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 Member for Rother Valley (Alexander Stafford) has withdrawn, so I call Sir Keir Starmer and welcome him to his first outing at the Dispatch Box.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 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 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 is 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
This has been raised already in this 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.
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.
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 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 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.