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Prime Minister

Volume 675: debated on Wednesday 6 May 2020

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.