I beg to move,
That this House has considered Covid-19.
We gather here today in the midst of a very great darkness that has descended upon our nation, and not just our nation—all nations. It has been by far the biggest challenge we have faced in a generation. We knew it was coming, but not when, and not what its clinical characteristics would be. We trained to face it. How we have all responded to it has been a defining moment for us as individuals and as a nation. We have all been involved. We had no choice about dealing with it, but we had a choice about how we did so.
In the past few weeks, the darkness that has engulfed us all has been emotional, economic and extensive, but it has been illuminated by a million points of light: the response from the British people has been immense. People in all our communities have performed selfless, heroic acts—stoic, disciplined, kind—from, now, Colonel Tom to our health and care workers, our scientific and tech community, businesses, those who came out of retirement, critical workers, volunteers and the public who through their resolve have reduced the rate of infection and sent this virus into decline.
People have faced this crisis with personal courage and often good cheer, and I pay tribute to their resilience with pride. This virus called forth the question of who we are, and that question was answered—for families, for parents, for children, for communities, for the nation. It illuminated our values and our strengths: we chose to prioritise lives; we chose to support businesses and jobs; so many stepped up and volunteered; we pull together in times of crisis; we have seen the validation of a devolved but national health service that is free at the point of use and not linked to employment—our NHS. It has shown what we believe in and how much we value the actions of so many who are taking on a greater share of the risk to protect us all and defeat the virus, including, I am very proud to say, some Members of this House of Commons working in health or as first responders. When united in a national effort, the British people are a powerful force.
The virus has also shown a fragility: the structural and funding complexity of social care; the invisibility of some of those in care settings and mental health, of those with learning or behavioural disabilities, as well as older people; the lack of resilience in supplies of equipment when faced with a crisis of global proportions; the obstacles to providing support for some of our most entrepreneurial people; and the challenges of getting the world working together when nations are also focused at home.
This debate offers us parliamentarians the opportunity not just to scrutinise what has happened and the next steps in our response, but to discuss how we can continue to improve our resilience and adapt to what will be fundamental changes in the way we live our lives. This is, without doubt, an inflection point for our country and for the world, and we all need to rise to those challenges. We all have a role to play in finding solutions and answers.
This debate affords us the opportunity to remember and mourn all those who have lost their lives to this disease, and to think of those who are grieving without comfort—in some cases, without having said goodbye. The reported death toll stands at 31,855 souls. Our thoughts, too, must be with those who have survived covid but whose health has been impaired as a consequence, and to acknowledge those who have had to put their treatment and therapy for other conditions on hold because the NHS would not have been able to cope unless they did so. The full cost of that sacrifice has yet to be counted.
In particular, it is right that we acknowledge all those working in health and care who have succumbed to the disease. In full knowledge of the risks, they chose to work on the frontline to save lives, give comfort to others and provide care to those in their charge. The metaphor of this pandemic as a war against coronavirus has been used, and the courage and duty demonstrated by all those working with those who are infected is the same as going into battle. Many will have seen their friends fall ill. Some will have seen their colleagues die. And they will have headed back into the danger zone, day after day. I know that there will be disagreements during the course of this debate, but I also know that every Member of this House will want to express their gratitude and humility in the face of such service, and all will agree that, despite the difficulties, we must ensure that all frontline workers in this crisis have the equipment that they need to keep them safe. We are all aware of the challenges and of the efforts being made, but that is irrelevant. We must, and we will, do what is necessary.
I also want to thank the volunteers who have stood up to help care and health services. They include individuals who are facing the prospect of losing their job, financial hardship or worries about relatives. Instead of devoting themselves to their own needs or those of their families, they have gone into care homes, medical wards and Nightingale hospitals to serve their communities—often having to separate from their own loved ones to do so. Over 3 million additional volunteers stepped up.
We should also thank the critical workers who have carried on so that we could all be fed, protected and provided for: those in the supermarket and the store; the police and fire services; post office workers; public transport workers; cleaners; prison officers; refuse collectors; pharmacists; teachers; nursery workers; public servants, especially those in the resilience forums; and, of course, our armed forces, who have delivered aid to those being shielded, brought testing to communities, and provided planning expertise at every level of this response and in every local resilience forum in the land—all while carrying out their other duties to protect the nation. They have taken risks for all our sakes.
In the past few months we have seen so many people and organisations rally: from the businesses that adapted so swiftly to meet the needs of the nation, expanding services, altering their production lines and generously donating equipment and expertise, to the others who managed to keep their businesses going throughout this ordeal in order that they could provide for our families and support our public services. We must remember that without the wealth they generate, we cannot fund the services that we all rely on.
We have been right to provide an unprecedented level of support to retain jobs and help cash flow, with 25,000 loans, half a million firms furloughing workers, and 600,000 grants. We as a Government and all of us as citizens must do all that we can to get Britain back to work and start the recovery, as my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister has set out.
We have seen charities, faced with their fundraising plans in tatters, lead the local response and, of course, the public have followed the requests of the chief medical officer by staying at home. It has been tough, especially for those in cramped housing with no gardens, but they have done it, and thanks to them R is now below 1. In the next phase of the response, we must all continue to demonstrate that resolve.
In all the steps and all the issues that colleagues will raise in this debate, we will be more successful if we tackle them together, across party lines and across the Administrations of the United Kingdom, as we continue to do, with international co-operation, and across all sectors—public, private and the third sector—no longer deterred by dogma, just pulling together and focusing on what needs to be done.
In that spirit, opening this debate affords me an opportunity to thank all Members of this House who joined the Cabinet Office daily calls at the start of the pandemic. They were cross-party and they were constructive. We helped each other to help our constituents, shared our ideas, cut down workloads and supported each other. The information gathered on personal protective equipment, care homes, businesses and operational matters was incredibly helpful to every Department.
We should continue to work together not only to tackle the challenges but to seize the opportunities to tackle problems that were previously almost impossible. For example, since the start of this crisis, 90% of rough sleepers are now in accommodation. They are safe and secure. There will never be a better opportunity to wrap the services that those individuals need around them while we deal with the crisis, so we must.
These are dark times, but they are also illuminating times. We have reminded ourselves, as a country, what we can do when we are united in a mission. Millions of us chose not to curse the dark but to light a candle. The British people have given us a beacon of hope in the days ahead.
I thank the Minister for that thoughtful opening speech. We all need the Government to get this right. Labour has been clear: we will always put the national interest first. We will support the Government when they get it right but challenge them to do more when that is needed.
We all know how hard lockdown has been, especially for those who fear for their jobs and their businesses; the elderly; the lonely; and those living with an abusive partner or carer. At the moment, most grandparents want nothing more than to be able to hug their grandchildren. Thousands of people are missing out on the chance to say goodbye or even to hold the hand of the person they love in a care home. The same applies to the ambiguous situation relating to funerals and cremations, which is causing enormous pain and distress to so many families. It is in depriving us of these poignant moments—opportunities to hug, to hold and to say goodbye—that the impact of the virus causes the most distress.
There are so many profound social costs, and it all has to be balanced with the huge challenges and risks faced by people working in health and social care. We all want the Government to get this right, but, frankly, the Government’s response in the past 24 hours has been a shambles. Last Thursday, the Government’s briefings to newspapers led to headlines proclaiming that we could look forward to “Happy Monday” and “Lockdown Freedom”, the day before a sunny bank holiday weekend. When I saw those headlines, I recalled the world war two poster in my history class at secondary school that said, “Careless talk costs lives”. I wonder sometimes whether the Government pause to contemplate the health impacts of some of their briefings and statements.
Last night’s statement by the Prime Minister was a chance to provide some clarity about the situation, but it obscured as much as it revealed. This morning, the Foreign Secretary told “Today” programme listeners that they were free to see both their parents at the same time. Almost immediately afterwards, it was clarified that people may see only one parent at a time. The Foreign Secretary then told Sky News that people should return to work from Wednesday, but the press release issued by Downing Street alongside the Prime Minister’s statement clearly stated that people should be encouraged to return to work from Monday. If senior members of the Cabinet struggle to follow the advice, what are the rest of us meant to do?
A four-nation strategy is essential to ensure a coherent and consistent message. It has served us well so far, so why is England now pursuing a different strategy from Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales? If someone lives in Bristol but works in Cardiff, should they be going to work? What about if someone lives in Berwick but works in Edinburgh?
When it comes to Northern Ireland, the Government must also consider cross-border co-operation. Northern Ireland is unique in that it shares a land border with the Republic, so close co-operation with the Irish Government and the Northern Ireland Assembly is vital to ensure a joined-up approach to effectively combating the virus, particularly with regard to contact tracing. The UK has the highest death toll in Europe. That calls for greater care, not greater risks.
The most substantive change in Government advice today is that workers who cannot work from home should return to work. We want workers to earn an income and businesses to thrive, but for that to happen, workers need to know that they and their families will be safe. Businesses want that knowledge and security as well.
Let us be clear that the biggest risk to our economic security and recovery would be decisions that led to a second peak of the virus, so it is deeply worrying that workers were asked last night to return to work today with no guidelines published with regard to safety in the workplace. If someone has been told to return to work, but lives with a partner with a pre-existing condition or an elderly parent, what are they meant to do?
What if someone has a school-age child but is now expected by the Government and their employer to return to work without the childcare to be able to do that? Can people still be furloughed? Is that at their employer’s discretion? If people cannot work through no fault of their own, will they be required to go on to statutory sick pay?
Who will assess whether a workplace is sufficiently safe? Is it up to the individual employee? I refer the Minister to section 44 of the Employment Rights Act 1996, which permits an individual employee not to return to work without risk of detriment if they reasonably believe that adequate safety measures are not in place. I hope that employers and Ministers will protect those rights.
Meanwhile, workers are told to avoid public transport if possible, but for millions of people in the UK, it is not possible to get to work any other way but by public transport. We have already seen bus drivers in London lose their lives to covid-19. People need to know that they can go to work without endangering themselves, or indeed others. If we are to balance concern for the economy with concern for public health, the Government should bring unions, business leaders and scientists together to develop a national safety standard. The safety of workers and their families is not, and can never be, an optional extra.
It is vital that the furlough scheme continues to support workers, including enabling people to work part time, particularly if businesses are unable to operate at full capacity. We need to hear more from Ministers about ongoing support until the time is right to operate at full capacity for some of the hardest-hit sectors, such as hospitality and travel. We need to support areas such as our coastal communities, which are so dependent on tourism.
The impact of the virus exposes deep inequalities in our society. The poorest areas of the country have been hardest hit. Lower earners are most exposed while the better-off are insulated from the biggest threats. Of the bottom 50% of earners, just one in 10 can work from home. At the top, it is five times that.
This crisis has shown who the real key workers are, from NHS staff to care workers, supermarket workers, cleaners, delivery drivers and bus drivers. They are often underpaid, under-appreciated and undervalued, and they have been asked to put their lives at risk while keeping others safe. Now, more working people who do manual jobs in manufacturing, food processing and construction are being asked to risk their health, and that of their family, while those doing office jobs, which are often better paid, can work from home and face fewer risks.
Black and minority ethnic Britons are disproportionately at risk. We know that black Britons are four times more likely to die from this virus compared with white people. We need a public inquiry into that, which Baroness Lawrence called for today, and we need urgent action to protect the most vulnerable from this virus. Coronavirus did not cause those inequalities, but it has thrown a sharp light on them. We must not let them deepen even further.
In our care homes the spread of the virus continues and the death toll is still too high. Half of workers in care homes earn less than a real living wage, and a quarter are on zero-hours contracts. Many have died. Last Wednesday, the Prime Minister reported that 29 care workers have died since the start of this crisis, but data from the Office for National Statistics show that there were 131 coronavirus-related deaths among social care workers up to 20 April. According to the National Care Forum, just one in five care workers with symptoms have been tested, and they still lack priority testing for coronavirus. Those who dedicate their lives to caring for others, and who care for the sick and the dying whose relatives cannot be with them, are being left without adequate protection, and we are only beginning to know the real cost.
One reason why the lockdown rules are causing so much worry is that new infections and deaths are still at higher levels than when we went into lockdown. The test and trace strategy is still a mess. MPs from across the House will have constituents who have been waiting for well over 48 hours to get their results, and some who have been waiting for more than a week. We see reports of tests having to be flown to the United States because we lack the capacity here. How did we get into that position? Without a test, trace, and isolate strategy it is almost impossible to identify a new spike in infections, or to do anything about it. The Government need to sort that out. Relaxing lockdown will work only if it is sorted out.
At some point we will come through to the other side of this virus, and we will go about rebuilding our lives, our communities, and our economy. The recovery will not be easy, and it will require boldness and imagination to build something better. The contribution of the British public and all our key workers has been immense, but the crisis has revealed huge injustices and inequalities. We deserve a fairer country—that will be Labour’s mission, and I hope it will be the Government’s mission too.
Thank you. There will now be a four-minute time limit on Back-Bench speeches. As ever, I advise Members who are speaking from home and do not have the benefit of the clock in the Chamber to have some other method of ensuring that they do not exceed four minutes. It is amazing how many people cannot add on four, but I know that does not apply to Mr Mel Stride.
Thank you, Madam Deputy Speaker. May I begin by associating myself with the very poignant and moving remarks made by those on both Front Benches about those who have sadly lost their lives to this devastating virus, and with the appreciation that they showed to those who have helped so much and are on the frontline?
I will address my remarks specifically to some of the economic issues around covid-19, not least the inevitable withdrawal of some of the Government’s support for businesses as we come out of lockdown. I do not say “inevitable” because the Government were not right to introduce the scheme in the first place—the Chancellor did entirely the right thing, and came in with the scale and pace to support business—but in the longer term, the amount of spend involved in such measures is simply unsustainable.
For example, the furlough scheme is costing as much on an ongoing basis as the funding of the national health service. Before coronavirus, Governments agonised over whether we could spend another 1%, 2% or 3% on the national health service, but here we are spending the equivalent of 100% on furloughing 25% of all workers in the United Kingdom.
I want to focus for a moment on how we might unwind the furlough scheme most productively and effectively. First, we should seek to taper it away, from 80% down to 60% and then to 40% and so on, to smooth our exit. Secondly, it is particularly important that employers should contribute to the cost of furlough beyond the end of June, because many of those with staff currently on furlough are not having to pay them and have no intention, in the medium term at least, of bringing them back in to their business. Thirdly, we need to encourage part-time working within the furlough scheme, where possible.
Finally, the Chancellor should look very closely at targeting support, not just in respect of the furlough but in respect of the other support that the Government are providing. There are at least three categories of businesses in our economy at the moment. There are those that will survive without any additional support through this crisis. Indeed, there is a small minority of businesses whose business model has actually thrived under our current circumstances. They clearly do not warrant support. Secondly, there are companies that, in the medium term, can be bridged out of the current crisis, through the provision of support. That is where a particular focus must lie. Thirdly, there are those businesses whose business model is such that, under the new economy of social distancing and before a vaccine arrives, they are, sadly, going to struggle to survive even if they are given support. I urge the Chancellor to take the courageous and difficult decisions on targeting at business and sector level, to make sure that the Treasury’s finite resources are used productively to support jobs and the economy as we emerge on the other side.
We also need to start talking about the plan beyond coronavirus, even though that may seem some way away. We need to talk about growth and how we are going to support consumer expenditure in particular, given that consumers do not feel like spending and may have increased their savings during this crisis. Temporary tax incentives, such as a time-limited VAT break, may be good in that regard. Finally—as I stick within my four minutes—business indebtedness will have increased. We need the Government to look at how some of that debt can be turned into equity, so that businesses can focus on investing and creating jobs.
I would first like to express my sympathy for all those who have lost a loved one to covid during this epidemic, and to pay tribute to the millions of healthcare staff, key workers and volunteers who have shown that community spirit is alive and well.
Unfortunately, the foundation of this crisis has been 10 years in the making. A decade of Government austerity has taken its toll on health and social care services in England and, through cuts to devolved budgets, right across the UK. The pandemic is unprecedented in our lifetimes and poses a real challenge for every single Government on the planet, but it has been No. 1 on the risk register in the UK for more than 10 years.
In early February, the Government claimed to be fully prepared, yet more than three months on, they are still failing to supply sufficient PPE to protect their healthcare staff. Moreover, testing and contact tracing are still not fully up and running, yet they are lifting the current restrictions. In 2016, Exercise Cygnus highlighted the lack of PPE and ventilators, yet there has been a 40% reduction in the value of the stockpile. The management of it was outsourced to a private company, and we hear that 45% of items in the stockpile are out of date, including 80% of respirator masks. Last June, the new and emerging respiratory virus threats advisory group advised the Secretary of State for Health and Social Care to add gowns to the stockpile. Why was that not done? Is that why Public Health England guidelines, which were issued to all four nations, did not include gowns for staff in covid-positive wards outwith intensive care? Two hundred healthcare staff have died. We need to pay tribute to them, but it should not have happened. None of them were from intensive care units, the most dangerous setting, which shows that full PPE actually works. But now we hear that even ICU doctors in England report struggling to get gowns. There is no point in joining the Thursday clap for carers if you are not willing to protect staff. The excuse for the lack of gowns is that the stockpile was only planned for an influenza pandemic. This is a civil contingency measure, so why would you plan for only one virus? It is not as if this is the first coronavirus outbreak. We had the severe acute respiratory syndrome outbreak in 2002 and the middle east respiratory syndrome outbreak in 2014, and they were both much more lethal.
The Prime Minister set five tests for easing lockdown. The Government clearly are not yet meeting No. 4. Scotland’s NHS has had central procurement and logistics for years and has its own stockpile, but the challenge for all Governments is achieving ongoing supply in the presence of high global demand. Yet the overseas offices of the Department for International Trade have apparently been advised not to assist the Scottish, Welsh or Northern Irish Governments in PPE procurement. Provision of PPE is a devolved responsibility. Why would the UK Government want to undermine those Governments’ efforts to protect the patients and staff in devolved health services?
The Secretary of State for Health prides himself on having ramped up testing to 100,000 on 30 April, but that was only by counting 40,000 tests that were, as we say, “in the post”. I wonder if they are counted again when they come back in. The level, sadly, has not been maintained. One issue being reported is delays in getting results back. It is also the case that the result is not always reported back to the GP or the hospital if it is a staff member. It is not just about how many tests. The World Health Organisation advises that testing, contact tracing and isolation is critical to breaking the chains of infection and controlling the epidemic. Unfortunately, in February, that just was not in place and we ended up with the lockdown as an emergency measure because we could not identify who we should isolate.
Understanding easing the lockdown involves difficult decisions, but we need to be aware that the virus has not changed. We hear all the time about the mystical R number guiding the way out of lockdown, but it is an estimate of how many people are infected by each person with the virus. It has three components: the ease of transmission from one person to another; how long a person is infectious; and how many contacts they have during that time. Ease of transmission is a balance between the infectiousness of the virus and the susceptibility of the population. Covid-19 is very infectious and, as it was a new virus, the population had no immunity. We can reduce transmission through the personal hygiene measures —I would just emphasise that that should include not shaking hands—but 50% of the spread is asymptomatic and that is the reason to advise the use of face coverings to reduce droplet spread from people without symptoms.
The way to decrease susceptibility is with a vaccine, but that will take time. In early March, the Government seemed to get side-tracked over the idea of herd immunity. I was chair of the all-party group on vaccinations for all and I totally understand the aim of herd immunity, but it is usually achieved with an effective and safe vaccine, not by letting a dangerous disease just rip through the population, especially when we have no proof of how long any covid immunity would last. The duration of infectiousness is about five to seven days and we cannot change that, but one of the problems is that covid patients seem to become infectious about two days before symptoms.
Finally, there is the number of contacts. That is the key thing we can manipulate in one of two ways: either by isolating everyone in a lockdown, which is a blunderbuss approach because we could not identify who we should be isolating; or by isolating just cases and their contacts, so they have no contact with others. That requires strong public health teams to provide testing, tracing and isolation of every single case to control the spread. That should be put in place during lockdown, while people have relatively few contacts, and before lifting restrictions.
The Prime Minister set out a roadmap last night for easing lockdown in England if five tests are met. No. 3 is a sustained fall in new cases, but the UK is still hovering over 4,000 new cases a day, and that is just the ones that are proven by a test. No. 4 is the secure provision of testing and PPE, and neither of those criteria has been met. Telling people to go out to work is not a baby step, especially without clear workplace and transport safety measures—we only have to look at photographs of London transport this morning to see that. If the Prime Minister had wanted more people to leave home, I gently suggest that a “Stay apart” message might have been a bit more helpful. Crucially, local public health teams must be in place to monitor the impact of any changes so that they can spot early warning signs of a local outbreak and take action, and that is not the case.
None of the devolved nations is ready to come out of lockdown. In Scotland, the number of cases is falling, but we do not consider it low enough to be sure that there is no risk of a rise in infections. I know that the political decisions on the next steps are difficult, and I do not underestimate the mental, social and economic impact of lockdown or the misery it is causing. However, a second surge of covid cases would lead to many more deaths and put us right back to square one.
I support the Government’s caution about lifting lockdown, and I commend the Prime Minister for being honest about the complex choices we face.
I want to focus my comments on the quality of scientific advice received by Ministers. It is now clear that a major blind spot in the approach taken in Europe and America was our focus on pandemic flu rather than pandemic coronaviruses, such as SARS or MERS. Asian countries took a different path. As a result, Korea has had no more than nine deaths on any one day, Singapore is on just 20 deaths in total and Taiwan is on just seven.
The failure to look at what those countries were doing at the outset will rank as one of the biggest failures of scientific advice to Ministers in our lifetimes. One can understand the reluctance to look at a totalitarian regime such as China, when it dangerously covered up the existence of the virus at the outset. But why, when the Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies was modelling possible responses in January, did it look only at the extremes of total lockdown or mitigated herd immunity, rather than at the middle way of test, track and trace that was being pursued by the Asian democracies?
That failure led directly to another, namely the advice to stop community testing on 12 March. That meant that we had no idea where the virus was, while countries such as Germany continued community testing and saved many lives as a result. A lack of interest in community testing led to another failure at the start of March. Even though infections were doubling every five days, SAGE advised Ministers against lockdown and advised them to continue with events such as the Cheltenham festival and the Liverpool champions league match. That meant that infections soon grew to a point where traditional contact tracing could not cope.
Of course Ministers have to take responsibility for their decisions. They have a duty to challenge and probe any advice, but their decisions are shaped by that advice. In that context, it would be totally wrong to blame individuals. Sir Patrick Vallance and Professor Chris Whitty are outstanding scientists and any Government would be lucky to have their advice. At fault is a systemic failure caused by the secrecy that surrounds everything that SAGE does. Because its advice is not published, it cannot be subjected to scientific challenge. Nor is parliamentary scrutiny possible, even when a Government say they are following the science.
Until last week, we were not even allowed to know who sat on SAGE. We used to have similar secrecy over the interest rate advice that was given to the Chancellor. In 1997, the Bank of England was made operationally independent, lines of accountability were clarified and advice was made transparent. Since then, inflation has not troubled the British economy. Had SAGE’s advice been published in January, an army of scientists from our universities could have challenged why test, track and trace was not being modelled. They could have demanded a ramp-up of testing and challenged the behavioural assumptions that delayed lockdown. We cannot know for certain, but the result might well have been better subsequent advice and many lives saved.
British science is world-beating because we have always championed inventiveness and encouraged challenge, so let us sweep aside the secrecy that surrounds SAGE and publish what it recommends, including dissenting views. In that way, we will harness the robust exchange of ideas, which has always been one of our greatest national strengths, and, as the Prime Minister said yesterday, come out of this crisis wiser and stronger.
It is a pleasure to follow such a powerful speech. I want to make two interconnected points. The first is that in post-industrial communities, such as the mining villages I represent, many former workers suffer from chronic underlying conditions—years of damaged lungs. They and their families are entitled to compensation for these industrial diseases, but the virus attacks older men with pre-existing conditions. If, sadly, tragedy then occurs, it is essential that medics ensure the death certificate records both the virus and the underlying industrial disease. The miners and the workers in similar heavy industries created the wealth of our country—we owe them.
My second point is that covid has revealed how deeply divided our country has been and how damaging austerity was. It is clear that the people upon whom we depend the most, the nation’s heroes, its key workers, are those who suffered the most under austerity, yet they went to work every day, and still do, driven by selfless hard work and dedication, a sense of community and solidarity, and the ethos of care and responsibility. The average key worker is paid less in our country than other employees. I am thinking of the delivery drivers, posties, nurses, shopkeepers, teachers, lab technicians, food retailers, farmers, binmen, carers, police officers, doctors and all those others who have held our society together through this crisis. It is wrong that their incomes were held back, the services that they provide were cut and our social cohesion itself was damaged, leaving us exposed to risk from the pandemic. Yet when the crisis hit, they were there, without hesitation, ready for the challenge that the virus posed, just as the miners, steelworkers and shipbuilders were in another time.
Working-class people emerge as the heroes in this crisis, although they are often poorly paid, with mortality rates among the highest. Let us remember that men in low-skilled jobs are four times more likely to die from the virus than those in professional occupations. People are already talking about finding an exit strategy from the lockdown, and we do need to lift our eyes to the horizon, but it is not acceptable—the Government appeared to envisage this yesterday—to drive poorer people back to work in conditions dictated purely by their employers, perhaps risking their health while their white-collar neighbours in more professional occupations remain at home safe. Workers need to get back to work, but they need unions, working alongside managers, to determine whether the workplace is safe enough before they go back.
After the virus, we need a new economic and social settlement, one that puts health, not wealth, at the centre of our concerns and agrees that there should be no return to austerity. We need a rebuilt NHS, adequate care services, properly funded universal public services, fair wages and an end to grotesque inequality. The efforts of millions of people and the spirits of all those who fell during this crisis serving our country must hang over this House of Commons in quiet reproach for the shameless failures of the past decade. We must respond to their whispered demand for a better way, and we must resolve that their sacrifice will not have been for nothing.
I do not set out to be a discordant voice, and I have at least some agreement with my right hon. Friend the Member for South West Surrey (Jeremy Hunt), but we are always told that the Government’s policy is a consequence of the best scientific advice. Well, the one thing the Government are certainly not short of—the one commodity not in short supply—is scientific advice. The question is: which are the siren voices? Which is the duff advice, and which is the best advice? I am not qualified to judge. I want an answer to a specific question: to what extent is the lockdown and this cautious plan for the lifting of it a consequence of advice from Professor Neil Ferguson and his modelling at Imperial College London? He has recently released the code for his modelling to very significant peer criticism. Again, I am not qualified to judge its robustness. What I can say as a layman, however, is that he has form. In the past, he has predicted the most blood-curdling of death tolls, which never materialised.
There is no question but that the lockdown has inflicted significant additional damage to that which the pandemic has done to our economy. It will be costly and lasting. Whether or not it was done on the best advice, there is no question but that it was done for the best of motives—the motive of saving life—but the diminution of economic activity and employment itself takes a very heavy toll on life.
This would be a difficult situation for any Government, but there are questions that must be answered and lessons that must be learned if we are to come out of lockdown safely. The large number of fatalities in this country was not inevitable. My heart goes out to those who have suffered a loss. The Government have made a religion of cuts and non-intervention, which led them to delay the decision to go into lockdown. Why did we ignore the warnings from other countries ahead of us in the epidemic? In Italy, lockdown began on 9 March; in Spain, it began on 15 March; in France, it began on 16 March. We finally entered lockdown on 23 March. Only Italy had more deaths at lockdown than the UK.
The lack of urgency was repeated over PPE and testing. We hear of frontline staff terrified of going to work without appropriate PPE. As late as 13 March, covid-19 guidance for care homes was issued. It stated that facemasks did not need to be worn in residential settings, and stressed:
“It remains very unlikely that people receiving care in a care home or the community will become infected.”
That guidance was not changed until 2 April—10 days after lockdown. Why was it not changed earlier? How has it contributed to the epidemic in care homes?
There is a worldwide PPE shortage, yet we hear even now of companies in the UK offering to supply PPE and being ignored by the Government. Why did the Government not act earlier to set up a secure supply structure here at home?
On testing, we have had announcement after announcement. On 18 March, the Prime Minister announced that we had a target of 25,000 tests per day. That was not reached for more than five weeks. On 25 March, he said that testing will “hopefully very soon” reach 250,000 per day. On 29 March, the Health Secretary tweeted, “We’ve reached 10,000,” but that was not correct. On 2 April, the Health Secretary announced that we will reach
“100,000 tests per day by the end of this month.”
That was achieved by sending 40,000 tests out in the post, and the 100,000 target has been missed every day since. This is more about media management than giving the public solid facts.
This far into the crisis, why are we sending tests to the USA? Why have we ignored the laboratories around the country in hospitals, universities and the private sector, many of which said they were geared up to answer the call for help that never came? The Prime Minister has changed the message to “be alert”, but it is the Government who must stay alert. Without an effective and efficient tracking and tracing system, this is a reckless move. It has already caused confusion. People were given 12 hours’ notice to go back to work today, but the detailed guidance is not being published until today, with some further guidance due tomorrow.
Too slow to lock down and secure the supply of PPE and testing; too rushed to end the lockdown in a coherent and planned way; the performance of the people has been superior to the Government’s. The Government must improve if we are to keep people safe as we come out of this crisis.
The Government took decisive action to protect the public, but as we consider our phased exit from lockdown, we must also consider the impact on UK businesses and workers. Specifically, I would like to speak to the experiences of the digital, culture, media and sport sectors.
The Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport accounts for less than 1% of Government spending, yet these sectors account for almost a quarter of the UK economy. Ensuring the integrity of the economy therefore means giving businesses in the DCMS sectors the support they need to deal with the challenges of covid-19. Whether in the arts, sports, media or tourism, these sectors punch well above their weight and enrich the lives of people in this country every single day. They are also the sectors that are disproportionately impacted by lockdown and social distancing measures.
Heavily regulated industries, such as financial services these days, have much more interaction with Government and the Treasury than most businesses in the DCMS sectors. Ordinarily, that is an advantage. These businesses are often small, operating for the most part without Government intervention, and many survive on tight margins, with surprisingly complex and diverse operations. When it comes to knowing how to help them in troubled times, however, that poses a challenge, with what I have to say is a lack of comprehension on the part of the Treasury.
The Digital, Culture, Media and Sport Committee, which I chair, is currently conducting an inquiry into the impact of covid-19 on the DCMS space. Already we have seen that the Government support, although welcome, is not reaching some of the freelancers and organisations that are desperate for assistance. Too often they fall between the bureaucratic cracks riven by the Treasury, which is more used to dealing with banks than bands and with accountants rather than actors.
Charities in particular are suffering. The best of British good will can be seen in our charitable sector and the more than 160,000 diverse charities across the country, which in normal times work to fundraise extensively. That is now largely impossible, and charities report that they are struggling. A shortfall of almost £4 billion over a quarter has been cited as the likely black hole that they face.
The Government’s £750 million package for charities is helpful to those working on the covid frontline, but most charities, despite doing exceptionally valuable work, without which our communities would face significant struggles, are not working specifically on the covid frontline. They still have bills to pay and are facing the same collapsing revenues. Many still have statutory requirements to keep working. To further complicate matters, charities that have furloughed staff find that those staff are unable to volunteer for them, despite being able to volunteer for other charities. If furloughed staff could volunteer for their own organisations, with regulatory oversight, that would go a significant way towards ensuring the survival of many.
For that reason, the DCMS Committee has been calling for a separate coronavirus job retention scheme to be established specifically to meet the needs of organisations and individuals in the charity and voluntary sectors, and that substantial notice be given on phasing out furloughing support to avoid a cliff edge, which is an issue for many other parts of the UK economy. The charitable sector has also called for a stabilisation fund to provide certainty to organisations at this unprecedented time, which we also support as a Committee. We ask that consideration be given to the sums that the sector says it needs and that further clarity be given about how the £750 million earmarked so far can actually be claimed.
Charities help us and our communities when we need support. Without them, public services would be inundated. We must now support them in their hour of need, so that they can continue with their vital work.
I start by paying tribute to all our key workers. They are the best of us, and I hope that we will repay their courage and dedication to our country.
I have heard from parents and schools that they have experienced issues with the free school meal voucher scheme. Many either have not received those vouchers or have been unable to redeem them, despite the scheme having been launched more than six weeks ago. Edenred, the contractor, has processed just 20% of the £234 million budget of the scheme, which has only a few weeks left.
At Firth Park Academy, a secondary school in Sheffield, Brightside and Hillsborough, 488 students—almost 40% of all students—are eligible for the scheme. As of last week, none of those children had received or been able to redeem their vouchers. A primary school in my constituency has had similar issues. It waited such a long time for the vouchers to come through and was so concerned about pupil welfare that it spent £3,000 to secure vouchers itself.
Schools have tried repeatedly to contract Edenred, with one even offering staff to help process applications. Schools Week reported that Edenred was aware of the vast scale of the task at hand when it tendered for the contract, making it more baffling that it was so unprepared. Urgent intervention is needed to address this gross injustice and ensure that none of those eligible for free school meals goes hungry any longer.
I also want to highlight the challenges faced by women during and after the covid-19 outbreak. Women make up a huge proportion of those in care and nursing roles—those at the frontline of this crisis. We have seen that even as those women battle to provide care under the hardest circumstances, their pay is often among the lowest in society. I have also heard from many women who work in the childcare sector. They have become increasingly concerned about the future of their employment, particularly following the withdrawal of funding that was initially promised to childcare providers by the Government. That not only concerns those employed in that sector but adds to the pressure on key workers, who may now fear they will be left without childcare.
Many care and childcare providers face bankruptcy as costs rise, leaving these women fearing for their own economic future. Assurances must be given that no woman should lose her job due to the covid-19 pandemic. The true impact of this crisis cannot be fully understood until the Government have undertaken a comprehensive gender impact assessment to ensure that women are not left behind as a result of the economic impact of the covid-19 outbreak.
My constituent, Lisa Fish, is classed as a vulnerable person. Her family have taken all the steps to shield her from the virus. The Prime Minister’s statement last night offered them no clarity, but it did cause them extreme distress. It is essential that the Government make their intentions crystal clear so that the public fully understand what is expected of them and to ensure that we keep people safe. This virus is not of our making, but it is within our power to respond in a way that protects the most vulnerable in our society.
I want to make three brief points. First, I welcome the Prime Minister’s statements last night and here today. For me, this is about making a balanced assessment of risk and learning to live with risk while exercising our judgment and—as the Prime Minister put it very well—good, old-fashioned British common sense about how our actions could impact our society and, yes, the NHS.
I have to say that I am saddened by the different emphasis from different parts of the UK overnight, but nations will exit lockdown at different speeds, as the infection rate varies. That is fine; it is called devolution. If we could not cope with difference within the United Kingdom, we should not have gone down the road of devolution in the first place. Having questions and stress testing a political decision is right. That is our job here on the Back Benches. Constantly picking for political advantage, and having what I suspect is a far worse argument in public than in private, is not.
Secondly, on the help offered, there has been a herculean effort on behalf of the Government on the furlough scheme and the self-employed help scheme. I welcome the fact that the latter is there as a safety blanket for over 90% of self-employed workers. However, that is not the case for those new to self-employment. I have a constituent who was made redundant less than a year ago and who put all his redundancy money into his new business. He is a wealth creator, but he is not eligible. If people are earning over the £50,000 profit limit—not a huge amount of money in many parts of the country—they are not eligible. Equally, if someone is the director of a limited company, they are not eligible. I understand that it is difficult, and as I have said to the Chancellor in this House before, the answer may be inelegant, but there has to be an answer. Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs is not averse to taking back what it thinks has been wrongly claimed. We need to get help to people now.
On the furlough scheme, I have to say that if we are to avoid the cliff edge as it draws to the end of its natural life, in its original form anyway, flexibility has to be the key—flexibility on the percentage paid perhaps, but only if that goes hand in hand with flexibility on the “no work while furloughed” rule; and flexibility on sectors, too, if the Treasury goes down that route. For instance, a food manufacturer in my constituency whose principal customers are classed as hospitality would be stuck between a rock and a hard place if the furlough scheme were withdrawn for manufacturing only. Flexibility must surely see the furlough scheme extended to hospitality businesses and their suppliers in that example. The Prime Minister hinted today about a statement from the Chancellor tomorrow on the furlough scheme, and I will be listening carefully.
Finally, the Royal Hampshire County Hospital is in my constituency, one of Florence Nightingale’s original hospitals, and I cannot praise it enough. The leadership, under Alex Whitfield, and staff there—many are my constituents—have just gone, as always, above and beyond. We, the local MPs, have a weekly call with the acute sector, primary care, the commissioners and the director of public health for Hampshire, and they keep us beautifully updated on the work that they are doing. The progress on delayed discharge in my hospital has been nothing short of remarkable. My trust is down to single figures on its delayed discharge numbers, and that is unheard of. Why? Because we have flattened the division between the decision making and the money trail within the NHS. We must not, we cannot go back: if it is to be health and social care, we cannot go back. On cancer, we must remember the people who have not presented to the NHS during this pause. We do not want to ditch the 75% ambition on cancer in the long-term plan.
May I first associate myself with the sincerely meant comments from those on both Front Benches about the devastating loss of life and about the incredible work of our NHS and social care workers?
I believe that we should take a precautionary approach given the evidence at the moment, and that the “stay at home” message being used by Wales, Northern Ireland and Scotland is the right one. It is a matter of deep regret to me that the Prime Minister has now confused that. If my Facebook Live sessions are anything to go by—I hold them every night with my constituents in Cardiff South and Penarth—the Prime Minister’s statement last night was about as clear as mud. It led to more questions than answers, and I fear it is going to lead to more infections and more anxiety.
The Prime Minister today tried to brush off the concerns expressed by those in Wales as “hypothetical”. No, they are practical reality, and the concerns of my constituents and many others. Like many constituents across this country, mine are trying to do the right thing, and they need clarity, precision and detail, not bluff and bluster. They are asking questions. What if I live in Wales, but work in England or on both sides of the border? Can home moves go across the border? What about schools? They are hearing the message about 1 June, but that does not apply in Wales; schools are not going to reopen on 1 June. There are differences in the safety rules: in Wales, 2 metres in workplaces is in the regulations; in England, it is not. Many other outstanding questions are not being answered, such as whether furlough will be extended to fields that are shut down for longer, and indeed the question about support for new starters. We need co-operation between the nations, but that means Cobra meeting, and it means conversations between the Prime Minister and the First Ministers of the devolved nations. I understand that Cobra is now meeting just twice a month in its full format. Surely that is not good enough.
I will now turn to a second major issue, borders and quarantine. I am afraid that yet again we have seen utter confusion from the Prime Minister, for future travellers, for airlines and for other transport providers. There is no clarity on when or how these measures are coming in or on the scientific basis for any of the specifics, such as the French exception, which seems to be easily circumvented. We need a workable practical plan if these measures are needed for public health, which I believe they are, but the big question is: why were they not introduced before? Home Office figures released to me and the Home Affairs Committee show that 18.1 million people entered this country between 1 January and 23 March, and I understand that more than 100,000 have entered the country since the lockdown was instituted on 23 March. Out of all those, just 273 individuals on four flights were subject to formal quarantine measures. Three of the flights were from Wuhan and one was from Tokyo and contained passengers from the Diamond Princess. So if these measures are important—and I believe they are—why are we waiting for them? Why have we not got a date for them to be introduced, and why were they not introduced before?
We need to understand the scientific basis if we are to understand what has been going on and how these decisions were taken. We have received a letter today that has been published by the chief scientific adviser to the Home Office. It talks about a 0.5% prevalence in the population and about a one in 1,000 prevalence globally, but that simply does not add up. If there is a one in 1,000 prevalence globally, that means that 18,100 of the 18.1 million individuals who entered this country without so much as a whiff of hand sanitiser were potentially infected. We have only to look at the R rate, which the Prime Minister said potentially stood at 2.8 in April, to understand how many people they could have infected. This applies even to those transiting places such as Heathrow, where they will have encountered other passengers, border staff and others without PPE and without provisions.
The chief scientific adviser to the Government, Sir Patrick Vallance, said on 5 May that
“the UK got many, many different imports of the virus from many different places…So we see a big influx of cases, probably from Italy and Spain…in early March seeded right the way across the country.”
So was it incompetence? Was it confusion? Was it a conscious decision? Or did we just give up? We need to understand how these decisions were taken, and on what scientific basis.
Our country is divided between those who are deeply fearful of covid-19 and those who are deeply fearful of the continued lockdown. Of course, the right priority is to save lives, but there is no doubt that my constituents are sending many contrasting messages. Some have lost family to the virus; others are exhausted from working on the frontline. Some are so lonely that they would rather take their chances and break the lockdown. Some entrepreneurs are seeing years of hard work and effort disappearing before their very eyes. So the task is huge, and I congratulate the Prime Minister and the Cabinet on their efforts to respond to the coronavirus. They face a precarious balancing act: safeguarding people’s lives versus protecting their livelihoods.
In the short time available today, I want to raise our eyes above the current crisis for a moment and to think about what the lockdown experience can teach us about the way forward in rebuilding our lives and our economy. There are two potential big wins. The first is to make flexible work the gold standard for the future. The second is to lead the world in building a green economy. Coronavirus has required us to adapt almost overnight to new ways of working, particularly working from home. For some, it is difficult to juggle young children, poor broadband or just loneliness, but for others it has been truly liberating, and the question is whether employers can make these new freedoms permanent. Likewise, many have been working part time or flexible hours to accommodate social distancing. Has this worked for them, and is it a better way forward for all of us?
Even before coronavirus hit, the employment rights Bill, which was in the Queen’s Speech, promised to enshrine the UK’s status as the best place in the world to work by encouraging flexible working as standard. In my view, working from home through flexible hours or job-sharing arrangements will not only increase quality of life but boost productivity and increase the diversity of our workforce. The past few weeks have been tough for UK businesses. Many of them will need to adapt or die, but amid the stress of the time we are living in, lockdown also points to a great new opportunity.
Staying home has cleaned the air, reduced the smog and enabled our planet to breathe. Today, there are 450,000 green-collar jobs in the UK, and, if we play our cards right, this could be 2 million or more by 2013, with the prospect of new skills and the levelling up of prosperity right across the country. That is what we will need to get Britain back to work and to provide employment for those whose jobs are lost. There is huge potential for British innovators to create a green tech sector to rival the size and capacity of today’s UK financial services. Our challenge will be to ramp up the success that we have already seen in this new industrial revolution, offering new opportunities for growth and jobs, exports and global leadership.
In conclusion, the challenge right now is to balance the need to save lives with the need to protect livelihoods, but a brighter future can emerge from this time of trouble—one that properly values a good work-life balance, and one that leads the world in clean growth and green technology for the benefit of us all.
I want to echo the many important points that have been made about the enormity of the situation that we are dealing with and our gratitude to those fighting it on all our behalves. Certainly, the crisis has underlined what is important, which is our sense of what it is to be human and a neighbour, and not just GDP, profit or many of the things that we discuss more regularly to measure those things.
I want to focus on some of the particular issues relating to Northern Ireland, which has to manage the challenges and the opportunities of devolution and our constitutional settlement, taking into account the fact that we have two jurisdictions on the island of Ireland. I am not sure that that principle of devolution was reflected in the Prime Minister’s statement last night. I understand that his comments were confusing to many in England, but they were certainly so to those in Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales, which have each correctly been choosing their own path through this crisis relating to their own circumstances. I am concerned that the devolved institutions were told about that messaging change last night rather than actively consulted on it, and I hope that the Government will look at how they can use existing structures to ensure that there is proper consultation with the devolved regions before making such a dramatic change.
Members presumably know about the meandering 310-mile border on the island of Ireland and the tens of thousands of people who cross it every day in the course of their life and work. I know that some Members, and certainly the Government, would like to give the impression that the issue of Brexit is done and dusted, but, unfortunately, we are still living with the sword of Damocles hanging over us in the form of either a border in the Irish sea or the spectre of a border on the island of Ireland if the Ireland protocol is not honoured. I am afraid that we see very few signs of good faith in work towards implementation of that, which was scheduled to be in place by next month. I want to remind Members what an enormous breach of good faith it would be if we ended up with a border because of a no-deal scenario due to the growing pressures of the pandemic on an already very ambitious negotiating timeframe. I know of no business that wants to choose between its EU market and its market in Britain, but I do know of many who fear that ideological Brexiters in the Cabinet will use the cover of the disruption to the economy from covid to mask the damage of Brexit to the economy, and I am afraid that that would be a fatal blow in Northern Ireland.
I should also say that if we were worried about managing goods and services on the island of Ireland, I am afraid that that will be nothing to the challenge of managing an invisible virus on the island of Ireland, and it will be tragic if we do not put in place data- sharing protocols that will allow us to manage that flow of people on that porous border, because we must treat the island as one epidemiological unit, and, certainly, an unresolved frontier between the EU and the UK in eight months will be devastating to that aim.
Members have spoken about the phenomenal effort of communities and many small businesses in the past eight weeks. I am sure that it is not lost on Members, even those on the Government Benches, that it was not the free market that was the saviour and protector of people during this pandemic. I hope that everyone has learned the lessons of the financial crash and knows that austerity cannot be the answer as we recover from this. The past eight weeks have also laid out clearly how many people have been living precariously, how threadbare public services have been allowed to become, and many of the systemic failures in our welfare system. I know that other Members will be receiving correspondence about those issues.
I just want to finish by saying how—
May I start by welcoming very much the powerful speech from my right hon. Friend the Minister, the statement from the Prime Minister earlier and the plan published today, which I most certainly support?
I want to highlight the Nightingale hospitals. The construction and operation of them has been extraordinary —far better and far more impressive than anything we saw in Wuhan—and we need to be extremely proud of what we have achieved in respect of that part of our response. They may not have been used greatly, but as is pointed out in page 46 of the plan, we may very well have to come back here again, because this will not be the last pandemic and we need to be preparing for the next one. While I hope very much that Nightingale will not be used during this particular pandemic, we need to ensure that what we have learnt through the process on this and many, many facets of the response are not forgotten or shelved, but are there ready to be used in the future, because I fear we are going to have to come back to this again, and maybe again. It is all part of resilience and recognising that the No. 1 threat to this country is not Russia or terrorism—it is pandemic. We need to be alive to that and to prepare for it.
I very much welcome the appointment of Baroness Harding to be our tsar for test, track and trace. I sound a cautionary note, though: many of us who are potential NHS returnees have not been impressed by outsourcing. I know that this has all been done at a rush and that the options open to Ministers are very limited, but we need to be careful about choosing trusted partners with a track record of service in the public sector and make sure that we do not put up with second best.
Let me ask the Minister about the scientific basis for quarantine. It is traditional to quarantine people who are coming from high-risk countries, not those coming to high-risk countries, and we need to be selective about who we quarantine. Otherwise, it will simply completely close down our aviation industry—it will kill business stone dead—and I am afraid that it is going to hamper our economic recovery.
I am also very cautious about the R value. It is interesting, important and always beguiling, of course, to focus on a number that we can dish up on a daily basis, but it can confuse the picture. The Robert Koch Institute in Germany has been clear about this: it is a useful index but it is only one of several. I am more interested in the number of new cases a day. That particular figure has been declining but not as fast as modelling has predicted. We must expend all our energy on driving that down and make sure that we do not expend all our energy on chasing R, because I suspect that R varies greatly among communities and regions of this country, and settings in particular. It is very important to understand, as others have pointed out, that it may vary greatly among the nations of this United Kingdom. We should not let our politics get in the way of making sure that we address the pandemic in different parts of the country in ways that are suited to where we are with the virus in those settings.
I ask the Minister to focus very heavily on what is going on in care settings right now. That is actually where the action is, in terms of this dreadful virus. That is where the Government need to be focusing all their attention right now, to make sure that we drive down R at a granular level in those settings, and in so doing deal with R across our United Kingdom.
If a week is a long time in politics, it is forever in coronavirus, where things change half-hourly. Isolation has brought communities closer together. A hybrid Parliament is better than no Parliament. Given how multi-dimensional covid is, a general debate is welcome, but we need solutions. What began as a health crisis now signals the most serious economic recession on record and touches every aspect of life. We follow the science, but what scientist dreamt up the subliminal “Stay alert” slogan? New terms bring new casework.
Social distancing is reportedly being broken in workplaces, including on the HS2 construction site at Old Oak. The Government must engage with unions, residents and contractors to resolve a situation where residential streets in NW10 have become a dust bowl, with an airborne killer virus on the loose.
Catastrophising is never useful, but neither is empty spin, which is why yesterday felt like such an anti-climax. An address so devoid of facts could not even be fact-checked. “Protect the NHS” has been dropped, an element that was necessitated by a decade of underfunding. Carers who change incontinence pads, turn the elderly and keep them company and who have so long been under-appreciated get a clap every Thursday, but a pay rise is needed as well for all key workers.
At the other end of the age scale, there is a mistaken belief that schools are shut. In Ealing, all of them have remained open—even over Easter—to provide lessons and lunches for the kids of key workers and for those at risk, as well as online working for those who are not. As the National Education Union’s five tests set out, schools should only fully reopen when pupils’ families and staff think it is safe to do so.
Health and safety is not meddlesome when lives are at risk, yet the budgets of the HSE and councils have been slashed. The Government’s Operation Cygnus pandemic planning exercise in 2016 concluded that the UK lacked ICU beds, ventilators and PPE, but action was never taken. Mistakes have been made. We were slow to lock down, and the way the missed test target was expanded to cover those sent out in the post and the death figures have been adjusted to include care home fatalities reminds me of the 1980 “seasonally adjusted” unemployment figures. But many matters can still be rectified.
Cameron famously said,
“we’re all in this together”.
Sadly, ONS data demonstrates that you are four times more likely to die if you are BME. The Opposition have launched an inquiry, led by Baroness Lawrence, while the Government put their fingers in their ears. You are also more likely to die of covid-19 as a London bus driver than as an NHS staffer. Ranjith drove the 92 to Ealing Hospital for years before dying in Ealing Hospital, lacking the PPE needed in a mobile Petri dish that was only deep-cleaned once daily as it left the garage for a long day. Precautions must be put in place, with the coronavirus life insurance scheme extended to transport workers who have paid with their lives to keep our country going in the pandemic.
The Chancellor’s support schemes and furloughing have been welcomed by all sides, and it is wrong to talk of winding them up when they need extending for many who fall through the cracks of their requirements. The Government must act to stop the coronavirus job retention scheme being used by British Airways as a cover for a company restructure and forced redundancies.
Since 2015, I have lived through parliamentary drama —Jo Cox’s murder, referendum, terrorist attack, Grenfell, Brexit, illegal Prorogation. Every time our society and the economy suffer shocks of this magnitude, we are told that we cannot return to the broken system of before. It is imperative that this time, it is for real.
At the outset, we should all acknowledge just how difficult and complex the task of responding to this virus is, and therefore I commend the Prime Minister on his caution and the approach he is taking to easing the restrictions. Last night, he committed yet again to an increase in testing, to reinforce the health messages.
I welcome, as others have, the appointment of Baroness Harding. It seems to me that she has tasks in three timescales. The first is to ensure that there are more tracers and that we employ those tracers we have committed to employ. Secondly, the test response times, which have been of differing quality and speed, need to be speeded up. Into the medium term, this country will be greatly served by having much more widespread temperature screening, followed by more immediate access to antigen tests. As we have seen with the Prime Minister’s ambition to increase testing, as the capacity increases, we must look to a much wider group of people who are eligible for testing—obviously, after key workers, including those in the NHS.
My hon. Friend the Member for Winchester (Steve Brine) was right; when this is all over, integration of social care and health is going to be key. That ambition was set out in the Government’s long-term plan. When this is over, the Government must go back to that long-term plan, commit to integrating social care and healthcare operationally, and look at new ways of financing social care, for this crisis has shown that there will be increasing and new demands on the social care system.
The continuation of restrictions on our normal way of life is welcome, as it is keeping the virus under control, but the initiation and continuation of those restrictions are undoubtedly causing anxiety for many about jobs and livelihoods, including many businesses. The Chancellor’s comprehensive economic package has been necessarily and understandably focused on the key costs of property and wages, but the Government will obviously be looking to wind down that support package. We must do that cautiously, as we are doing with easing the restrictions on health. As my hon. Friend the Member for Winchester has also pointed out, the job retention scheme has done much to prevent widespread unemployment, and as we look to wind it down we need to do so in a tapered and measured way—for example, by moving from 80:20 to 50:50, or by decreasing the number of employees continued in furlough.
The other big cost is obviously property. Many sectors have had virtually no income during coronavirus, and yet have had no help with their business rates relief. Even at this late stage, I have been contacted by dentists, osteopaths, physios, veterinary surgeons, providers of shared office space, suppliers to hospitality, financial advisers, retail premises and language schools in my constituency, to name just a few. Some of those businesses need help now. If we want a vibrant economy and society after coronavirus, I would urge the Government—even as they think about reviewing the support and winding it down—to remember those businesses and offer an extension of that support.
May I, on behalf of my party, express our sympathies to those who have lost loved ones during this health crisis, and to those in the health service who have, manfully and womanfully, worked hard to ensure that lives are saved?
We welcome the Government’s measures, and the announcements made in the Chamber today and by the Prime Minister last night. It is, of course, very difficult to balance the economic needs of the country with the imperative to safeguard people’s health. With hindsight, many people might criticise some of the things that the Government have done, but I believe that the decisions that were taken have had success in reducing the death toll and helping many businesses to survive, and we welcome many of the measures to be introduced.
I believe that dealing with the virus and how we get out of lockdown should be approached on a UK-wide basis. Of course there are going to be different nuances and conditions in different regions of the United Kingdom. For example, in Northern Ireland we have a different school year from other parts of the United Kingdom, so some of the education measures may well be different. The peak of the virus is also different in different regions, so that may lead to different timings. Nevertheless, a UK-wide approach is important.
A number of Members have already mentioned the fact that we share a common border with the Irish Republic. Surprisingly, despite the Good Friday agreement and the emphasis that the Irish Government have placed on it, at every step of this crisis they have not consulted the Administration in Stormont. When they had the lockdown, they did not consult. When they relaxed some of their measures, they did not consult. They are even taking a different approach to quarantining people who come in from outside Ireland and would eventually finish up in the United Kingdom. I think it is important that we have a UK-wide approach. We appreciate the co-operation that there has been on a weekly basis with the Administration in Stormont by Westminster.
Looking forward is the important thing, because many businesses are concerned about what happens when the lockdown stops and this situation finishes. We see a number of issues. First, there has to be no cliff edge, but a tapering of the job retention scheme, which has been so vital to ensuring that workers have some money on which they can live and that employers do not have to lay off vital workers and then have to recruit them again.
Secondly, various sectors of the economy have been hit far more than others. Tourism in Northern Ireland is an important sector of the economy, and it will take some time for it to ramp up. It is important that we look at sectoral support.
Thirdly, many companies have already taken on additional debt through the bounce-back loans and the coronavirus business interruption loan scheme, but they are debt-heavy, and there needs to be some reconsideration of how that leverage is reduced and debt replaced with equity. The banks have an important role to play in that, and I hope the Government will work with the banks. It is important that we work our way out of this together. I will finish, because I see you are rising to your feet, Madam Deputy Speaker.
More than 90 minutes having elapsed since the commencement of hybrid proceedings, the Deputy Speaker brought them to a conclusion (Order, this day).
Thank you, Mr Deputy Speaker, for calling me in this important debate. I also thank my right hon. Friend the Paymaster General for her tireless work in pulling together so many different strands of Government activity during the covid-19 crisis. We are very grateful.
I want to talk about the amazing community activity happening in South Derbyshire, as part of the local response to covid-19: our wonderful CVS, which has helped to co-ordinate volunteers across South Derbyshire, making sure that people do not run out of food or medicine and are not lonely; our wonderful individuals, such as Stephen Greaves and Andrew Astle; the teachers at Granville and Pingle Schools, who, as volunteers, have been making face visors with 3-D printers; and the Wood children of Melbourne, who made up and sold quizzes—all of whom have been raising funds for the local medical charities.
But against the good news of that great community spirit—[Interruption.]
But against the good news of that great community spirit, we have had the tragic news of over 19 people dying locally from covid-19. That number includes Eileen Landers of Swadlincote, a lady who worked tirelessly for decades at Burton Hospital on the housekeeping staff. Our thoughts and prayers are with all the South Derbyshire families who have lost loved ones to this dreadful virus.
That brings me to my ask of the Paymaster General, representing the Cabinet Office. I am asking for support from the Cabinet Office for my campaign to have a memorial placed at the National Arboretum, at the heart of the country, as a fitting way to commemorate the sad loss of essential key workers to covid-19. I am delighted that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Health has agreed to support the campaign. I am now looking at the Cabinet Office as another sponsor to help to co-ordinate all the different sectors of essential workers involved, whether in healthcare or transport, wherever they are across our nation. They carried on working when this virus was at the highest level. They gave their lives to keep our hospitals open, keep food in the shops and get people to work.
I am also calling on the relevant trade unions to get involved to help to raise public subscriptions to pay for the memorial. I am grateful to my local newspapers, the Burton Mail and the Derby Telegraph, for supporting the campaign, as well as the Daily Express, my colleagues in Parliament who are supporting the campaign and, finally, the good people of the South Derbyshire and Burton area who have contacted me with support. I also thank Brell Ewart of Whitehouse Construction Ltd of Derby, who, as part of a donation, has offered to install the memorial free of charge, an incredibly generous offer to help to kick-start the campaign.
As I know there are many MPs who wish to speak, I will wrap up my contribution by thanking Ministers, civil servants, local government officers, volunteers, shop workers, farmers and, of course, key workers for everything they have done for us at home here in South Derbyshire and nationally. The fight is not yet over, but this human endeavour is an excellent example of how when life is bad, good can come out of it. I, for one, am proud of the response from the Government and the country to this dreadful virus.
My contribution today will also be mostly one of thanks. I thank my constituents in Clacton, who on the whole have acted responsibly and stayed home. I thank the local police and the district commander, Lily Benbow. They have been out on patrol regularly to enforce the lockdown restrictions. They have found a receptive and understanding populace, and they have seldom needed to step in. They are aware that they police by consent, and they still have that consent. For their work, both now and in normal times, our police officers will always have my sincere thanks.
Of course, I thank those on the medical frontline who continue to make significant sacrifices for us all. Because of their hard work locally here in Clacton we have not exceeded NHS capacity, despite the scale of this crisis. Over the last two weeks I have been in touch with local care homes, which have reported that they are coping well. They have protected a significant part of our populace. The residents and the staff have been the difference here, and they have my thanks.
For those who do not know, my constituency has one of the largest populations of retired residents, many of whom live in care homes. We are, and I include myself in this, quite elderly. This makes the Clacton constituency, and many others like it, vulnerable. We face the threat of someone thoughtlessly bringing infection into our area, which could have a disproportionately devastating effect on our population, so I ask: “Please, don’t come rushing to our coast until we have determined that the danger to our vulnerable population has passed.” Believe me, I understand the desire to come to a place as beautiful as ours, and we will welcome all with open arms when the time is right.
I put on record my thanks to Essex County Council and Tendring District Council, who have done so much to support local businesses and provide support for the vulnerable population. Tendring District Council saw an absolute army of volunteers step forward, and residents should be proud of the way in which they have come together to support our community. Of course, there are many unsung heroes, from the people who go out to do their job to keep everything going, to the people who go out to help their neighbours do their shopping. We must not forget them when we come to commemorate those who have steered us through this outbreak.
Now that we are slowly and conditionally lifting the lockdown, we must be mindful of the support that certain sectors need. The tourism sector continues to struggle. It was one of the first sectors to be impacted, and it is vital to our economy in Clacton. Nationally, tourism supports 3.1 million jobs and contributes billions to the economy. We must do all we can to support this important industry. For the Clacton constituency, this is imperative. Our coastal districts have suffered decline over recent years, even without the malign influence of covid-19, so I ask Ministers not to oversee further decline now. The Government must step in to help the tourism industry get back on its feet.
Given my background in the performing arts and my role as chair of the all-party parliamentary group for theatre, it is no surprise that I ask the Government to support theatre properly as we lift the lockdown. The very nature of the theatrical experience means that the sector will probably be one of the last to be released. Theatre has, since the time of Shakespeare, been one of the UK’s greatest offers to the world, with significant benefits to the wider economy, English being globally the most widely spoken language.
The creative arts contribute so much to the UK economy, and I have written to the Secretary of State for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport and the Prime Minister, supported by colleagues from the all-party group, to make the case for better supporting theatres. A further letter will follow with evidence from theatres themselves, setting out in greater detail the support that they need. It is crucial that the Government take these recommendations into consideration, because two key industries—tourism and theatre— are now at risk—
History will judge us by how we treat the most vulnerable and poorest in our society during this pandemic. Today, the Office for National Statistics revealed that the lowest- paid people are disproportionately more likely to die from covid, and among them, care workers are twice as likely to die, compared with NHS workers. We know that there have been at least 6,600 deaths in care homes since the start of this pandemic, and it has become clear that the social care sector has been something of an afterthought in the Government’s pandemic planning. The Prime Minister has acknowledged that there is an epidemic in care homes, and we must not forget the hundreds of thousands of people who receive care in their own homes, some of whom will have died from covid and will be lost in the community statistics. We are talking about individuals of all ages who may be frail, have complex conditions, and have significant needs. We are talking about staff who are often forced to work on the national minimum wage, and with zero-hours contracts and only statutory sick pay.
On 11 March, when I asked the Secretary of State for Health and Social Care whether he would be issuing personal protective equipment to social care workers, he said
“we are taking that into account”.
Staggeringly, it took until 15 April and thousands of deaths before he announced a plan to tackle coronavirus in the social care sector, including measures for getting PPE to providers. In the meantime, councils and providers struggled every day to get hold of it. With domiciliary care staff visiting many different households in a day, and residential care staff often working in more than one setting, that delay in getting vital equipment to the frontline has undoubtedly cost lives. What assurances can the Minister provide that all social care providers now have access to the protective equipment they need to keep their staff and clients safe?
It is welcome that provision has been expanded to ensure that all those working and residing in care homes are able to access testing. On 23 March, I raised in the House the dangers of discharging patients from hospitals into care homes without testing, but policy change came far too late. The long delay in access to testing enabled the virus to enter care homes with a lethal impact, spreading like wildfire. It has been reported that some care staff do not wish to take a test because they are concerned about the financial impact of taking time off work. Statutory sick pay is simply not enough to survive on, and it must be addressed urgently.
We must not overlook the impact of the crisis on the wellbeing of care staff, many of whom are experiencing things they have never been trained for. Some fear that they are being blamed for the spread of the virus, and some that they may suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder at a later date. What measures will be available to support their mental health?
It is right that we champion the NHS and, in the words of the Chancellor, give it “whatever it needs” to cope with coronavirus, but we must do the same for social care. We know that the extra funds granted to local authorities do not go anywhere near far enough. For too long, social care has been a poor relation to the NHS, and reform has been kicked into the long grass time and again. This crisis has brought into sharp relief just how important social care is in enabling the NHS to function well. It has also brought into sharp relief the many problems facing the sector. The covid crisis will precipitate many long-term changes in policy, and first and foremost among the areas for change must be social care.
It is a pleasure to speak in this important debate. Last time I spoke on this subject in the House, I called on the Government to start moving away from an excessive dependence on arbitrary rules, and to recognise that the public have played an important role in the progress so far, by demonstrating responsibility and complying voluntarily. My key call was that we should take that as a reason to move towards trusting people more, and an expectation that we can rely more on common sense and people’s own sense of responsibility. I am therefore delighted to see the new change of emphasis and new messaging, which I think is an important move back towards trusting people and relying on the common sense and responsibility that we have seen so far. The revised guidance to start the process of getting people back to work is also welcome, although it has to be said that it is really a restatement of the original guidance. It has always been the Government’s position that work should continue, but that people should work at home where possible.
It is important that we are seeing a shift, however, towards more encouragement to get people out to work and more freedom for people to engage in outdoor pursuits that are essentially safe. Angling, tennis, bowls and walks in the country will all bring hope and make people healthier in the future. As that happens, there is more responsibility for all of us—for employers to ensure that workplaces are as safe as they can be, for providers of public transport to make sure that transport is clean and that people can be as distant as possible, and for all of us to take sensible precautions through handwashing, distancing and, where appropriate, face-covering.
The aviation industry is a subject of enormous importance to my constituents, as we are so close to Manchester airport. That sector has been hit harder than any and is likely, because of its nature, to suffer pain and damage for longer than most other sectors. We have already seen thousands of jobs go in the aviation sector. The news of the proposed 14-day quarantine period for returning passengers is a hammer blow for the industry and threatens many more hundreds of thousands of jobs. If it looks like more than a temporary and selective measure, the result will be devastation for the industry and for the many jobs that depend on it.
Many questions need to be answered about the quarantine proposal, such as what medical and scientific advice underlies it and why it should be in place for all or nearly all countries, apart from, apparently, France and the common travel area, including Ireland. Surely, at least, it should not apply to lower-risk countries with lower rates of infection or no infection, even if it has to apply to others.
As airlines and airports start to plan for a return to travel, I call on the Government to explore, as a matter of urgency, a testing regime that might be used instead, so that somebody could be tested shortly before flying and come straight through, or be tested at the airport on arrival and get an expedited test result. If that can be done, it will bring some hope to those beleaguered industries and the many thousands of people who work in them.
Representing, as I do, the borough with the highest age-adjusted covid-19 mortality rate in the country, I will focus on just one point, which is families with leave to remain in the UK but no recourse to public funds. They are law-abiding, hard-working families. They are carers, cooks, cleaners and cab drivers in modestly paid but important roles. They have permission to work and are complying with the rules, but for many of them, as for others, their work stopped when the crisis began.
Many are not eligible for the job retention or self-employment schemes. Others in that position can claim universal credit, but those with no recourse to public funds are not allowed to obtain an income in that way. Many have children who were born in the UK. Some have children who are UK nationals. Being unable to claim any benefits may be manageable when work is available, but in the current circumstances, it is not.
The Home Office, inexplicably, will not say how many people we are talking about, but last week, drawing on the University of Oxford’s Migration Observatory, the Children’s Society reported that there are more than 1 million people with leave to remain but no recourse to public funds, including at least 100,000 children. It has been suggested that the £500 million emergency fund for local authorities can help those families, but not according to the ministerial guidance for the fund. The guidance states that the fund is to increase council tax support, which families with no recourse to public funds cannot apply for, and that any left over can go towards local welfare assistance schemes that some councils run. A written answer from the Home Office last week confirmed that people with no recourse to public funds are ineligible for help from local welfare assistance schemes. Families with children can apply for help under section 17 of the Children Act 1989 from their council, but it is hard to find and can be very modest indeed. The Children’s Society report quotes one council that pays £3.10 per person per day. In households without children, even that is not available. Some who should self-isolate because they have symptoms have no choice but to work and endanger others, because they cannot otherwise get any income at all.
It cannot be right to deny any possibility of an income to people who have broken no rules and whose contribution we have all benefited from for years. I plead with Ministers to suspend the no recourse to public funds condition for families for the duration of this crisis. The High Court, as it happens, struck it down in an important case last week. Those arguments will continue, but for the duration of this crisis, on moral and on public health grounds, no recourse to public funds must be suspended.
I welcome the Government’s support for businesses in Shropshire, Telford and The Wrekin, and commend Secretaries of State from different Departments for their speed and flexibility in getting many schemes off the ground. I am also conscious that, of course, at some point in the future all this will need to be paid for. In that regard, I ask Ministers that they do not tax the surviving businesses that I believe will actually help economic recovery in this country. Yes, borrowing and fiscal stimulus can and should play a role in bearing down on any recession, but ultimately it is incentive and reward through bespoke tax cuts that will revive the economy and reduce the nation’s debt once this virus has passed. In my view, increasing taxes on sole traders and small businesses, if the Government were so tempted, would be self-defeating and counterproductive.
Again, I welcome the Government’s furlough scheme and commend the Chancellor for the speed with which he and his Department, the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions, and HMRC and DWP staff have responded. It has been first class. However, I have concerns that the Government could be paying the wage bills of thousands of companies that are still making considerable profits, perhaps waiting until the end of the furlough scheme only to make their staff redundant. I also have concerns that the various schemes, particularly the furlough scheme and some of the business schemes, could be open to significant fraud. Further, the Government have said that they will do whatever it takes. Of course that offers huge reassurance to my constituents and to millions up and down the country, but I hope it also means what is realistic, what is proportionate, and, ultimately, what is affordable.
On local government, I commend the Government for the financial support—nearly £30 million of new funding—they have given to Shropshire Council and to Telford and Wrekin Council. However, may I ask that that funding is also cascaded down to town and parish councils, which are also under pressure? The Shropshire Association of Local Councils is absolutely right to ask that the Government consider relaxing regulations around the use of capital receipts and consider extending business rate relief for councils that run markets, car parks and sporting venues. Can I also ask the Minister if the Government will move quickly on issuing guidance on how to administer the discretionary business grant, which is absolutely vital to many local businesses in my constituency?
On quarantine, Shropshire relies very heavily on tourism—not just UK tourism but international tourism—and many jobs rely on it as well. If this measure is to go ahead, may I appeal to the Government to ensure that it is reviewed on a regular basis, perhaps every two weeks, and that there is a sunset clause so that it will be removed as quickly as possible?
Ultimately, may I stand in support of the Prime Minister in saying that the Government should always be led by data and the science, and with public health in mind?
May I start by thanking my right hon. Friend the Paymaster General for her opening remarks?
Over recent weeks, the Government have announced some of the most generous and comprehensive support packages in the world, providing security and support to many individuals and businesses who need it most during these really difficult times. Across Keighley and Ilkley, many hard-working businesses, including small and medium-sized organisations, have been given the comfort by Government that they can furlough staff, reduce their overheads, and have an injection of cash grants and the ability to access a package of Government-backed and guaranteed loans. Those self-employed who meet the thresholds also have access to funds.
Throughout this crisis, Treasury Ministers have been swift to respond and have kept their ears and eyes open to listen to Members in this place when examples and scenarios have been brought forward of businesses that have fallen through the gap. I know that the bounce-back loan has been a very welcome addition to many small and medium-sized businesses across Keighley and Ilkley. The financial support, coupled with deregulation, that the Government have provided has been unprecedented and will place those businesses in the best position possible to try to kick-start productivity and reignite their service offering when circumstances permit. However, there are still some larger charitable tourism attractions that are unfortunately not eligible for business grant money and do still need an extra bit of support to ensure that they can survive once the lockdown is over —for example, Keighley and Worth Valley railway in my constituency, which helps to drive the wider local economy. I would be grateful if the Treasury team could explore any additional support mechanisms to help charitable tourism organisations.
Charitable organisations such as Age UK, the Dementia Friendly Keighley group, Project 6 and the Salvation Army, among many others, are doing a brilliant job in helping the most vulnerable, but this sector is particularly hard hit, with many struggling to fundraise during the ongoing restrictions. I very much welcome the Chancellor’s injection of financial support into the charitable sector, which will help our hospices, such as our much-loved Sue Ryder Manorlands hospice in Oxenhope. The arms of Government have stretched wide and far to protect as many as possible, and I thank the Prime Minister for all the support to date. However, in going forward, we need to look to the next stage with caution and flexibility, which will be key in any financial support mechanisms to ensure that the charitable organisations helping our most vulnerable, and our entrepreneurs and hard-working businesses and individuals, can come out successfully on the other side.
Over the past few weeks, the one thing that has shone out more than anything else is the way in which communities across Keighley and Ilkley have come together to help others in our hour of need. Many teams of volunteers have gone above and beyond to help the most vulnerable in society, including the Keighley and Shipley Family Hub, the Silsden Emergency Planning Group, the Ilkley Coronavirus Response Group, and the Hainworth Wood Community Centre. All these organisations, along with many other dedicated individuals, have acted selflessly to help others during this time of crisis. Our critical workers —postal workers, refuse collectors, teachers, supermarket staff and many others—have carried out their duties with immense dedication to keep our communities going, but also to help in our collective fight against this terrible virus.
I would like to conclude by thanking our fantastic NHS staff at Airedale General Hospital, and our GPs and carers across Keighley and Ilkley who are right at the forefront, caring for our loved ones. We shall be ever indebted to them.
Each death brings unimaginable pain to families, and my heart sinks when I learn of the passing of constituents such as the wonderful Dorothy Clark MBE, from Greatham—my thoughts are with all the families. On the covid-19 wards and the intensive care units operated by the North Tees and Hartlepool Hospitals NHS Foundation Trust, however, miracles are happening every day; thanks to the tireless efforts of our frontline NHS workers, lives are being saved and families are being reunited with their loved ones. I pay tribute to all our key workers, who keep us all going—they are all heroes. Those working in our hospitals, ambulances and care settings, putting themselves in direct risk to care for others, rightly deserve our highest praise. I am thinking of people such as my good friend Tony Traynor, a paramedic, who was admitted to hospital with covid-19 and is now, thankfully, at home recovering.
At the beginning of lockdown, and for weeks after, the shocking lack of PPE, the movement of non-tested patients out of hospitals into care homes and the appalling lack of tests themselves made the situation even worse. As of last Saturday, 154 frontline and social care workers had, sadly, died from this terrible virus. As we know from the Turkish PPE consignment fiasco and the Government’s persistent failure to achieve their daily target of 100,000 tests, we are still not getting it right and we continue to fall short of the mark. Our country has the second highest death rate in the world and, while we are past the peak in most places, the number of deaths in care homes is rising. That is not a record or situation we can or should be proud of. In addition, we are not past our peak in Hartlepool; we are behind the national trend, and our death and infection rates are still rising. To date, we thankfully remain bottom of the table in the north-east, but our rates are accelerating upwards. My concern is that any relaxation of the lockdown will have an adverse impact on my constituents and undermine their efforts to suppress the virus and keep rates down.
As with every MP, my mailbox has been full of covid queries since day one of the lockdown, and people remain worried. The Prime Minister’s statement yesterday has added to the confusion, particularly about returning to work. Thankfully, the return to work order has been delayed until Wednesday, rather than being implemented as of today, but the same problems apply in respect of people returning to work: how are they going to get there if public transport is to be limited? Will their workplaces be safe? Will the necessary measures be put in place? What childcare issues will arise because schools and nurseries remain closed ? What about the issue of social distancing in the workplace? We all want to see an end to the lockdown, to return to work safely and to get back to normal, but not at any cost, and certainly not at the risk of the virus spreading further. For my constituents, the Prime Minister’s statement has raised more questions than it has answered. He is acting too early in his encouragement, and he is acting in the interests of the economy, rather than of public health.
When an inquiry takes place into the covid pandemic, I fear that its most painful conclusions will relate to what has happened in care homes. I urge the Government to continue to place the highest priority on stopping the spread of the virus in care homes. That is crucial, both to protect the frail, elderly people who are most at risk and to prevent care homes from acting as infection hotspots, which could revive the virus in the wider population. There is, I am afraid, worrying evidence from Wuhan and Italy that it was in care homes and other healthcare settings that the epidemic was first amplified. It is disturbing to think that, in the early stages of the crisis here, understandable decisions to discharge patients from hospital to make way for the expected surge in covid patients may have had the unintended consequence of sending people in hospital who had asymptomatic covid back to their care home to spread the infection to others.
If we are to get on top of this crisis, we must ensure that no patient is discharged from hospital into a care home unless they have been tested and do not have covid. No one should go into any care home if they are covid-positive. I raised that with Ministers some weeks ago after I was sent a Sky News report in which a care home manager from Devon described admitting covid-positive patients as
“importing death into care homes.”
Yet only a few days ago, I saw a letter from Sutton Council indicating that there are still attempts to place people with covid in care homes. That has to stop.
Every person should be tested before they are admitted to a care home whether they come from the community or from a hospital, and whether they have symptoms or not. Care home staff must also be regularly and routinely tested. If we maintain rigorous control of the virus in hospital and care settings, including through routine, regular testing of staff, patients and residents, day in, day out, that should enable us not only to save lives but to lift lockdown measures more quickly for the rest of us.
It is urgent that we do lift those measures. The Office for Budget Responsibility has predicted a contraction in our economy bigger than anything for 300 years. The Government’s support package for businesses, jobs and livelihoods is a more far-reaching intervention in our economy than anything implemented outside wartime. It has staved off economic catastrophe, and I thank the Government for the support they have given to so many jobs and businesses in Chipping Barnet. We must maintain that support as long as we can, but it is sustainable only for a limited period.
Today’s announcements on the economy take us in the right direction, but we need to move more quickly if we are to wake the economy from the medically induced coma it has been placed in. The only long-term solution is to release the economy from lockdown and to get Britain back to work as soon as it is safe to do so. I urge the Government to do that.
I congratulate the right hon. Member for Chipping Barnet (Theresa Villiers) on her contribution. The devastating effect of covid-19 on care homes is being felt in Blaenau Gwent and across the world. A quarter of New York’s fatalities happened in care homes, 200 people died in just one care home in Italy, and in England, a full 16% of covid-19 deaths have happened in care homes. This is clearly a far-reaching issue. Today, though, I want to talk about a local tragedy in my constituency.
Blaenau Gwent has one of the highest numbers of coronavirus cases per head in Wales. A brave care home staff member contacted me to say that, early on in this crisis, their care home had inadequate PPE. It was also reported that a resident showing symptoms of covid-19 was discharged back from hospital and allowed access to communal spaces. I have sought confirmation of that from the health authority, but the exact situation remains unclear. Altogether, 16 residents have died.
My question is, were the processes in place so that care homes could deal with this crisis? We knew that the coronavirus would hit the elderly and the vulnerable hardest, and that those in care homes were most at risk. More should have been done at the start of the outbreak to protect residents and staff.
This has been a dreadful time for my constituents, for care home residents, their relatives and hard-working staff. Almost daily, I have been raising my concerns on this one issue with a range of local decision makers. Those decision makers have been pulled in 101 different directions. I know they are doing their very best, but the truth is that health officials have had a focus on the NHS and we have been playing catch-up with care homes. Social care is a vital sector, but we have not been treating it that way.
This crisis has revealed to me that we need to mend the broken structures of accountability. We need fast action to shield those who are most vulnerable and daily updates on deaths in individual care homes. There must be an open discussion about the issues that respects the rights of residents and the needs of staff. We need to build something better.
I end by paying tribute to our care workers across the country who are putting their lives on the line. I have been lucky enough to visit many care homes over the years. At their core, they are places of love. Those cared for are more than residents; they are like family. For the homes, coronavirus deaths are not just numbers; they are painful losses. It is vital that we ensure that tragedies of this scale are never allowed to happen again.
In the dark, our first instinct is to search for light. In pandemics such as this, data is light. How many people have the virus? How quickly is it spreading? What kinds of people have contracted it? How old are they? What other conditions do they have? Where do they live? Where do they work? What symptoms do they experience? Do they perhaps have no symptoms? The only reliable source of data to illuminate those essential questions comes from testing.
At the beginning of the pandemic, Ministers at the Dispatch Box used to speak of the leadership of British scientists in helping to develop tests for the presence of the virus, yet while countries such as South Korea immediately introduced high levels of testing in 79 laboratories across the country, the UK took a deliberately different approach. In evidence to the Science and Technology Committee, Public Health England said that it had considered the South Korean model, but rejected it. The alternative course that we followed saw not only a low number of tests, but a number that was falling at a point in March when the spread of the disease in this country was rampant.
We have had an extensive debate about whether 100,000 tests a day is the target. It is worth remembering that, on 10 March, only 1,215 tests were carried out—fewer than two for each parliamentary constituency represented in this House. Tests were rationed, community testing was abandoned and tests were restricted to hospital patients. We turned off the light on being able to see the detailed nature of the course of the infection in this country. The Government’s chief scientific adviser told my Select Committee that that was a mistake.
Testing capacity was taken as a given, as an operational constraint. Social distancing measures advised by SAGE were predicated on that low level of testing capacity. Rather than strategy driving testing capacity, the lack of testing capacity drove strategy. It was not until the personal initiative of the Secretary of State that testing increased to the level that other countries had had for many weeks.
A lack of testing has caused a lack of data, which has meant that too many of our policy decisions have been taken with a self-imposed blindfold. It is vital that the lesson is learned that we need to get ahead of need, not trail behind it in the various decisions that are to come, yet there are still some signs that that has not been fully recognised. The excellent national statistician Sir Ian Diamond told my Committee last Thursday that the major study of the prevalence of the virus that he is now conducting was commissioned not in January, February or March, but on 17 April. The failure to get ahead of the need for testing has deprived us of the information that we need to make well-informed decisions about not just the health of individuals—such as those in care homes to whom the previous two speakers have referred eloquently—but the reproduction and infection rates within population groups. This leads to later and cruder decisions than we could take if we had better data. That must be remedied so that in future, decisions can be taken not in the dark but with all the information that we need to make choices that represent a detailed knowledge of the situation in which we find ourselves.
At times of crisis, the Opposition should be constructive, but we must also tell the truth. The truth is that the Government’s handling of the crisis has been a disaster. The public inquiry that will inevitably happen will have no shortage of material to consider: how 10 years of austerity left the NHS struggling to meet normal levels of demand, let alone cope with a pandemic; how chronic fragmentation under the Health and Social Care Act 2012 has in essence contributed to dangerous delays and disorganisation; how learnings from Exercise Cygnus were covered up and—worse—ignored.
Of course, no Government facing challenges of this magnitude will ever get every decision right, but we have to understand how, at every point in this unfolding crisis, this Government have made the wrong judgment calls, and their unforced errors have cost lives. This is not about having the benefit of hindsight; it is about wilfully choosing to ignore the evidence in front of us, and about British exceptionalism leading Ministers to believe that their way is always best. We should not wait for an inquiry after the event to learn lessons from such a disastrous approach, because getting answers now can help to save lives today.
In particular, the new track-and-trace operation must learn from the weakness of current top-down, centralised control. It must be driven at local level, not contracted out to remote private sector companies, with directors of public health and environmental health officers leading the delivery of a decentralised, community-based operation.
Too many of the Chancellor’s economic support schemes are failing businesses, and in my Brighton constituency they are desperate. For example, the self-employed scheme should include small business owners who take their incomes in dividends; allow flexibility for those who combine pay-as-you-earn with freelance work; and stop discriminating against new start-ups and women who have taken time out in the past three years for maternity leave and childcare.
Businesses need reassurance that the job retention scheme will continue for as long as needed and that the 80% furlough rate will not be reduced any time soon. As talk starts about opening up the economy again, it is even more vital that furloughing be made more flexible by allowing short-hours working so that businesses can prepare and by tapering its withdrawal to avoid cliff edges. That is critical for sectors such as tourism and hospitality, which are a key part of my Brighton constituency.
The coronavirus pandemic has turned the world upside down, exposing major weaknesses in our economy and deep-seated inequalities in society, with the most vulnerable hit the hardest. But what we do next could change everything. As the world recovers, we have a chance to reset the clock and build back better than before. If we do not, we risk leaping out of the covid frying pan into the climate change fire. There should be no going back to normal, because normal was intolerable for far too many people, as well as trashing the environment and nature.
It is vital that the recovery plan decarbonises the economy in a way that also tackles grotesque levels of inequality. A transformative green new deal could create hundreds of thousands of new, decent jobs. Let us harness people’s growing recognition of the importance of clean air and green spaces and combine it with a new realisation that when the Government choose to, they can spend at speed and scale. We should look at evidence that green recovery packages deliver far higher returns than conventional stimulus spending. Programmes such as mass home insulation, reducing emissions and fuel bills, would create jobs throughout the country.
Let us resolve that there should be no unconditional handouts of public money to prop up carbon-intensive industries; instead, funds should be used to support workers and restructure industries to bring them into line with the Paris climate commitments. Finally, we need to listen to the scientists who have warned for years that deforestation and the exploitation of wild species have created a perfect storm for the spillover of diseases from wildlife to people and, having listened, we must act.
It is always a privilege to follow the hon. Member for Brighton, Pavilion (Caroline Lucas).
May I commend in the strongest possible terms the speech that has just been made by the Chairman of the Science and Technology Committee, my right hon. Friend the Member for Tunbridge Wells (Greg Clark), who has given the best analysis I have heard today of the mistakes we have made? While I am at it, I also commend the Chairman of the Health and Social Care Committee, my right hon. Friend the Member for South West Surrey (Jeremy Hunt), who made a similarly incisive speech earlier.
We should be honest: most of the western nations have handled this crisis badly. They have made mistakes, mostly in being late to control the virus—not all of them; some are different. For example, Greece, perhaps surprisingly, has controlled it much better than many of the others. It has about 15 deaths per million of the population versus us at about 477 at the moment. Those mistakes have cost thousands, if not tens of thousands of lives. A primary mistake, as pointed out by my right hon. Friend the Member for Tunbridge Wells, was the failure to test, track, trace and contain from the very beginning.
I would like to speak, in the brief time I have, about what we did once the disease took hold, because I think there are also potential mistakes there. The Government adopted a slogan—“protect the NHS, save lives”—which we all, including myself, took to enthusiastically and enthusiastically signed up to. My question for the Minister when she winds up is: did the strategy we pursued in good faith to protect the national health service exacerbate, in some respects, the death rate?
In addition to the lockdown, we did four things to protect the NHS and to protect it from being overwhelmed by the pressure on it. First off, we asked people with the illness to self-isolate at home and come to hospital only when the symptoms got really bad. When they did exactly this—exactly the same thing—in New York City, some of the doctors noticed that the patients were arriving in emergency too late, frankly, to be rescued. Their disease had advanced too fast, although they could have been cured earlier. My first question is: did that strategy cost lives?
The second question is: we applied triage on the basis of the so-called frailty index so that people who got a poor score on the frailty index were simply put on palliative care, again partly to protect intensive care unit capacity, so did that strategy cost lives? Two Members—my right hon. Friend the Member for Chipping Barnet (Theresa Villiers) and the hon. Member for Blaenau Gwent (Nick Smith)—have already raised the question of care homes. We discharged patients from hospital early, when some of them still had this disease, into care homes, with the consequences that we have heard in graphic terms already. Did that strategy cost lives?
The final thing we did to protect capacity was that we cancelled operations for other illnesses—cancer and other illnesses—and that almost undoubtedly cost lives. We can see it in the excess mortality rates. Indeed, Britain holds the highest place in Europe, equal with Spain I am afraid, for the highest excess mortality over this period, so the combined effect of these strategies has to be looked at very carefully indeed. Bear in mind that throughout this time our intensive care unit capacity was used only to 81%. That is normal for this time of year. The Nightingale hospitals stood almost empty, and now only 30% of ICU capacity is being taken up by covid-19 patients. Did we get this balance wrong? Did we, at the cost of lives, just give ourselves empty beds, rather than doing the best thing for the patients the NHS is there to look after? That is not the fault of the staff of the NHS; it is a question of whether the strategy was the wrong one to pursue once we were where we were.
I finish by coming back to the point made by the Chairman of the Science and Technology Committee. The best way to protect both the NHS and the lives of our citizens is the approach taken by other countries, and that is to use testing, tracking and tracing to isolate the illness as well as to bring it down. The Prime Minister talked about the R number; that is just an average. The R number in my constituency, a rural area, is lower than that for a care home. We must put all the resources—
I agree with the right hon. Member for Haltemprice and Howden (Mr Davis) and others about how much we have sadly lost by not following the South Korea example on testing. We must be ready to follow the best examples from all over the world in the second phase.
In just a few short weeks, tens of thousands of people in the UK have died as a result of covid-19. It is unbearable to think of so many families grieving and in pain. Those who have died or have suffered most are more likely to be poor, more likely to be black, Asian or minority ethnic, and more likely to be working-class men. At a higher risk are the cleaners, security guards, hospital porters, nursing assistants and, most of all, care workers—people who had to keep going during the crisis. That makes it even more important to get protection in the workplace now, as low-paid workers are more likely than professional workers to be asked by the Government to go back into the workplace.
Our key workers have been heroic and should be rewarded, and so too have our communities. In our towns, we have set up hubs of volunteers to help with shopping and food parcels, and we have run a community book programme to deliver books to kids. I want to say a massive thank you to Paul, Denise, David, Lorna, Cath, Saney, Michelle, Ash and many more who have done that.
There is much more that we need to do to prevent a second peak. First, we need clearer messages and answers. Half an announcement yesterday, before the regulations and guidance were in place, has caused considerable confusion. In a public health crisis, confusion can cost lives and put the police in an impossible position over what to enforce.
Secondly, I agree that more action is needed in social care, where the virus is still spreading. We should prevent any patients with covid-19 from being moved from hospital back into care homes. They should stay in hospital or dedicated intermediate care. We need higher standards of PPE, higher pay and sick pay in care homes.
I want to mention two other things that have come up before the Home Affairs Committee. The Home Office has rightly promised a free visa extension for foreign national doctors and nurses, and, if they tragically die from covid-19, a guarantee that their families can remain, but it has not done so for NHS porters and cleaners, who scrub the door handles, floors and sinks in the covid wards, or for care workers, whose lives are at the greatest risk. That is not fair.
Finally, on international travel, other countries introduced self-isolation rules or screening many weeks or months ago. The UK unusually did not. Our Select Committee has been asking for the science behind that since early April, but those SAGE papers have not been published. If the Government now recognise that those measures are needed to prevent the spread, it makes no sense to wait many more weeks before bringing them in.
We need greater transparency if we are to get decisions right, greater clarity so that everyone knows what is going on, and greater determination to tackle the hardest problems we face. We have a long road yet to travel, and we have to do this together.
Wolverhampton was one of the first places to feel the impact of covid-19, as New Cross Hospital in my constituency had to cope with many of the UK’s earliest cases. I commend the Royal Wolverhampton NHS Trust and all the NHS staff in Wolverhampton who reacted and adapted so quickly and have given such outstanding care to patients from Wolverhampton and the wider region.
I also pay tribute to all those working in care homes and adult social care, who have worked to support our most vulnerable people. One of the cruellest effects of this virus is that residents of care homes and shielded people are kept apart from their families and loved ones. It is important that they know they are not forgotten. Every effort should be made to support the staff who are innovating and keeping them in touch with their families throughout this crisis.
Sadly, many families in Wolverhampton have lost someone they loved, and my sympathies go out to those who are currently struggling to grieve without the comfort of a traditional funeral service. Next year, I think we will see many memorial events in our city. The newly formed Wolverhampton Caribbean Community Memorial Trust is already planning a weekend event, and I am sure that a lot of other groups will follow its initiative. Coming together to mourn the loss of a loved one and celebrate their life is an important part of the grieving process. Many of my constituents would like a national event next year so that we can remember the victims of coronavirus, and I would support that request so that we can join together as a nation in an act of remembrance.
Amid such heartache, this crisis has brought out the best in so many people. I want to thank all the volunteers who have worked to help their neighbours throughout the crisis. Small food banks have sprung up at the Ashmore Inn pub and at the Women and Families Resource Centre in Park Village. There is also an amazing lady organising craft boxes for children who are having to stay at home, often with no outdoor space. Church groups, gurdwaras and mosques are all raising money and delivering practical help in the community. Their selflessness and kindness are incredible; they are the best of Wolverhampton.
As we take our first small steps out of lockdown, my thoughts turn to businesses and workers in my constituency. Unemployment was already high in Wolverhampton North East, and our local high streets were struggling. I know that the Government are still determined to level up across our country, and I hope that extra consideration and thought will be given to constituencies such as mine, where the economic effects of covid-19 will hit hard. I thank the Chancellor for the wide range of measures to support businesses and self-employed people at this time. I would like to join colleagues and our West Midlands Mayor, Andy Street, in calling for flexibility to come off the furlough scheme and for ongoing support. Some sections will have to wait many months before their business returns to normal. I am grateful to our Mayor for his determination to fight for business in the Black Country and to help our economic recovery across the west midlands. I would also ask local people to get out and support our businesses as soon as they safely reopen. I have been immensely proud of the people of Wolverhampton over the past few weeks. We will get through this crisis because of their kindness, resilience and determination. This is a time not for politics but for pragmatism. To everyone who has come together to help our city: thank you.
Thank you, indeed, Mr Deputy Speaker, and a special hello from the Hebrides. I wish all Members overseas who are partaking in the debate well. It is of course an important debate that is taking place in a Parliament of the Union, although virtually for some of us who are not there. It is the UK Union Parliament but it is certainly not for our nation. That is a term that is often lazily used at Westminster, but last night when the Prime Minister spoke, the region in question was certainly England. In our nation, the First Minister of Scotland was very clear: stay at home, protect the NHS and save lives. Just what the Prime Minister of Westminster meant when he said that we should stay alert for a virus that is measured in nanometres is quite another matter altogether. Certainly there seemed to be confusion, listening in, and this has given Scots a real, tangible taste of the benefits of independence. We see that independence today in our health policy.
The truth of the matter, however, is that we should be continuing with lockdown because we have to continue with lockdown. Unfortunately, the seven weeks of lockdown have to a large extent been wasted, because the testing policy, instead of being one of test, trace and isolate has been one of test, find and ignore. It has been obsessed with daily targets and the media have not questioned the why. It is a policy that has spurned many opportunities to track and stop the virus. We should have been hunting the virus, not waiting for it to come among us all. The policy was to test the symptomatic, but only those who had been symptomatic for 48 hours. It has been clear from many other countries, especially those such as Iceland and the Faroes, which have a great record in fighting the virus, that 80% to 85% of covid-19 carriers are asymptomatic. They are the ones who will unwittingly be spreading covid-19 among the population. I am grateful to the Faroese Health Minister—the former Prime Minister, the esteemed Kaj Leo Holm Johannesen—for his information, support and offers of testing to the Scottish islands to help us to get test, trace and isolate on the go a number of weeks ago, rather than the situation that we were in, with seven weeks of lockdown during which we found people but did not go on to test others in their household. That has been a wasted opportunity.
The other important area we need to consider is finance, especially given the divergence within the United Kingdom due to English politicians taking an independent approach. Of course, I support the independence of England—the sooner it happens, the better—but only wish that in this instance it had been done with greater thought. The Treasury, which has underpinned health policy up to now, should continue to underpin the health policies of all the nations of the UK. Treasury support should not be kicked away when the health policy of England dictates that it is no longer required in England. Treasury support should be there to help the health policies of all across the UK. That is what Unionism should mean, and I would expect Unionists to support that and not to be followerists, taking instructions without making representation. We have to make sure that the welfare of everyone is looked after, especially when Governments are having to make choices and take steps for public health.
In Na h-Eileanan an Iar, test, trace and isolate has begun, but with so few cases it has not got properly started yet. Surely we should be using our new capacity, which is underutilised, to search for the asymptomatic. Thankfully, we have had no cases for a number of weeks, but we have to remain in lockdown due to a lack of knowledge and having to make decisions based on the lack of a proper testing system.
I hope that the UK has learned a lot. The UK has certainly learned that it is not exceptional and that it can be as vulnerable as anywhere else—more so when not following best practice and trying to reinvent the wheel. In contrast to what is commonly viewed as a debacle south of the border, we in Scotland have tasted what an independent health policy is like. We just need to taste independence in every other policy area. As Iceland, the Faroes and smaller nations such as Scotland have shown, smaller nations fight epidemics better. Incidentally, they do economic recoveries better as well—and that, of course, will be the next step.
When the public inquiry reports after being able to properly consider these events, there will be an almost irresistible urge to blame. That can only be natural, for we will as a nation feel grief—grief for those we have lost, grief for the things we have hitherto taken for granted, and grief for lost futures. The inquiry will demand papers, examine plans, ask awkward questions and reveal uncomfortable truths. There will be admissions, denials and rebuttals, claim and counterclaim, good days for some, bad days for others. There will be tales of heroism, and records of blunder. There will be examples of those who did not make reply, those who should have perhaps reasoned why, and, above it all, the lingering ghosts of those who simply did and died.
The findings of the inquiry will not be phrased poetically. They will be categoric. I will wait for them and accept them, and we will all learn from them. The findings will put aside examples of hindsight-itis, which grow as the real pandemic subsides. Those who say they do not wish to play politics but then subtly do so will be able to deal in the facts, rather than propagate speculation. We will know who knew what and when, from whence this virus came, and myriad hows and whys will find their answer. We know on reasonable authority that judgment is never quite so harsh upon the admission of responsibility, but perhaps most painfully of all there may be some answers we may never know.
There are some people for whom our Prime Minister will never do anything right, but he is the Prime Minister and they are not. He knows that to govern is to choose. There are invidious choices ahead, and we need the Government to be fully engaged with the concerns and suggestions of wider society. They must also be engaged with this House, and I am sorry to say that this format of a virtual Parliament does not allow for it. As we ask our constituents to return to their place of work, with understandable anxieties and adaptations, so we must lead by example and return to ours.
Through effective scrutiny we will get better government, for there are many candid friends of the Government in this House who want them to succeed on behalf of our entire nation. However, just as the Prime Minister and Ministers must exercise their judgment carefully and clearly, it is also for everyone to play a part in exercising our judgment, rather than entirely abdicating responsibility to the state. Although the state intervention has been great and necessary, it will be our individual patience, good sense and, above all, humanity that will see us through.
Much has been made of the slogan used to convey the Government’s message. Supposedly clever people scoff and feign confusion. Well, we can argue about this weekend’s communication strategy and wish it were better, but ultimately we must have greater confidence in the judgment of the public.
I thank the people of Rotherham for following the lockdown rules, and for proactively helping the people in our town who are vulnerable; you have shown real community spirit and I am proud to represent you.
Tonight, however, I will speak as Chair of the Select Committee on International Development, as we are currently conducting an inquiry into the impact of the coronavirus pandemic in developing countries. There have been some clear and consistent messages. First, the ability to prevent infections in the global south is simply not there. How is it possible to maintain social distancing in a refugee camp or at a food distribution point? In Bangladesh, for example, 850,000 Rohingya refugees live in just 26 sq km. Secondly, healthcare systems in so many areas have been destroyed, like in Syria or Yemen, or are vastly under-resourced, like in Mali, with its single ventilator for the entire country. Thirdly, the economic impact has been immediate in the global south. This alone is estimated to have undone the development work of the last 30 years.
The consensus in our evidence to date is as follows. The coronavirus pandemic is emerging across the global south, with no country being safe. The outbreak is likely to peak in the next two or three months. The direct challenge of the disease and the seriousness of its effect on children will be exacerbated where there are existing illnesses, other morbidities and poor nutrition, as well as a weak health system and infrastructure. For example, it is estimated that only 51% of health centres in Yemen are fully functional. In north-east Syria, no district can even meet the basic emergency threshold of 10 hospital beds per 10,000 population. In north-east Nigeria, vaccine coverage is only 8% in some areas, and 2.7 million women and children need nutritional support.
The preventive measures that we have adopted in the UK will obviously be challenging, if not impossible, in crowded settlements such as refugee camps. Other illnesses are likely to embed, as existing health services are crowded out or avoided. Traditional vaccine provision, maternal and neonatal health, and basic public health—nutrition and hygiene advice, in particular—will be at risk. Where lockdown is being used as a preventive measure, our evidence makes it clear that the stress that this can impose, alongside the threat of family illness and loss of income, all place disproportionate risk on women and children. Lockdown-related domestic violence has been evidenced everywhere. Child abuse is likely to increase. The Committee received evidence that child marriage and child sexual exploitation, including via the internet, could be used by some to mitigate losses of income from a lockdown economy.
Food security continues to be a major concern, particularly in Africa and the middle east. Public trust and social cohesion are worsening across some countries, with increasing protests against Governments. The threat of successful radicalisation and recruitment by extremist organisations seems inevitable in the face of rising unemployment and deprivation. There have also been reports of very negative sentiments about the role of international NGOs and foreigners in relation to the spread of the disease.
I have welcomed the UK’s response to the emergence of coronavirus in the global south. However, in our evidence, NGOs considered the £20 million allocated by the Department for International Development for them to tackle covid-19 to be insufficient. There is also a consistent message that multilateral organisations are not reactive enough to disburse funds to frontline delivery in these urgent situations. I urge the Government to allow UK NGOs more flexibility in how they already use their existing funding. The UK’s response—totalled at £744 million—is weighted strongly towards the allocation of official development assistance funding for the development of a vaccine, so it is concerning that the Government have yet to enact safeguards or place conditions on the use of the funding to ensure—
First, I want to thank all the frontline staff, especially those in South West Hertfordshire. I welcome the Prime Minister’s statement and the further guidance issued today. Across the country and in my constituency, people will welcome this road map and the light at the end of the tunnel. I congratulate all Government Departments for their Herculean efforts to deal with this unprecedented global pandemic. In my view, the continual evolution of national policies based on data is the correct method, and I look forward to the easing of the lockdown restrictions as soon as it is safe.
I want to focus on what the new normal may look like. My party and this Government had already committed to extensive investment in broadband, and this pandemic has shown at first hand how it should now be regarded as an essential utility. I look forward to working with ministerial colleagues to achieving that as soon as practicable.
The ability of the national health service to adapt to a totally different healthcare system using remote diagnosis could fundamentally change how our NHS works. This should be regarded as an opportunity and not a threat. The technological industrial revolution is using the pandemic as a catalyst for significant innovation—something we in this House should all engage in, to seek the opportunities that a global Britain offers.
As you may know, Mr Deputy Speaker, I regard myself as a globalist and an optimist. This pandemic has shown British ingenuity at its best—the world-class teams working to find a vaccine, the two-week construction of the Nightingale hospitals and the national effort made by businesses of whatever size for the greater national good. The community spirit across South West Hertfordshire has reinforced my belief that we will get through this. From the door-to-door deliveries in Croxley Green, to supermarket attendants going that little bit further to help vulnerable customers, to the large food bank donations in Tring, people are pulling together. At Tring School, two staff members, Miss Jones and Miss Corney, have donated their time and efforts to make 1,000 visors for Stoke Mandeville Hospital and 43 other organisations. My one desire is that the care shown for our neighbours and those in need continues into more normal times.
As a Conservative, I have always believed in the safety net, and many in this pandemic are having to rely on it. I will continue to be a critical friend as we progress through this pandemic, but I want to take this opportunity to acknowledge the excellent work done to date. I ask my right hon. Friend the Paymaster General to discuss any plans she has to use the public’s good will, time and generosity in the form of volunteer co-ordination, and to join me in thanking those in my constituency and around the country who have stepped up to help their fellow countrymen and women in these challenging times.
I could have addressed many issues in this speech, among them the grief in my own community, the plight of child nurseries that face bankruptcy, small businesses that do not qualify for any support, individuals who have been caught between jobs and are not being furloughed, the hunger of children across the country because the Government refuse to issue school meal vouchers during the Whitsun holidays, or the fear of families with relatives in care homes. But I have opted to talk specifically about health, because of the disproportionate effect the coronavirus has on communities like mine. I pay tribute to all the key workers who look after us every day.
As we know, covid-19 is a respiratory virus that affects the lungs and airways. That is why lung health is an integral part of how we tackle this virus now and respond to the ongoing effects it can have on a person’s lung health. The majority of deaths from covid-19 in the UK have occurred among people with pre-existing conditions. Data from the UK covid symptom tracker app shows that smokers are more likely to report common covid symptoms, and smokers who contract coronavirus are more likely to experience severe symptoms.
Prior to this crisis, I regularly called on the Government to do more when it came to lung health—to reverse the cuts and fund public health properly, to have better tobacco control and to tackle health inequalities. As colleagues may know, there is a 20-year average life expectancy gap within my Stockton North constituency. Men living in the town centre ward can expect to live 20 years fewer than a man living in Wynyard. While there are other health challenges, much of that health inequality is down to lung health and the Government’s failure to tackle it head on. Investing properly in tobacco control and smoking cessation services would achieve the Government’s ambition of a smoke-free England by 2030 and reduce health inequalities, but more importantly, it could lift over 1 million people out of poverty, including 250,000 children.
There has been much talk about how long the coronavirus could be around and whether it could mutate and reinfect. I am not a scientist, so I, like the vast majority of people, cannot answer those questions. But we cannot take a gamble with people’s health and their lives. If someone is more likely to die from covid-19 with a pre-existing condition, we need to tackle the root causes of pre-existing conditions. That means tackling health issues in areas like mine—the areas with the poorest communities. Smoking cessation is an excellent place to start. I hope that the Government will see it as not just appropriate but necessary to restore all funding for services that help people to stop smoking. When households stop spending money on tobacco, it can lift them out of poverty and increase the disposable income available to spend on local communities rather than lining the pockets of transnational tobacco firms, but the services need to be there to support people to quit smoking. A polluter charge on tobacco companies would go a long way to funding those services, so will the Minister commit to introducing this charge to provide a sustainable source of funding for tobacco control?
We need to give lung health the attention that it desperately needs, not just during the coronavirus crisis but afterwards, because we do not know whether this will happen again and we need to be ready. Improving the health of those with the shortest life expectancy is part of the answer. We need to be working on prevention so that if this happens again, we are ready and we will know that we will have saved lives simply by looking after their lung health now.
I begin by thanking all those key workers in North Somerset who keep our essential services moving, all the voluntary groups who have kept our communities healthy and all those who have maintained the Government guidelines, keeping one another safe.
Even at this point in the pandemic, there are a few points worth making about the medicine. In a pandemic with a new virus, where there is no vaccine and no cure, most of the population are likely to become infected over time. A lockdown, the likes of which we have had in the United Kingdom, can reduce the peak death rate, history will suggest, by up to 50%, and it will reduce the excess mortality rate over time, but not to such a great extent. It is worth our keeping that in mind as we look forward to future steps.
We do not know how this virus will behave. It is not influenza, and therefore influenza modelling may not be the most appropriate. It may be seasonal. There may be winter peaks that recur, but there may not. It may disappear as SARS did, for example, or have sporadic cases, as MERS had, but the virus is likely to remain, evolve and mutate, so this is not a war. The virus will not surrender. There will be no VC day, so my advice to politicians, the media and commentators alike is to take Basil Fawlty’s advice and “don’t mention the war”. It gives a false perspective for the public in understanding the likely course that this pandemic will take.
If the virus will spread widely through the population in the course of this illness, the great unknown is what proportion of the population have already been infected and may have been asymptomatic. There are studies in other countries—they are not yet published or not yet peer-reviewed, so it is not evidence that we can readily use—that suggest that in some populations, the asymptomatic proportion of the population can be quite high. We will know that only if we are able to introduce a programme of widespread antibody testing, because the current programme of PCR—polymerase chain reaction—testing will diminish in effectiveness as we are able to detect less of the virus. We therefore need an antibody programme that tells us how many in the population have been infected over time. I urge my colleagues on the Front Bench to speed up, where possible, the rolling out of antibody testing, because it will be key in the longer term to understanding the spread of the illness, our ability to control it and our ability to set free those who will have been cocooned for some time as a consequence of the measures that we have already taken.
How successful we will be in dealing with this particular viral outbreak will be a long-term judgment. We need to be patient, because there are no immediate answers here or anywhere else. We will need to wait to see the level of excess global deaths before we are able to determine whether, in closing down parts of the global economy, we have actually overreacted as a global community to the emergence of a new virus. That will be crucial for our future activities, because we cannot afford to close down the global economy every time we have a new virus emerging, and, if we are not willing to do that, we must develop international protocols that will give us an idea of how we manage, in the globalised era, something that will not respect borders however much we in governmental structures wish that it would.
In opening, let me send my heartfelt condolences to all those who have lost family members at this difficult time. The complications of isolation make bereavement more challenging, and I pray that all can find peace, as they work through their pain of loss.
Again and again, we are struck by the professionalism, care, compassion, courage, commitment and love of our NHS and care staff. They have gone beyond their duty to serve us, as have so many frontline workers, ensuring that the nation is fed, supported and cared for. I know, in York, of the sacrifices that have been made by so many and thank all workers and volunteers for each act of kindness that they have shown during this crisis.
I want to raise one issue on the behalf of those workers before moving to my main contribution. In November 2014, following the Francis report on the serious issues uncovered at Mid Staffordshire hospital, the duty of candour was introduced. If healthcare workers are to be safe, we need to ensure that there is a place where all can safely raise concerns, and that those concerns are responded to. The duty should extend to all. I know that concerns have been raised by care workers in my constituency and yet they have not been addressed. Access to PPE is one such example. Employers, local resilience forums and, yes, Government need to be honest in their response to the challenges that are presented, and mitigation must be put in place to protect workers.
Last night, the nation was thrown into confusion, but I believe the Prime Minister was clear: he was shifting risk from the state to individuals and businesses. That is unacceptable when dealing with such a dangerous virus. Today, I want to raise two major issues missing from the Government’s strategy. To mitigate the worst aspects of the pandemic, we need better data and we need a risk analysis. The data is scant and the risk analysis absent. As covid-19 will be prevalent until a vaccine is administered, the right data needs collecting now.
I have two brief examples. We receive hospital mortality figures and, latterly, figures for care homes. However, if we are looking into infection control, it is not the location of death that is important, but the location of infection. How many covid-positive hospital admissions originate from care homes, how many have been infected in hospitals, and then how have many died? Clearly, infection data, not just mortality data, must be shared. We need data to expose where risk resides. How do the infections and deaths of so many people align with protected characteristics and underlying health conditions? If they do align, with which ones, and what about socioeconomic circumstances? Data needs to be granulated, so that risk is understood and mitigated.
Secondly, where is the risk register? Today, I am calling on the Government to publish a risk register. Unless there is a full risk analysis of all the risks, how can we balance them and put appropriate mitigation in place? Without a risk register, how can anyone scientifically scrutinise the Government? Every Department, every local authority, every statutory body and every employer must produce a risk analysis not only on the basis of health but, importantly, on the basis of the economy. Each decision must also be accompanied by an equality impact assessment. Had that been the Government’s approach, we would never have seen the austerity measures that stripped our NHS of vital resources such as PPE and staff, and all the gross inequalities demonstrated in the mortality statistics. We would not have seen the mistakes that have occurred over the past few weeks, with gaps in the economic package causing severe hardship. We would not have had last night’s announcement. We need an evidence-based approach to decision making, and we need this crucial information published now. I call on the Government to put data and a risk analysis in the public domain.
I will hit a different tone to start. I want to congratulate the Chancellor on his rapid actions to underpin employment across our economy and to support the worst-affected businesses. It was a huge package delivered very quickly and very necessarily.
It is also true, however, that there are a number of businesses that are not formally required to close but have been unable to continue trading because of social distancing guidelines set out by their professional bodies or regulators. This is despite the fact that they are formally listed by the core Government rules as being able to continue to trade. Dentists, vets, physiotherapists and those in many similar professions have seen all their income disappear. I ask the Government to ensure that local authorities have complete discretion over the remaining allocated funds for business support to target such individual businesses that may not fit the textbook but have been particularly badly affected. In addition, there are self-employed groups, including the directors of small companies and those on short-term PAYE contracts, for example, in the media and entertainment industries, for whom the impact of the virus will be long-lasting. Will the Government therefore consider whether there are any other ways of easing the impact on them?
I am concerned that many of the professional bodies and agencies putting the overall principles of the lockdown into guidance for businesses have erred heavily—and, to be honest, sometimes unnecessarily—on the side of caution in drawing up those guidelines. That has an impact on business, the income of professionals and employment. For example, why can local vets not carry on working as normal, with PPE, as long as pet owners socially distance while they wait for their pets? If emergency physiotherapy and dentistry is allowed with appropriate protections, why can routine work not start again? One example I came across in the past few days is that dog-walking businesses are having to stop their work because for safety reasons the guidance does not allow dogs from different households to be mixed; the dogs in the park on a Saturday have not quite worked out the need for social distance between households. People are losing their livelihoods because of that. We need common sense, not excessive risk aversion.
From an international perspective, we already know the possible link between the virus and the trade in wildlife. We also know that much of that trade is illegal, shipping animals such as pangolins from other parts of the world to wet markets in Asia. This is not the first time that a virus is suspected to have made the jump between animals and human beings in the environment of wet markets. This really has to be the moment at which there is a concerted international effort to bring to an end that illegal trade, and to bring to an end the practice of wet markets, which have potentially such significant impacts on the health of the humans who use those markets and, as we now see, around the world.
There is another issue. With tourism around the world on lockdown, this is also a time when conservation in Africa and the battle against that illegal wildlife trade face an existential crisis, leaving a gaping hole for poachers and illegal traders. I urge the Government to channel more of our international aid budget to support vital conservation projects, in particular projects that protect species from poaching, and defend the species that are most at risk from the collapse of local economies in Africa.
These are momentous times. I pay a huge tribute to the key workers in my constituency, particularly at Epsom Hospital, who have done such an incredible job in the past few weeks. I think the Government should take credit for much of what they have done. There are challenges, there are things we will not get right and there is more to do, but we have to win through, get our economy back on the road and defeat the virus.
It is the first responsibility of Government to keep people safe and during this crisis that responsibility is acute. What the Government say and do each day has profound consequences, whether that is being too slow with lockdown measures and PPE, or creating confusion with ill-considered announcements.
If lockdown measures are to be eased, it is critical that the Government keep the rate of infection as low as possible. In their plan published today, they acknowledge the role that mass testing and contact tracing play in suppressing transmission, but we have been a long way from the comprehensive, effective and, as the Prime Minister put it, world-leading system we need. The plan mentions targets of 100,000 tests a day last month and 200,000 tests a day this month, yet there has not been a single day in May when the number of people tested has been above 70,000. The plan also mentions a role for local authority public health services, but it feels far too much like an afterthought. The Government have focused all their energy on a new national call centre, rather than listening to local authorities, experts, and MPs, who have implored them to put local teams at the heart of those efforts.
The Government plan also mentions controlling the outbreak in care homes. The importance of that cannot be overstated, as this Government’s failure to protect people who live and work in care homes is fast becoming one of their greatest failings of the covid-19 crisis so far.
Last week, my team and I spoke to care homes across my constituency. One care worker told us how traumatic it had been for their colleagues to lose so many residents. They told us that they would usually expect to suffer around three deaths a year in their home, but that they have lost twice as many people in a single fortnight of this crisis. The people we spoke to were deeply upset with the Government and with the lack of recognition for care, and they felt that they had been in a crisis for far longer than since coronavirus. One worker said to us that their colleagues were tired and upset, but that they had been for years. That is the truth at the heart of this crisis.
This outbreak has laid bare the deep-seated inequalities in our country. It is hitting those people hardest who cannot work from home, such as low-paid care staff, hospital cleaners and bus drivers. It is hitting hardest those who do not have a decent home, such as those living with overcrowding or sofa-surfing and those who are homeless.
Once we get through the immediate crisis, we must not let the Government forget those workers who are risking everything to keep the country safe. We must not forget those receiving care who are paying such a dreadful price, trade unions that are playing a crucial role in protecting people’s jobs, BAME communities, who are suffering more than anyone else, and councils and local volunteers who are getting food delivered to those who need it most. When we begin to emerge from this crisis, making our economy work for people who do the essential jobs in society, building a new generation of council housing, and ending the austerity that has caused so much harm to our public services, will be more important than ever.
Let me start by thanking all the staff at Burnley hospital, and our carers, for their incredible dedication, as well as the volunteers of Burnley Together, and other groups who continue to support those who need it most. Through this period we have seen the incredible fortitude and generosity of the British people, and businesses up and down the country, including in my constituency, have stepped forward and played their part in manufacturing what we need.
One sector that has been particularly impacted by the coronavirus pandemic is the travel sector. Airlines have seen their business models collapse, and I warmly welcome the action taken by the Government so far, which has undoubtedly saved millions of businesses and jobs. I ask that they keep an open mind about any additional support for airlines that might be required, and look at measures provided in the United States as an example.
When travel restrictions are lifted and the global economy starts to tick over once more, this country will rely on the trade deals currently being negotiated by the International Trade Secretary in order to bounce back. For that to work, we must have the links needed to keep goods and people moving. I mention the travel sector to talk not only about airlines, but about the wider supply chain. As many Members of the House will know, Burnley and Padiham make up one of the northern areas at the centre of advanced engineering and manufacturing, supplying the components needed to build aircraft, and the engines that power them. Sadly, one of the largest local employers in my constituency has just announced more than 200 job losses, reflecting the deteriorating outlook for the aviation sector over the medium term, with airlines holding on to their existing fleets. Those jobs are high skilled, highly paid, and vital to keeping the UK at the cutting edge of manufacturing and engineering. They are jobs that Burnley, which had a higher claimant count than the national average before this crisis, desperately needs.
My ask to the Government is for any policy decisions that could have unintended consequences to be considered holistically. The 14-day quarantine for international arrivals will definitely have some merit for some countries for a short period, and the Government have my support. As a blanket policy, however, it will only kick the aviation sector when it is already down. The job losses that could follow will ripple through the entire supply chain.
With a clear, sustainable strategy of test, track and trace, such measures can be limited to dealing with an initial spike or specific hotspot areas, and not serve as a long-term solution. For test, track and trace to be effective, though, we need to get testing to a sufficiently significant scale, in terms of both the number of tests available and the number of test centres that exist to deliver them. That is how we can ensure that capacity is always hit. I encourage all Members to read South Korea’s playbook on how it flattened the curve there and developed a test, track and trace system. There, testing is done not only en masse, but also in small K-Walk-Thru booths, rapidly increasing the number of people who can get tested because it can be done closer to home. That is a model that could also be deployed in airports.
For track and trace, the development and deployment of the NHS app will be critical, and it can easily be mandated at entry ports to the country, to help to ensure that our approach is sustainable in the long term. I know that the Government are looking at both options for the tracing app, with the one currently being trialled reliant on a central database, instead of taking a decentralised approach. There are benefits and drawbacks to both, but whichever method is chosen, it is vital that it is chosen quickly, because any delay in selecting a model and getting the app out there, or any change further down the line, will only delay when we can start to adapt to our own new norm.
Let me finish by paying tribute to the enormous amount of support already put in place by—
Diolch, Mr Deputy Speaker. Let me begin by reflecting for a moment on those who have sadly lost their lives to covid-19. I extend my sincere condolences to the families and friends who have lost loved ones. One of the most moving scenes of the past few weeks has been the custom of standing on doorsteps to bid farewell to loved ones as the funeral procession progresses through towns and villages. I cannot think of a more solemn reminder of the importance of protecting people’s lives in this pandemic. I believe that this must, first and foremost, be the priority of any Government.
The impact that lockdown is having on the mental wellbeing of so many, especially those who live alone, should not be underestimated, but I do not think that anyone will disagree that it was necessary. In Wales, people are still asked to stay at home in order to save lives. These restrictions will remain in place for at least the next three weeks, but many constituents have contacted me overnight to convey their serious concerns about the impact that an easing of lockdown restrictions in other parts of the UK might have on Ceredigion. In particular, their concerns have centred on the suggestion made by the Prime Minister that, from this Wednesday, people in England may drive to outdoor open spaces, irrespective of distance.
Although the change applies to England alone, it is understandable that people are worried that this distinction will not be widely understood. After all, such concerns are well founded. During the UK-wide lockdown, we sadly witnessed a significant number of individuals attempting to travel to Ceredigion and other parts of west Wales, contrary to official advice. As such, the UK Government have a responsibility to emphasise, in all their public announcements and interviews with the press over the coming days, that travel restrictions remain in place in Wales for at least the next few weeks.
I would like to associate myself with the arguments made by other hon. Members that the Government should ensure that economic support measures are extended to cover the period of covid-19 restrictions and are adapted to be more flexible, particularly for sectors such as tourism and agriculture, which depend on such seasonal demand.
Others, including the hon. Member for Burnley (Antony Higginbotham), have made valuable contributions this evening about the importance of establishing an intensive testing, tracking and contact tracing regime, in the mould of that implemented in South Korea, so that we can detect, track, isolate and treat new cases quickly and effectively. I would like to end by associating myself with those arguments and paying tribute to the work conducted by Ceredigion County Council, in collaboration with Hywel Dda university health board and Aberystwyth University, on community testing and contact tracing. This work offers a solution by which lockdown restrictions can be lifted safely and in a way that gives our communities confidence. Until such a strategy is in place, however, we must act with caution, to protect lives as much as possible.
I should like to start by praising the Prime Minister for the leadership he has shown throughout this crisis, despite having suffered from the virus himself. I believe the whole country is grateful to him for all his efforts.
We should also be really thankful for our tremendous NHS staff, care workers and other medical professionals, who are on the frontline in this fight against covid-19. Their skills, commitment and dedication are an inspiration to us all. We should also thank all the other key workers in our society for their work at this difficult and challenging time. I particularly thank those workers in my area of south-east London.
We are in unprecedented times and the Government have been proactive and responsive to the many issues that our nation faces. It is a national tragedy that so many lives have been lost to this terrible virus, particularly in care homes, which were not a priority early enough. Matters of testing and PPE provision will also need to be examined. There are many and varied questions that will need to be raised, nationally and internationally, in due course. Today is not the day for such questions, however, as I believe that at this stage, we need to be constructive, not partisan, and look forward.
The response to the crisis has brought out the best of Britain. Our people have risen to the challenge. That is particularly true in my borough of Bexley. At this stage, we need to be discussing the road map for the future. Therefore, I welcomed the Prime Minister’s announcement on Sunday of cautious, careful and pragmatic progress to start to get the country out of lockdown. I think that the “stay alert” slogan is good and that the promised road map being dependent, of course, on people’s actions is the right approach now.
Many people are concerned about the impact of the virus on the economy and the future. Many businesses in my constituency are worried about the future and there are real economic concerns. That is why the measures from my right hon. Friend the Chancellor of Exchequer have been warmly welcomed. The huge and unprecedented programme of support for workers, businesses, jobs, the economy and the self-employed has been good news in a time of sadness and bad news. A too-early relaxation of Government measures could cause further damage and an even longer period of social distancing, but we must get the economy going again by opening up shops and businesses, getting people spending and working, and getting to some sort of new normality.
From communications that I have had with businesses across my area of Bexley, I know that the Government support is much appreciated, particularly the furloughing of staff and the coronavirus grant funding, which have been vital in keeping businesses afloat even if they are not operational at this time. In fact, a survey of local small and medium-sized enterprises and other businesses by McBrides Chartered Accountants in Sidcup revealed that without the current Government measures to support them, a quarter of businesses would not have survived the lockdown, and more than two thirds would have been forced to lay off staff. That shows how important the Government’s actions have been in protecting businesses and livelihoods.
Of course, those measures cannot continue forever, and we look forward to the Chancellor’s new proposals shortly. I hope that he will taper the furlough scheme rather than remove it completely, because it has been such a lifeline. He has been brilliant in his approach and understanding, and in the policies that he has put forward to help the economic future of the country and the current business problems. We must look to the future and start up our economy, but it is vital that we do it in a measured manner, to give businesses, employees and consumers confidence that they are in a safe environment.
In conclusion, there will be many lessons to be learned, and we can highlight areas such as care homes, testing and PPE where things could and should have been done better—
I express my condolences to those who have lost their lives to covid-19. It is easy to forget amid the daily statistical reports that behind each number is a person who was loved by their family and friends and was an irreplaceable part of the local community. I also take the opportunity to pay tribute to the efforts of key workers in my constituency, who are helping to save lives and keep essential services running. From nurses to delivery drivers, they are all heroes in my eyes, and I am continually impressed by the way that they have adapted and continue to adapt in challenging circumstances.
In times of national crisis, our choice of words matters. We need to provide clear and consistent information to the public about what we are asking them to do and why. It is regrettable that the “stay alert” slogan for England was briefed to the media before MPs and that no consultation with the devolved Governments took place beforehand. On a basic level, the “stay alert” message can be interpreted as an end to lockdown and as throwing caution to the wind, which could have disastrous consequences for public health. The threat of a second wave remains very real, and the infection rate could move upwards rapidly again. We only need to look at Germany to observe the consequences of lifting lockdown too soon. Now is not the time for caveat and nuance in tackling coronavirus. We need a clear and unambiguous approach like that taken by the First Ministers of Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland to reinforce the clear message to stay at home.
Lockdown has not been an easy decision to implement, and it does not come without cost. It has taken its toll on our constituents, and we are all anxious for their wellbeing. We know that businesses are struggling right now, and we want to support them to survive in the months ahead and rebuild over the longer term. From hairdressers to shows and everything in between, they need stability now in order to prepare for the post-coronavirus economy.
Just as with the lockdown measures, we must not rush into winding down the job retention schemes that give businesses security now. Indeed, we must look at options for extending those schemes for sectors that may struggle to reopen with social distancing. No country is going to avoid the economic impact of coronavirus, but the question comes down to whether recovery puts the wellbeing of society first or tries to carry on as if nothing has happened. We risk creating another lost generation if we do not learn from the innovations that have been born out of necessity during this crisis.
Flexibility in policy making will be crucial in adapting to the challenges of our post-coronavirus future. That is as true when approaching the question of easing lockdown measures as it is with many other aspects of Government policy. A unitary, one-size-fits-all approach has not always been the most desirable approach to managing the crisis. To take just one example, France has designed its exit strategy on the basis of levels of infection. The areas of highest infection continue with more restrictions, while areas of low infection see more relaxed measures.
To conclude, the reality is that we will be living with coronavirus for some time to come. We owe it to our constituents to be honest about the challenges that that will bring and how we can help them to navigate the new normal. Judging by the messy and unclear manner in which the UK Government changed their coronavirus advice, I am unconvinced that they will bring forward the kind of innovative thinking we need to build a sustainable, long-term recovery from coronavirus across these islands.
I welcome the opportunity to contribute to this debate. During the pandemic, many have turned to their MP for help, and so far nearly 800 cases have been brought to me by constituents. That has proven to be a challenge at times —especially while I have been struggling with covid symptoms myself—but it has been rewarding to assist so many people. I thank all who have joined me in working around the clock to provide responses. I must also thank key workers at this immensely challenging time and pay tribute to all who have volunteered to help their communities.
I welcome the generous package that the Government have introduced to support individuals and businesses. A great number of my constituents have expressed their thanks for these schemes, and I would like to add my own thanks for the hard work that has been undertaken by Ministers, officials and industry representatives to construct these programmes.
In such difficult times as these, a united approach across our country is vital, and regrettably, much of my time over the last several weeks has been spent dealing with confusion and anxiety where that has not been the case. It started with national guidance to seek coronavirus advice via the 111 service, when no such service existed in north Wales. Soon afterwards, the Welsh Government were in such a rush to announce the closure of schools in advance of the UK Government that they did so without the initial mention of provision for vulnerable children and those of key workers. Following this, the very successful GoodSAM scheme, which recruited volunteers, was not embraced by the Welsh Government, with far fewer volunteers being registered in Wales as a result. While the UK Government ploughed on with their plans for the Nightingale hospitals, precious little appeared to be under way in north Wales. Following work with the health board, three temporary Rainbow hospitals are now available, and mercifully they have not been required as yet.
Perhaps one of the greatest issues in my mailbag has been the difficulty of obtaining supermarket delivery slots, because the Welsh Government were initially unable to provide supermarkets with electronic lists of shielded patients. To compound matters, the online form for registering as a vulnerable person would not accept applications from Wales. Shielding letters were greatly delayed in comparison with the situation in England. It then emerged that the 80,000 shielding letters sent out by the Welsh Government included 13,000 that were sent to the wrong addresses. Only a week ago, a shocking further 21,000 recipients were identified. A survey by Asthma UK and the British Lung Foundation found that while 10% of its respondents from Wales had received a shielding letter, this rose to an average of 17% in the rest of the UK. I still have many constituents yet to receive a shielding letter, such as Eleri Humphreys from Rhuddlan. It is my belief that the dispatch process of shielding letters highlights critical failures in the IT systems in use in NHS Wales, which contribute towards poor performance of the system on a daily basis.
As covid testing has been ramped up in England, the Welsh Government have failed to match that, with access to testing still unavailable to many groups. It is now belatedly available to some care homes. The online booking portal available in England, Scotland and Northern Ireland does not function in Wales, and until just days ago, all tests carried out in north Wales were being sent on a several-hour trip to Cardiff for processing, when sending them to the Alderley Park “mega-lab” would have reduced lab transfer times to as little as an hour. Most recently, it was revealed that poor communication between the health board in north Wales and Public Health Wales had resulted in a failure to report all of its 84 coronavirus-related deaths over the—[Interruption.]
In South Yorkshire, where I am also the Mayor, the coronavirus has infected more than 4,500 people and, tragically, killed 576 people. My thoughts are with all those who have suffered and lost, and those who are doing so much to keep our people safe and our society functioning. I will always seek to work constructively with the Government, but we do have a duty to test their policies and to hold them to account. One of their most crucial tasks is to keep the confidence of the British people, and without clarity, we will fail. So I have four immediate concerns.
The first is that “Stay alert” is vague compared with “Stay at home”. I am glad that the Prime Minister provided more detail today, but many people will still be confused, and confusion risks contagion. Secondly, we cannot ask people to go back to work if they cannot get there safely. Social distancing means much lower capacity on our public transport systems, and a switch to cars would mean instant gridlock. That means that getting people to walk and cycle is central to easing the lockdown. To be fair, the Government seem to understand that, but we urgently need to translate that into action together.
Thirdly, we cannot force people back to an unsafe workplace. The Government must monitor and support businesses to implement rigorous protective measures, in close collaboration with employees and unions. Until that is done, those workers should remain furloughed. Fourthly, the Government must be careful not to create suspicion, justified or not, that they are motivated by any concern other than fighting the disease. Things such as testing targets that are met just on the one day needed to avoid negative headlines inevitably undermine that vital public trust; this is no time for politics as usual. So the Government must be utterly transparent about the data, the advice they are getting and the compromises they are choosing. There must be a clear line between the science and the political decisions based on it. That applies right across the UK, and the Sheffield City Region Combined Authority has led in supporting and informing local communities and businesses, in getting them the help they need and in championing their concerns at Westminster. We have kept our businesses and our light rail system running. We have lined up our local industries to supply PPE to the NHS, and we are developing a recovery plan that truly reflects local needs, but the Government must bring us in to the heart of their response, and fund and empower us accordingly.
Finally, that response must also serve a wider purpose, We clearly need massive—[Inaudible.] This is the moment for a green new deal, for fixing our crumbling infrastructure and for addressing the unacceptable inequality between our regions and nations. History will not forgive us if, as after 2008, we make such sacrifices only to see inequality grow and the planet burn ever warmer. For all our sakes, the legacy we aim for now must not be a return to the status quo; it must be a national renewal.
Two hours having elapsed since the resumption of proceedings on the motion, the Deputy Speaker put the Question (Order, this day).