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Oral Answers to Questions

Volume 675: debated on Wednesday 6 May 2020

Women and Equalities

The Minister for Women and Equalities was asked—

LGBT Rights

What steps the Government are taking to help ensure that the UK remains a world leader for LGBT rights. (902288)

What steps the Government are taking to help ensure that the UK remains a world leader for LGBT rights. (902297)

I am proud that we are one of the leading countries in the world for LGBT rights. The UK will host an international LGBT conference, chaired by Nick Herbert. The theme is “Safe to be me”. It will focus on asking countries to tackle the persecution of LGBT people, including ending violence and discrimination.

The Government have a strong record on LGBT rights, especially the introduction of equal marriage, which I am proud to have campaigned for. We have come a long way, but there is still work to be done. Can my right hon. Friend tell me why a married monogamous gay couple living in High Peak cannot donate blood or plasma, including for the ongoing and vital covid-19 trial?

I appreciate that many gay and bisexual men want to contribute to the efforts to fight this virus. The rules that specify the conditions for donating blood are from the Advisory Committee on the Safety of Blood, Tissues and Organs. I am taking up this matter with the Secretary of State for Health and Social Care to see what changes could be made.

We have seen numerous reports that the covid lockdown is having a disproportionately negative impact on the LGBT+ community, here in Bishop Auckland and right across our country, particularly with regard to mental health, domestic abuse and homelessness. With the International Day against Homophobia, Transphobia and Biphobia coming up on 17 May, what are the Government doing to ensure that LGBT+ people are receiving the support needed throughout the covid crisis?

I thank my hon. Friend for her question. We are ensuring that LGBT people get proper support during the covid crisis, including health support. In March, I extended the contract of Dr Michael Brady as our national adviser on LGBT healthcare. He is instrumental in ensuring that support is provided for LGBT people during this pandemic.

Owing to the coronavirus pandemic, gender identity clinics in England have had to reduce their services. While it is understandable that hospitals prioritise their services during this crisis, can the Minister assure the House that trans people will still be able to access the gender identity services they need during the crisis?

We absolutely want to ensure that all LGBT people are able to secure that support during the crisis. That is why we have extended the contract of Dr Michael Brady, and where we are able to provide those services we are ensuring that we do. I will follow up on the specific issue my hon. Friend raises with Dr Michael Brady to ensure that those services are available.

STEM Subjects

What recent assessment she has made of the trends in the level of uptake of STEM subjects by girls. (902290)

Since 2010, there has been a 31% increase in girls’ entries to science, technology, engineering and maths A-levels in England, and a 34% increase in the number of women accepted on to full-time STEM undergraduate courses in the UK. Increasing the number of women in STEM industries is vital for our country’s economic success and also for equality of opportunity.

In Watford we have incredible, inspirational women and girls across the area. Watford girls school, for example, does incredible work in this space. How are we are supporting women, including those who are learning at school at the moment, into STEM roles, so that we can continue to showcase how Britain is playing a leading global role in science for all?

I thank my hon. Friend for his question. It is still the case that women make up only 25% of those employed in manufacturing and 30% of those in information technology. We need more women in those fields to use their amazing talents. We are committed to removing the barriers to success for women and to celebrating those who have achieved, such as Ruth Amos of StairSteady, who has invented new areas of engineering, which we should continue to celebrate.

Equality of Opportunity

What steps the Government are taking to help ensure equality of opportunity for people throughout the UK. (902295)

What steps the Government are taking to help ensure equality of opportunity for people throughout the UK. (902303)

As we turn the tide on covid-19, I want to ensure that the Cabinet Office equalities hub focuses on the evidence, and that everyone in the UK has their opportunity and does not face discrimination or barriers to success.

I thank my right hon. Friend for that statement. Does she agree that, although they are not in the Equality Act 2010, we should have a firm focus on social background and social mobility, so that it is not the school someone went to, the family they come from or the area they grew up in that determines their life chances?

I thank my hon. Friend for his question. We are restructuring the equalities hub so that it covers areas such as social background and geography. It will put world-class analysis and research at its heart, and I am proud that both the Department for International Trade and the equalities hub were named among the top 75 employers by the social mobility employer index, which I know my hon. Friend established.

Education is of course a key driver of social mobility—people would expect me to say no less, as a teacher myself. Will my right hon. Friend join me in thanking all the teachers and headteachers in Eastbourne, who are doing such a tremendous job looking after and educating the children of our key workers, particularly at Shinewater Primary School? Will she also outline what work the Equalities Office is doing with the Department for Education to ensure that those disadvantaged pupils in our schools do not suffer as a result of these very necessary school closures?

Order. Minister, can you pick out a question from that? We cannot continue like that; we have to get through the questions.

Let me put on the record my thanks to all the teachers across the country who are doing a brilliant job keeping our children educated using the latest technology. We are doing all we can to ensure that no child, whatever their background, is left behind during this crisis. We have already committed more than £100 million to boost remote learning, and we are funding access to IT devices and software, focused on the most disadvantaged.

Universal Basic Income

What recent discussions she has had with Cabinet colleagues on the potential merits for social equality of introducing a universal basic income. (902289)

A universal basic income is not the best way to deliver social equality because it is not targeted at those who need it most. In response to the covid-19 outbreak, the Government set out a substantial package of targeted measures to provide support to people affected by the coronavirus, which can be delivered quickly and effectively through existing systems.

The issue is, though, that people are still falling through the cracks. Does the Minister not accept that, from an equalities perspective, the best way to stop that is to take a universal approach? That is why the First Minister of Scotland has said that, increasingly, a universal basic income is an idea whose time has come. Instead of rejecting it out of hand, will the Government not consult with devolved Administrations, the relevant all-party parliamentary group and other interested expert organisations to see how a guaranteed minimum income could be made to work?

I am afraid that we disagree on this issue. While we are happy to continue the debate, the fact is that flat-rate payments make no allowance for additional help to cope with variable essential living costs, and fail to target those who need support, such as disabled people and lone parents. This universal way of providing support is not going to work well within our existing welfare system.

I am interested in this outright dismissal of a universal basic income, and in how, where and when this decision was reached. Given that those who will benefit the most from a UBI, contrary to what the Minister said, are the very people her Department is supposed to be fighting for, did she lose the argument or did she fail in her duty to advise her colleagues on what a difference a universal basic income could make to social equality?

I am not sure why the hon. Lady has chosen to take that stance. The fact is that many, many respected people think that a universal basic income is not what is right for this country. It lacks the flexibility to respond to changes in income—unlike universal credit—it is less redistributive, and it is certainly not something that we are considering at the moment.

Covid-19: BAME Communities

What steps her Department has taken to tackle the disproportionate effect of the covid-19 outbreak on BAME communities. (902306)

We are very concerned by reports of a disproportionate impact of covid-19 on ethnic minorities. It is important that we understand what is underpinning these disparities and that we have robust and accurate data to do so, in order to take effective action.

The Minister will be aware that of the 17 doctors who have died from covid-19, 16 are from black, Asian and minority ethnic backgrounds. So will she be speaking to her ministerial colleagues in the Department of Health about the NHS surcharge for migrants? It cannot be right that NHS migrant workers, who are frequently BAME, pay twice for the NHS, first in taxation and then through the surcharge—and, increasingly, with their lives.

This is an issue that I personally have taken a keen interest in. It is one of the reasons we have commissioned Public Health England to review exactly what the impact is on ethnic minorities. Specifically on fees for migrants, migrants who are ordinarily resident in the UK already receive their NHS care for free. Many more are exempt from charges, including temporary migrants who pay the immigration health surcharge, and asylum seekers. However, it is important to note that we remain committed to fighting this virus, and that is why we changed our regulations in January to ensure that no overseas visitor or anyone living here would be charged for diagnosis of or treatment for covid.

Dr Amir Burney of the Association of Pakistani Physicians of Northern Europe and Dr Kashif Chauhan of the Nottinghamshire Doctors Families Association have both written to me raising concerns about the safety of BAME medical staff. They tell me that their members are scared. NHS trusts have reported problems in moving at-risk BAME NHS staff away from the frontline of the crisis, despite calls from Public England to do so. What discussions has the Minister had with the Secretary of State for Health to ensure that the risk to BAME staff is properly assessed and their health and safety is properly protected?

The Public Health England review is going to look into this specific issue, but I must stress that we are working round the clock to protect everyone—absolutely everyone—on the frontline during this pandemic for as long as is required. NHS England has sent a letter to those running NHS care organisations recommending that employers should risk-assess staff as a precautionary measure to see if they are at greater risk and, if so, put other measures in place to protect them. That is something that will be going on around the country.

We heard on Monday from the Health Secretary, and my hon. Friend the Minister has reiterated it, about the importance of robust data. Is my hon. Friend confident that the right data is being collected at sufficient pace? Specifically, what input is the Government Equalities Office having into the work of Public Health England, and is she confident that we will find out not only why and how BAME communities are affected, but what needs to be done to protect them?

The Government Equalities Office is refocusing the equality hub. The race disparity unit, the GEO and the disability unit want to spend more time on research and data so that we can help to inform Government Departments on their activity. We want to become more evidence-led. The Public Health England review is going to fit in with this overall strategy. It will be analysing how different factors, including ethnicity, gender and age, can impact on people’s health outcomes from covid-19. We are confident that this review will be able to analyse available data on health outcomes for NHS staff as well. We expect it to be published at the end of May.

Thank you, Mr Speaker.

The British Medical Association found that black, Asian and minority ethnic doctors have been pushed to the frontline of this covid-19 crisis and that almost two thirds of them have felt pressured to work without vital personal protective equipment. This comes amid reports that 72% of all NHS workers’ deaths were of those from a BAME background. Finally, last week, Public Health England asked all NHS trusts to risk-assess their BAME staff and, where necessary, remove them from the frontline. What steps is the Minister’s Department taking to monitor the impact of this new measure and ensure that no more workers are risking their lives to save lives?

This is something that we are keeping a close eye on. We are seeing a disproportionate impact on ethnic minorities, as I mentioned before, but NHS England is the right body to make the decisions on how each and every care organisation should look after its staff. We are not calling for ethnic minority medical staff to be taken off the frontline, as that would disproportionately impact ethnic minority communities, but we are doing everything that we can to ensure that they are protected. With regard to PPE, this is something, as I said earlier, that we have been working round the clock to deliver. We have had more than 1 billion items of PPE delivered to health organisations across the country, and we will continue to ensure that our frontline staff are very well protected.

Covid-19: Effect of School Closures

What assessment she has made of the effect of school closures in response to the covid-19 outbreak on the life chances of children from working-class backgrounds. (902296)

We are doing everything we can to ensure that no child, whatever their background, falls behind due to coronavirus. We have already committed more than £100 million to boost remote learning, and we are funding access to IT devices and software focused on the most disadvantaged. It is worth remembering that schools continue to receive pupil premium funding worth around £2.4 billion annually, and that should help to support disadvantaged children during this period.

I am grateful to the Minister for that answer, but there is anecdotal evidence that school closures bear down more heavily on those from already disadvantaged backgrounds. As the Government are able to reopen schools, can we look at any measure that is necessary to enable children from more challenged backgrounds to catch up, including, if necessary, weekend and summer schools? Even if it is not possible to have schools opened fully during those periods, can we look at what we can do to help?

May I reassure my right hon. Friend that this is something that we are looking very closely at? We are working with partner organisations, exploring targeted support options for disadvantaged people while schools remain closed and in the summer break, and considering how best to support pupils to rapidly catch up when schools reopen. He should know that we have already taken prompt wide-ranging action to help schools and parents support all young people, publishing a list of online education resources for parents, launching a new online academy, and working with the BBC to create a package of TV and online materials to support learning at home.

BAME Covid-19 Review Taskforce

If the Government will convene a cross-party taskforce to (a) oversee the BAME covid-19 review announced on 17 April 2020 and (b) monitor the implementation of actions arising from that review. (902301)

As someone who is affected by this issue of ethnic minorities and the disproportionate impact they suffer from covid, I am glad to see that it is being taken seriously across the House. I am confident that both Parliament and the Health and Social Care Committee will have the opportunity to scrutinise the Government and hold them to account on this in due course, and this is where cross-party work will be most effective.

I and the Liberal Democrats welcome the review that Public Health England is undertaking. I thank the Minister for her response to my question. I hope it means that she will come to the House to make a statement when we finally have the outcome of that review, but there are some things that we can do right now to better understand the disproportionate impact of covid-19 on the BAME community. One of those would be to ask a question on ethnicity on the NHS coronavirus symptom checker, which would surely give us the data that the review needs. Will she commit to speaking to the Department of Health and Social Care on adding that question to the survey?

I thank the hon. Lady for her letter on this issue in April; the Secretary of State for Health and Social Care is aware of it, and I am sure she will receive a response from him in due course. It is important to remember that Public Health England is conducting an independent and expert-led review, and we trust Public Health England to collect the information appropriately, as it sees fit.

Covid-19: Impact on Women

Women are affected by the covid-19 lockdown in different ways. Women shoulder greater caring responsibilities and are balancing work with childcare. Some women need immediate access to reproductive and maternity services. They are often financially vulnerable, and financial vulnerability will be exacerbated by the lockdown. Every Government Department is playing its part in considering how the virus and the lockdown are affecting all vulnerable groups of people.

I thank the excellent Minister for that response. Does she agree that opening nurseries and schools for younger children, at least, would be of great benefit, particularly to women?

As a mother with three young children aged six, three and seven months, I assure the House that no one is looking forward to nurseries and primary schools opening more than me. Access to childcare is crucial to supporting mothers, particularly single mothers with young children, to return to work when it is possible, and we are working closely with the sector, but schools and other providers will remain closed, except for children of critical workers and vulnerable children, until the scientific advice indicates that it is the right time to reopen.

Covid-19: BAME and Working-class Communities

What recent assessment she has made of the disproportionate effect of the covid-19 outbreak on (a) BAME and (b) working-class communities. (902307)

Understanding the impacts on different groups and the factors underpinning them is extremely complex. It is important that we have the right information on which to base our action, which is why, as I mentioned earlier, we have asked Public Health England to review covid-19 outcomes among different groups and to explore the reasons for disparities. It is also why the Government have taken numerous steps to protect those who would be most disadvantaged by this disease.

We do have some other information: according to Office for National Statistics figures, the coronavirus mortality rate in the most deprived areas, such as Elswick in Newcastle, is more than twice that in the least deprived areas—no doubt that is a consequence of health inequalities, which have risen sharply in the past 10 years—and those on lower incomes are more likely to be in frontline occupations. Now we have learned that the infection rate in the north-east is the highest in the country. What is the Minister doing to address the disproportionate impact of the virus on BAME and working-class communities?

The hon. Lady is right. We are increasingly worried about the number of deaths in deprived areas of the country. As she said, the rate of deaths in the most deprived areas was more than two times higher than in other places, but it is important to note that the underlying factors are extremely complex—these things may be related, but we do not have definitive evidence about the relationship between covid-19 and deaths in deprived areas. We are taking many steps to look after people from disadvantaged backgrounds and from working-class communities. We have protected people’s incomes and jobs, supported businesses and looked at universal credit and statutory sick pay. We are doing every single thing we can to make sure that individuals and communities are protected, on the whole, from any adverse impact of the lockdown.

Covid-19: Domestic Abuse

What steps the Government have taken to help protect people living with abusive partners during the covid-19 lockdown. (902291)

What recent discussions she has had with Cabinet colleagues on the effect of the covid-19 lockdown on domestic abuse victims. (902292)

What steps the Government have taken to help protect people living with abusive partners during the covid-19 lockdown. (902298)

We know that lockdown can cause particular pressures for people who are living in abusive households, which is why the Home Office has launched an awareness campaign and published specific guidance on gov.uk setting out the support services available to victims. To ensure that these vital services can continue to support victims during lockdown, we have provided an additional £2 million of funding to bolster specialist helplines and websites. That is in addition to—

All domestic abuse is heartbreaking, but it is particularly so for children. What are the Government doing for children affected by domestic abuse in my constituency of Clwyd South, the rest of Wales and the rest of the UK?

I thank my hon. Friend for raising this question. The Domestic Abuse Bill, which had its Second Reading last week, requires the domestic abuse commissioner to consider the impact of domestic abuse on children in her work. In addition, the Bill includes a new statutory duty on tier 1 local authorities in England to provide support to victims of domestic abuse and their children within safe accommodation. Last week, I announced £3.1 million in funding for specialist support for children affected by domestic abuse.

I would like to press the Minister on what she is doing specifically in relation to older people who are victims of domestic abuse. Age UK has recently reported that, in 2019, more than 280,000 people aged between 60 and 74 experienced domestic abuse in England and Wales. Given Government advice both in Wales and across the UK on lockdown, it would be helpful to know what specific support she is providing for older people who are victims?

I thank the hon. Member for his question. As I say, the gov.uk website sets out the services that are available to victims of domestic abuse in these very troubling times, and of course helplines may be of particular use to older people who are not perhaps as familiar with online services as younger generations. In addition, we have announced £76 million in funding to help vulnerable people, with the Chancellor’s £750 million charities fund, and that includes victims of domestic abuse. Of course, the Bill itself will help to—

The Churches Housing Association of Dudley and District is a charity that provides support and housing to vulnerable people, including victims of domestic abuse. Does my hon. Friend agree that the recent announcement of £76 million to support such charities and the new priority need status allocated to victims who are seeking local housing will provide very real support to an extremely vulnerable group of people at this difficult time?

I agree with my hon. Friend that small and frontline charities play a vital role in supporting vulnerable people. That is why, on Saturday, the Communities Secretary announced a £76 million fund or package of support to ensure that the most vulnerable in society get the support they need during the pandemic.

Disabled women are three to four times more likely to face domestic abuse than non-disabled women, but accessible specialist services are most at risk during this coronavirus crisis; only one in 10 refuge spaces is accessible. As part of the work of the disability unit, will the Minister ensure that specialist funding for disabled domestic abuse victims is ring-fenced?

I thank the hon. Lady, and I welcome her to her position. We are very aware that disabled people face additional pressures when they are victims of domestic abuse, so certainly those considerations form part of the Government’s plans to help the most vulnerable people in society during these very troubling times.

Order. This Friday marks the 75th anniversary of Victory in Europe Day. I know all hon. Members will be keen to mark this occasion, even in these exceptional circumstances. I will be marking the occasion with a wreath-laying ceremony in the House on Friday.

We now come to questions to the Prime Minister. I would like to welcome the Prime Minister back to his rightful place in the Chamber. The whole House and the whole country are delighted at his recovery, and I welcome him back to this elected House.

Prime Minister

The Prime Minister was asked—

Engagements

Mr Speaker, thank you for your kind words. It is good to be back, even though I have been away for longer than I had intended. I would like to pay tribute today to the 107 NHS and 29 care workers and all those who have, sadly, died from coronavirus. I know that the sympathies of the House are with their family and friends. If I may, Mr Speaker, I would like to place on the record in this House my own thanks to all the staff at St Thomas’ Hospital for the brilliant care that I received.

This morning, I had meetings with ministerial colleagues and others. In addition to my duties in this House, I will have further such meetings later today.

First, I would like to welcome the Prime Minister back to where he belongs, and I am sure that the whole House will join me in congratulating him and his fiancée on the birth of their son, Wilfred.

On coronavirus, tourism is absolutely crucial to the economy of the south-west, including my constituency of East Devon. While I am currently asking visitors to come back later, once the lockdown has ended, I want to make sure that our vital tourism industry survives so that we can be open for business at the earliest opportunity. Can the Prime Minister assure me, my constituents and East Devon’s tourism industry that further and flexible financial support is coming to protect this crucial industry?

Yes, indeed I can. I thank my hon. Friend for what he is doing to campaign for tourism in East Devon, and I can tell him that we are adding another £1.3 million to help the tourism industry in that area. Clearly, the priority of the Government and, I believe, of the whole House is now to suppress this disease further and, as we do that, to get our economy going again and to encourage tourism across our whole country and, of course, East Devon in particular.

May I welcome the Prime Minister back to his place and say that it is good to see him back in Parliament? I am sure I speak for all of us when I say that, and although I have done this privately, I congratulate him and Carrie publicly on the birth of their son.

When the Prime Minister returned to work a week ago Monday, he said that many people were looking at the “apparent success” of the Government’s approach, but yesterday we learned that, tragically, at least 29,427 people in the UK have now lost their lives to this dreadful virus. That is now the highest number in Europe and the second highest in the world. That is not success, or apparent success, so can the Prime Minister tell us: how on earth did it come to this?

First, of course every death is a tragedy and the right hon. and learned Gentleman is right to draw attention to the appalling statistics, not just in this country but around the world. In answer to his question, I would echo what we have heard from Professor David Spiegelhalter and others: at this stage I do not think that the international comparisons and the data are yet there to draw the conclusions that we want.

What I can tell the right hon. and learned Gentleman is that, at every stage, as we took the decisions that we did, we were governed by one overriding principle and aim, and that was to save lives and to protect our NHS. Of course there will be a time to look at what decisions we took and whether we could have taken different decisions, but I have absolutely no doubt that what the people of this country want us to do now is, as I have just said, to keep suppressing the disease and to begin the work of getting our country’s economy back on its feet. I look forward to working with him and colleagues around the House to do just that.

The argument that international comparisons cannot be made, when the Government have for weeks been using slides such as the one I am holding to make international comparisons, really does not hold water. I am afraid that many people are concluding that the answer to my question is that the UK was slow into lockdown, slow on testing, slow on tracing and slow on the supply of protective equipment.

I want to go to yesterday’s figures, which show that while, happily, it looks as though deaths in hospitals are falling, deaths in care homes continue to go up. At the press conference last night, the deputy chief scientific adviser said that

“what that shows us is that there is a real issue that we need to get to grips with about what is happening in care homes.”

I could not agree more, but 12 weeks after the Health Secretary declared that we were in a health crisis, I have to ask the Prime Minister: why have the Government not got to grips with this already?

The right hon. and learned Gentleman is quite right to look at the crisis in care homes, and he is absolutely right to say that there is an epidemic going on in care homes, which is something I bitterly regret. We have been working very hard for weeks to get it done, and a huge amount of effort has been made by literally tens of thousands of people to get the right PPE to care homes and to encourage workers in care homes to understand what is needed. I can tell him that he is not right in what he just said about the state of the epidemic in care homes. If he looks at the figures in the last few days, there has been a palpable improvement. We must hope that that continues and we will ensure that it does continue.

I am grateful for that. I was using the slide the Government put up at their press conference last night, which sadly shows—I accept there is a lag to 24 April because of the reporting position—that deaths in care homes have been rising every time they have been reported by the Office for National Statistics. I have heard before, from the First Secretary, that the numbers were falling—he said that a week ago Sunday. That is not borne out by these slides. We will wait to see what the next slides bring.

On 30 April, the Government claimed success in meeting their 100,000 tests a day target. Since then, as the Prime Minister knows, the number has fallen back. On Monday, there were just 84,000 tests, and that meant 24,000 available tests were not used. What does the Prime Minister think was so special about 30 April that meant that testing that day was so high?

Actually, I think that the right hon. and learned Gentleman was right last week when he paid tribute to the amazing work of the NHS, the logistics team and everybody involved in getting up from 2,000 tests a day in March to 120,000 by the end of April. Yes, he is right that capacity currently exceeds demand. We are working on that. We are running at about 100,000 a day, but the ambition, clearly, is to get up to 200,000 a day by the end of this month, and then to go even higher. As he knows, and as the whole House will know, a fantastic testing regime is going to be absolutely critical to our long-term economic recovery.

I did pay tribute last week. I am glad the Prime Minister has now said that the target now is 200,000 tests a day by the end of this month. But, of course, just having a target is not a strategy. What is needed is testing, tracing and isolation—that is the strategy. Contact tracing was happening in the UK, but it was abandoned in mid-March. We were told at the time that this was because it was “not an appropriate mechanism”, but yesterday the deputy chief medical officer said that it was to do with testing capacity. Can the Prime Minister clarify the position for us? Why was contact tracing abandoned in mid-March and not restarted sooner?

As I think is readily apparent to everybody who has studied the situation, and I think the scientists would confirm, the difficulty in mid-March was that the tracing capacity that we had—it had been useful, as the right hon. and learned Gentleman rightly says, in the containment phase of the epidemic—was no longer useful or relevant, since the transmission from individuals within the UK exceeded our capacity.

The value of the test, tracking and tracing operation that we are setting up now is that, as we come out of the epidemic, and as we get the new cases down, we will have a team that is genuinely able to track and trace hundreds of thousands of people across the country, and thereby drive down the epidemic. To put it in a nutshell, it is easier to do now—now that we have built up the team on the way out—than it was as the epidemic took off. I think most people with common sense can see the particular difficulties that we had at the time.

I think the Prime Minister has confirmed it was a capacity problem. I wish the Government well on the tracking and tracing now, and on the app that is being trialled in the Isle of Wight. We all want that to succeed, and we will all support that in, hopefully, succeeding.

Let me turn to protective equipment, where, clearly, there are ongoing problems. Just this week, the British Medical Association survey said that 48% of doctors had to buy their protective equipment for themselves or rely on donations. That is clearly unacceptable. It is obvious that this problem will get even more acute if and when the Government ask people to return to work. We are clearly going to need a very robust national plan for protective equipment. Can the Prime Minister reassure the public that they will not be asked to return to work until that plan is in place?

Yes, I certainly can. I share the right hon. and learned Gentleman’s frustration about PPE, and the frustration that I think people have felt across the House and across the country. It has been enraging to see the difficulties that we have had in supplying PPE to those who need it, but I do pay tribute again to the work of hundreds of thousands of people involved in the logistics of supplying literally billions of items across the country in a timely way. There have been no national stock-outs of any PPE item, and we are now engaged in a massive plan to ramp up our domestic supply. The right hon. and learned Gentleman will be familiar with what Lord Deighton is now working on, so that—to get to his final question—we are able in the long term, and it may be the long term, to satisfy the domestic needs of this country. We will of course be setting out the details of that plan on Sunday.

I was going to come to the plan; I am grateful to the Prime Minister for that indication. As he knows, there are millions of people on furlough, and millions with children at home, struggling with caring responsibilities. If they are to return to work and their children are to return to school, they need reassurance—I think that we can all feel that—that it will be safe to do so, and that means that they need to know what the Government’s plan is for the next stage. Will the Prime Minister give them that reassurance by setting out his plan as he says he will, and will he come to this House on Monday to present that plan and answer questions from across the House?

I will, of course, undertake that there will be a statement to the House—as you, Mr Speaker, and the House would properly expect—about what we propose. I just want to explain to the House, as a courtesy, why it is happening on Sunday; I am sure that you would be interested to know that, Mr Speaker. The reason is very simple. We have to be sure that the data is going to support our ability to do this, but that data is coming in continuously over the next few days. We will want, if we possibly can, to get going with some of these measures on Monday, and I think it will be a good thing if people have an idea of what is coming the following day. That is why I think Sunday—the weekend—is the best time to do it, but of course the House will be fully informed and will have the full opportunity to debate and interrogate me or the Government on that matter.

Lockdown rules permit people to travel to work if their jobs cannot be done from home, but some have faced criticism and pressure not to do so, including from announcements on London Underground wrongly saying that they should not be on the system unless they are key workers. Will the Prime Minister ask the Mayor to restore public transport capacity in London so that my constituents can travel safely and we can keep as much of the economy going as possible? (902354)

My right hon. Friend is absolutely right that a crucial part of our success in getting transport to run safely will now be running a bigger and more expansive tube service so that people can observe social distancing. We will certainly be working with the Mayor to try to achieve that, although there must be—we will come to this on Sunday and next week—mitigations to help people who, for reasons of social distancing, cannot use mass transit. There will be a huge amount of planning going into helping people to get to work other than by mass transit. I hope that my right hon. Friend, as a former Transport Minister, will agree that this should be a new golden age for cycling.

I welcome the Prime Minister back to Parliament, and congratulate him and Carrie on the birth of their son Wilfred; I wish Wilfred every health and happiness.

The UK’s confirmed death toll now stands at close to 30,000. It is officially the highest in Europe and the second highest in the entire world. Indeed, there are some estimates putting the figure even higher. In my own community of Skye, we have faced our own heartbreaking and devastating outbreak of covid-19 over the past few days. I do agree with the Prime Minister when he says that the worst thing that we could do now would be to ease up the lockdown too soon and allow a second peak of this deadly virus. To protect our citizens, the lockdown must remain in place for as long as it is needed. Given that many people might want to travel to, for example, the tourist areas during the better weather, will the Prime Minister join me in reminding everyone that non-essential travel is not permitted? Does he agree with me and the First Minister of Scotland that our approach should be led only by the best medical and scientific advice, not the politics of posturing?

Yes indeed. Actually, I think that the last few weeks have shown the ability of the Governments of all four nations to come together and to deliver very clear messages for our people, and I think the collaboration has been extremely helpful. I can say to the leader of the SNP that we will certainly be working with the Government in Scotland, as we will be working with the Opposition, with unions and with business, to make sure that we get the unlockdown plan completely right. What he says is absolute common sense: it would be an economic disaster for this country if we were to pursue a relaxation of these measures now in such a way as to trigger a second spike. On that point I am in complete agreement with him.

I am grateful for the Prime Minister’s answer and I commit myself and my party, and my Government colleagues in Edinburgh, to working with him on that shared agenda. However, some of his own Ministers are not following his advice. Instead of working with the Scottish Government, the Secretary of State for Scotland has been making political arguments about the constitution, rather than scientific ones about saving lives. And he is not the only one. This is not the time for opportunistic politicking; this is the time when we all must work together, to protect our NHS and to save lives.

We anticipate that the Prime Minister will be making a televised address on Sunday concerning the easing of the lockdown. This cannot be undertaken without the full input and co-operation of all our devolved Governments. We must end this period of mixed messaging from the UK Government. Will the Prime Minister commit today that the substance of his address will be fully agreed with the devolved nations, so that all our Governments continue with this vital work of saving lives?

Yes. By the way, I forgot to thank the right hon. Gentleman and other colleagues for their kind words about Wilfred. I want to thank him for that; I forgot to say that, and I will be marked down if I don’t. So thank you. Listen, I share the right hon. Gentleman’s aims. We will do our level best to make sure that the outlines of this attract the widest possible consensus; I think that they can and ought to. I am delighted by his call for a prohibition on “political arguments about the constitution” and I think that would be warmly welcomed across this country.

I add my welcome to the Prime Minister; it is great to see him back in his place. And I add my congratulations to him and Carrie on the birth of Wilfred. My right hon. Friend knows that the oil and gas industry is suffering from a perfect storm at present, buffeted by the global oil price crash and the lockdown. This is a moment of real danger for the industry, with the prospect of tens of thousands of job losses unless action is taken. Action and investment by this Government over the past decade have of course been welcome, but more action is needed now to protect jobs, to ensure energy security and to ensure a future for the industry, which is key to delivering net zero by 2050. Can my right hon. Friend promise to bring forward the oil and gas sector deal as soon as possible, and commit the UK Government to investing in a transition park in the north-east of Scotland, ensuring a future for thousands of workers? (902356)

I thank my hon. Friend for his excellent question and for all his campaigning for the oil and gas industry. The whole House will have heard the fervour and learning with which he speaks on that issue, and I can assure him that our right hon. colleague the Secretary of State for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy is actively engaged right now in pursuing this with the sector trade association. I am sure he will want to take up progress with him.

I welcome the Prime Minister back to his place, on my birthday. Halton and Cheshire West and Chester councils, covering my constituency, have stepped up to the national challenge, providing essential services to vulnerable residents and businesses during this crisis. The Government promised to do whatever it takes to fully compensate those councils, and councils across the country, yet both are millions of pounds short of the costs so far—billions nationally. How will the Prime Minister fulfil that funding promise and not return to the dark days of austerity? (902355)

I can certainly tell the hon. Gentleman that the Government have absolutely no intention of returning to the A-word, which I will not quote. That is not going to be our approach. We do not think that will be necessary. What I can tell him is that we have already put another £3.2 billion, as he knows, into supporting local authorities and supporting some of the most vulnerable throughout this difficult time. We will continue to make sure that funding gets through to those who need it, but the crucial thing, as colleagues across the House will understand, is that the more effectively we can suppress this virus and the faster we can restart our economy, the better our chances, as everybody knows, of getting the funding that we all need to the poorest and neediest in our society. That is the course that this Government is going to follow.

Like other colleagues, I am absolutely delighted to see the Prime Minister back at the Dispatch Box. I congratulate him and Carrie on the birth of their child. My constituent, Jackie Potter, recently lost her husband, Ashley, who was 64. The family would like to bury Ashley with a small church service, applying social distancing. If Ashley were to be cremated, that would happen, but as he is being buried, under current guidelines, that is not possible. Can this anomaly between burials and cremations be urgently addressed so that families of all faiths who want to bury their loved ones, applying social distancing and in a faith service, are able to do so? (902358)

Yes, indeed. I thank my hon. Friend, and I extend my deepest sympathies to the friends and family of his constituent, Ashley. We are asking councils to do exactly that—to help people to attend without breaching the rules on social distancing. I am sure that he would appreciate that we think that is the right balance to strike.

Undoubtedly the furlough scheme has prevented mass unemployment, but when companies such as BA use millions of pounds of public money to furlough their staff at the same time as handing out redundancy notices, it is a kick in the teeth to those workers and the taxpayer. It is concerning that reports today suggest that the furlough scheme may be wound down after June. Would it not be an obscenity if, whether through employer decisions or Government inaction, those people whose jobs we have been trying to save end up redundant anyway? (902357)

Before the Prime Minister answers, will Members please ensure that they do not have political slogans behind them when they are speaking?

The furlough scheme has been one of the outstanding provisions that the Government have been able to put in. It has given huge numbers of people—more than 6 million people—in this country the security that they need. Obviously, we want to make sure that people continue to feel that security, but at the same time, we also want to enable people safely and securely to go back to work and earn their pay packets, as they want to do.

Can I add my welcome and congratulations to my right hon. Friend? Does he agree with me that our further education and higher education institutions have a huge role to play in rebuilding our economy, particularly in supporting and retraining those who have lost their jobs? Has he considered what they might offer and, indeed, how we might incentivise them to offer the right qualifications in support, particularly for businesses and new entrepreneurs? (902359)

I thank my hon. Friend very much for all the work he does to champion the cause of education, particularly further education, on the Select Committee on Education. As he knows, the agenda of this Government remains unchanged: to unite and level up across our country with infrastructure, technology and education above all. That includes our world-leading universities, which are now formulating vaccines against this disease, further education and the skills that our economy is going to need so badly for a sustained economic recovery.

Given that the Government are refusing even to discuss universal basic income, I was glad to see them at least recognise the need for an increase in universal credit entitlement. However, no such increase has been announced for employment and support allowance. Does the Prime Minister have plans for a similar increase in ESA, and if not, can he explain why he feels that people who are sick or have a disability require less support at this time? (902360)

As the hon. Lady knows, what we have done is remove the seven-day waiting time for ESA. I am glad that she pays tribute to the big increase in universal credit, with another £1,040 benefiting 4 million families across the country—a total investment of £7 billion. I think that what everybody wants to see is not just people taking universal credit but, as I have now said several times, a careful and sensible programme, attracting the widest possible support, that enables us to continue to suppress the disease right down while also allowing our economy to start up again.

I have been very impressed by how businesses and individuals across my constituency have been borrowing and lending devices so that children can learn at home during the pandemic, an initiative that will be significantly enhanced by the £100 million recently given by the Education Secretary. However, my right hon. Friend the Member for Harlow (Robert Halfon), who chairs the Education Committee, has suggested that, when schools return, a catch-up premium should be brought in to close the gap between those most disadvantaged and left behind and their better-off peers. In constituencies such as Barrow that would make all the difference as we rebuild, so will the Prime Minister commit to such a scheme? (902362)

I thank my hon. Friend and congratulate him on the way he represents his constituents in Barrow. He is exactly right. That is why, among other things, we are ensuring that there are extra computers and laptops for disadvantaged communities, while making sure that we supply them with more 4G routers, which are invaluable at this particularly difficult time. There will be more to come, because this Government will pursue our agenda of uniting and levelling up across the whole UK.

Since the Government lowered their benefit cap threshold in 2015, it has been frozen, which essentially means a real-terms cut every year for those affected. The Child Poverty Action Group, the Resolution Foundation and the Institute for Fiscal Studies are just some of the voices calling on the Government to remove the cap as part of their response to coronavirus. We know that 93% of households affected by the cap have children, and that ultimately it is those children who are losing out as a result of this policy, so will the Prime Minister do the right thing and scrap the cap? (902361)

I think the hon. Gentleman is asking for the cap on benefits to be lifted. As I have just told the House, already a total of £7 billion extra has gone into universal credit alone.

These are very dark and difficult days, but may I highlight the amazing work being done by volunteers across the country to help others? In my constituency there are dedicated groups delivering groceries and prescriptions, from Stokenchurch to Edlesborough, and from Hughenden to Berryfields. Will my right hon. Friend join me in thanking them all, but will he also especially congratulate the organisers of Bernie the bus, which, while collecting food for the local food bank, plays very loud party music, bringing a real note of joy and happiness to local communities as it performs a valuable public service? (902365)

As a great believer in buses, and as a part-time manufacturer of them, I agree with my hon. Friend very strongly about the good work being done by Bernie the bus and all who support it and travel therein.

The Secretary of State for Housing, Communities and Local Government has rightly recognised that council workers are the unsung heroes of this crisis and has promised to give local authorities the resources they need, but my city faces a gap of up to £55 million as a result of extra costs and lost income. Our communities bore the brunt of austerity. They cannot now carry the burden of coronavirus. Will the Prime Minister give all councils a cast-iron guarantee that they will not be asked to do so? (902363)

I thank the hon. Lady very much. She is absolutely right, as anybody knows, to draw attention to the difficulties, the straitened circumstances, the pressures that local councils have been under. That is why we put the extra £3.2 billion in immediately to help them cope, and she should know, by the way, that Nottingham—her own city—has already had an extra £19 million to help deal with the pressures of coronavirus. Certainly, that is by no means the last of the support that we will be giving to our fantastic frontline council workers, who, as she rightly says, have borne so much of the brunt of this crisis.