With your permission, Mr Speaker, I will make a statement on the work the Government have undertaken over recent weeks to support and steer our critical public services through the coronavirus pandemic. First, I thank all those on the frontline of our public services for the spirit of selflessness and commitment to others that they have demonstrated in dealing with this pandemic—nurses, doctors, porters, cleaners, paramedics, pharmacists, care home staff, prison and police officers, teachers, social workers and those preparing and delivering food, collecting our refuse and administering the welfare system. They deserve our gratitude; they need our support. They are in all our minds. They are the very best of us. I am sure that everyone in the House observed that one-minute silence at 11 o’clock today, as we reflected on the sacrifices being made by so many on our behalf.
This pandemic has claimed more than 20,000 lives and has left every community across the country grieving. Our thoughts and prayers are with all those who have suffered loss, in the humble knowledge that every life is precious. As the Prime Minister said on his welcome return to work yesterday, we are dealing with
“the biggest single challenge this country has faced since the war”.
Like him, I thank the British people for their forbearance and solidarity as we have all had to abide by the guidance on social distancing, which restricts cherished liberties but protects precious lives.
The challenges that the pandemic confronts us with require an unprecedented response from Government. For that reason, as the House will know, on 17 March, we established four ministerial implementation groups to lead the Government’s response to this pandemic. The Health Secretary chairs one group, co-ordinating work on the NHS and social care; the Chancellor chairs the group considering how to support business and the economy; and the Foreign Secretary chairs the group co-ordinating our international response. I chair the general public sector group, which looks at how we support the delivery of public services beyond the NHS and social care, working with colleagues from across the UK Government and Ministers from the Scottish Government, Welsh Government and Northern Ireland Executive. I am very grateful to colleagues from the devolved Administrations for their participation and their constructive contributions to all our discussions. Those discussions have helped us to understand how the virus has affected every part of our United Kingdom, enabling us to take action that meets the needs of people across all our nations.
The ministerial implementation group has now met 30 times, and we have considered the impact of the pandemic on: schools and children’s services; the police; the Prison and Probation Service; the courts; the food supply chain; the welfare system; charities; and support for the most vulnerable. With my colleague the Environment Secretary, we have been working to address the shortfall in the agricultural workforce, in order to protect our domestic food supply, working closely with the industry to launch the “Pick for Britain” campaign. Working with the Education Secretary, we have established the free school meal voucher scheme, to make sure that children who need it can continue to access food, despite school closures. That scheme has seen 15,500 schools place orders for vouchers, of which £29 million has been redeemed. We were able to ensure that more than 60% of schools were open every day over the Easter holidays to provide places for the children of critical workers and vulnerable children. In addition, we have launched the Oak National Academy, providing 180 video lessons each week. We have committed £100 million to ensure that remote education is accessible for all, including by providing laptops, tablets and routers to disadvantaged children. Since the end of March, 90% of rough sleepers known to councils have been made an offer of accommodation, ensuring that some of the most vulnerable people in our society can stay safe during this pandemic.
Of course, we recognise that this is not just a national crisis; it is also a local one, in communities across the country. We have deployed dedicated military planning support to every local resilience forum. There are 156 military planners embedded across the country, helping the LRFs to co-ordinate and protect local services and supplies, with additional support from senior Whitehall officials and named resilience advisers in regional knowledge hubs. Of course, this crisis has put existing services under huge strain. To bolster them, we have worked with the Ministry of Defence to mobilise a covid support force of 19,060 strong, of whom 2,948 personnel are now committed, supporting a total of 79 military assistants to the civil authority tasks nationwide.
Our police have been working hard to keep people safe, while enforcing the new measures the Prime Minister put in place just over a month ago. They have issued 3,203 fines between 27 March and 13 April to those who have flouted social distancing rules, and this number will have increased considerably since then—this is all dedicated to helping to save lives and protect the NHS. We have tested more than 150,000 key workers and their families for coronavirus, allowing those who do not have it to go back to work and protecting those who do have it. We have also made sure that the civil service and the wider public sector are resourced to operate under the considerable new pressures imposed by this virus. We have worked to fill about 1,300 covid-19 roles through civil service redeployments, with more than 400 civil servants now moving to the Department of Health and Social Care.
We also recognise that there are people who have developed new needs as a result of coronavirus, as well as individuals whose pre-existing needs are now more acute or more complex. The Government are undertaking a programme of work to support those who have not been identified as shielded but who are still vulnerable. We know that many local community organisations have stepped forward to help their friends and neighbours at this time. The Government want to support that activity, and we welcome the important role that volunteers, charities and local authorities are playing throughout this crisis. More than 750,000 people have signed up to the NHS volunteer responders programme, and more than 600,000 have had their ID verified, to start helping with tasks such as collecting shopping, providing telephone support, transporting patients and helping with supplies for the NHS. To support this effort, and to make sure that people know where to turn, we have been working to signpost people to existing and available support, whether local, national or voluntary, through the website address www.gov.uk/find-coronavirus-support. This service has supported more than 35,000 people since its launch on 10 April. In addition, we are working with supermarkets to ensure that a greater number of online delivery slots are made available explicitly to those most in need. We have also been working to understand and identify where there are gaps in provision, and what government, working with local and voluntary partners, can do to address that. A notable example of that is the Home Office’s announcement of an initial £2 million of funding to immediately bolster domestic abuse helplines and online support for those at risk.
There will, of course, be further challenges ahead, and I do not shirk from acknowledging that we as a Government will not have got every judgment right. Indeed, many people, including the hon. Member for Leeds West (Rachel Reeves) have asked fair questions about the Government’s response in a constructive spirit. I and my colleagues will do our best at all times to respond to those questions and challenges, because we owe it to our public sector workers to work collaboratively, and to harness all available resources in the fight against this virus. In that light, it is important to recognise just how much we all owe to the stoicism and steadfastness, hard work and heroism, compassion and commitment of those working on the front line of public service. We owe them so much, and we in Government will do everything we can to support them. It is in that spirit that I commend this statement to the House.
I thank the Minister for his good words about the constructive approach taken by the Opposition, which is very much our approach, and for an advance copy of his statement.
This year is the 72nd anniversary of our national health service, and perhaps never in its history have we appreciated it as much as we do today. To all our public sector workers, in all our public services, let me say this: we are all hugely grateful for everything you do. You are the foundation stone of our communities and our society.
Let me start by asking the Minister about social care. Unlike our national health service, social care is hugely fragmented but no less vital. At the weekend, Ministers said that deaths in care homes were declining in the same way as they are in hospitals. However, the most up-to-date statistics tell a different story. Weekly figures published today by the Office for National Statistics show that 4,316 deaths outside hospitals that involved covid-19 were registered in England and Wales up to 19 April. Of those, 3,096 took place in care homes—almost treble the number of deaths recorded the previous week. The number of overall deaths in care homes has trebled in three weeks. Will the Minister now correct the Government’s claims that deaths in care homes are falling? Without accurate and up-to-date information, it is difficult to know how this awful virus is progressing. Will the Minister commit to work with the Care Quality Commission and the Office for National Statistics to publish data on a daily basis, just as we do for our hospitals?
It is over a month since the Government introduced the lockdown measures, which the Opposition support. We all recognise that there will be no rapid return to the world we knew before, but what might the journey out of lockdown look like? Lockdown comes with its own risks. Refuge has reported a 25% spike in calls to the National Domestic Abuse Helpline, and the number of deaths associated with domestic violence have more than doubled. Will the Minister support our calls for £75 million to be made available to domestic violence charities to support those who are struggling? What assessment have the Government made of current PPE provisions, and other protections that the police will need going forward?
One of the most concerning aspects of the lockdown has been the impact on vulnerable children who risk falling behind their peers, despite the best efforts of our teachers and social workers. The Government must give advice to schools that is based on scientific advice, but will the Minister confirm that they are working on plans to reopen schools with school leaders, education unions and parents? One million children lack access to electronic devices on the internet, which are essential for home learning. Will the Government consider expanding their scheme to provide free devices to children who are in need of them? Will the Minister update the House on efforts to ensure that our most vulnerable children are safe during lockdown?
Let me turn to personal protective equipment and face masks, because the Cabinet Office is responsible for Government procurement. An increasing number of countries are advising the wearing of face masks when out in public. Face masks are now mandatory in shops or on public transport in many German states, and the Japanese Government have sent free face masks to 50 million households. To prepare for that possibility and to learn from the mistakes that the Government made in not stockpiling or sourcing sufficient levels of PPE for NHS and care staff, will the Minister say how many face masks the Government have stockpiled? How many would we need on a monthly basis if they became mandatory out in public? Where has the stockpile been sourced from, and where are additional face masks being produced? What preparations have been made to ensure their effective and fair distribution?
Members across the House will be aware of shortages in PPE in hospitals, care homes, and for other frontline workers in their constituencies. A survey by the Royal College of Physicians has shown that 27% of doctors are still being forced to reuse single-use protective equipment, more than 30% do not have access to protective gowns, and just 50% have access to protective goggles. Does the Minister accept that those statistics from the Royal College of Physicians show the reality for too many doctors?
Following last night’s “Panorama”, how can the Government claim to have delivered 1 billion items of PPE, when that number included counting individual gloves and paper towels? Will the Minister provide the House with a breakdown of those 1 billion PPE items by type, and place a copy in the House of Commons Library today? With huge PPE shortages in care homes, will the Minister say when the so-called “clipper” service will be up and running for local councils to access PPE, with reports that it will not be available for another three weeks?
Is he confident about the standards of PPE in care homes, given that our advice falls below that of the World Health Organisation standard?
We came to the lockdown too late, with inadequate PPE and testing too late, so we want the Government to get the decisions right this time to help people to plan, to ensure that the Government take the right action to prevent infection rates rising again, and to build and maintain the confidence of the public. Will the Government commit to holding talks with teachers, trade unions, businesses and local authorities about how a strategy can be developed in the best interests of public health and the economy? Will the Minister commit to publishing the Government’s next steps?
We stand ready to support the Government. It is in our national interest that we defeat this virus, and the questions posed today are to help the Government and all of us get the answers to these difficult questions right. I hope that, as we come through this, we will build a national recovery plan to help our NHS, public services, businesses, workers, families and communities to recover, to be more resilient, to end austerity and to value, cherish and reward what really matters to all of us, now and in the future.
May I join you, Mr Speaker, in welcoming the hon. Member for Leeds West (Rachel Reeves) back to the Front Bench? She demonstrated, in the detailed and thoughtful questions she asked, what an asset she will be to the Opposition in the months to come. I congratulate her on her elevation to the shadow Cabinet—it is richly deserved.
The hon. Lady rightly points out that this is the 72nd year in which the national health service has existed, and she rightly reminds us all that if ever there was an occasion, a moment or a crisis that reminds us how much we need and cherish our national health service, this is it. I underline my thanks to all those who work in the NHS, just as she did.
The hon. Lady asked specifically about social care, and she cited the figures from the Office for National Statistics that have just been produced. Those figures relate to deaths in the week up to 17 April, and they are indeed deeply concerning. The coronavirus pandemic has affected our communities. We have had outbreaks in hospitals and particularly distressing outbreaks in care homes.
The way in which we record deaths in the NHS depends on each NHS trust reporting daily on deaths. Care home deaths are recorded differently through a model that the Office for National Statistics has used that provides us with a weekly update on deaths overall. We will, of course, look at all ways in which we can ensure that we have the most accurate information, but the method that we have used is the one that the national statistician has underpinned as robust and reliable. While we all want information as rapidly as possible, we also need reliable information to ensure that our response is appropriate and adequate. The hon. Lady suggested that we work with the Care Quality Commission and the Office for National Statistics to see if we can improve the collection of data, and we will of course at all times look to ensure that we have data that is both timely and accurate to make sure that we have the right response.
The hon. Lady also mentioned domestic violence, and it is sadly the case that the number of reported incidents, or the number of calls to domestic violence helplines, have shown that there is an increased risk and danger for many under our lockdown stipulations. She rightly drew attention to the fact that as well as the £2 million that we have devoted to charities, the Government have made available an additional £750 million to them. I know that the Minister for safeguarding, my hon. Friend the Member for Louth and Horncastle (Victoria Atkins), is talking to the Treasury now about how we can ensure that a proportion of that £750 million can go to those who are at risk of domestic violence.
The hon. Member for Leeds West also asked about vulnerable children. It is absolutely the case that we ensured that schools would remain open so that not just the children of key workers but vulnerable children could attend. However, the proportion of vulnerable children who have been attending school is lower than many of us would want. Detailed work is going on with schools and local authorities to make sure that we can encourage and support more families to ensure that vulnerable children are in school, where they can receive the education and support they need. The Education Secretary will be saying more about that in due course.
It is also the case, as the hon. Lady rightly pointed out, that because of the lockdown measures, there is a risk of increasing educational inequality. Children in homes with access to technology and with parents capable of providing support will find it easier to keep up their learning than those without, which is why we have instituted the virtual academy that I referred to in my statement. It is also why we need to work even harder to ensure that children have the resources they need, and that poorer children and vulnerable children are in school as quickly as possible.
The hon. Lady asked if we would talk to teaching unions and others in education. We will do just that, because part of our effort to ensure that we can have a safe exit from some of the restrictions that we face at the moment will be dialogue with employers, trade unions and others, and her question gives me the opportunity to say how much I appreciated the chance to talk to trade unions in forums organised by Frances O’Grady. In particular, I appreciated the conversation I had with my friend and colleague Len McCluskey, in which he made a number of valuable suggestions about how we as a country could respond more effectively.
The hon. Lady mentioned face masks as part of a broader effort to ensure that we have the right personal protective equipment. As she knows, there is a difference between the high-spec surgical face masks that will be required in NHS and other healthcare settings, and the sorts of face coverings that can ensure that we limit the droplets that each of us might be responsible for producing in particular settings. I can confirm that Lord Agnew, the joint Cabinet Office and Treasury Minister, has launched a domestic effort to ensure that we produce just such masks, and that is part of the broader effort that Lord Deighton is leading on to ensure that we can bolster the production of personal protective equipment.
The hon. Lady asked about the detailed figures on personal protective equipment. The figures that the Government have produced refer to the fact that we have distributed, in the course of this crisis, 143 million masks, 163 million aprons, 1.8 million gowns and 547 million gloves. Depending on the surgical setting, gloves are sometimes delivered in pairs, groups of four, or different consignments. On 26 April, we had delivered over 90 million items of PPE across the health and social care system, and the figure specifically on that day included 1.6 million masks, 5.8 million aprons, 46,000 gowns and 10.5 million gloves.
Of course, it is incumbent on all of us to make sure that we do everything we can to support those on the frontline, and it is in that spirit that I thank the hon. Lady for her questions and look forward to working with her and other colleagues to put our frontline public sector workers first.
Will my right hon. Friend join me in thanking the wonderful volunteers and staff at McNair Shirts in Slaithwaite for the PPE gowns that they have produced for local hospitals in Huddersfield and Halifax? Will he also tell me what the Government are doing to improve the local procurement of protective equipment so that local companies and volunteers who are making their own PPE can get it to our frontline staff and carers—the ones who actually need it?
I thank my hon. Friend for his question and commend the work of those in his constituency. We have seen a great national effort to support those on the frontline. There has been the establishment of scrub hubs, as individuals have deliberately set out to use their own time, energy and resources to provide additional material for those on the frontline of our NHS. The Government have received over 10,000 offers of support and help with respect to the provision, supply and distribution of personal protective equipment, and we are responding to them all.
We now go over to Pete Wishart, who has two minutes.
Thank you very much indeed, Mr Speaker.
May I thank the right hon. Gentleman for prior sight of his statement, albeit at the last possible moment, and gently encourage him to do more to engage with all Opposition parties throughout this pandemic? We have had no communication with him for weeks.
May I join the right hon. Gentleman in paying tribute to all those who work in our public services? They go way above and beyond in their duty of care for all nations. I also, of course, welcome the hon. Member for Leeds West (Rachel Reeves) to her new place on the Labour Front Bench. I, too, look forward very much to working with her.
Those in our public services should expect our full support and to be given the very best equipment to carry out their heroic and difficult tasks. Last night the nation watched with horror the BBC’s “Panorama” report on a timetable of inaction and unpreparedness. It reported that those working in public services were being sent out to the frontline without the necessary protection, and that the Government were told years ago to stockpile certain PPE to cope with a pandemic but failed to do so.
May I therefore ask the right hon. Gentleman some gentle questions? First, why were we so unprepared? Why were gowns, visors, swabs and body bags left out of the stockpile when it was set up in 2009? Surely cleaning products are not counted as PPE, and there should be no question at all that individual gloves are counted as single PPE items. I also want the right hon. Gentleman to convince me that paper towels are not counted as PPE. The Royal College of Physicians has found that 27% of doctors are reusing, or have used, their PPE. Why are they having to reuse PPE?
The Health Secretary said that 11 million PPE items had been sent to Scotland, which is our responsibility, from the UK pandemic stockpile, but that has now been downgraded to only “committed”. How many items from that 11 million have actually been delivered?
We all want to get behind this Government and to cheer them on when they are doing their best, but we also want them to admit when mistakes are made and to acknowledge shortcomings. Is the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster now prepared to acknowledge his shortcomings and admit to some of those mistakes?
I am very grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his questions. On the subject of communication between the Government and parties, in nearly all of the 30 meetings that my ministerial implementation group has held, there have been representatives of the Scottish Government, the Welsh Government and the Northern Ireland Executive. I have had the opportunity to discuss how we can co-ordinate our response with Scottish Government Ministers including Mike Russell, Aileen Campbell and John Swinney, and it has been a pleasure to do so. They have operated in a collaborative fashion, as have the Labour members of the Welsh Government, and the Democratic Unionist party, Sinn Féin, Ulster Unionist party, Alliance, and Social Democratic and Labour party Ministers of the Northern Ireland Executive.
Indeed, I noted that on Radio 4’s “Westminster Hour” just the other night, the hon. Member for Aberdeen North (Kirsty Blackman), the deputy leader of the SNP group in Westminster, paid tribute to the extent of collaborative work. I am sorry that the hon. Member for Perth and North Perthshire (Pete Wishart) does not agree with the deputy leader of his parliamentary delegation and has such little faith in Scottish Government Ministers making sure that priorities are addressed in the daily meetings we have.
The hon. Gentleman asked about the stockpile of personal protective equipment. The stockpile that we had before this pandemic was explicitly designed in accordance with advice from the Government’s scientific advisers on the new and emerging respiratory virus threats advisory group, and of course it was explicitly for a flu pandemic. The nature of coronavirus is different from that of a flu pandemic, as we all know, and we, like every Government across the world, have had to respond to this new virus by ensuring, not just with personal protective equipment but in every respect, that we are in a position to retool, refit and upgrade our response.
The hon. Gentleman asked about the support that the UK Government are giving to Scotland. I am pleased to confirm that the UK pandemic stockpile has been responsible for transferring millions of items to the NHS in Scotland. It is also the case that the new testing centres in Scotland have been set up with the assistance of the British Army, and that our RAF has been responsible for supporting the Scottish national health service in making sure that individuals in remote island communities can receive the care they need. And, of course, it is the strength of the UK Exchequer that has allowed business support to be provided to Scottish businesses.
One of the truly impressive things about the response across these islands has been the way in which people have put aside their ideological and political differences to work in the interests of one United Kingdom. Even at a time of test and trial for our nations, we should take pride in the efforts of the Northern Ireland, Scottish, Welsh and English people.
May I wholeheartedly join my right hon. Friend in the tribute he paid to NHS staff and all the key workers throughout the four nations of our kingdom? As we draw close to the summer, the agricultural sector’s need for labour is increasing. With reduced access to foreign labour, what steps are the Government taking to support the agricultural sector?
My hon. Friend is absolutely right. One of the steps that the Environment Secretary has taken, which I referred to briefly in my statement, is to work with the farming industry in order to ensure that more UK workers can support our farmers to produce the food we need. Whether it is picking asparagus or soft fruit or helping in other ways, thousands of people have stepped up to help our farming sector. It is vital work, and I commend all those who are doing it.
We have seen Wales move ahead of the UK Government in many areas throughout this crisis, but in an effort to ensure greater collaboration, with decisions coming out of the lockdown made equally, the First Minister of Wales has called for a new weekly framework of decision making between the four nations. Will the right hon. Gentleman agree to that proposal, under which officials meet during the first part of the week and Ministers then meet before a final meeting at Cobra?
It is not necessarily appropriate to have a full Cobra meeting every week. When those meetings do occur, we will of course ensure that all representatives—First Ministers or Deputy First Ministers—of the devolved Administrations are invited. I enjoy regular conversations with Mark Drakeford and his colleagues, and I am always happy to discuss with him in any forum the steps that we should take together.
The additional capacity for testing careworkers and their families if they have symptoms of covid-19 is welcome news, but what plans are there to extend that to all careworkers who have been in contact with residents or staff who have covid-19 and to those who work outside the NHS in other care sectors?
The number of tests capable of being administered and being administered has increased significantly in recent days, as we move towards our 100,000 target. My hon. Friend is right: careworkers are at the front of the queue. We now have across the United Kingdom 48 testing centres, each of which will have two military units assigned to them, in order to be able to do mobile testing, and care homes are our first priority.
I want to press the Minister further on what he said to my hon. Friend the Member for Leeds West (Rachel Reeves) about deaths in care homes. He said that “every life is precious”. We know from the CQC that 4,343 people died in care homes between 10 April and 24 April, and that is just up to four days ago. We now know that one in three people are dying from covid in care homes. Why are the Government not doing a better job of valuing every tragic loss and informing policy better by making it a real priority to have up-to-date figures on all deaths from covid-19?
We do value every life. Every life is precious, and the deaths of those in care homes, in our hospitals and in the community are a source of grief, sadness and loss to us all. The figures that we produce are the figures that the Office for National Statistics validates. It is vital that Government figures are supported by the ONS, so that they are robust and detailed, but we will work with everyone constructively to ensure that we have the appropriate data in order to ensure that our response is tailored in accordance with those facts and with the science.
I thank my right hon. Friend for the “Pick for Britain” initiative, but why are the employers being so picky, with many people being told that their services are not required? What assessment has been made of the potential impact of mandatory quarantine on air travellers, which will certainly devastate business travel?
I would hope that all employers will make use of the willing hands available. I am not the most dextrous of Members of this House, but even I was able to help with the tattie howking when I was younger, so all willing hands can help in our fields at this time. On the question of quarantine and how we deal with international travel, it is important that we ensure that we depress the infection curve here, but of course we are keeping under review our approach towards international travellers.
Hundreds of thousands of people working legally in the UK have no recourse to public funds, so stopping work means many have been left with no income at all. Will the Government lift the no recourse to public funds restriction for the duration of this crisis, to give those hard-working families a chance?
This is a matter that has been discussed at the Ministry with the implementation group and it is under review.
I thank my right hon. Friend for the excellent work that he and his colleagues are doing, and particularly the team behind the gov.uk website, which is world-leading in how rapidly updated and comprehensive it is. That is a significant achievement. May I press him, though, and ask that when the time is right—I hope that will be soon—the outdoor economy and garden centres, including those in West Sussex, will be in the first wave of modifications? They are important to the emerging mental health crisis, but they are also—if I can put it this way—economically wilting with every day of the peak growing season that they remain closed.
I thank my hon. Friend for his kind words about the Government Digital Service and gov.uk. The civil servant who leads the work on gov.uk, Jen Allum, been doing a wonderful job in making sure that we can provide people with accurate, timely and comprehensive information. My hon. Friend also makes a valid point about garden centres. One of the things we know about this disease is that it spreads more easily inside than outside and, as the Government reflect on how to lift the current restrictions, that will be an important factor.
On 11 March, I asked the Secretary of State for Health and Social Care whether he would be providing protective equipment for care workers. I was told that the Government were taking that into account. Given the right hon. Gentleman’s Department’s responsibility for procurement, will he please confirm when a full assessment was made of the protective equipment needs of social care providers, when that equipment started to be distributed, and when Clipper, the long-promised central distribution service for local resilience forums, will finally be operational?
New guidance was issued and approved on the appropriate use of personal protection equipment in health and also in social care settings some fortnight ago, and the Clipper service will be there to ensure that all local resilience forums and local service providers can have access to additional personal protective equipment.
Will my right hon. Friend explain how he is working with the devolved Administrations to ensure that all four nations of the UK have the best possible advice in a timely manner to ensure that they are able to deal with this pandemic?
My hon. Friend is absolutely right to stress that working together across the United Kingdom is the right way to deal with this pandemic. The chief medical officers of all four parts of the United Kingdom meet regularly and scientific advice is shared across the United Kingdom. We want to ensure, as we ease any restrictions, that we do so in as united a way as possible, because consistency of messaging is critical to ensuring that all of us see some of our cherished liberties restored while at the same time protecting precious lives.
Today, on International Workers’ Memorial Day, our key workers and public sector workers are even more at the forefront of our minds. A decade of Tory-led austerity has hugely cut apart our public services, which play a crucial part in protecting us from covid-19. Scottish public services have lost out on over £13.9 billion in real terms. Does the Secretary of State agree that the current crisis shows that we need more support for public services, not less?
The hon. Lady is right that we are all reminded of how much we rely on public services, but it is the case that the Scottish Government operate a deficit. The UK Government support the Scottish Government in making sure that public services can be protected. Per capita spending on public services—health and education—is higher in Scotland as a result of the resources that the UK Exchequer provides. This crisis reminds us all that when we work together, while recognising the distinctive nature of each of the four parts of the United Kingdom, we are stronger.
The tourism, leisure and hospitality sector is very important in the Waveney area, and business owners and their staff face serious challenges both while the lockdown is ongoing and once it has been lifted. Notwithstanding the Government’s welcome support packages, some businesses do not qualify, and seasonal workers, who could not be furloughed, face a worrying immediate future. Can my right hon. Friend confirm that he is working in a co-ordinated way with other Departments, the devolved Administrations, local government and industry on a sustained recovery strategy?
My hon. Friend is absolutely right; in Lowestoft, Beccles and so many other coastal and near-coastal communities, hospitality and other seasonal sectors will be particularly badly affected by the pandemic. That is very much in the minds of the Chancellor and the Business Secretary, and we will be saying more in due course.
Does the Minister accept that one of the lessons of this crisis is that the Government should collect much more data on a routine basis so that they have a much more informed picture of the reality of life in our care homes?
I think we should collect more data of every kind, make that data open and transparent, and allow people to use that data in a smart way, in order to ensure that we tailor the delivery of public services to those who need them most. The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right.
I join my right hon. Friend in paying tribute to our amazing frontline public sector workers. Does he agree that anyone who is convicted of spitting or coughing at those key workers, or of threatening them with covid, should receive an immediate custodial sentence?
My hon. Friend makes a powerful point. My view is that it is up to the police and the criminal justice system to decide the appropriate response in such situations. It is often the case that non-custodial sentences are as effective as custodial sentences for certain offences, and we also need to ensure that our prison estate is kept as free of infection as possible. An appropriate balance needs to be struck, but my hon. Friend presents a fair challenge, and I will share it with the Justice Secretary.
My question is straightforward. Can the Minister tell me—no generalities, no kicking the can down the road—on what specific date all care workers can expect to receive PPE?
I hope it will be the case that all care workers are currently receiving PPE. If there are specific examples of specific care homes where PPE has not been provided, I will be grateful to the hon. Lady for letting me know.
Across Bolsover we have seen many individuals and groups step up and really go above and beyond their duty at this time of national crisis. Will my right hon. Friend’s committee look into the possibility of creating a special honours list for individuals and organisations that have made such a valuable contribution? May I go further and pass on the suggestion of Brian Kirkland, a constituent of mine in Morton, that we should have an annual day to celebrate the work of our NHS staff?
I am grateful to my hon. Friend. Brian Kirkland’s suggestion is a noble one and I will pass it on to the Prime Minister. Of course, honours are a matter for the Crown, but I am sure that the sentiment my hon. Friend expresses will be well understood across the country.
Recent reports have stated that the contract for the NHS tracking app, which will handle huge amounts of personal and confidential data, is going to be given to the brother of a No.10 data scientist and former vote leave employee and a friend of Dominic Cummings. If this app is to be effective, we need the buy-in from the overwhelming majority of the public. What measures are the Government taking to ensure that trust in this app can be established and maintained?
I am grateful to the hon. Lady for her question. It seems to me that whether someone voted leave or remain is irrelevant to the question of their participation in helping us to resolve this crisis. It is my understanding that the app is being developed by NHSX, which is the arm of the NHS responsible for technological innovation under the leadership of the inspirational public servant, Matthew Gould.
I join others in thanking all our key workers, especially those across Chatham and Aylesford, including the many teachers and nursery workers who have worked non-stop, including through the Easter holidays, to keep vulnerable children and children of key workers in schools during this crisis. Will my right hon. Friend join me in also thanking our postmen and women up and down the country, many of whom are trying to work safely in unusual conditions while continuing to provide a service that my own postie describes as similar to the levels at Christmas?
My hon. Friend makes a very, very important point. Postal workers and those who work in the Royal Mail are doing so much to ensure that individuals can keep in touch and that we can all get the goods that we need at this critical time. I am happy to join her in praising postal workers, workers in the Royal Mail, and members of the Communication Workers Union for everything they are doing at this time.
PPE is essential for frontline NHS workers and care staff. May I ask how the Government responded to the offer of the British Chambers of Commerce in March to help co-ordinate spare PPE for businesses and get it to the frontline?
As I mentioned earlier, we have had 10,256 offers overall for support with supply, manufacture and distribution of PPE. We have had 192 specific offers of support for the manufacture of PPE, 30 of which are now being taken forward in order to ensure that the equipment that people want to manufacture will be suitably safe for distribution.
I also want to join the chorus of thanks to our public sector workers for their extraordinary response. In conversation with many of them, I have heard concerns about the changes to the lockdown—[inaudible]. Will my right hon. Friend confirm that conversations with unions will continue and that those unions will be involved in any changes to the lockdown that take place?
Absolutely. My hon. Friend makes an absolutely spot-on point. We will engage with the unions that serve so many public sector workers so well and, as well as engaging with Frances O’Grady and Len McCluskey, we are also grateful for the work of so many other trade union leaders. We will make sure that we work with them in order to ensure that there are safe work places for all.
Global experience indicates that widespread community testing is vital in tackling coronavirus. The Welsh Government had secured a deal with Roche to do 5,000 tests a day, which would have put Wales on a similar level of testing per head of some of the best-performing countries in the world only for Wales to be seemingly gazumped by the British Government. The UK Government are building mega labs in England and Scotland. Will they also commit to building a mega lab in Wales?
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his point. Testing is something that needs to be done in a co-ordinated way across the United Kingdom. It is the case that the incidence of test take-up in some parts of the United Kingdom, particularly in Scotland, has been less than existing capacity. None the less, I am sure that Welsh scientists and Welsh medics will play a role in ensuring that we can test many more in the future.
Will the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster join me in thanking the Devon and Cornwall police for their proactive approach in preventing people travelling to Cornwall for non-essential purposes, including to visit their second homes and for a holiday? One of the biggest concerns for people in Cornwall is that, as we start to ease the lockdown, we will see an influx of people coming to Cornwall and risk another wave. Can my right hon. Friend assure me that as the Government consider lifting the restrictions, they will come with clear and enforceable travel restrictions to prevent that from happening?
My hon. Friend is right. Cornwall is beautiful and visiting it is a pleasure, but at the moment, and for some time to come, don’t.
I would like to ask the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster a question about child sexual abuse and exploitation, and online platform management. Over the weekend, the Internet Watch Foundation reported that there had been an 89% reduction in the number of URLs that were taken down in the past month compared to the previous month, the comparison being 496 in the past month and 14,947 the month before. One of the concerns of the IWF and the industry more widely is the pressure on police in being able to take down indecent images and videos. In his deliberations in the Cabinet Office, will he ensure that the police have enough resources to ensure that children are protected from this form of paedophilia?
The hon. Gentleman raises an incredibly important point. The Home Secretary has updated my ministerial implementation group on some of the increased risks of child abuse during the pandemic. I will report back to our group and to her the very important point he makes.
I thank my right hon. Friend for his statement. As he mentioned, one of the real positives to come out of the past few weeks has been the collaboration and close working between the UK Government and the devolved Administrations, which has avoided confusion and delivered clear, uniform messages and allowed those fighting the virus on the frontline, such as our amazing staff at NHS Grampian, to know that all levels of government are working for them. Will my right hon. Friend confirm that that collaborative approach will continue and that it is imperative that all our Governments continue to work closely together, demonstrating that the Union is still working?
My hon. Friend is absolutely spot on. Of course, we recognise the competence of the devolved Administrations in their respective areas, but it is also the case, in dealing with the pandemic, that I have been impressed, cheered and reassured by the way in which Ministers in the Scottish and Welsh Governments and the Northern Ireland Executive have recognised that we are all in this together. As we seek to ease the restrictions that are there at the moment, the closer we can work together the better.
Local authorities like Salford City Council are on the frontline of fighting covid-19, from supporting our social care services to providing food for vulnerable people and supporting local businesses. The Chancellor of the Exchequer said the Government will do whatever it takes to defeat covid-19, but councils are now facing the prospect of not having all their additional costs covered. It is imperative that the Government fully fund the cost of this vital local response. Will the Minister assure me that the Government will do that for Salford City Council?
My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Housing, Communities and Local Government has been in touch regularly with local authority leaders and chief executives to make sure they have the resources they need and that some of the administrative burdens that are not necessary at this time are lifted. I will pass on to him the particular concerns the hon. Lady expresses on behalf of the citizens of Salford.
My right hon. Friend referred to the work of the Army in his statement and the support that has been provided to local resilience forums. It is fantastic to see them playing their part, as they always do when our country finds itself in need. Will he outline what strategic role they will play moving forward, in particular whether, given their expertise at running operations in the field, they will be utilised to support mobile testing and getting tests to the places we need them?
Absolutely. I join my hon. Friend in thanking our military for all the support they are giving at the moment. It is the case that we have 48 regional test centres up and running. Each has two teams of military capable of dispensing and administering tests at a distance. One thing we are keeping under review is how we can expand that capacity even further in the future. The role of the military has been absolutely vital. I commend, in particular, Alex Cooper, one of the ex-servicemen who has been absolutely critical to making sure that the Department of Health and Social Care can do everything possible to deliver testing.
The Health Secretary promised me nearly two weeks ago that the Government would publish the scientific evidence behind the decision not to self-isolate people arriving at ports and airports, but he has not yet done so. If we look on the Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies website, there has been no update, it appears, in the publication of the scientific advice and evidence to the Government since 16 March, which is six weeks ago. It is inconceivable that the Government have not received more scientific advice and evidence since then. Given that transparency and trust should be at the heart of what the Government do and that getting these decisions right is crucial, why are the Government still not publishing the scientific evidence and advice?
The first thing to say about flights into this country is that many of them are carrying people who are being repatriated and many of them are carrying the personal protective equipment and other goods that we need here, but, as I mentioned earlier, the prospect of changing our approach is something that we are reviewing at the moment. She makes a broader point about the publication of scientific advice, and it is not for me to dictate what SAGE, NERVTAG—the new and emerging respiratory virus threats advisory group—or any of our independent scientific committees should or should not do, but I know that our chief scientific adviser has spoken about the importance of building confidence, and more will I am sure be said in due course.
The Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster will know how important it will be, as we move into the next phase of dealing with coronavirus, to maintain the high levels of public trust that the Government currently have. To avoid any unnecessary confusion, can he set out for the House, for the purposes of the 100,000 testing target, how the Government define a completed test?
My right hon. Friend makes an important point, and there has been some confusion over capacity and tests administered. The target is tests administered, and the figure for the number of tests administered on Thursday, which is the day we have set for the target, will be published on Saturday.
Our public health departments were once the envy of the world, so will the Minister give the country hope that the Government will reinstate them to their former glory by resourcing them properly and giving them and local authorities immediate access to the SAGE and Cobra planning assumptions, as well as to the NHSX covid-19 data warehouse? No one answer fits all: all local areas are reacting and are at different stages. Can the Minister give assurances?
Those are very good points, which I will consider and discuss with the Health Secretary.
Can my hon. Friend confirm that, as well as treating patients for covid-19, our NHS is very much there for people needing urgent access to healthcare, and will my right hon. Friend confirm that the NHS is open for business for everybody who needs it? Anybody who is suffering a stroke, a heart attack or other life-threatening conditions should not be deterred from seeking that important medical help.
My right hon. Friend makes a very important point. We must do everything we can to encourage people, particularly those with serious conditions such as cancer, to seek support from the NHS. The effective response that the NHS has mounted to the pandemic so far enables us to treat them as well.
Before Parliament rose before the lockdown, I told the Government that the Soapworks company in my constituency was quite happy to provide soap, which we know is hugely important in this pandemic, but Soapworks has not been contacted by the Government. Can the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster please ensure that urgent contact is established with this company in my constituency that wants to play a part in this national effort?
What contingency plans does my right hon. Friend have in place to ensure that our prisons, such as the Mount in my own patch, remain functional, given the increase in staff absences?
My hon. Friend makes a very important point. The Lord Chancellor has ensured that we have a system in prisons where we effectively segment and isolate those who may have the virus. It is also the case that we have ensured that additional capacity has been sourced. There has also been a very targeted early release programme in order to ensure that we manage the estate appropriately.
Community testing and contact tracing will be crucial to keep infection as low as possible in the months ahead. We need an effective system with local understanding of capacity. I am therefore very concerned that the Government’s plans for contact tracing seem to rely on a phone-based system with 18,000 staff who will all be recruited nationally. I learned last week that local authority staff in Ealing and elsewhere have not yet been asked to play a part. So will the Minister confirm today whether they will be asked to play a part in contact tracing, and if so, what role and by when?
Contact tracing is vitally important. It should be done both through the new NHS app that is being developed and through those who are working at Public Health England, and others. But I will consider with the Health Secretary what additional steps may be required.
Across our country we are seeing some incredible displays of community spirit and selflessness. So will my right hon. Friend join me in praising the incredible work of Bishop Auckland’s first unsung hero, Kim Clark, in cooking and delivering over 6,000 meals to the elderly and vulnerable from her very own kitchen?
That is a fantastic example of community spirit, and just what I would expect from the people of County Durham and Bishop Auckland in particular.
Imran Hussain has withdrawn, so I go to James Cartlidge.
My constituents have of late been spending more of their time than usual on gardening, with nowhere to dispose of significant waste because of the closure of household waste recycling centres. Will my right hon. Friend consider reopening such centres fairly soon, because they would appear to offer a low risk of infection but considerable amenity to our constituents?
My hon. Friend makes a very important point that I will take into account as we consider how we relax restrictions.
It has been reported that the Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies—SAGE—includes not one molecular virologist, not one intensive care expert, not one nursing lead or immunologist, and only one member from an ethnic minority. So will the Government publish the criteria and selection process used to identify and appoint members of the SAGE group dealing with covid-19?
I am grateful to the hon. Lady for mentioning that. I read precisely that statement in The Guardian earlier today, and it is useful for the House to be reminded of it. The Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies is composed of some of the finest minds in our scientific community, and the criterion for membership is a commitment to doing everything possible to save others’ lives. It seems to me that it does not matter what colour someone’s skin is if they are committed to saving the lives of others.
Does my right hon. Friend agree that it is absolutely imperative to maintain the support of the public and that the best way to do that is, when deciding the next steps, to implement them on a UK-wide basis?
Absolutely. The more that the four parts of the United Kingdom can co-ordinate the response, the easier it will be for all our citizens to follow the guidance, which is in all our interests.
More than two hours having elapsed since the commencement of hybrid scrutiny proceedings, the Speaker brought them to a conclusion (Order, 21 April).