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Covid-19: Strategy

Volume 676: debated on Monday 11 May 2020

With permission, Mr Speaker, I would like to make a statement about the next steps in our battle against coronavirus and how we can, with the utmost caution, gradually begin to rebuild our economy and reopen our society.

For the last two months, the British people have faced a grave threat with common sense, compassion and unflinching resolve. We have together observed the toughest restrictions on our freedoms in memory, changing our way of life on a scale unimaginable only months ago. All our efforts have been directed towards protecting our NHS and saving lives. Tragically, many families have lost loved ones before their time, and we share their grief, yet our shared effort has averted a still worse catastrophe, one that could have overwhelmed the NHS and claimed half a million lives.

Every day, dedicated doctors, nurses, social care workers, Army medics and more have risked their own lives in the service of others. They have helped to cut the reproduction rate from between 2.6 and 2.8 in April to between 0.5 and 0.9 today. The number of covid patients in hospital has fallen by over a third since Easter Sunday. Our armed forces joined the NHS to build new hospitals on timetables that were telescoped from years to weeks, almost doubling the number of critical care beds and ensuring that, since the end of March, at least a third have always been available.

Our challenge now is to find a way forward that preserves our hard-won gains while easing the burden of the lockdown. I will be candid with the House: this is a supremely difficult balance to strike. There could be no greater mistake than to jeopardise everything we have striven to achieve by proceeding too far and too fast. We will be driven not by hope or economic revival as an end in itself, but by data, science and public health.

The Government are today submitting to the House a plan that is conditional and dependent, as always, on the common sense and observance of the British people and on the continual reassessment of the data. That picture varies across the regions and home nations of the United Kingdom, requiring a flexible response. Different parts of the UK may need to stay in full lockdown longer, but any divergence should be only short term because, as Prime Minister of the UK, I am in no doubt that we must defeat this threat and face the challenge of recovery together.

Our progress will depend on meeting five essential tests: protecting the NHS; reducing both the daily death toll and the infection rate in a sustained way; ensuring that testing and personal protective equipment can meet future demand, which is a global problem, but one that we must fix; and avoiding a second peak that would overwhelm the NHS. A new UK-wide joint biosecurity centre will measure our progress with a five-stage covid alert system.

The combined effect of our measures so far has been to prevent us from reaching level 5—a situation in which the NHS would have been overwhelmed—and hold us at level 4. Thanks to the hard work and sacrifice of the British people in following social distancing rules, we are now in a position where we can move in stages to where I hope the scientific advice will tell us that we are down to level 3, but this will only happen if everyone continues to play their part, to stay alert and to follow the rules.

We must also deal with the epidemic in care homes, where a tragic number of the elderly and vulnerable have been lost, and while the situation is thankfully improving, there is a vast amount more to be done. Of course, we need a world-leading system for testing, tracking and tracing victims and their contacts, so I am delighted that Baroness Harding, the chair of NHS Improvement, has agreed to take charge of a programme that will ultimately enable us to test hundreds of thousands of people every day.

All this means that we have begun our descent from the peak of the epidemic, but our journey has reached the most perilous moment, where a wrong move could be disastrous. So at this stage, we can go no further than to announce the first careful modification of our measures. Step 1 in moving towards covid alert level 3 involves a shift in emphasis that we can begin this week. Anyone who cannot work from home should be actively encouraged to go to work. Sectors that are allowed to be open should indeed be open, but subject to social distancing. These include food production, construction, manufacturing, logistics, distribution and scientific research. To support this, we are publishing guidance for businesses on how to make these workplaces safe and covid-secure.

People who are able to work from home should do so, as we have continually said, and people who cannot work from home should talk to their employers about returning this week and about the difficulties that they may or may not have. Obviously, anyone with covid symptoms, or who is in a household where someone else has symptoms, should self-isolate. We want everyone travelling to work to be safe, so people should continue to avoid public transport wherever possible, because we must maintain social distancing, which will inevitably limit capacity. Instead, people should drive or, better still, walk or cycle.

With more activity outside our homes, we would now advise people to wear a cloth face-covering in enclosed spaces where social distancing is not always possible and you are more likely to come into contact with people you do not normally meet. The reason is that face-coverings can help us to protect each other and reduce the spread of the disease, particularly if you have coronavirus-like symptoms. But I must stress that this does not mean wearing medical face masks—2R or FFP3—which must be reserved for people who need them.

We have all lived, so far, with onerous restrictions on outdoor spaces and exercise—[Interruption.] My right hon. Friend the Member for New Forest West (Sir Desmond Swayne) interjects from a sedentary position. I know that he is a keen swimmer. Unfortunately we cannot do anything for swimming pools, but we can do something for lakes and the sea. This is where we can go significantly further, because there is a lower risk outdoors than indoors. So from Wednesday there will be no limits on the frequency of outdoor exercise people can take. You can now walk, sit and rest in parks, you can play sports and exercise, and you can do all these things with members of your own household, or with one other person from another household, provided you observe social distancing and remain two metres apart. I do hope that that is clear. I am conscious that people will come back and ask questions in more detail, and I will be happy to answer them.

We shall increase the fines for the small minority who break the rules, starting at £100, but doubling with each infringement up to £3,600. You can drive as far as you like to reach an outdoor space, subject to the same rules and the laws and guidance of the devolved Administrations. I am sorry to say, however, that we shall continue to ask those who are clinically vulnerable, including pregnant women and people over 70, or those with pre-existing chronic conditions, to take particular care to minimise contact with those outside their households. We must continue to shield people who are extremely vulnerable. They should, I am afraid, remain at home and avoid any direct contact with others. I know that easing restrictions for the many will only increase the anguish of those who must remain shielded, so the Government will look at every possible way of supporting the most vulnerable.

All of our precautions will count for little if our country is reinfected from overseas, so I give notice that we shall introduce new restrictions at the UK border, requiring 14 days of self-isolation for international arrivals, while respecting our common travel area with Ireland. Every day, we shall monitor our progress, and if we stay on the downward slope, and the R remains below 1, then, and only then, will it become safe to go further and move to the second step. This will not happen until 1 June at the earliest, but we may then be in a position to start the phased reopening of shops; to return children to early years settings, including nurseries and childminders; to return primary pupils to school in stages, giving priority to the youngest children in reception and year 1 and those in year 6 preparing for secondary school; and to enable secondary school pupils facing exams next year to get at least some time with their teachers. Our ambition, and I stress that this is conditional, is for all primary school pupils to return to the classroom for a month before the summer break.

To those ends, we are publishing guidance on how schools might reopen safely. Step 2 could also include allowing cultural and sporting events behind closed doors for broadcast, which I think would provide a much-needed boost to national morale. Nothing can substitute for human contact, so the Government have asked the Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies when and how we can safely allow people to expand their household group to include one other household on a strictly reciprocal basis. [Interruption.] Mr Speaker, I am conscious that you want me to wind up—

I understand, Mr Speaker. Would it be in order for me to request that my interrogation continues a little bit longer in order for me to make all these points?

Finally, no earlier than July, we may be able to move to step 3, if and only if that is supported by the data and the best scientific advice. We would then aim to reopen some remaining businesses including, potentially, hospitality, cinemas and hairdressers, as well as places of worship and leisure facilities. This will depend on maintaining social distancing and new ways of providing services, so we will phase and pilot any reopenings to ensure public safety. I must be clear again: if the data goes the wrong way and if the alert level begins to rise, we will have no hesitation in putting on the brakes and delaying or reintroducing measures locally, regionally or nationally.

Our struggle against this virus has placed our country under the kind of strain that will be remembered for generations, but so too will the response of the British people, from dedicated shopworkers keeping our supermarkets open and ingenious teachers finding new ways of inspiring their pupils, to the kindness of millions who have checked on their neighbours, delivered food to the elderly, or raised astonishing amounts for charity. In these and so many other ways, we are seeing the indomitable spirit of Britain.

Let me summarise by saying that people should stay alert by working from home if you possibly can, by limiting contact with others, by keeping your distance to 2 metres apart where possible and by washing your hands regularly. If you or anyone in your household has symptoms, you all need to self-isolate. If everyone stays alert and follows the rules, we can control the virus, keep the rate of infection down and keep the number of infections down. That is how we will be able to save lives and to save livelihoods as we begin to recover from coronavirus. I commend this statement to the House.

I thank the Prime Minister for the advance copy of his statement, and for the advance copy of the Command Paper that his office sent through an hour or so ago. I also thank him for taking time to speak to me and to other Opposition leaders yesterday before his speech.

I start by acknowledging just how difficult are the decisions that now fall to be taken. We do recognise how difficult they are. At this time, the country needs clarity and reassurance, and both are in pretty short supply. The heart of the problem, it seems, is that the Prime Minister made a statement last night before the plan was written, or at least before it was finalised, and that has caused considerable confusion.

Yesterday afternoon, a No. 10 press release said:

“Anyone who can’t work from home, for instance those in construction and manufacturing, should be actively encouraged to go to work”.

It was understood from that that today was the start date, and that that was for construction and manufacturing. A few hours later, the Prime Minister made his statement, and there was no express reference to timeframe. Today, page 25 of the Command Paper states that these policy changes apply from Wednesday, and the list has been expanded from construction and manufacturing to other sectors. Now we have a start date of Wednesday and a wider range of sectors to go back to work on Wednesday; so far, so good.

One of the key issues is whether there will be guidelines in place to ensure the safety of the workforce. Those guidelines were being consulted on last Sunday, but they were vague and had big gaps. Under protective equipment, it just said, “To be inserted” or “To be added”. The document that I have now seen says that

“workplaces should follow the new ‘COVID-19 Secure’ guidelines”,

which I assume are the same guidelines, as “soon as practicable”, but on page 22 the document states that they will be released later this week.

So, we know that some people are going back to work on Wednesday, but the guidelines have not been published and they will apparently be released later this week. I ask the Prime Minister: will the safety guidelines be ready for Wednesday? Realistically, that means tomorrow, if workplaces are to be ready for Wednesday morning. If not, is he seriously asking people to go back to work without the guidelines? Have the guidelines been agreed with businesses and trade unions, as was being attempted a week ago on Sunday, and do they apply only in England?

I turn to getting to work, which has been another issue of some concern. The Prime Minister said last night that people should not rely on public transport. The Command Paper, at page 26, says that

“the Government is working with public transport providers to bring services back towards pre-COVID-19 levels as quickly as possible”—

bringing services back to their old levels—and it says:

“Social distancing guidance on public transport must be followed rigorously”.

That means ramping up the service, with new guidelines for social distancing, but we learn from page 26 that unfortunately those guidelines are not ready; they are coming later in the week. Are they coming tomorrow, to be ready for Wednesday, or are they coming later in the week? If it is the latter, people will be using public transport and operators will be required to operate to guidelines that do not yet exist. Will that be for England only, and have those guidelines been agreed with the transport providers and the relevant trade unions?

I have one other point about work. There is a real concern, which the Prime Minister might be able to clarify, for those who have childcare responsibilities. With schools not going back until June—I understand the conditionality behind that—should those people go back to work on Wednesday, or not? They are in a quandary as to what to do.

I turn to international travel. Last night, the Prime Minister said in his speech that he proposed to impose quarantine on people coming into the country by air. Given that 100,000 people have arrived in the UK since the start of lockdown, why is that only being introduced now? Is it only for those arriving by air? The Command Paper now says that it is for “all international arrivals”. Does that mean all ports, and, again, is that for England or the UK? The Command Paper goes on to say that these “international travel measures”—the quarantine—will not come into force on Wednesday, unlike the other policy changes,

“but will be introduced as soon as possible”.

When is that going to be?

The Prime Minister said that we would be

“driven by the science, the data and public health.”

What is the scientific evidence for the public health basis behind the measures that have been announced and the “Stay Alert” message?

Finally, the Prime Minister will know that there is not consensus on messaging or policy between the UK Government and those in Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland. I know that is not something he wanted to see, but we are now in that position. That raises serious concerns and a real danger of divergence. Again, this is clear from the document that he provided to me an hour or so ago. Page 27 says that travel to outdoor spaces is now permitted “irrespective of distance”, but that we must

“respect the”—


“rules in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland”.

Does that mean one could travel to the border but not, presumably, beyond it, where there are differences? That makes enforcement extremely difficult and clarity really difficult, so what can we do—what can he do—to make sure that we exit lockdown as one United Kingdom, just as we entered it?

There are lots of questions, but so far precious few answers. The country does need clarity on this and people need reassurance above all else. They need it in the next 48 hours, so can the Prime Minister now please provide that clarity?

I am grateful for all the questions the right hon. and learned Gentleman has raised and for the spirit in which he has raised them. Let us be absolutely clear: what we are trying to do now—he was good enough to refer to it—is move from a situation in which the people of this country have had the overwhelming impression that there is a very clear and simple piece of advice that we all have to obey, which is, broadly speaking, “Stay at home”. The people of this country have, by and large, followed that advice, perhaps more emphatically, more thoroughly than many other populations around the world. Thanks to their efforts, we have made huge progress in fighting the disease—we have got the R down. We need now to begin to acknowledge the progress that has been made and to take the small, limited steps that we can with the R down where it is. That is what the Government are trying to do. Clearly, when coming out of a message that is so gloriously simple as “Stay at home”, there will inevitably be complexities that he has rightly alluded to.

Let me try to deal with some of the issues that the right hon. and learned Gentleman raised. What we are saying now is, “You should stay at home if you can, but go to work if you must—if your job does not allow you.” Plainly, he raised, properly, the issue of people who do not have the right childcare, and we will count on employers to be reasonable. If people cannot go to work because they cannot get the childcare that they need, plainly they are impeded from going to work, and they must be defended and protected on that basis. If their kids cannot yet go to school because the schools are not back, plainly they cannot go to work. I think that people with common sense—businesses and employers with common sense—do understand that, and it is incumbent on all of us to get that message across. One thing that was perhaps missing from his analysis was the simple fact that over the last couple of months plenty of businesses, from construction to manufacturing, and office businesses of all kinds, have been proceeding and they have been working. They have been doing so in a way that respects social distancing and is as covid-compliant as possible.

To answer the right hon. and learned Gentleman’s specific questions about the timescale for the publications of our guidelines, we will be publishing the guidelines on places of employment tonight; transport will be out tomorrow.

We are being very, very consistent in what we have said throughout this period. At the very beginning, we said, “You should stay at home if you can, go to work if you must.” What has changed now is the emphasis and the encouragement we are giving people to follow the initial guidance of 23 March. The right hon. and learned Gentleman asks about what science it is going to be based on and how we have reached the conclusions that we have. As I said last night, and as I told the House, the R—the reproduction rate of the disease—is now between 0.5 and 0.9. It varies across the country, as he rightly says. That is why different approaches by the devolved Administrations are to be welcomed, where those are appropriate to their specific needs. Overall, and I think all leaders of the devolved Administrations would confirm this, there is a very strong desire to move forward as four nations together.

Perhaps I can sum up. We all share the strong view that people should stay at home if they can, and that remains the position. The steps we are taking today are modest, and entirely governed by the science. We hope—and this is entirely conditional—that we may be in a position to take further steps in the next few weeks. Given the complexity of what is being said, the right hon. gentleman raised a perfectly reasonable point about people moving across the border into Wales for recreational purposes, and there will be myriad other hypothetical situations that people can raise. But let us be clear: everybody understands what we are trying to do together. We are working together as a country to obey the social distancing rules, which everybody understands. The British people understand that this is the moment for the whole country to come together, obey those rules, and apply common sense in their application of them.

I have huge admiration for the way that the police have enforced the rules so far. I know that the British public will continue to help the police, and everybody, to enforce the rules, get the reproduction rate down, and get this disease even further under control, by continuing to apply good, solid, British common sense. That worked throughout phase 1, and I have no doubt that it will work in the second phase of the fight against the disease.

First, may I thank the Prime Minister for the tremendous leadership of our nation during these times, and for his comprehensive statement today? Will he please outline his post-Brexit and post-covid economic plan to set our UK economy back on the right track in the coming decade? Does he agree that our priority must be to make plans now to boost domestic output in manufacturing and agriculture, so that we can reduce our reliance on imports, and support British business growth and job creation in constituencies such as Romford? We need a bold, free-enterprise agenda that is led, I believe, by a Prime Minister who I know will show the true bulldog spirit of this country, and take our nation back to prosperity and greater things in the future.

I thank my hon. Friend very much, and I assure him that the spirit of Romford will certainly be actuating our approach. There is a huge difference between the way this Government have handled this crisis and what happened in 2008—a huge difference. The most important thing, of course, is that we decided to look after the livelihoods and job prospects of families across the country. We looked after people who are on low pay and modest incomes, in retail and hospitality, with our coronavirus job protection and furloughing scheme. We will ensure that this economy comes back strongly, and we will be uniting and levelling up across the entirety of the country.

It is obvious that the past 24 hours have spread confusion, yet today the public desperately need to be given clarity. Lives are at risk, so political judgments and verdicts on this weekend’s chaos will have to wait for another day. I respect the right of the Prime Minister to make judgments on the basis of his scientific advice. I hope he is right in the determinations he is making, and that, crucially, if evidence suggests an increase in the R-rate, he will be prepared to act accordingly.

We need to be guided by one clear understanding, which is that mixed messaging risks lives. In order urgently to re-establish clarity, I wish to ask the Prime Minister five specific questions, and I genuinely urge him to provide five clear answers.

For clarity, will the Prime Minister confirm that he accepts and respects that in the devolved nations, the advice clearly remains, “Stay at home, protect the NHS and save lives”, and that it is the legal right of all the First Ministers to set their approach for Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland?

In terms of the new slogan, last night the Prime Minister said:

“I have consulted across the political spectrum, across all four nations of the UK.”

Can the Prime Minister therefore explain why his Government did not share his new slogan with the devolved Administrations, leaving them to learn of the change in the Sunday newspapers? Further to that, will he commit not to deploy this new slogan in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland unless the devolved Governments decide otherwise?

On quarantining following travel, when will these quarantine measures come into force, and can the Prime Minister confirm whether his own Transport Secretary has told airline industry leaders that if there are too many obstacles in implementing it, it may not even happen?

Finally, for ultimate clarity, will the Prime Minister reaffirm for the public and businesses in Scotland that the advice that they should follow will come directly from the Scottish Government, and is not the advice that he gave in last night’s broadcast?

Quickly, the answers are: one—yes; two—I think “stay alert” is a valid piece of advice, and indeed, so is “stay at home if you can”. My answer to No. 4 is no, and I say to the right hon. Gentleman quite simply that I do think that the UK has been able, thanks to the co-operation I have had not just with hon. Members opposite, but across all four nations, to make a huge amount of progress together. I think most people actually understand where we are in fighting this disease, and most people looking at the practical reality of the advice that we are giving today can see that overall, there is far, far more that unites the UK than divides it, though I know that there is always the political temptation to accentuate the divisions. That is not going to be the approach of this Government, and I do not believe it should be the approach that commends itself to parties across this House.

Can I urge Members to speed up their questions, and certainly the Prime Minister to speed up the replies?

I welcome the Prime Minister’s statement and his approach to starting to reopen the economy while keeping the virus under control. Testing and tracing is key to the way forward. Does my right hon. Friend agree that if we could reduce the time taken to get test results back from the current five days to as little as 24 hours, it would make that approach even more effective?

Absolutely. My hon. Friend is completely right: speed of turnaround is crucial in improving our testing. We have done 100,000 tests again yesterday, I am pleased to say, but clearly pace of turnaround is absolutely critical for getting up to where we need to be—200,000, as he knows, by the end of the month, and then a much more ambitious programme thereafter.

Throughout this crisis, many of us have put party politics aside to support the national effort to defeat coronavirus and we want to keep doing that, not least because the British people have sacrificed so much already, but in return, the Government must be clear with the British people and reassure us that Ministers are following the science and the advice of independent experts. So will the Prime Minister confirm new reports that neither the chief medical officer nor the chief scientific adviser signed off yesterday’s shift in the public health message from “Stay at home” to “Stay alert”?

Many businesses restarting operations are unlikely to have order books full enough to sustain a full workforce for months after the end of formal restrictions. Will the Prime Minister look at how job support can be tapered rather than being withdrawn overnight, and how more flexibility can be added, such as being able to re-furlough for a week at a time to reflect a firm’s workforce needs?

I think that the furloughing scheme has been one of the most remarkable features of the Government’s response. It is unlike anything seen internationally, with 6.5 million people currently being supported. It is absolutely right that we should do it. I do not want to anticipate what my right hon. Friend the Chancellor is going to say; the House will hear more about that tomorrow.

I understand the sense of optimism that the Prime Minister wishes to convey, and I understand that people need hope, but we must not forget that more than 31,000 people are dead, so for the hundreds and thousands of grieving families this does not feel like victory in a fight.

There is now a three nations approach: Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland all agree on policy and message. I mean this with no malice, but for the sake of clarity, can the Prime Minister confirm that on almost everything he has announced today he is acting as the Prime Minister of England?

No, I reject that completely, and I think that most people will know that what we are saying is very good advice for the entire population of the United Kingdom, though I perfectly respect the inflections and variations that may be necessary locally, regionally and nationally to reflect differences in those areas. There is a higher R rating in some parts of the country, and as we come out of the disease, we will be applying different measures in different places in order to get that R down locally, regionally and nationally.

Will the Prime Minister join me in thanking everyone who has saved lives by following Government guidance over the past seven weeks? However, constituents in Rutland and Melton have written to me about the few persistent offenders who continue to flout the rules. Will my right hon. Friend confirm how great the increase in the fines will be, and that this will act as a greater deterrent and serve to make clear that the danger from the virus has not yet passed?

I can confirm that the starting point of the fines will be £100, which will be lowered to £50 if paid within 14 days, but it will go up and up and up, as I said earlier, to £3,600. We do not want to impose these fines—nobody wants to impose these fines. We do not want to add to the burdens on our wonderful police force. That is why I hope—and I know—that the British people will exercise their common sense.

I thank the Prime Minister for his statement. Can he assure the House that the Government will carefully manage the economy off the job retention scheme so that there is no cliff edge for the sectors he has mentioned? In hospitality and tourism, 16,000 people in Northern Ireland potentially face redundancy in a month’s time. That has to be carefully managed. Will he also protect Northern Ireland airports from unfair competition in the Republic of Ireland?

We have made substantial provision for the protection of airports and other large businesses, with loans that the Government have made available. A question was asked earlier about the furloughing scheme. I can certainly assure the hon. Gentleman that the House will hear more about that from the Chancellor, and I have no desire to steal his thunder. I think the hon. Gentleman will accept that one of the most salient and important features of this country’s response to this crisis so far is that we have looked after some of the lowest-paid people in our society—the hardest-working people—and we will continue to do so.

A recent Centre for Cities report stated that the Crawley economy could be the worst affected anywhere in the United Kingdom, because of the significance of the aviation industry. Can the Prime Minister say a little more about the support that the Government will offer to what is a crucial sector not just to my local constituency but to the whole UK, as a global, island trading nation?

I thank my hon. Friend, who has raised that with me personally on several occasions. Aviation is crucial for our country and our economy. The packages already available include Bank of England schemes for firms to raise capital, business interruption loan guarantee schemes and time-to-pay flexibilities with tax bills. We will do everything we can to make sure that we keep Britain flying and get Britain flying again in the way that it needs to, and get airports flourishing in the way that they need to. But first, as I am sure he will understand, we must devote our energies as a nation to beating this virus.

The north-east has the highest coronavirus infection rate in the country and some of the highest levels of deprivation, with areas where coronavirus mortality is twice that in the least deprived areas. Now the Prime Minister is telling those who cannot work from home—mainly those in lower-paid, manual and people-facing jobs—to get back to work without transport, childcare, PPE or proper protections for workers in place, putting more risk on those already at risk. Will he say clearly that, first and foremost, everyone has a duty and a right to stay safe—yes or no?

Absolutely, and I remind the hon. Lady of what I said to the Leader of the Opposition earlier—do not forget that many businesses have kept going throughout this crisis across many sectors. We are going to insist that businesses across this country look after their workers and are covid-secure and covid-compliant. The Health and Safety Executive will be enforcing that, and we will have spot inspections to make sure that businesses are keeping their employees safe. It will, of course, be open to employees who do not feel safe to raise that with not just their employers but the HSE as well.

We all know that it will take a while yet, but eventually the UK will be free of covid-19. When that happens, what is my right hon. Friend’s vision? Does he want to see a return to the old normal of pollution and crowded commuter trains, or does he see a better, cleaner future?

Out of this tragedy and this disaster, we hope that some changes and some opportunities will come. I certainly see a huge opportunity for cleaner, greener transport. The UK will continue its mission to be a net-zero nation by 2050—we know that we can do it. As the House will know, we have committed £2 billion to investing in cleaner transport, including walking and cycling.

Does the Prime Minister recognise that the covid crisis has exposed grotesque levels of inequality in our society? His statement yesterday has given carte blanche to many employers to try to force people to come back to work, without proper consideration of their health and safety and the dangers they will suffer in travelling to work. Does he recognise that, while the death rate is so high and the reinfection rate continues, his statement will probably make the situation worse, not better? Will he reconsider carefully and not lift the restrictions and the lockdown until it is absolutely clear that we have the corona crisis under control? It is affecting the poorest and most vulnerable people in our society the worst, and I believe his statement will make the inequalities in this country even worse at the centre of this crisis.

I reject that characterisation of what we are doing. We are effectively restating the position of 23 March, but with a change of emphasis, to make it clear that those who cannot work from home, in sectors such as construction and manufacturing, should go to work, provided that that work is going to be covid-compliant and covid-secure—the right hon. Gentleman is right to raise the vital issue of safety—and the transport to get those workers there is covid-secure and covid-compliant. We are publishing papers today and tomorrow about how we propose to do that. It is a small step forward, but I believe it is the right step forward. The country has made huge exertions to bring the R down and to get this virus under control. It is right now that we should make some small steps forward.

May I first thank the Prime Minister for his clear statement and for the support and guidance he has given us all across Rother Valley? It is clear that this Government are taking a balanced and pragmatic approach that ultimately will save lives. Can the Prime Minister confirm, however, that this plan is both dynamic and flexible enough to ensure that we can reopen different businesses at different times and in different locations, so that we can kick-start our economy as soon as possible, and that only with a strong economy can we have a strong NHS?

My hon. Friend is entirely right. I congratulate him, by the way, on the birth of his daughter, Persephone—an appropriate name, perhaps, for a country beginning to take steps out from the darkness. As we take these steps, we will of course be flexible. As I said just now to the right hon. Member for Islington North (Jeremy Corbyn), we will make sure that, where there are local flare-ups, where we see the disease taking off again, we will not hesitate to put on the brakes. My hon. Friend is absolutely right, however, that to have a strong NHS, as we must, we do and we will, we need a strong economy as well.

Reports in the press say that the Prime Minister’s Government are preparing to cut the rate of support under the furlough scheme by a quarter. Can he assure us that this is not the case and that his advice for people to return to work is not an excuse for reduced spending on public health?

I have. I have considerable respect for the press, but I would advise the hon. Member not to believe everything he reads about that matter until he has heard from the Chancellor, who, as I say, will be speaking to the House tomorrow about it.

I welcome the Prime Minister’s statement and recognise the maximum caution he is taking in gradually lifting these restrictions. I have heard today from many constituents who are parents of school-age children. They are keen to return to work this week safely but will need help with looking after their families while schools remain closed. Can the Prime Minister outline what guidance the Government are giving to parents to help them with childcare?

My hon. Friend raises a very important point that I addressed earlier a couple of times. I want to stress again for the benefit of the House and country: if we can, we want to bring primary schools back at the beginning of next month—reception, year 1 and year 6—and then to have all primary school children getting at least a month of education before the holidays in July. I appreciate that in that process not everybody will be able to get their kids into school as fast as they would like in order to get back to work. There will be childcare needs. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Education will be setting out in further detail how we propose to help those with particular childcare needs, but I want to stress that if people cannot get the childcare they need to get to work, that is plainly an impediment to their ability to work, and their employer should recognise that.

Hundreds are dying every day and we still do not have sufficient testing and tracing to measure and control the spread of infection, yet the Government are starting to relax lockdown in a haphazard and confusing manner. The Prime Minister continues to claim his strategy is a success, despite us having the highest death toll in Europe. Is it the Government’s position that as long as the NHS can cope it is less important how many catch the virus and sadly die?

I must reject what the hon. Member said about relaxing the lockdown. We are not ending the lockdown. We have to be very clear with people that the measures remain in place. We are saying that they should look at the precise guidance that was given, which is that, if they must go to work—if their job means they must go to work—they should be actively encouraged to go to work, and we are setting out steps to allow them to do so. The other important change we are making this week relates to people’s ability to exercise. In the next two steps, on 1 June and the beginning of July, we will be governed entirely by the science, and we will continue to work with Opposition parties and across all four nations as we go forward.

I fully support the cautious approach outlined by my right hon. Friend. He will be aware that many small businesses, such as guest houses, bars and restaurants, in Cleethorpes and other seaside resorts face considerable problems and will need continuing support. What assurance can he give that that will be forthcoming?

As somebody who, on at least a couple of occasions, has enjoyed the wonderful hospitality sector in my hon. Friend’s constituency, I know how important and how vibrant it is. I remind him of what has been achieved so far to support the hospitality sector, with the coronavirus job retention scheme and the furloughing scheme, which has been very important. The bounce-back loans have so far paid out £5 billion already. I do not want to anticipate what my right hon. Friend the Chancellor will say about the furloughing scheme, but the House should expect, as I have said several times, more very shortly.

In Greater Manchester, while the curve is flattening, it is not clearly on a downward path, with an R rate that could be as high as 0.9. In view of that, what message would my right hon. Friend give to my constituents in terms of their alertness on the five-tier scale and does he agree that, for city regions such as Greater Manchester, a significant increase in testing and contact tracing is vital in controlling this virus as we begin to ease the restrictions?

My hon. Friend is entirely right. That is why we are recruiting 18,000 trackers/tracers by the 18th of this month. They will conduct a huge operation to trace anybody who has been in contact with somebody who tests positive for the virus, which is, of course, why it is so vital, as she rightly says, to have a massive testing operation. That is being hugely scaled up, as I have told the House. Yesterday, we achieved 100,000 tests. We are going to go up to 200,000 by the end of the month. Testing, tracking and tracing will be absolutely integral to our ability finally to defeat this virus.

If there is to be a return to employment, it is absolutely dependent on safe public transport. As I understand the roadmap, face coverings are to be advisory and the wearing of them will not be enforced. Can I ask the Prime Minister for a one-word answer? Should—indeed, must—everybody travelling on London buses and tubes wear a face covering—yes or no?

I think the hon. Lady said “should, or indeed must”. We are certainly not compelling people to wear face coverings. But plainly they can be of benefit to others primarily because they stop the aerosol transmission of droplets, which may contain infection. We can help each other, as I said in my introductory remarks, if we wear cloth face coverings in confined spaces such as on public transport, where we will come across people with whom we are not normally in contact, or in shops. We think that it is advisable to wear such cloth face coverings.

Under step 2 on page 30, the guidance says that opening non-essential retail will not happen before 1 June, so what will my right hon. Friend do to make sure that banks expedite the applications for both the bounce-back loan and the coronavirus business interruption loan scheme, which provide vital cash to ensure that both small and medium-sized businesses can survive through?

I thank my hon. Friend for that question and perhaps I anticipated it by pointing out that the bounce-back scheme for loans of £50,000 has already paid out £5 billion. I am given to understand that some businesses that applied for the bounce-back loan got the cash in their accounts on the same day.

I hope the Prime Minister will join me in thanking the civil service, particularly employees in HMRC and the DWP who are processing payments. They deserve a reward, so will the Prime Minister follow the lead of the Scottish Government and have an interim above-inflation pay settlement and place a moratorium on job cuts and office closures?

I am not going to make any commitments now from the Dispatch Box on future pay settlements, but what I can say is that I am lost in admiration for the efforts of our civil servants, whether in the DWP, HMRC or the Treasury. If we think about the furloughing scheme, everybody said it was impossible and far too complicated, and that we would never get that cash into people’s pockets, but they did it within four weeks. That is a fantastic tribute to the work of our civil service, and I thank them from the bottom of my heart.

I thank the Prime Minister for his update on progress in testing and tracing this invisible killer, but can he confirm for the people of West Oxfordshire that the new systems we are putting in place will, in the fullness of time, be able to detect local flare-ups?

Yes indeed. The intention is that the covid alert system, in time, will be sufficiently sensitive and flexible to detect local flare-ups, so that, for instance, if the covid is detected in the water supply of a certain town or in a school in an area, steps can be taken on the spot to deal with that flare-up and measures taken to keep the R down locally as well as nationally.

The Prime Minister claims to have devised a new stage of his plan having consulted across all four nations of the UK, yet the First Minister of Scotland claims that the first she saw of it was in the newspapers and the First Minister of Wales says that the UK Government only engage in fits and starts, while the First Minister of Northern Ireland is sticking to the original stay home message. Devolution does exist and we have it across the UK, so can the Prime Minister please explain what on earth is going on?

I think any impartial view of what the UK is doing will see that there is much more that unites our approach than divides it, although I note that of course it might seem attractive sometimes to accentuate the divisions. We fully respect and understand the necessity, where there are different rates of infection, sometimes to take a different approach, but I can also say to the hon. Lady that there has been intensive and very good communication between the Government and all the devolved Administrations throughout this period, and that will continue.

No one should be expected to take up or return to a job that is not safe, so can the Prime Minister confirm that there is no intention of changing the relaxation of rules on benefits conditionality? Doing so could pressure people to attend unsafe and risky workplaces.

Of course, nobody should be penalised for doing the right thing and helping the whole country to defeat this virus.

Close to 90% of vulnerable children are not in education. Will my right hon. Friend support a catch-up premium, alongside a national education volunteer force of graduates, charities and retired teachers, to provide tuition and pastoral care to these left-behind pupils?

I thank my right hon. Friend for what he does to campaign for vulnerable children and for education generally. We are working with the Education Endowment Foundation and other partners to see what we can do to support the most disadvantaged and vulnerable children. He will know, of course, that under the existing measures, vulnerable children can now go to school. I thank all the teachers who are currently teaching them, as they are also teaching at least some of the children of key workers.

Perivale, Greenford and Northolt tube stations in my constituency have twice the London average of construction workers living nearby. Although their employers may have been asked to consider staggering start and finish times to reduce pressure on public transport, the Business Minister confirmed to me that this is not mandated by Government guidance. To keep my constituents and others safe, will the Prime Minister now instruct site managers to stagger their operating times and have the Government take responsibility for making sure this happens?

We will of course be issuing our guidance on covid-secure workplaces, as I have said several times already. We are also working with Transport for London, a body that the hon. Gentleman and I know well, to ensure that people on TfL are kept safe and that we have social distancing on the tube. Of course, people will instinctively say, “That’s going to be very, very difficult.” Yes, it is going to be very difficult. It will mean very substantial reductions in capacity, but we must do it to make it work—to make sure that the hon. Gentleman’s constituents can get safely to work.

I am grateful that the Prime Minister is working closely with the Welsh Government to design a four-nations approach to ending the coronavirus lockdown. This is so important for my constituents in Brecon and Radnorshire, who share a border with England. Does he agree that, while the R number continues to vary across the country, restrictions in Wales remain the same, and the changes he announced last night are not a green light for tourism or for people to travel to their second homes in Wales?

Absolutely, and I am grateful. This is why it is so important that we should try to get as much clarity as possible. I hope that the House does understand that when you are making changes of this complexity, the messaging is crucial, but it is also difficult, and my hon. Friend is completely right. We do not want to see people—let me repeat: we do not want to see people —travelling to another home for a holiday or to a second home. That is not what this is about; this is about allowing people the pleasure and the exercise of going to places—parks, national parks, places of outstanding beauty—and taking advantage of the open air.

Just a few days ago, my father, Jim, died of coronavirus in hospital. He did not catch the virus in the community; he caught it in the hospital when he went in for another illness. As the Prime Minister quite rightly tries to reduce the spreading of the virus in communities and care homes, will he also do whatever he can to try to stop the spreading of the virus in hospitals?

I am so sorry to hear about my hon. Friend’s father, and I am sure the whole House joins with me in extending to him our sincerest condolences. The point that he makes about care homes is also, I am afraid, a very important one. It will be no consolation to those who have lost friends and relatives in care homes during the current epidemic, but the numbers are very substantially coming down now. The numbers of deaths in care homes are very substantially coming down. But where he is totally right is that we cannot make progress as a nation on the steps that we have outlined—the further steps that we have outlined: step 2, step 3—unless we crack these twin epidemics both in care homes and in the NHS. I have been very clear on that both last night and today in the House, and I hope that the House understands that.

The Prime Minister has set out five tests that underpin the alert system, but there is one big problem. While the Government have told us how many pieces of PPE they have procured, how many tests they have undertaken and how many temporary hospital beds they have created, to date they have not once told Members or the public how those numbers compare with what we actually need. Will the Prime Minister report to the House openly and regularly on both sets of data—what we have and what we need—and also set out how those metrics will inform his decision—

Thank you, Mr Speaker, for getting me to my feet faster.

The hon. Lady raises a very important point. I will try to give the House more details of what we are doing, but I can tell her that so far, in spite of all the difficulties that I know people have experienced with PPE, it is the case that we have had no national stock-outs or absolute shortages of any item of PPE. We are continuing to turn the situation round and to get billions of items to where they need to go.

The phased approach of the Government to protect public safety is obviously correct, but we are now faced with perhaps the biggest recession in hundreds of years and an unparalleled increase in the public sector. Will the Prime Minister ensure that, whereas in the past these increases were often accompanied by waste, fraud and incompetence at the expense of the taxpayer, he puts the most effective public accounts controls in place to protect the taxpayer? To pay for all this, will he ensure that we get Britain back to work and, where it is possible to have social distancing, that people are encouraged to work?

Yes, and of course we will have effective accounting of the investments that we are making to protect the public—the furloughing scheme and all the many other expenditures we are obliged to make—but I think my right hon. Friend will also understand that the biggest single economic risk we face at the moment is the risk that the virus should surge back again and trigger a second spike. That is why we all need to work together, as I am sure everybody understands, to continue to depress the R, keep the virus under control and stay alert.

The Secretary of State for Housing, Communities and Local Government originally said that the Government would fund councils for whatever they needed to get communities through the covid crisis, but he now says they will fund only the things the Government have specifically asked councils to do. Liverpool City Council and Knowsley Borough Council have both received less than half of what they have spent so far, despite having one of the worst outbreaks in the country and already having lost two thirds of their Government funding in the last 10 years. Will the Prime Minister undertake to reimburse them the full costs of covid, as promised at the start of this outbreak?

As the hon. Lady knows, we have invested £3.2 billion extra in supporting local councils. I will take away what she says about Liverpool City Council and Knowsley Council and take it up with my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Housing, Communities and Local Government.

The Secretary of State for Housing, Communities and Local Government said yesterday:

“Stay alert will mean stay alert by staying home as much as possible”.

However, this morning, the Prime Minister’s deputy, the Foreign Secretary, said that people can travel as far as they want for exercise and can meet other people in public places if they use some common sense. Can the Prime Minister tell me what “stay alert” actually means? Where is the common sense in no longer keeping our families and communities safe by staying at home, protecting the NHS and saving lives?

I think it will be perfectly obvious to the House what we are trying to do and what we are saying by “stay alert”. We are emphasising the importance of those who cannot work from home going to work, provided that their workplaces are covid secure and that they observe the rules of social distancing on public transport or however they go to work. That is what staying alert means. It is going to be absolutely vital. Staying alert is going to be absolutely vital to our continued success in beating this virus. I think the British public understand exactly what we are trying to do, and I know that they can rise again to this challenge.

Loughborough University is responsible for producing some of our very best athletes and engineers. Unfortunately, their training and studies have been disrupted. The university is campus based, with all facilities on site. It would like to bring back some student athletes to train, and its engineers to attend concentrated lab work sessions, all while maintaining social distancing on campus and isolation from the wider community. Will the Prime Minister work with universities to help them provide students with access to vital facilities to enable them to safely continue their studies and training?

The short answer is yes. I know Loughborough University well; it is an outstanding university, and I thank my hon. Friend for championing it. We will work with Loughborough and across the sector to see what we can do, in the way that she describes, while maintaining social distancing—and we can do it.

People are worried about going back to work, about their safety and about infecting their loved ones. They do not understand why guidelines were not published before they were told to go back to work, and the Prime Minister’s ambiguity and lack of clarity have just made matters worse. Will he take on board the concerns voiced by unions, workers and employers? Will he tell us how he will enforce those guidelines to keep people safe? Will he say how workers will be able to voice their concerns about their safety at work?

This country has made huge progress in the last two months, and thanks to our collective efforts we have got the R down below one. Now is the time to make small, calibrated changes, respectful always of the science and the risk of a second spike. That is why we are emphasising that if you must go to work and cannot work from home, you should do so, provided—the hon. Gentleman is right to draw attention to this—that your workplace is covid secure, and that you observe the rules on social distancing. We are publishing further guidance on that. It is common sense, and I think the British people understand what we are trying to do. I think they also understand that this is the right time to begin those modest steps.

The Prime Minister is right to highlight above all else the need to avoid a second spike. A concern that I am receiving, from both individual constituents and businesses, is that the reopening of primary schools could present a significant threat, both in the classroom and at the school gate. Will the Prime Minister assure the House that he and his Government will do all they can to address those worries before allowing primary schools to reopen?

Yes, and I should stress that we have made the announcement only about primary schools. We have guidance from our scientists and our medical officers, and we think we could get to that stage on 1 June, but I stress that it is all conditional; it is all provisional. We must continue to drive down the R. We must continue our fight against the coronavirus. We will be publishing guidance about safety in schools, and about how parents, teachers and children can use and go to schools with confidence. There will be change—the environment will be different in our school settings—but that does not mean that they should be closed down forever. If we can make progress, we will be gradually restarting in June.

Sitting suspended.

On resuming, the House entered into hybrid substantive proceedings (Order, 22 April).

[NB: [V] denotes a Member contributing virtually.]