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CABINET OFFICE

Volume 675: debated on Monday 4 May 2020

The Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster and Minister for the Cabinet Office was asked—

PPE Manufacture: UK Businesses

What progress the Government have made in processing offers of help from UK businesses to manufacture personal protective equipment. (902091)

What steps his Department is taking with UK manufacturers to increase the supply of personal protective equipment. (902096)

What steps his Department is taking with UK manufacturers to increase the supply of personal protective equipment. (902097)

What steps his Department is taking with UK manufacturers to increase the supply of personal protective equipment. (902099)

Every NHS and careworker must get the personal protective equipment they need. That is why we have appointed Lord Deighton to lead a national effort to boost PPE production and to support the scaling up of engineering efforts for small companies capable of contributing supplies.

A large number of UK companies and consortia came forward with offers to manufacture and supply PPE, including the Protecting Heroes community interest company, which manufactures plastic visors and face masks. However, after the pandemic began, how many of those offers did not receive a reply for weeks at a critical time, resulting in some businesses selling vital PPE abroad? What were the reasons for the delay in processing and responding to such offers? Have the Government now established a more timely and efficient system for doing so?

We have received 12,789 offers of help with the provision of PPE and 10,436 of those companies have now been contacted. I am sure that the House appreciates that many of those who make well-intentioned and generous offers of help are offering PPE that may not be appropriate in health and social care settings. We must ensure that we have appropriate PPE in appropriate settings.

I have been assisting manufacturers in Dewsbury, Mirfield, Kirkburn and Denby Dale to register as potential suppliers of PPE on the gov.uk portal. I am pleased that the Cabinet Office is now responding to those businesses. My right hon. Friend has just confirmed how many have registered on the site nationally. Will he confirm when those that have registered are likely to start receiving orders for PPE?

I am very grateful to my hon. Friend for the work that he, along with so many others, has done in order that generous offers of support can be processed efficiently. As I mentioned, we have 10,436 organisations with whom we have been in contact. But specifically with regard to UK manufacturing, there are 201 manufacturers with whom we are in touch at the moment, 180 of whom are qualified to provide PPE and 22 of whom are going through the technical product review necessary in order to ensure that their personal protective equipment is appropriate.

While the number of offers of help from UK manufacturers to produce PPE is high, unfortunately many will simply not be able to meet the medical standards required. What help can the Government give to those companies who wish to play their part in this national effort?

Again, I am grateful to my hon. Friend for the efforts that he and his constituents are making. It is the case that specifications of the type of personal protective equipment required in a health and social care setting have been shared by the NHS and by Public Health England, but it is also the case that companies are in a conversation with the Department of Health and Social Care about what more they might be able to do to augment those who are not necessarily operating in those settings.

I thank the businesses, and also John Flamsteed Community School in Amber Valley, who have been making PPE for healthcare providers. Does the Minister agree that we are going to need UK manufacturers to keep making this equipment for the long term, and will he therefore be able to relax procurement rules to allow these people to have some longer-term contracts so that they can get maximum efficiency in producing this equipment?

My hon. Friend makes a very important point. We do need to show flexibility in the way in which procurement operates, particularly in order to ensure that we have domestic production in the future upon which we can rely. My right hon. Friend Lord Deighton is leading the work in this area.

Colleagues have made important points about shortages of PPE. Those who look after the sick and the vulnerable deserve our protection, and getting PPE to them is the priority of all of us. The Prime Minister said last week that as part of coming out of the lockdown, face coverings will be useful. As the Minister knows, in Germany and France it is now required or advised to wear face masks on public transport and elsewhere. So as the Government look to announce plans to ease some of our lockdown restrictions, how many face masks suitable for wearing by the public are currently available, and what work is being done with health experts to ensure that face coverings that people are using are of sufficient quality to stop the virus from spreading?

I am very grateful to the hon. Lady for her questions. She is right that there are other European countries that are prescribing face coverings, particularly on public transport and in other settings where a number of people congregate. We follow the scientific advice. There is a clear distinction, as I know she knows, between the sophisticated type of face mask that will be appropriate in a surgical or social care setting and the sort of face covering that can be used by individuals in order to shield others. It is important to recognise that the wearing of these face coverings affords no protection to the individual, but, properly worn, they can be a contribution to making sure that others are protected from the aerosols—from the droplets—that all of us might be responsible for producing when we cough or sneeze. That is why Lord Deighton and my right hon. Friend Lord Agnew are working together in order to ensure that we can increase domestic production of just such face coverings.

I thank the Minister for that, but it is of huge concern that he lacks clear answers to the questions that I put, especially given the ongoing fiasco of getting PPE to health and social care workers. So I ask again: how many of these face masks, for public use, are currently available? Other countries are ahead of us. France has increased production and procurement to about 8 million masks per week. The Japanese Government are sending masks to 50 million households. What are the Government doing to ensure that masks are distributed to all those who need them? Given that the Government were slow to engage with the UK textile manufacturing sector in the production of PPE for frontline workers, what are they doing to ensure that production of masks by British manufacturers is increased, looking forward to what might come next?

The hon. Lady again makes a series of important points. In terms of the numbers of masks that have been distributed overall, from 25 February to 3 May we distributed 152 million masks, and just on 3 May we distributed 2.7 million masks. Of course, it is the case that for those masks that are appropriate in surgical settings we do need to have a particular material—melt-blown plastic—in order to provide the necessary protection for those wearing the masks. We have been in touch with the specific suppliers of that type of material here in the United Kingdom. It is also the case that suppliers of those materials tend to predominate in countries that have petrochemical industries, and we have been in touch with those, including in the Gulf in order to provide it. They are a very different sort of material from the type of face covering that would be appropriate on public transport or elsewhere, and that is a very different exercise, and the numbers that we can produce of those would be significantly greater because we do not have a reliance, as I have said, on that meltdown plastic, which can generally only be provided by other countries.

One of the key issues on this rather vexed subject is that of transparency. Would my right hon. Friend consider releasing the figures that he and other members of Government are made aware of each morning on the Cabinet Office dashboard to show stocks and quantities of PPE set against demand?

My hon. Friend makes an important point. It is the responsibility of all of us to do everything we can to ensure that we have visibility on the need for PPE. That is why NHS trusts and others report on their stocks and the additional requirements that they have. It is also why we have ensured that, across our resilience forums that are responsible for the distribution of PPE to more than 58,000 settings, we have seen something like 57 million pieces of PPE distributed, but, again, he makes an important point about improving the visibility that we all have, and I will talk to my right hon. Friend the Secretary State for Health and Social Care about just that.

Ventilators

What steps his Department is taking with UK manufacturers to increase the supply of ventilators to the NHS. (902093)

My Department and the Department of Health and Social Care have been working with a variety of UK manufacturers in order to increase the supply of ventilators to the NHS. We have placed an order with one in particular, Penlon, for 15,000 additional ventilators. I am pleased to see so many UK manufacturers and medical supply companies working so well together to ensure that we can increase domestic supply.

Will my right hon. Friend tell the House how many companies have risen to the challenge to make the extra ventilators needed—companies that do not normally make them such as Dyson or Rolls-Royce?

Yes, of course. We have been working with 11 new potential, or existing potential, suppliers, but more than 5,000 businesses have been involved, offering to provide services, because, of course, when producing a complex machine such as a ventilator, we need to make sure that we source everything from the appropriate batteries, the appropriate valves and the appropriate other technology. As I say, 5,000 businesses, including Rolls-Royce, have been involved in the manufacture.

EU Withdrawal Agreement: Covid-19

What assessment he has made of the effect of the covid-19 outbreak on the Government’s ability to implement and apply the withdrawal agreement by 31 December 2020. (902098)

From 20 to 24 April, a full and constructive negotiating round took place, with a full range of discussions across all workstreams. Our next scheduled round of talks with our EU friends will take place in the week beginning 11 May.

Everyone will understand that we have left the European Union and everyone will understand that the impact of covid-19 might have an impact on the timetable for negotiating our future relationship, so why will the Minister not give businesses the reassurance they need that if the Government need more time, they will take more time? Is it dogma; is it vanity; or is it paranoia?

The hon. Gentleman provides a helpful list of conditions, but it is none of those. It is plain prudence. Were we to perpetuate our membership of the European Union-lite through the transition period, we would end up spending more taxpayers’ money, which could be spent on the NHS. We would have to accept new EU rules that might constrain our ability to fight covid-19 and to deal with other crises, and we would, of course, be unfortunately and unfairly trespassing on the EU’s need to concentrate on other vital priorities.

Can my right hon. Friend inform my constituents in Don Valley whether the covid-19 pandemic is likely to lead to an extension of the transition period?

I can reassure my hon. Friend and the good people of Don Valley that the Government are not going to extend the transition period at the end of this year.

Michel Barnier, the leader of the EU negotiating team, has expressed frustration that the UK’s negotiators seem happy to run down the clock on leaving the transition with no deal in place at the end of this year. We have already heard repeated warnings of the perils of a cliff-edge Brexit, which could be calamitous for the economy at a time when businesses are fragile and crave stability. Will the Chancellor of the Duchy do the right thing by ensuring that his party does not bring about this calamity?

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for raising this issue. There have been cordial conversations and negotiations between our negotiator David Frost and Michel Barnier, and I would not want to prejudice those by making any criticism of Michel Barnier, other than to say that he will negotiate hard on behalf of the Commission, but we will negotiate hard on behalf of the whole United Kingdom.

Is it not the case that what businesses want more than anything else is certainty that this Government will not do anything to compound the economic difficulties caused by this pandemic? The Government could not of course do anything to stop covid coming to our shores, but it is in their hands to stop further economic misery from a disastrous Brexit. Does the Minister agree that the last thing businesses need is more economic turbulence and that the certainty they seek is one that says there will be no no-deal Brexit and there will be an extension to let them recover from this pandemic?

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for the point he makes. There will not be a no-deal Brexit; we have a deal, and that deal was legislated for in the House of Commons. I think he is right: it is important that we give business certainty, and I think one of the best ways of giving business certainty is recognising that we respect referendums. That is why this House has voted to respect the referendum that saw the British people take us out of the European Union, and I would urge him and others to respect the referendum that made it clear that the people of Scotland want to stay in the United Kingdom, instead of having the damaging uncertainty of an indyref2 hanging over future investment decisions.

EU Joint Procurement Programme for PPE

For what reasons the UK did not join the EU joint procurement programme for personal protective equipment. (902110)

I thank the hon. Lady for her question. Owing to an initial communication problem, the UK did not receive the invitation in time to join the four EU joint procurements, including on PPE. We will, however, participate in the EU joint procurement scheme on therapeutics that is soon to launch, and we will consider participating in future schemes, including any on PPE, on the basis of public health requirements.

The UK has left the EU, but the NHS Confederation and other top health officials have warned that failing to continue co-operation would be a disaster for public health. Does the failure of working together over PPE signal a new approach by the Government that puts ideology before the nation’s health?

It was good to hear reports this morning that the Government are getting behind the EU-led international initiatives to find a coronavirus vaccine. Given this approach, can the Minister confirm reports that the Government are now seeking to retain participation in the EU’s early warning and response system for pandemics, as requested by the Department of Health and Social Care and NHS Providers, and will they look again at participation in the European Medicines Agency?

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for making that point. We will co-operate not just with our European neighbours, but with other countries in the fight against covid-19. He is right to say that the Prime Minister is joining the call today to ensure that we can support the effort to secure a vaccine. The effort to secure a vaccine is necessarily an international one. We will of course look pragmatically at how we can co-operate with our European friends and partners, but participation in the European Medicines Agency would involve, certainly at the moment, the acceptance of the European Court of Justice’s oversight, and that is not something the British people voted to do.

Transition Period: Extension

What recent discussions he has had with Cabinet colleagues on a potential extension to the transition period. (902132)

As I think Members will appreciate given previous exchanges, the Government will not be extending the transition period. Indeed, Parliament has legislated to prevent Ministers from agreeing to such an extension. The Government will therefore continue to negotiate a new fair trade deal with the EU, the process of which will conclude by the end of December.

A YouGov poll released this weekend showed that half the population now think that the transition period should be extended, versus 35% who think the Government should press ahead. The public know that kicking the economy when it is down, especially with a no-deal Brexit on top of a covid crash, is in no one’s best interests. The right hon. Gentleman said just now that there was a deal, but he knows full well that that is the withdrawal agreement and not the future deal that will determine the trade relationship. No deal is still on the table, so will the Government consider asking for even a short extension to avoid a no-deal Brexit, or are they intent on putting ideology before pragmatism?

This Government always put pragmatism and the interests of the British people first. The hon. Lady mentioned a YouGov poll. There was another poll, on 12 December last year; it was called a general election, and my right hon. Friend the Member for Uxbridge and South Ruislip (Boris Johnson) secured a majority in order to take this country out of the European Union on the basis of the deal that he negotiated. The Liberal Democrats took part in that poll. I cannot recall exactly how well they did, but it certainly the case that they were not entrusted by the British people with the discharge of policy on our relationship with the EU.

Covid-19: Devolved Administrations

What steps he is taking to ensure that there is a co-ordinated response to the covid-19 outbreak with the devolved Administrations. (902088)

We have established a Cabinet Committee structure to deal with the health, economic, public sector and international aspects of the covid-19 outbreak on behalf of the whole of the UK. Ministers from the devolved Administrations are regularly invited to participate in those discussions, and do so, in order to ensure the highest level of co-ordination and effective working to tackle this crisis on a UK-wide basis.

I thank the Minister for her response. Can she assure me that the level of co-operation will continue to ensure that north Wales and Ynys Môn are equipped with enough PPE provision for our struggling care homes and vital testing centres? Can she also assure me that there will be a UK-wide approach to the easing of restrictions, and an application of the five tests?

I hope I can give my hon. Friend such reassurance. I am particularly grateful to the devolved Administrations, and in this case the Welsh Government, for their co-operation, and we will continue to work with them in responding to the pandemic. That is in the interests of all our citizens. We respect the competence of the devolved Administrations in issues such as health and, where appropriate, we will seek a four-nations approach.

Covid-19: False Information Online

What steps he is taking with Cabinet colleagues to prevent false information on covid-19 spreading online. (902094)

Misleading information about coronavirus, whether it is maliciously intended or not, could cost lives. The work to tackle false information is led by our colleagues in the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport across all of Government. We are also working closely with social media platforms to help them to remove dangerous incorrect claims about the virus and promoting steps that everyone can take to reduce the spread of false information.

We will move on. I call Minister Mercer who is going to take a question tabled by James Sunderland.

Covid-19: Armed Forces Support for NHS Trusts

What steps his Department is taking with the armed forces to support NHS trusts in their response to the covid-19 outbreak. (902089)

What support the armed forces are providing to civil authorities in response to the covid-19 outbreak. (902109)

As part of the national covid-19 response, Defence has supported NHS trusts in a variety of ways. We have distributed PPE and diagnostic equipment, we supported the planning, construction and staffing of Nightingale hospitals and we provided service personnel to conduct testing at regional and mobile testing sites. We also established a covid support force to assist wider Government, with 2,935 personnel in that force, as of this morning, currently deployed to assist civil authorities.

Given the challenging operational circumstances in which key workers have found themselves in recent weeks, what steps are being taken by the Cabinet Office to recognise those who have gone above and beyond the call of duty, and might those steps manifest themselves in the form of a campaign medal?

We are carefully considering the appropriate ways to reward and recognise those involved in this unprecedented response. There will be a range of ways to mark exceptional contributions once we are through the crisis, including consideration of how the honours system might play a role. Departments continue to consider existing internal mechanisms to reward individuals and teams, with the recent example of Captain Tom Moore being appointed as an honorary colonel.

I am sure that we all agree that the military bring a huge amount to our national effort, including manpower and, much more importantly, their mindset and can-do approach. Yet, rather than using their skills to the full, too many Whitehall Departments are still clinging to the old, discredited ways, involving layers of middlemen, questionable mega-accounting and consultancy firms, and needless delays. For example, the Foreign Office put all its trust in the airlines and left thousands of our people stranded abroad, rather than properly using the RAF’s planes and, more importantly, its planning and chartering skills. As the Department responsible for procurement policy, will the Minister get a grip not only in order to get my constituents home, and to get kit to the NHS and care homes, but also to ensure that we are much better organised to come out of the lockdown?

I thank the right hon. Gentleman for his point. Although today we see the military in the media, particularly with regard to how we have stepped up to meet the challenge of testing, the military have been involved from the very beginning. We mobilised a covid support force of 20,000. Yes, we have 2,500 people testing and 4,000 people deployed at the moment. It is for other Government Departments to choose when to use this resource. We receive those demand signals, that produces a response, and we are only too happy to step up and help other Departments where requested.

Covid-19 Testing: Restriction to Hospital Admissions

What role his Department played in the decision to restrict covid-19 testing to hospital admissions at the beginning of March 2020. (902090)

The Prime Minister established new implementation committees to co-ordinate the covid response. The committees are supported by the Cabinet Office secretariat and meet regularly on all issues, including testing.

Tapadh leibh, Mr Speaker. May I first say how sorry we are in Na h-Eileanan an Iar to hear the concerning news from our neighbours in the Isle of Skye about the covid outbreak in Portree? Over to the western—with ourselves, Na h-Eileanan an Iar—we are an ideal area really, with the lowest R rate, to conduct a “test, trace, isolate” pilot, and even more so with the kind offers of help from the world leaders in population testing: namely, our neighbours in the Faroe Islands. Given that, and if and when the Scottish Government give the green light to this sensible pilot, will the UK Government also assist, perhaps by using RAF training flights to take test samples on the half-hour flight from either Stornaway or Benbecula to the Faroe Islands?

I thank the hon. Gentleman and all colleagues who have put forward ideas and solutions, and shared good practice in the early weeks of this crisis. I am sure that the hon. Gentleman’s request will have been heard by our joint Minister, the Minister for Defence People and Veterans, my hon. Friend the Member for Plymouth, Moor View (Johnny Mercer). Of course, Defence has stepped up in every case where it has been asked to do so, and I am sure that it will support testing wherever it is taking place, as well as the pilots.

Covid-19: Large-scale Testing and Tracing

What recent discussions he has had with the Secretary of State for Health and Social Care on large-scale testing and tracing for covid-19. (902092)

What recent discussions he has had with the Secretary of State for Health and Social Care on large-scale testing and tracing for covid-19. (902104)

Both the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster and the Health Secretary attend a daily meeting with the Prime Minister. Testing and tracing are a part of the issues that are considered in detail at that meeting.

It is clear that testing, tracing and tracking will be an essential part of our battle against coronavirus, and tech and IT will be required to support that. There have been concerns in the past few days about the allocation of these contracts, and perhaps about a bit of cronyism in Downing Street. What safeguards will the Minister put in place to ensure that applications, and the data that those applications use, will be safeguarded and used solely for the purpose of defeating coronavirus?

Clearly there are very strict protocols that surround any kind of procurement or pilot that might take place across any Government Department. Those protocols have given us confidence in the past, and there is no reason why they should not in the future. If the hon. Gentleman has concerns, he should raise them with the relevant Minister and certainly with the Cabinet Office, but those protocols are strong and have stood us in good stead; we have transparency around these issues.

I am pleased that the Government recognise the importance of testing and tracing to contain the virus. It is just one of the issues that we need to get right before we can safely reopen schools. Headteachers in my constituency are really struggling to support vulnerable pupils, particularly with free school meal vouchers, because the system used by the Government’s chosen provider, Edenred, is not fit for purpose. Will the Government get a grip on this urgently, to ensure that our children at least are fed?

The hon. Lady is right that ensuring that we have the right testing and the right volume of testing in place is one of the five criteria for our being able to reopen society and ease lockdown measures. I know that there have been issues with the voucher system, and the Department for Education has been looking at that. If there any remaining issues in her constituency that she would like to flag up with me, I will take them up with the Department for Education.