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Covid-19: The Union

Volume 675: debated on Wednesday 22 April 2020

Good morning, and welcome to Wales, Mr Speaker. Before I answer that question and the one grouped with it, let me thank you for all the work you and the staff of the House have done in making these proceedings possible—it is a remarkable achievement.

I welcome wholeheartedly the cross-Government and cross-party work that has taken place to respond to the covid-19 outbreak, including through regular meetings of Cobr(M) and the ministerial implementation groups.

Does my right hon. Friend agree with me and with most people in Dudley that we are stronger as one United Kingdom in responding to coronavirus? Can he let the House know whether the devolved Administration have improved outcomes for people in ways that we can share across the United Kingdom?

I join you, Mr Speaker, in congratulating my hon. Friend on his birthday. It is clear that the four-nation approach to covid-19 is not only the preferred option, but the only option in dealing with this extraordinary set of circumstances. The level of collaboration between the UK Government and the Welsh Government—in our instance—is an indication of that. So I can reassure him that that is definitely the case.

May I also wish my colleague a very happy birthday from Radcliffe? I also wish to thank my right hon. Friend for the statement he has just made, which I hope will reassure my constituents, some of whom have contacted me with concerns about the lockdown extension and its economic impact, and the supply of personal protective equipment. Will he continue to keep the House updated, particularly as economic support measures and infection control are rolled out?

I can definitely offer that assurance, and add to it by saying that I hold regular meetings, by Zoom, not only with my colleagues in Parliament but with Opposition colleagues, to achieve exactly those aims.

I would like to start by paying tribute to all NHS staff and key workers in Wales and across the UK for their outstanding efforts during this pandemic. We in the Opposition send our thoughts and prayers to all those who have tragically lost their lives, as well as to those recovering from this terrible illness, including, of course, the Prime Minister. As the UK and Welsh Governments work alongside one another to respond to the pandemic, it is vital that families and businesses have clarity on which programmes apply to Wales and which apply to the UK as a whole—that is particularly important at the Downing Street press conferences. What is the Secretary of State going to do to make sure that his colleagues across Whitehall and all Government agencies reflect the reality of devolution when responding to the pandemic?

That is an entirely reasonable observation from the hon. Gentleman. It has been an ongoing case that we have regular discussions about the communication of the issues to which he refers. To minimise confusion, it is absolutely essential that we stipulate what is devolved and what is not. Of course, in some instances that line is quite blurred, but we have such discussions every day and will continue to have them.

I echo what my hon. Friend the Member for Merthyr Tydfil and Rhymney (Gerald Jones) said about those working in the health service and those who have suffered from the virus. We know that when Ministers from Wales and the other devolved nations of the UK[Interruption.]

I do not know whether I caught any more of that than you did, Mr Speaker, but I got the general gist of it. I suspect I would have answered with something along these lines. The collaboration between the UK Government and the Welsh Government is a really important element of all this. We are determined to put our political differences aside to achieve the goal that the businesses and residents of Wales want us to achieve, which is to defeat covid-19 for good.

Does my right hon. Friend agree that the Government’s response to the coronavirus pandemic underlines the importance to Wales, and to every part of the UK, of being part of an economically powerful Union that is able to give real help to every individual business and person who needs it in times of trouble? How well does he feel that Wales would have fared had it not been part of that Union?

My right hon. Friend puts his finger on a really important point. The key thing about this period is that, almost irrespective of people’s political backgrounds, everybody has come to the conclusion that we could have dealt with this situation only as a Union; whether in Scotland, Northern Ireland, England or Wales, the Union has really mattered. Never has the “United” in United Kingdom been more important than it is now. It does not matter what kind of sceptic someone is; that is pretty blatantly obvious to everybody.

Will the Secretary of State explain why the British Government, via Public Health England, instructed major manufacturers of PPE not to supply care providers registered in Wales? To paraphrase Orwell, is it not the case that within this Union we are all equal, but some are more equal than others?

I absolutely and fundamentally reject my parliamentary neighbour’s assertion as to what the position is and, indeed, what the ambition is. Right from the start of this situation, our sole objective has been to get the right amount of kit to the right place, at the right time and in the right form. We have had huge help from across the nation, including from the Ministry of Defence, to achieve that. Even the hon. Gentleman’s SNP colleagues in Scotland recognise that that is the case. To try to make a—dare I say it—cheap political point out of a situation in which a number of people are striving to improve day by day is not an especially helpful contribution to the debate.

There is no doubt that the strength of the Union has enabled the Government to support extraordinary levels of funding for the NHS, businesses, charities, families and so many others in so many ways that few nations across the globe could manage. When a common approach has been used across our Union, we have seen efficient delivery—business rates support is one obvious example. However, when it comes to notifying the most vulnerable shielded constituents in Vale of Glamorgan about gaining access to supermarkets, it has been much more difficult, so will my right hon. Friend encourage the Welsh Government to follow a united model, rather than complicate matters needlessly?

The short answer to my right hon. Friend’s question is yes, and indeed that is already the case in my weekly, or nearly weekly, conversations with the First Minister and members of his Government. Consistency is everything. We all understand that there may be gaps in a complicated, fast-moving situation, but my right hon. Friend and I share an absolute desire to make sure that where gaps appear, the Welsh Government and the UK Government working together fix them quickly.

I thank the Secretary of State for his answer to the question put by my hon. Friend the Member for Merthyr Tydfil and Rhymney (Gerald Jones), but may I press him further? There is still concern about the Downing Street press briefings not getting across the message that we have a devolved nations system of government in the UK. What representations has the right hon. Gentleman made to the BBC and other public broadcasters to ensure that it is made clearer that certain aspects of policies announced from Downing Street or by the UK Government may not apply to Wales, or may apply differently? I am sure he agrees that it is extremely important that we get the correct information out to people across Wales and across all the nations of the UK.

The hon. Gentleman’s comments about the BBC are significant, and in fact we have already made approaches through the Wales Office to a number of media outlets to make precisely that point. Regarding the Downing Street briefings, that point will be made, and it is made. I have noticed a shift towards greater clarity about devolved and non-devolved matters. I will talk to colleagues in the relevant places to make sure that we keep as close an eye on that as we should.

In Aberconwy and across north Wales, my colleagues and I have been working with the Betsi Cadwaladr University health board to make sure that preparations are in place for the coming wave. What assurances has my right hon. Friend had from the Welsh Government about the proper prioritisation and distribution of resources across Wales? I am particularly interested in oxygen supplies.

I can offer my hon. Friend some assurances. Recently, the Welsh Government have made an application for additional military support in achieving exactly the aims he mentioned, especially in terms of oxygen supply. Whenever we have had those requests—I think the most recent was on Thursday last week, for 20 additional military planners—the UK Government’s desire is of course to grant them and get the measures in place as soon as possible.

Wales has a higher proportion of micro or very small businesses than other parts of the UK. The survival of those businesses is vital not only for the Welsh economy but for supply chains across the four nations. What discussions has my right hon. Friend had with the Welsh Government about removing some of the restrictive eligibility criteria for the economic resilience fund grants, such as the VAT status requirements, so that all the small businesses in Wales can get the help the fund promised to deliver?

The overall point about consistency in the conditions that apply to businesses in England and in Wales is an important one. In whatever we do, we have been attempting to be as aligned as it is possible to be in the particular context, and that will continue. I think there has been a positive spirit of co-operation and collaboration. Of course, I have weekly meetings with the relevant Ministers of the Welsh Government, and that point has been raised. It will be raised again, and I will report back to my hon. Friend after our next meeting, which I think will take place on Monday.