can tell the right hon. Gentleman—he and I have talked face to face about the issue he raises—that we will do whatever we can to support the self-employed, just as we are putting our arms around every single employed person in this country. I well understand the point he makes. As for his generous invitation, he should be careful what he wishes for.

Q10. May I join colleagues from across the House in congratulating and thanking the Prime Minister for his strong leadership at this time, which has provided great reassurance to my constituents in Blackpool South? Will he continue to work with the voluntary sector and charity groups to ensure that vulnerable people continue to get the support they need from this Government during this challenging time? (901761)

Yes, indeed. That is why we have given in the first instance another half a billion pounds to councils to look after the poorest and most vulnerable members of society. I thank my hon. Friend for his support.

The Prime Minister will have heard my question to the Secretary of State for Scotland. There are companies defying his advice, which is for public health and to save lives. Can he tell the House and those watching what the consequences will be for businesses that are still operating today but should not be?

Where businesses are blatantly ignoring the instructions of the Government, they will face the consequences that have been well advertised.

I salute the tone of the Prime Minister’s very difficult, sombre address to the nation on Monday night. I know that heroic efforts are happening to ramp up the amount of testing. Could he give us some idea of when we will be able to get back to routine testing in the community, as happens in Korea, Germany and other countries? Should we not now introduce weekly tests for NHS staff, so that we can remove their fear that they might be infecting their own patients?

I can tell the House that both on antibody testing and antigen testing, we are making huge progress. We are buying millions of antibody tests, which show whether or not someone has had the disease. On my right hon. Friend’s point, which has been raised several times, about how soon we can get NHS staff and other public sector workers tested in advance to see whether they currently have the disease, the answer is: as soon as we possibly can.

Thousands of jobs in my constituency and nearly 1 million across the UK rely on the aviation industry for work, from pilots to baggage handlers, cabin crew, security staff and many more. The aviation industry is vital now and will be crucial when we come out of this dreadful coronavirus situation. The Chancellor and the Transport Secretary committed to a bespoke support package, but yesterday they wrote to industry to renege on that commitment. Can the Prime Minister tell the industry why the Government have washed their hands of it?

I can tell the hon. Gentleman that we have certainly not washed our hands of any sector of UK business or industry. We are in regular contact with the aviation sector and doing everything we can to help. Schemes such as Time to Pay and many other loan support schemes are already available to that sector and others, but I can assure him that there is other contact going on as we speak.

We will now start the second part of Prime Minister’s questions, which will open with Jeremy Corbyn.

I thank you again, Mr Speaker, for making these arrangements today, so that more colleagues can come into the Chamber. It is a little odd, however, that we are having to have a double session of Prime Minister’s Question Time to question the Prime Minister, when he himself should have volunteered to come here and make a statement at some length on the subject, rather than just doing it through press conferences and television addresses. This House is the place where the Government should be held to account.

Construction sites are still operating and still working on non-emergency work, despite the new rules. The Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster said yesterday that sites will continue to stay open. We heard this morning on the radio a call from a self-employed construction worker who said that he had contracted coronavirus and was suffering from it—he knew he had got it—but he had no option other than to get on the London tube and go on to a site to work, putting himself at greater risk and putting all other passengers and all other workers on that site at risk. Why was he doing it? Because his site had not been closed down, and he had no other source of income to feed his family, so he is going to work, putting all of us more at risk as a result. Can the Prime Minister be absolutely clear and give unequivocal guidance now that non-emergency construction work should stop now?

Everybody should work at home unless they must go to work—unless they have no alternative and they cannot do that work from home. If a construction company is continuing with work, clearly it should do so in accordance with the guidance of Public Health England, and it has a duty of care to its employees. But overwhelmingly, what we are saying to the people of this country is that, unless you need to leave the house to take exercise, for medical reasons or to buy essential supplies, you should stay at home, protect the NHS and save lives.

Obviously people should stay at home and protect others, but if they have no other source of income, then these very difficult, very personal choices are going to be made, and we are all put at greater risk as a result of it. The self-employed are having to choose whether they go to work or stay at home and face losing their entire livelihood, relying instead on an overstretched welfare system, which could pay as little as £94 per week. One self-employed person said that they need to pay for baby food, rent, council tax and insurance for the car they use for work, being “faced with a decision to feed your family and pay your bills, or stay at home and not get paid”. Why has it taken the Prime Minister so long to guarantee income for all self-employed workers? There are millions of them—our economy has changed.

We are making it absolutely clear to everybody in this country that they should stay at home and save lives, but when it comes to the self-employed and the particular pressures that the right hon. Gentleman raises, as I think I have now said several times in this Chamber in answer to other hon. Members, we are shortly bringing forward a package. I think that he would recognise that the steps that the Government have taken to provide support for workers, for employees in this country, are quite exceptional and unprecedented, and they were warmly welcomed, I may say, by the trade unions themselves.

I am asking questions about the self-employed, those on zero-hours contracts and those with no recourse to public funds, who have no support. They are in a very difficult situation, and the Prime Minister should understand that many of our constituents —constituents of every Member of this House—lead a hand-to-mouth existence. A few days’ pay lost is catastrophic for them.

Time and again, Government Ministers have told us that workers affected by the crisis could get help via universal credit. Last night, there were queues of over 110,000 people trying to get on to the Department for Work and Pensions system in order to register to apply for universal credit. Will the Prime Minister now put in extra resources and funding to boost DWP capacity and relax the often quite draconian requirements on people claiming, so that money gets where it is needed quickly—to those people who have got to feed the kids, got to pay the rent, got to survive somehow?

The right hon. Gentleman is perfectly right, and that is why we have increased the funding for universal credit so that it goes up by £1,000 a year. That will benefit 4 million of the most vulnerable households in the country. Overall, we are putting another £7 billion into the welfare system altogether. And, as I say, we will be bringing forward a package for the self-employed. What we are not doing—and this is fully in accordance with the scientific and medical advice—is closing down the whole UK economy, and he will understand the reasons for that.

We are not asking for the entire UK economy to be closed down. We obviously want people to be safe, but clearly things have to go on. My question was about the DWP resources, which the Prime Minister did not answer. [Interruption.] Well, it was not an answer that was satisfactory to me. [Interruption.] One of his colleagues is claiming it was a yes. I will take that, so that means more staff now for the DWP quickly so we do not have 110,000 people waiting.

Hang on, I have not finished yet. My question, while he is about it—and this will give him time to think of the answer—

This is not a time for levity.

The statutory sick pay level is £94.25 a week, which the Health Secretary admitted he could not live on, and despite the Prime Minister promising he would ensure workers get the support they need, we still have not seen action on that. Unless we increase statutory sick pay and give protection and access to benefits for those on zero-hours contracts, the dangers we are all aware of—of people going into work or trying to work when they should not—are going to continue. We do need very urgent action on this.

The right hon. Gentleman is absolutely right: this is not a time for levity; it is time for serious action and a serious response to the crisis. That is what he is seeing from this Government, and that is why, from day one, we insisted that statutory sick pay should be payable from day one and that is why we have advanced universal credit. Just to repeat the answer I gave a moment ago, we have increased universal credit by £1,000 a year. That will benefit 4 million people in the poorest families in the country. I pay tribute, by the way, among the many fantastic workers in this country—not just in the NHS, in social care, and of course in the teaching profession—to those in the DWP itself. They are doing an incredible job. They are facing huge, huge new demands, and they are doing an outstanding job. And yes, we will support them, and that is why we are putting another £7 billion, as I said just now, into our welfare system.

I do not want to appear totally negative, but it would be better if the whole place had been better staffed in the first place. But I will take it from what the Prime Minister said that there is going to be an increase in DWP staff in order that people can access universal credit more quickly.

It is right that Parliament be virtually closed today, and that the Prime Minister and Cabinet Ministers continue to deliver daily public information sessions. That is absolutely correct. However, I understand that it may be some time before the House meets again. There has to be scrutiny of what Governments do. That is what Parliament is for and what Oppositions exist for. I would therefore be grateful if the Prime Minister could indicate how, over the weeks until Parliament opens again, he will make himself open to some form of scrutiny—electronic or whatever it happens to be—so that Parliament can hold Government to account, given the levels of stress and concern of all the constituents we represent.

The right hon. Gentleman is entirely correct. We have tried to handle this crisis by being as open and transparent as we possibly can be with all our working and all our thinking. I will work with you, Mr Speaker, if I may, on how we can ensure that Parliament is kept informed throughout the recess.

All I can say to the Prime Minister is: please make sure you make yourself available for scrutiny by this House and everybody else, because we represent people who are desperately worried about their health and economic wellbeing. If you are living in a small flat and you are told to isolate, when you have a large family with a large number of children, the levels of stress are going to be huge. The levels of stress throughout our society are huge. It is up to all of us to do what we can to reduce those levels of stress and bring this whole situation to a conclusion as quickly as we can. We need clarity, not confusion; we need delivery, not dither.

This crisis shows us how deeply we depend on each other. We will come through this as a society only through a huge collective effort. At a time of crisis, no one is an island, no one is self-made. The wellbeing of the wealthiest corporate chief executive officer depends on the outsourced worker cleaning their office. At times like this, we have to recognise the value of each other and the strength of a society that cares for each other and cares for all.

I really want to do nothing else except associate myself fully with the closing words of the Leader of the Opposition. What this country is doing now is utterly extraordinary. We are coming together as a nation in a way that I have not seen in my lifetime to help defeat a disease and to help save the lives of many, many thousands of our fellow citizens. We all understand that that will involve a sacrifice, but we are gladly making that sacrifice.

The most important point I can make to the House today is that that sacrifice is inevitable and necessary, but the more we follow the advice of the Government, the more strictly we obey the measures we have put in place, the swifter and more surely this country will come back from the current crisis and the better we will recover, so I repeat my message in case the right hon. Gentleman would like to hear it one more time: the best thing we can do is stay at home, protect our NHS and save many, many thousands of lives.

I echo my right hon. Friend’s words.

London transport services have been severely curtailed. The journeys from my right hon. Friend’s constituency into central London are around one every 15 minutes, as opposed to every five minutes. The result is trains packed with people who can potentially infect others. Clearly, some of those people are being selfish. What advice does my right hon. Friend have for his successor as Mayor of London for resolving the problem on London transport?

I understand very well the job that the current Mayor is doing. My view is that we should be able to run a better tube system at the moment and get more tubes on the line. I do not wish in any way to cast aspersions on what is going on at Transport for London because it is an outstanding organisation. We will give the Mayor every support we can to help him through what seem to me to be his current logistical difficulties.

As of Monday, more than 3,300 inquiries have been made in Scotland about NHS staff seeking to return to work to help us defeat coronavirus. Those people and all those already working tirelessly in our NHS are our heroes. Every last one of them, from consultants to cleaners, carers to nurses, drivers to maintenance workers, GPs to paramedics, are performing vital work to save the lives of others. When the crisis is over, we in this House will need to find some way to honour those amazing heroes, but there is one way that the public can honour and support our NHS staff now: by staying at home. Staying at home and adhering to social distancing will save lives, protect our health and social care services and begin to flatten the curve. We can avoid unnecessary deaths, but only if we all act together. Does the Prime Minister agree that we owe it to everyone in our NHS and those willing to return for non-essential workers to stay at home?

I congratulate the right hon. Gentleman on the splendid way in which he expressed himself. That message deserves to be heard loud and clear across the UK.

I thank the Prime Minister for what he has just said.

Many Members will have had constituents contacting them in recent days about evictions. Will the Prime Minister join me in praising Scotland’s Cabinet Secretary for Communities and Local Government, Aileen Campbell, who has announced the Scottish Government’s intention to use the emergency powers granted by the Coronavirus Bill to protect people from losing their homes? The Scottish Government’s plans to impose a six-month ban on evictions from private and social rented accommodation are as welcome as they are necessary. Will the Prime Minister also join me in sending a message from this House that in such times, we need a truly loving and compassionate society? No one should face the threat of eviction at a time of national emergency. Will the Prime Minister send out that message today?

Yes, indeed. I want to repeat what we are doing—the sense and the thrust of it. It is not just putting £1 billion more into supporting the rented sector through local housing allowance, but stopping no-fault evictions. The difference is between three months and six months, but I can tell the right hon. Gentleman that we will keep that protection under review.

I thank Broxbourne Borough Council, particularly the leader and the chief executive and all the staff for their brilliant work in co-ordinating aid and support across my borough. They are fantastic people, working with a range of heroes.

There is an army of black cab drivers in and around London, itching to get involved, like the Spitfires in 1940. If we need to get doctors and nurses safely across London, can we find a way of using those black cab drivers, not on the meter, but perhaps on a contracted basis?

My hon. Friend makes a superb point. Indeed, it has already been raised in our considerations. Black cab drivers are a fantastic, unsung service and I believe that they can certainly rise to this challenge.

We have already heard about the huge increase in applications for universal credit, and whatever measures the Chancellor comes forward with to help the self-employed will take time to implement. What is the Government’s plan to help people who have no job, no income and no savings, in circumstances where they do not have any money at all to buy food? What will the Government do to make sure that no family goes hungry?

We have already increased universal credit, but what we are doing immediately to help to get cash to the poorest and neediest is to give an immediate grant of £500 million to local councils, and there will be more to come.

This morning, I have been talking to the Solent Local Enterprise Partnership about its future plans for Waterlooville in my constituency. It is already planning for recovery after this pandemic. Does the Prime Minister agree that this is an opportunity to plan for the future, and to ensure that we can rebuild a strong economy and become more community-minded than ever before?

I do believe that this country will emerge better and stronger from this experience. I can certainly tell my hon. Friend that a great deal of thought is being given now to the lessons we need to learn from this crisis and how we can turn them to the advantage of the British people in the future.

Is the Prime Minister aware that people are being evicted now—this week—as a result of losing their income? That includes all the people who are being turfed out of low-cost hotels where they were being housed, either in their own right or by the local authority. Is he aware that all his emergency legislation will do is to defer evictions for two and a half months, storing up a problem further down the line? Can he tell us now what he is going to do to fulfil, in full, his Government’s commitment that nobody will lose their home as a result of this crisis?

The hon. Lady is totally right. The Bill will come into force, I believe, later today, or as soon as their lordships have finished with it. As I said in answer to the leader of the SNP, we will keep the three-month period—it is three months, not two and a half months—under review.

Like many colleagues, I represent a constituency that has many self-employed people. Farming, food and food production is very much made up of self-employed businesses. Can we be assured that bureaucracy and the difficulty of setting up a system will not stop help getting to the self-employed? It is essential that we cut through the bureaucracy and make it work.

That is indeed the issue. The difficulty is not devising the schemes—we can devise the schemes—but getting the cash to the people who need it in a timely way. Anybody who has worked on any of these projects will know that that is the real issue.

Some firms, such as Sports Direct and Wetherspoons, have shamed themselves by bullying their staff into work. Other businesses, such as events, sporting and conference companies in my constituency, are trying to do the right thing but are being let down by their insurance companies. Will the Government give a clear direction now that no large events involving large numbers of people should take place at any time in the near future, and that insurance companies need to get their act together?

The instructions could not be clearer. The enforcement is there and it is going to be applied, and the message should go out not only to those companies but to the insurers.

I thank the Prime Minister and his team for everything that they have done so far, and I associate myself with the words of my hon. Friend the Member for Tiverton and Honiton (Neil Parish) about the need to support rural and coastal communities. With that in mind, what further support might we be able to expect regarding fishermen, who are sitting on the line?

My hon. Friend is absolutely right. He and I have seen the wonderful work that is done by the fishing community in his constituency. They will receive all sorts of benefits—not least our ability, in due time, to take back control of the plenteous resources off the UK coast.

Yesterday I spoke with a constituent who suffers from a debilitating rheumatic autoimmune disease, and symptoms of her condition are similar to those of coronavirus. She is concerned that she will not be included in the group of people who are to be shielded, even though she is clearly at risk, and she is concerned that she is going to end up needing emergency medical help because she takes different medications. Can the Prime Minister confirm that the Government are working with the devolved Administrations to ensure that shielding guidance is consistent across the UK?

Yes, indeed; we are trying to make shielding guidance as consistent as we possibly can, but in the hon. Lady’s particular case, perhaps I could advise her to get in touch directly with us and we will make sure that she is included.

Nottinghamshire police is asking local employers to give paid leave to special constables to allow them to help during this crisis. Does the Prime Minister agree that every business should be playing its part and that all special constables should be able to report for duty?

Yes, indeed, and I should have added the police, specials and everybody who serves in our incredible police force for what they do. They should certainly be added to the roll of honour.

Tens of thousands of our constituents are stranded abroad. At the same time, thousands of planes and pilots are sitting idle. The Ministry of Defence has unparalleled experience in chartering planes and organising flights. What it needs, Prime Minister, is your instruction to do that, so when you go back to Downing Street, will you get on to the Ministry of Defence and tell it to get the airlift started and bring our people home?

Yes, not every country in the world necessarily welcomes a grey tailfin, as it were—[Interruption]—most of them do, I should say, but we are certainly commissioning charters right now, and there is a massive, massive repatriation effort going on.

May I put on record the gratitude of my constituency for the leadership shown by the Prime Minister and the Health Secretary during this very difficult time for the whole country? Coronavirus is showing our NHS at its best, including the doctors, nurses and support staff in my North West Durham constituency, but it is also showing the strain in some parts of our NHS, including worn-out parts of the NHS estate. After the coronavirus pandemic outbreak has passed, will he and the Health Secretary work with me to look at delivering a new community hospital to replace the aged one at Shotley Bridge in my constituency?

The short answer to that question is yes. The long answer is that this Government are in no way undimmed in our ambition to continue with record investments in our NHS and build 40 new hospitals.

To protect us all from coronavirus, we need to protect the most marginalised, and that includes asylum seekers, those whose asylum claims have been refused and all who are prohibited from accessing public funds by Home Office rules. Will the Prime Minister encourage the Home Office urgently to radically reform its policies so that everybody can access the support and accommodation they need to get through this crisis?

This country will look after all the most vulnerable in society in the way that we always have, and the groups that the hon. Gentleman mentions will certainly receive the Home Office funding that they need and deserve.

The police will play a role in policing the social distancing guidelines outlined earlier this week. That will put extra pressure on limited police resources. My concern is that certain criminal elements might look to exploit this moment of national emergency to push their own insidious agenda. Will the Prime Minister promise my constituents and me that we will come down like a ton of bricks on such individuals?

Yes, indeed; the early signs are that criminal activity is not up—it is in fact down at the moment—but we will come down like a ton of bricks on anybody who seeks to exploit the situation.

The people of Newcastle are desperately trying to do the right thing, although my inbox tells me that they are angry, confused, running out of money, isolated and in some cases stranded. However, not all businesses are doing the right thing. I am particularly thinking of Mike Ashley forcing workers into empty Sports Direct shops. The Prime Minister has said that businesses should stand with their staff. What is his message to those who do not?

The advice—the instruction—to the gentleman in question, and indeed every business, is to follow what the Government have said: to obey the rules or to expect the consequences. That is the best way to look after not just their employees but their businesses as well.

I welcome the Prime Minister’s approach to devolution. Wales has two Governments, and his mature approach, and that of the Welsh Government, has meant that we have delivered fast legislation and efficient help, but any divergence on policy or communication causes anxiety for my constituents. The Secretary State for Health and Social Care has made an announcement on volunteering. Sadly, Welsh volunteers cannot take part in that scheme—we are cross-border—so will the Prime Minister get on the phone to the Welsh Government and say, “Let’s work together”?

I must say that in general the four nations of our United Kingdom have been working very well together, but we will get on to the Welsh Government this afternoon on the issue that my hon. Friend addresses.

In Bristol, we are desperately trying to replace free school meals for children with home provision and other provision, but there have been real problems with the supply chain. How can we make sure that those providing those meals—including Andy Street at Feeding Bristol, to whom I pay tribute—can get hold of the food they need so that kids can get good, healthy food while they are at home?

I thank the hon. Lady, who has given me the opportunity to say once again that our schools, our teachers and everybody who works in our schools, dealing with an incredibly difficult situation and looking after pupils who are children of key workers, are helping to keep our country going at a very difficult time. The administration of free school meals, supporting kids who need them, is an absolute top priority of ours. We are working on a voucher scheme at the moment.

Trying to summarise an MP’s inbox right now is not easy, but mine includes “I’m self-employed, please help us,” and, “Online delivery slots—which ones would they be?” I trust that the Prime Minister will deliver on the first, and we have covered it a lot today, but on the latter, given the demand, what can he realistically do?

We have changed the regulations so that supermarkets have a lot more freedom in their delivery hours, and obviously one of the things we want to do is ensure that we support people to help in what is at the moment an expanding sector of the employment market. We do not want to put up any barriers to online delivery at all.

I wish the Leader of the Opposition well following his final Question Time, and I say to the Prime Minister that he has the good wishes of everyone in making sure that the country gets through this.