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Oral Answers to Questions

Volume 675: debated on Wednesday 22 April 2020


The Secretary of State was asked—

Covid-19: The Union

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.

Covid-19: Support for Businesses

. What recent discussions he has had with the Secretary of State for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy on support for Welsh businesses affected by the covid-19 outbreak. (901909)

Since the beginning of this crisis, Welsh Government Ministers and I have had regular discussions with the Business Secretary about the support that the UK Government can offer to Welsh businesses. We will continue to work together and in collaboration with the Welsh Government to ensure that Welsh businesses are protected and supported.

I have plenty of constituents who work across the border in north Wales, all of whom are desperate to get back to work. Some of them cannot because they fall into the protected or shielded group or have family members who do and therefore need longer-term support. When the Government produce their exit strategy, will they ensure that support continues for businesses after the lockdown has ended, so that people who are not able to go straight back to work are not forced back into work because their employers have no option, since there is no support left for them?

The hon. Member raises a point that I suspect every Member of the House has been considering over the last few days and weeks, and my right hon. Friend the First Secretary of State will no doubt refer to that in a few moments. It is fair to say that whatever the means by which we come out of the covid restrictions, this will need to be carefully considered at every step and in conjunction with the devolved Administrations, to ensure that the fairness the hon. Member seeks can, between our two Governments, be delivered.

Welsh businesses have been hard hit by this pandemic, and they desperately need support to stay viable. Despite the Chancellor promising to do all it takes, the UK Government’s loans for small and medium-sized businesses have a very low take-up rate, not because firms do not need the money but because of the personal risk involved. How will the Secretary of State ensure that more businesses in Wales can access that support, and when will the Government do the decent thing and underwrite 100% of the loans, to give businesses the confidence they need?

May I start by welcoming the hon. Lady to her position on the shadow Front Bench? I look forward to lively exchanges with her, remotely or in person. I dispute the underlying point that she makes. There has been probably as much support offered by UK Government for UK businesses as any nation on the planet affected by the coronavirus. Even the Barnettised figure for the Welsh Government of a little over £2 billion is a significant contribution to address the concerns that she raises. I stress that her point is as relevant to her colleagues in the Welsh Labour Government as it is to us in the UK Government—that is crucial. I give her an assurance that it is my intention to work with the Welsh Government to ensure those outcomes, but I hope that she will not politicise this more than absolutely necessary.

The UK Government’s job retention scheme is an important tool for Welsh businesses and their workers, but gaps in the programme have left some employees relying on dismally low universal credit payments. For example, where reduced demand means that employers need to put workers on short-time working, they cannot top up from the scheme for their lost hours. Will the Secretary of State urge his colleagues to close the gaps and introduce flexibility, so that those put on short-time working can receive a proportionate payment for their lost wages?

As the Chancellor himself has said, we are fully aware that with schemes of this nature, set up under enormous pressure and at great pace, there may be occasions when they do not work perfectly for everybody. I offer this to the hon. Lady: if there are examples of the system not being as watertight as we think it could be and she alerts me to them individually, I will take them up with either the relevant Department in the UK Government or colleagues in the Welsh Government, if that helps.

Diolch yn fawr, Lefarydd. I too would like to thank all the technical staff. Necessity is truly the mother of invention, and they have done extraordinary work. I would also like to take the opportunity to congratulate the four Plaid Cymru-run councils Gwynedd, Ynys Môn, Ceredigion and Carmarthenshire, as well as Pembrokeshire, on working together to ensure that business support money is directed to those businesses which really need it and as soon as possible.

There remains a concern that the loophole allowing holiday homeowners to register residential properties as businesses for tax purposes to avoid paying council tax will see millions of pounds directed away from legitimate businesses in other local authority areas across England and Wales. How is the Secretary of State working with the First Minister to ensure that second homeowners do not exploit the business rates system across England and Wales and, more importantly, that covid-19 business support money is diverted to the businesses that really need it as soon as possible?

I have to say that that was far too long a question. We have to have short questions in fairness to others.

On the question of collaboration, may I say how pleased I am to see the first signs of a sort of Union approach from the right hon. Lady, which bodes well for the future? On the question of second homes and/or holiday lets—the two things being distinctly different, by the way—it is absolutely crucial that a business is a business and defined as such. It would make no sense to me that a business designed around holiday lets has to go through greater hoops than some other form of business, and it is very important that the councils she mentions are consistent.

We still have experiences of people making non-essential journeys to holiday homes and second homes in Wales. The penalty at present is £60 reduced to £30. Given the forthcoming May bank holiday, can the Secretary of State make a commitment that the police will have sufficient powers to have meaningful penalties in place to stop people making those non-essential journeys?

My own police force and others—Dyfed-Powys police force is an example—have done a fantastic job in using just the right balance of carrot and stick to ensure that, where possible, most people comply with most of the regulations. I take the right hon. Lady’s point on board, but I will be guided by the police as to whether they consider that they need additional powers in that respect, and if they make a good case we will take it to the Home Secretary.

Covid-19: Medical Supplies

What steps he is taking to ensure that procurement of (a) personal protective equipment, (b) medical appliances and (c) testing kits in response to the covid-19 outbreak operates effectively between the UK and Welsh Governments. (901912)

The UK and Welsh Governments are working together closely to make sure that Wales gets the PPE, appliances and testing kits it needs. So far more than 3.4 million PPE items have been delivered to Wales. I speak to the First Minister regularly in relation to this and the use of the armed forces.

Eight hundred companies in Wales are now in touch with the Welsh Government to help to supply critical PPE and other supplies, including a major manufacturing firm in my constituency. Like many other Welsh firms, they want to help across the UK and use the strength of our Union, so why has it taken the same firm over two and a half weeks to get an answer back from the UK Government, with as yet no order placed and only after an intervention by me? Will the Secretary of State work with me to unblock that unacceptable delay?

Of course I will work with the hon. Gentleman, who has been constructive throughout this crisis. The Department of Health and Social Care and others have had a mountain to climb in relation to this and the many very kind offers they have had, but if there are administrative gaps that we need to fill, I will of course take up individual concerns where relevant.

In the absence of a vaccine or cure, large-scale testing and contact tracing will be essential tools in tackling coronavirus. In recent days, we have seen a Welsh Health Minister rip up his own testing targets, key people in my local health authority have told me they were not cited on the Deloitte plans for rolling out regional testing centres and there is no real evidence of contact tracers being recruited. Can my right hon. Friend tell me therefore who is actually running the test strategy in Wales—the UK Government, the Welsh Government or Deloitte? Furthermore, what assurances can he give that we have a clear plan based on the science, and that that remains at the heart of everything we are doing in Wales?

That was three questions rolled into one. Being driven and guided by the science is absolutely the ongoing priority of the UK and Welsh Governments. As my right hon. Friend will know, being a former Secretary of State for Wales, the question of responsibility for the pilot and other testing schemes is a matter for the devolution settlement. If there is a lack of clarity there—the test centre he mentioned is rumoured to be situated in my own constituency—I will take it up with the First Minister in Cardiff.

We now come to questions to the Prime Minister. I will be running questions for 45 minutes and I will call the First Secretary of State to answer the engagement question. I welcome him to the Dispatch Box.

Prime Minister

The Prime Minister was asked—


Thank you, Mr Speaker. I have been asked to respond on behalf of my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister, and I am pleased to tell the House that he is making a good recovery and is in good spirits.

The coronavirus pandemic presents us with one of the biggest challenges we have faced as a country in decades. Our message to the British public is clear: please stay at home to protect the NHS and save lives. As a Government, we continue to take the right measures at the right time, guided by the science and the medical experts. I pay tribute to the enormous contribution that our NHS and other frontline workers have made to tackling the virus. We owe them an enormous debt of gratitude, and we will continue to do whatever it takes to support them. Our aim has always been to protect the NHS and save lives, and with the public’s incredible support, we are doing that by flattening the peak of this virus.

I thank you, Mr Speaker, for all your efforts to ensure that Parliament can meet and apply the scrutiny to Government that we expect and embrace. The House meets in challenging times. Together we can and will defeat this virus.

I echo the sentiments about the Prime Minister. We wish him a speedy recovery. I should also tell the House that the hon. Member for Rother Valley (Alexander Stafford) has withdrawn, so I call Sir Keir Starmer and welcome him to his first outing at the Dispatch Box.

Thank you, Mr Speaker. I thank you, the House authorities and the staff for allowing us to meet in this way today; it is important that we have this scrutiny. I also send all our best wishes through the First Secretary of State to the Prime Minister for a full and speedy recovery. I am sure I speak for the whole House in sending our best wishes to all those affected by coronavirus and the condolences of the whole House to those who have lost loved ones. Again on behalf of the whole House, I offer our deepest thanks to those on the frontline, risking their lives to keep us safe and our country going.

I promised that Labour would give constructive opposition, with the courage to support the Government where that was the right thing to do. We all want and need the Government to succeed and defeat coronavirus, but we also need the courage to challenge where we think they are getting it wrong. In that spirit, I want to start with testing. Testing is obviously crucial at every stage of the pandemic, but we have been very slow, and are way behind other European countries. The Health Secretary made a very important commitment to 100,000 tests a day by the end of April, but yesterday the figure for actual tests was 18,000, and that was down from Monday, when it was 19,000 tests. We are way behind the curve and the end of the month is a week tomorrow. What does the First Secretary expect to happen in the next eight days to get us from 18,000 tests a day to 100,000 tests a day?

I thank the right hon. and learned Gentleman and I congratulate him on his success in being elected leader of the Labour party. I will certainly pass on his best wishes to the Prime Minister—I know he would want to be here in person—and I join him in paying tribute to all our NHS and other frontline workers.

The right hon. and learned Gentleman rightly raised the crucial issue of testing, which will be an incredibly important part of our strategy for transitioning from the current social distancing measures. However, I have to correct him: our capacity for tests is now at 40,000 per day. That is an incredibly important milestone. He is right to say that in the final week that will require a big increase, but of course a project like this requires an exponential increase in the final days, the final week, of the programme. I reassure him that we are working with a range of commercial partners to boost the testing to get to that 100,000 tests per day. Two of our super-labs, in Milton Keynes and Alderley Park, are now fully functional, and Glasgow will be open later this week.

I thank the First Secretary of State for his kind comments. I did not need correcting, because I gave the figure for the actual tests a day. The First Secretary says that there is capacity for 40,000 tests a day and I think it is really important that we fully understand what he just said, because it means that the day before yesterday 40,000 tests could have been carried out, but only 18,000 tests were actually carried out. All week, I have heard from the frontline, from care workers who are frankly desperate for tests for their residents and themselves—desperate. They would expect every test to be used every day for those who need them. There is clearly a problem. Why are the Government not using all the tests available every day?

It is important to pay tribute, because there are two elements to this: getting the capacity up, which is half of it, and we are making good progress—I hope that the right hon. and learned Gentleman concedes that point—and the issue of increasing the demand, which is something we have control over. Of course we are making sure that the eligibility is broadened. Our focus, as I think he would agree, should be on frontline NHS staff, broadened out to care workers and other key workers in a way that the system can manage. We are confident that, based on our test capacity, we will be able to deliver that. On the capacity itself reaching the 100,000 target, we have a range of deals with firms such as Randox, or AstraZeneca, GSK and Cambridge University working together to staff a new lab. We will deliver, and those tests will be crucial, not just to control the virus but to allow the country to move to the next phase.

I welcome the fact that capacity has gone up, but it is not now a question of driving up demand; demand is there. Last week, the Health Secretary said that every care worker who needed a test would get one, but the reality on the ground is very different, and there are very few tests indeed.

The position is this: if a care worker has symptoms of coronavirus—or a family member does—he or she has to self-isolate, quite rightly. To get a necessary test, they are then instructed to travel to a testing centre, which is often many miles away. For example, social care workers in Leicester are told to go to the outskirts of Nottingham, a 45-minute drive, in order to get tested. There are lots of examples of this across the country.

There is an obvious problem with that system. Not all care workers have access to a car and, because they or a family member have symptoms, they obviously cannot use public transport, so it is little wonder that we see those pictures of half-empty testing centres. That does not look like a good plan. It is not about driving up demand; it is about tests and where they are needed. What reassurance will the First Secretary give to care workers on the frontline that things will improve for them, and fast?

It is certainly about capacity. I addressed that issue in my earlier answers and also explained how we will bridge the 100,000. It is also about demand. We need to encourage those who are able to take the test to come forward. The right hon. and learned Gentleman is right to say that it is also about distribution and about some of the logistical and transport challenges that people, particularly some of those that he described, will have in getting to the test. We are working with the local resilience forums to make sure that we can distribute the tests as effectively as possible. We have mobile labs to go to some of those hard-to-reach areas. We will be using the Army, which, along with the other key workers, has made an incredible contribution to support that effort.

I just come back to the key point, which is that it is important to have a target and to drive towards that target. We are making good progress. We are confident that we will meet our target, and the right hon. and learned Gentleman should join me, as we engage in this national effort, in saying to the Welsh Health Minister, Vaughan Gething, who has abandoned the Welsh target in Labour-run Wales of 5,000, that, actually, all four corners of the United Kingdom need to work together in this effort to make sure that we reach that national target. It is about capacity and it is about distribution. We will only be able to hit that target if all of us come together to deliver on it.

I do recognise how hard people are working to try to drive up the number of tests, but there is a significant gap and there are only eight days left. On Monday, Manjeet Singh Riyat, an A&E consultant at the Royal Derby Hospital, sadly died of coronavirus. He was, I think, the first Sikh A&E consultant, respected widely across the country and instrumental in building up Derbyshire’s emergency services. Sadly, he is just one of the many frontline health and social care workers to have died from coronavirus during this crisis. Will the First Secretary of State tell us how many NHS workers have now died from coronavirus, and how many social care workers have now died from coronavirus?

May I just say that I entirely agree with the right hon. and learned Gentleman’s broader point, which is that our key workers who are fighting for us and tending to the most vulnerable in our society—whether in the NHS or in social care—need our full support? That is why it is so important that we ramp up the testing and ramp up the PPE deliveries. On the latest figures, my understanding is that 69 people in the NHS have died of coronavirus. I do not have the precise figure for care homes. It is more difficult to establish that number in relation to care home workers as opposed to care home residents. I think that we can all agree in this House that every one of those is a tragedy, and that that can only make us double down on our efforts to tackle this virus and to do everything we can to support those amazing workers in the NHS who are delivering so much in taking the battle to the coronavirus.

I thank the First Secretary of State for giving us the figure in relation to NHS workers and, of course, each and every one of them is a tragic case. I am disappointed that we do not have a number for social care workers, and I put him on notice that I will ask the same question again next week and, hopefully, we will have a better answer.

Let me turn to protective equipment. Clearly, this is crucial to those at risk on the frontline who are risking their lives to save ours. The least they deserve is the right protective equipment. We have all heard countless examples of frontline workers not getting the equipment that they need. This is from a Unison care worker just last weekend:

“I work in a nursing home. I’m terrified. I don’t know if residents have the virus. We are wearing home-made masks. This is horrible and I am very scared.”

That word “scared” is one that we have all heard many times in the past two or three weeks. A survey by the Royal College of Nursing found that half of nursing staff felt under pressure to work without the levels of protective equipment set out in official guidance. This has been a stress test of our resilience, and the Government plan is clearly not working. I ask the First Secretary of State to tell frontline workers at risk when they will finally get the equipment they need to keep them safe.

In relation to all those frontline staff who have passed away battling coronavirus and who have worked so hard to protect other people who are suffering, may I first say that our hearts go out to them? The right hon. and learned Gentleman is absolutely right that we must do everything we can to protect those frontline staff. I know that a consultant recently passed away at Kingston Hospital, which is where I have been treated and where both my boys were born and delivered, so I know how important and how personal this is to so many of us. We all absolutely agree on the need to protect those workers. He will know that getting PPE to where it needs to be is a massive international challenge that every country faces, from China to Germany. We have made a huge effort to provide, for example, the ventilators that have bolstered the NHS during this incredibly difficult time. If we had not done that, the NHS would not have been able to cope.

Since the start of the outbreak, we have delivered 1 billion items of personal protective equipment, and tens of millions have been distributed via the devolved Administrations. We recognise, though, that we have to strive even harder in this incredibly difficult and competitive international environment to source the equipment. That is why we brought in my noble friend Lord Deighton, formerly chief executive of the London 2012 Olympics, who has been appointed to lead on our domestic efforts.

We have delivered 34 million items of PPE across 38 local resilience forums. We have established the hotlines, the Royal Mail procedures and a new pilot website to ensure not only that we have the amount of PPE that we need, but that it can get to the most vulnerable and those on the frontline who need it the most.

I share the sentiments of the First Secretary in relation to all those working on the frontline. I also pay tribute to all those who have ramped up the capacity of the NHS. It has been incredible to see what has happened in the past few weeks, and I know that that has been a huge effort.

I understand the challenge of getting the right equipment to the right place every time, but, as the First Secretary knows, there is a significant gap between promise and delivery. Over the past few days, it has emerged that British manufacturers have got in touch with many Opposition Members, and probably with Members across the House, saying that they offered to help to produce protective equipment but did not get a response from the Government. I understand due diligence, and that not all the offers could be taken up, but some of those who offered to help are now supplying in other countries, so they clearly could have supplied in this country.

Something is going wrong, and there is a pattern emerging here. We were slow into lockdown, slow on testing, slow on protective equipment and now slow to take up those offers from British firms. The Prime Minister has said that this is a national effort, and he is right about that. In that spirit, I ask the First Secretary to commit to working with the Opposition to identify and take up those offers from British manufacturers for protective equipment as soon as possible.

I thank the right hon. and learned Gentleman, although I do not accept his premise that we have been slow. We have been guided by the scientific advice, the chief scientific adviser and the chief medical officer at every step along the way. If he thinks that he knows better than they do, with the benefit of hindsight, then that is his decision, but that is not the way we have proceeded, and it is not the way we will in future.

The right hon. and learned Gentleman mentioned offers from British businesses. It is not quite right to say that they must have been acceptable for UK standards just because they are supplying different needs for different countries abroad, but I reassure him that 8,000 businesses have offered PPE in response to the Government’s call. Every business receives a response, and 3,000 of those 8,000 are followed up where they have either the specification or the volume that makes it a sensible thing for the NHS to do.

The right hon. and learned Gentleman made a sensible point about specifications and health standards. He will know from the reporting that in other countries that have distributed PPE items without those high standards, they have been distributed with faults or flaws, they have had to be recalled, and health workers in those countries have had to go into isolation. I appreciate that he wants to put pressure on and scrutinise the Government, but I think and hope that he will understand the need to take the right decisions and to scrutinise very carefully the precious PPE that we are putting on the frontline to protect our key workers.

We have been unable to connect David Mundell, so I will go to Ian Blackford for the first of his two questions.

Thank you, Mr Speaker. As the covid-19 pandemic continues, we are reminded every day of the terrible toll that it takes on our society, and of the heroic efforts of our frontline workers. I put on record our gratitude for everything that they do.

It is now 34 days since the Chancellor first announced a package of economic support—at the time, heralded as a package of support for all businesses and workers during this health emergency. Yet, 34 days on, thousands of businesses and individuals have found themselves with no income, no support and no end in sight—all because of arbitrary cut-off dates and bureaucratic barriers imposed by the UK Government. People are being left behind.

Today, the Scottish National party is leading a cross-party call for a universal basic income to finally protect everyone. It will put cash in people’s pockets and help to ensure a strong economic recovery and a fairer society. Can the First Secretary of State give us a straight answer today: does he support that proposal, or does he reject it?

First, I pay tribute with the right hon. Gentleman to the key workers who have served every one of our four nations. I will also say, in relation to Scotland, that we recognise the UK-wide effort to tackle coronavirus: the Royal Air Force helicopters helping Scottish patients to get treatment, the Royal Regiment of Scotland setting up test centres in Glasgow, and the 11 million items of personal protective equipment that have been delivered from central Government stocks to make sure that, as one United Kingdom, we defeat the coronavirus.

I do not agree with the right hon. Gentleman’s point on universal income. The Chancellor has, I think quite rightly, adopted and announced a series of measures, second to none in the world, to support workers through the job retention scheme and to ensure that for those who do not qualify, other support such as an increase in universal credit and working tax credits is able to deal with the challenge. We need to have a very focused approach, providing the resources that we need to those who need them most. A universal income, without being based on need, would not provide that.

Of course, the simple fact is that many people are being left behind. Many people are not getting an income just now. A universal basic income is the right economic policy at the right time. Its time has come. More than 100 Members of Parliament from seven political parties—parties from across the four nations and regions of the United Kingdom—have come together to support this solution. Polling shows that 84% of the public now support it. A universal basic income is a solution that will provide support for anybody and, crucially, it will leave no one behind. It is a solution that deserves more than the answer that we got just now from the First Secretary of State. The Government should think again, because we should not be left in a situation where the self-employed, seasonal workers or others do not get the support they deserve. Will the Government think on this again and do the right thing to make sure that no one is left behind—yes or no?

I thank the right hon. Gentleman but, as I made clear in my earlier answer, we want to make sure we provide support to those who need it most. I would respectfully suggest that a universal approach, uniform and without reference to need, income or the most vulnerable in our society, is not the way to achieve it. Our plan is one of the most extensive in the world. It makes sure that workers receive 80% of their salary up to £2,500. We have already extended that to June.

We have made other forms of support available for those who do not qualify; the right hon. Gentleman talked about the self-employed and others who may not fall within the criteria of the scheme. I have made it clear that the increases to universal credit and the working tax credit basic rate, the mortgage holidays and the energy bill deferrals are the way to have a focused approach that targets resources at those who need them most and allows our economy as a whole to pull through this coronavirus.

At this time of national emergency, many people are being forced to use their bank overdrafts, yet the banks are charging 20% interest per year, which they are going to increase to 40% in July. At the same time, they are offering savers a pathetic interest rate of 0.1%. Yet these are the same banks that were saved by billions and billions of pounds of taxpayers’ money. What on earth is going on? When are the banks going to act in the national interest? Acting—[Interruption.] (901929)

I think the hon. Gentleman has been cut off in his prime. If the First Secretary can get the best out of that, we will all benefit.

I thank my hon. Friend for his question; I am pretty sure I got the gist, and he is right to refer to the support that banks need to be providing to customers. Thanks to the work of the Chancellor, the major banks and building societies have provided relief to those impacted by coronavirus, including deferring mortgage and other loan repayments, increasing overdraft limits and increasing credit card limits. By the first week of April, 1.2 million mortgage payment holidays had been granted. In this national effort, as we pay tribute to those across the country stepping up to the plate, we certainly expect the banks to do their bit.

Like Sam’s Chop House, the Frog and Bucket, and hundreds more in Manchester, nearly three quarters of hospitality businesses do not qualify for grants—and for most, loans just are not an option. Given that the hospitality and retail sectors are the lifeblood of our high streets and are likely to face the longest Government-enforced closure, will the First Secretary extend cash grants and come up with a rescue package to stop thousands of pubs, restaurants, shops and venues disappearing altogether? (901924)

I certainly agree with the hon. Lady about the challenge that we have across all the sectors she mentioned in making sure that we see them through this incredibly difficult period. We want to make sure that the country, the economy, all those small businesses and all those sectors she mentioned can bounce back. The Chancellor has introduced a whole range of measures in relation to both finance—grants, where they are capable of being made—and other tax deferrals to assist small businesses in the sectors the hon. Lady described. Certainly, of course, if there are issues with any particular businesses, I will take them away, look at them very carefully, and make sure that the Chancellor can assess whether there is any more we can do. We have to make sure, from the high street to those other sectors that are adding huge value to the economy, that we are in a position, after the coronavirus ebbs and once we come through the initial crisis, to bounce back. We will do that by looking after all those small businesses and all those sectors that the hon. Lady rightly described.

Beautiful Hastings and Rye is heavily dependent on tourism as a major driver in the local economy. Covid-19 has badly hit the tourism, leisure and hospitality industries. Has my right hon. Friend considered what measures are needed, first, to encourage domestic tourism, and secondly, to ensure that tourism and tourism-related businesses are given the right support to enable recovery from the impact of covid-19 and revive our local economies? (901930)

My hon. Friend makes a really important point. We know that the coronavirus is significantly affecting the tourism industry. That point was made by the hon. Member for Manchester Central (Lucy Powell) as well. The Chancellor has set out unprecedented support for businesses and workers, including those in the tourism sector. That includes business rate support for hospitality and leisure businesses. We have also announced a £1.3 million scheme through VisitEngland to provide support to destination management organisations at risk of closure because of the coronavirus pandemic in order to see them through this difficult time. We are committed to helping the industry to get through this crisis so that we can encourage people to take holidays and revive the tourism sector as we come through the crisis.

The Government’s Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies recommended an urgent lockdown to save lives on 26 February, but it took another three and a half weeks to implement it. The Government like to claim that they have been following the scientific advice, but they haven’t, have they? (901926)

We have at every stage, from January, when the original crisis started to break out in China, right the way through to the moment several weeks ago when we announced our social distancing measures, followed meticulously, carefully and assiduously the advice both from the chief scientific adviser and the chief medical officer. As a result of that, and as a result of the measures we have put in place, two things have happened. First of all, we have protected our precious NHS. It has not been overwhelmed in the way some had feared. Also, I pay tribute not just to the key workers we have talked about but to the huge sacrifices made by the great British public. Because of their compliance with the social distancing measures, we are starting to come through this peak. That has happened only because we have taken the right decisions, based on the evidence that we have had, at the right moment in time—and I have to say to the hon. Gentleman that that is exactly what we will continue to do.

What recent steps have the Government taken to ensure that the NHS has adequate supplies of personal protective equipment? (901931)

This has been raised already in the House, and it is critically important. I totally agree with my hon. Friend on the imminent need for getting the PPE to the places that need it most. Since the start of the outbreak, we have delivered 1 billion items of personal protective equipment, and we have ensured that we have distributed it via the devolved Administrations so that all four nations get the equipment they need. We are also working through the local resilience forums, with our local authorities and with the support of the military, to ensure that everyone who needs it, whether it is NHS key workers on the frontline or care home workers, is getting the PPE they need. With the help of my noble friend Lord Deighton, who ran the Olympics, we are going to ramp up even further our capacity not just to procure and produce PPE but to get it to where it is needed most.

At a time of national crisis, it is critical that the Government keep their word. Local councils are ensuring that communities get the support they need. I know this from the work that has taken place in Bradford: they are the government on the frontline. Will the right hon. Gentleman confirm that the Government will meet their promise to fund whatever is necessary and fully compensate local councils for all the costs and loss of income related to the covid-19 crisis, and not just provide the funding already announced, which only partially covers what the councils have already spent? (901927)

The hon. Lady is absolutely right, and I pay tribute to the councils up and down the country who, whether it is through social care or the services that they need to provide to their residents, are doing an incredible job. I can reassure her that we have already announced an additional £1.6 billion of funding just this weekend to support councils delivering those essential services on the frontline.

I welcome the Government’s commitment to write off £13 billion of debt for hospital trusts across the country, freeing up our hospitals to work through the crisis and creating a firmer foundation for the NHS when we reach the other side. Can my right hon. Friend confirm that the Government remain committed to record levels of investment in the NHS so that the world’s greatest health service can become even better? And would he be willing to look at the case for capital investment in the ageing, but amazing, award-winning North Tees Hospital? (901933)

My hon. Friend will know that under this Government the NHS will have record funding enshrined in law, the largest hospital building programme in a generation, 50,000 more nurses and 50 million extra GP appointments. In response to the coronavirus, the Chancellor has also launched a £14.5 billion coronavirus emergency response, of which £6.6 billion will go to the NHS. In relation specifically to North Tees, we would encourage the trust to continue to develop its plans and priorities for local new NHS infrastructure. We will be looking carefully at all of those.

The Port Talbot steelworks is the beating heart of the economy and the community in my Aberavon constituency, and there will be no post-pandemic recovery for our country unless we have a strong and healthy Welsh and British steel industry. The Government’s coronavirus large business interruption loan scheme is capped at £50 million, which is only one tenth of what Tata Steel believes will be the cash-flow impact on the company over a six-month period. Will the Government now urgently take steps to lift the loan cap to a level that will give our steel industry a fighting chance of surviving this crisis? (901928)

The hon. Gentleman is right to refer to the business interruption loans. We made grants of up to £25,000 available for small businesses. I understand the point he makes about the sector in his constituency. We have made changes to the loan scheme, principally to make it quicker to access, and 12,000 loans have now been approved. I know that the Chancellor is looking carefully at the steel sector in the hon. Gentleman’s constituency, and at all those who are not directly benefiting from this particular scheme to ensure that in the round we are providing the measures that we need in a targeted way to support all the different crucial elements of the economy.

One of the most striking features of the past few weeks has been the way in which so many public, private and voluntary organisations have bent themselves out of shape to deal with the pandemic, not least in my own constituency, for which I give a heartfelt thank you. Will the First Secretary join me in commending the remarkable resilience, initiative and spirit of the British people? Will he also outline what he sees as the essential ingredients for getting our country through this? (901934)

I thank my hon. Friend. We are facing a challenge we have not faced for decades in recent memory, and it is a national effort and a team effort. The critical ingredient is that the country comes together, as it has done, in this incredible national effort and national mission to defeat coronavirus. Like him, I pay tribute not just to the NHS workers, the carers and all those on the frontline, but to those in the voluntary sector and the people who we are understanding more and more are really also part of the key workers in our economy and our society—the delivery drivers, the people working in the supermarkets and all of those who are steering us through this time of national crisis. Together, we can rise to the challenge, and I am absolutely confident that we will rise to the challenge and come back, as one United Kingdom, stronger than ever.

For weeks, there has been a significant gap between promises from the Government and the reality that has been experienced by our constituents, so when will the Government learn from the delays they have experienced so far, learn from other countries and learn from the success of the speed at which the Nightingale hospitals were delivered? When will they learn from the best in crisis decision making and start to deliver solutions that fit the promises? (901932)

First, the hon. Lady is absolutely right: with an unprecedented crisis, of course we will learn lessons; there is no country in the world addressing this crisis that does not. But she is also right to refer to the Nightingale hospitals—an incredible achievement in this country. People said that we could not build a hospital in this country at that kind of speed, and we have built several, with more to come. People have said that we would not be able to get the 1 billion items of personal protective equipment; that is exactly what we have done. So we do not say that there are no challenges, and she is absolutely right to make the point that we need to learn the lessons as we go, but we are absolutely convinced that going along in a very deliberate way—learning the lessons, listening to the medical evidence, listening to the advice from the chief scientific adviser; not just abandoning it, but following it consistently—is how we will get through this crisis.

It is worth noting that one of the big risks as we go through this peak was the fear that we would find the NHS overwhelmed: it has not been overwhelmed. If we look at critical care capacity and at the ventilators that we have managed to secure, we can see that the NHS, as an institution—there have of course been heroic individual achievements—has held up well. That is a good example of how we have risen to this challenge, and we will continue to do so.

Around 100 of my West Bromwich East constituents are currently stuck in India during this pandemic, which is why I very much welcome the Government’s bold commitment to work with our international partners and the airlines to bring back our British nationals. Could my right hon. Friend provide the House with an update on the progress of this scheme? (901936)

I thank my hon. Friend. Of course, she will know that, as Foreign Secretary, I have been working flat out with the Foreign Office and our international network on that. It is worth saying that we have worked with foreign Governments and the airlines to return those stranded, and we have returned over 1 million British nationals on commercial flights. I am sure that my hon. Friend will understand that the scale of that operation is incredible and unprecedented. We have also introduced a special charter arrangement: we have put in £75 million and have a whole range of international or UK airlines signed up to it, and we have returned over 10,000 on charter flights. In fact, in the last few weeks, the Foreign and Commonwealth Office has chartered 52 flights to get more than 10,000 people back from 16 different countries, including nearly 5,000 from India, which she has mentioned. We have confirmed further flights from several countries in the next few days, including India, Pakistan and Bangladesh.

In an answer to the Leader of the Opposition, the Foreign Secretary mentioned a consultant who died at Kingston Hospital, my local hospital. That consultant’s name was Anton Sebastianpillai. Anton came to the UK after qualifying as a doctor in Sri Lanka in 1967. Anton worked in our NHS for decades, and he was treating coronavirus patients when he caught the disease and, sadly, died. He was the best of us. On behalf of Anton and the other brave NHS and careworkers who made the ultimate sacrifice for others, and so that we learn the lessons urgently ahead of a future pandemic, will the Government commit now to a future independent, judge-led inquiry into how this crisis has been handled? (901935)

I thank the right hon. Gentleman and join him in paying tribute to Dr Anton Sebastianpillai. I know at first hand—I have been into Kingston Hospital; my boys were born there and I have been treated there—the incredible work they do there. It is my local hospital too, so I join the right hon. Gentleman in paying tribute to what they have done.

I have to say that I will not take up the right hon. Gentleman’s offer of committing to a public inquiry. There are definitely lessons to be learnt, and when we get through this crisis it will be important that we take stock and come together to understand, with such an unprecedented challenge on an international scale, what can be done to avoid it happening again. Right now, as we come through the peak of the virus, from our key NHS frontline workers to members of the public, people would rightly expect our full focus to be on making sure that we save lives, protect the NHS and steer the whole country through this crisis, rather than engaging in that process and that set of deliberations right now.

The First Secretary of State will be aware that the Army has played a vital role in the UK’s response to the coronavirus, but he may not know that in Wales the joint military command was stood up in Brecon barracks in my constituency. From there, it has been supporting local resilience forums around the country, including our seven regional health boards. I am extremely proud that Brecon is the home of the Army in Wales. As the Ministry of Defence ponders the future for Brecon barracks, will the First Secretary of State join me in thanking the Army for setting up the joint command so quickly and for working so hard? (901937)

I absolutely join my hon. Friend in paying tribute, as I did in answer to a question in relation to Scotland, to the heroic effort that our armed forces are making in all four corners of the United Kingdom, in particular in relation to Wales. Our servicemen and women have worked tirelessly to help to build the hospitals, drive the ambulances and deliver the PPE to where it is needed most. We pay tribute to them, along with the other key workers, and we also pay tribute to the UK armed forces in all four corners of the United Kingdom for helping to deliver and get this country through the coronavirus challenge.

Diolch, Lefarydd. If the lockdown is lifted in one nation or region because it is past the peak, we will see confusion and people starting to move around, which runs the risk of spreading further infection. Will the First Secretary of State confirm that if the four-nations approach is to be meaningful, the four Governments must have an equal say, and that lifting the lockdown can only happen by the unanimous agreement of the four Governments together?

May I first pay tribute to the Administrations in Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales? I think it is fair to say that, through the Cobra meetings, we have had excellent co-operation between all four nations, and indeed with the current Mayor of London. That is critically important. If the right hon. Lady looks at the social distancing measures, she will see that there has been remarkable consistency in all four nations in terms of compliance. I hope that we can continue to work together on a collaborative basis as we look towards the second phase; and, certainly on behalf of the UK Government, we are committed to doing that.

Twycross Zoo in my constituency is world renowned for its conservation work and indeed for protecting endangered species, but it is now endangered itself, with overheads of £650,000 a month and no income coming in. It has joined others such as Bristol Zoo, Chester Zoo and London Zoo in asking for £100 million from the Government to help it to care for the animals. Will the Government commit to supporting good zoos so that, just like the animals they protect, they will be here for us all to learn from in the future?

I thank my hon. Friend for his question and absolutely agree with him: we have to look after the zoos and all the incredible animals that they put on display for all of us. I am pleased to announce that, as a result of our engagement and consultation, a new zoos support fund will be launched and opened soon. It will be able to provide dedicated support, alongside that already made available by the Treasury, to help zoos to care for their animals during this crisis. I urge the zoos concerned to look at the range of financial support already available, and also to contact officials at the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs so that we can see how it can best be tailored for them.

Thank you, Mr Speaker.

Last Sunday, the UK and 18 other G20 countries endorsed a comprehensive communiqué on covid-19 and future global pandemic preparedness. That much-needed action plan was then effectively vetoed by the USA as part of its unfounded attack on the World Health Organisation. Given that the Prime Minister is reported to have spoken to Donald Trump yesterday, can the First Secretary of State assure the House that Britain believes that the World Health Organisation is critical to the future of global health security, and that this country will not be drawn into the US President’s disgraceful vendetta against the World Health Organisation?

First, I reassure the hon. Lady that we fully support international efforts. Indeed, we are a leading player—whether on vaccines or on supporting vulnerable countries—in helping to get through what is a global crisis. We recognise that the WHO has a role to play. It is not perfect—no international institution is. We do need to work to reform it, but we have made it clear that we consider it to be an important part of the international response, and the UK will continue to lead the way in that effort.