House of Commons
Monday 11 May 2020
The House met at half-past Two o’clock
[Mr Speaker in the Chair]
The House entered into hybrid scrutiny proceedings (Order, 21 April).
[NB: [V] denotes a Member participating virtually.]
Oral Answers to Questions
Work and Pensions
The Secretary of State was asked—
Disabled People: Protection
To provide greater financial security at this time, we have automatically extended by six months PIP—personal independent payment—awards for existing claimants that are due to be reviewed or reassessed and have suspended all face-to-face assessments of disability benefits for three months.
Disabled people are facing increased costs for food, medicine and personal protective equipment for carers, yet there has been no uplift in legacy benefits to match the £20 increase in universal credit and working tax credits. What steps is the Department taking to rectify this? I am aware that issues with the system have made this difficult to deliver at speed, but what is the Department doing to ensure that some of the most vulnerable members of our society are not left out of pocket during this crisis?
On behalf of the ministerial team, I would like to welcome the new shadow ministerial team. I look forward to working constructively with them.
In addition to the more than £1,000 increase in the universal credit standard rate, we have seen the annual benefit uprating of 1.7% across all our benefits. With disability benefits in particular, we have continued to make sure the gateway remains open, that claimants can have their assessments reviewed and that those with a terminal illness are being fast-tracked. We are doing all we can to get support to the most vulnerable people as quickly as possible.
Can the Minister give further guidance specifically on PIPs? I have been contacted by several constituents who are either looking to access them for the first time or due a reassessment. With face-to-face assessments understandably suspended due to the pandemic, will the Minister confirm what action the Department is taking to ensure that my constituents can access this vital support as quickly as possible?
My hon. Friend is diligent in championing the issues that his constituents face. We have rightly continued to accept new claims; we are allowing reviews where claimants accept them, particularly where their condition may have deteriorated and they could be eligible for greater financial support; and we are prioritising terminally ill claimants. I know that that work has been very warmly welcomed by stakeholders.
The Government recognise and appreciate the vital role played by unpaid carers now more than ever. We have already made changes to the carer’s allowance rules to reflect changes to patterns of care during the current emergency. Since 2010, the rate of carer’s allowance has increased from £53.90 to £67.25 a week, meaning nearly an additional £700 a year for carers.
My constituent, Natalie Hay, is a full-time unpaid carer for her son, who has Lyme disease and ME. She is entitled to that paltry £67 per week as long as she does not earn any more than £128 per week, but with the pandemic, she is having to shield her son and home-school two children and has lost all respite care and additional support, so a few hours’ paid work is out of the question. She feels completely forgotten about by the Government. Does the Minister think it is possible to live on the equivalent of £1.91 per hour, and will he commit—
Rightly, we target support at those most in need—those with low incomes—and they could, through universal credit, receive an additional £1,950 per year through the universal credit carer’s element, plus the extra £1,040 universal credit standard rate increase, which is the equivalent of the jobseeker’s allowance rate. I would encourage the claimant to look at all available support that they are entitled to.
The access-to-work support has prioritised payments, including those to key workers, and where possible is making payments the same day. Key worker and new employee applications are being cleared urgently. Additionally, I am pleased to announce access-to-work recipients can now email claim forms as a reasonable adjustment.
On 4 May, the Secretary of State assured the House that the Government would provide an automatic extension of PIP awards that are due to expire during the coronavirus virus pandemic. Can the Minister confirm that this extension applies to all claimants, including those who received an award following an appeal?
Obviously, PIP is different from access to work. There was an issue for those on fixed-term, short awards, but we have now addressed that, and those claimants will continue to get an automatic six months’ extension if it is due in the next three months.
Since mid-March, we have processed around 2 million universal credit claims. Despite that surge, the system is standing up to the challenge and demonstrating that resilience is part of its design, with over 90% of new eligible claimants expected to be paid in full and on time. There is no way that the legacy benefit system would have been able to cope with such pressure.
I am grateful to all the jobcentres, and particularly the one in Gloucester, which has done a remarkable job of registering so many of my constituents. Some people discover when they register that they lose child tax credit before any new benefits are payable. What can my hon. Friend the Minister do to help provide our constituents with better tools to assess what will happen and whether they will be better or worse off when they first register for universal credit?
I thank my hon. Friend for his question and for rightly praising DWP staff for the work they are doing. That issue has been raised by a number of colleagues, and I am looking at data and exploring options. We have been working closely with Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs to encourage people to check their eligibility before making a claim and ensure that tax credit claimants understand that when they have claimed UC, their tax credits will end, and they cannot return to legacy benefits.
We believe that people need more support during this crisis, but we acknowledge and welcome the changes that the Government have made. Those include increasing the core amount of universal credit by £1,000 a year, but that rise is only for 12 months. If the Government believe that this level of support is necessary during lockdown, why do they believe that people will need less money when lockdown ends and the normal costs of living will apply? Surely it is inconceivable that anyone still unemployed by March next year could see their benefits being cut.
I thank the hon. Gentleman for his question and welcome him to his new position. As he knows, we have announced measures that can be quickly and effectively put in place that will benefit as many disadvantaged families as possible who are currently facing financial disruption. We at the DWP have been under huge increased demand, and we have prioritised the safety and stability of our benefits system overall. All things of this nature will be kept under review, but at the moment, as he rightly points out, the funding has been secured for a 12-month period from Her Majesty’s Treasury.
The two areas of universal credit causing the greatest hardship are the five-week wait and the two-child cap—both need scrapping. Taking a UC advanced loan means that payments will be lower than the already impossible to live on levels, so why will the Government not look at the idea of making the advance loan a grant when a person has been confirmed as eligible for UC? That stops the fraud excuse. The only barrier is political will.
I thank the hon. Gentleman for his question. As I have said, we have announced measures that can be quickly and effectively put in place that will benefit as many disadvantaged families as possible who are facing financial disruption. We are under huge increased demand, and I have had to prioritise the safety and stability of the benefits system overall and put that above any structural change. I will always prioritise ensuring that people get their money in full and on time, over and above system change.
Universal Credit: Five-week Wait
In these uncertain times, we would like to be absolutely clear that no claimant has to wait five weeks for a payment. Advances are available, enabling claimants faster access to their entitlement. Since mid-March, we have issued more than 700,000 advances to claimants who felt that they could not wait for their first routine payment, with the majority receiving money within 72 hours.
In Croydon, all our food banks have seen a massive increase in demand. In fact, the number of food banks and soup kitchens has quadrupled in Croydon since the covid crisis began, with organisations such as the British Bangladeshi Society and the Fieldway Family Centre stepping up to the plate. One of the main reasons they cite for this need is the five-week wait for universal credit. What assessment has the Minister made of the number of people forced to use food banks because of that five-week wait? I ask him again: why can he not replace the emergency loan with a grant, so that people do not have to pile debt on debt?
I thank the hon. Lady for that question. Over and above answers to previous questions, I would stress that non-repayable advances could not be implemented without significant development of the UC system and would require measures that have been previously announced to be deprioritised. In the light of current events and the huge pressure on our system, the Department’s focus is firmly on ensuring that new and existing claimants continue to receive their payments on time. We do not have the capacity to look at that kind of structural system change.
Over the past seven weeks, the demand on Liverpool’s local welfare scheme for crisis payments for food and fuel has increased by 164% compared with this time last year. Will the Minister consider easing the plight of many living through this crisis by doubling child benefits and lifting the benefit cap, as requested by the Food Foundation?
I thank the hon. Gentleman for his question. We have increased the universal credit and working tax credit standard allowance by more than £1,000 a year, and we have increased local housing allowance rates, putting an average of £600 into people’s pockets. On the benefit cap, it is important to stress that those with sustained work records may benefit from a nine-month grace period. Exemptions continue to apply, and I feel many people would agree that the equivalent of £24,000—or £28,000 in London—is fair and reasonable.
From the 1940s on, we had a social security system based on handwritten forms that was capable of making the first regular benefit payment within a few days of a person applying; now, after the Government have spent several hundred million pounds on what we were assured was agile technology, that job takes five weeks. That long delay is the main reason why people on universal credit are so much more likely to need a food bank than people on the legacy benefits. Surely the Minister must recognise that that problem must be fixed.
I thank the right hon. Gentleman, the Chair of the Work and Pensions Committee, for his question. He knows that we introduced an agile, dynamic online system because the legacy benefits system, which was largely paper-based, was fraught with issues and errors. That is why we moved over. Notwithstanding the points that he has made, I stress that the previous, paper-based system, which relied on face-to-face contact, would not have coped in this situation. It is because of universal credit that we have been able to process more than 2 million claims since mid-March.
Ministers and officials have had regular discussions with food bank providers and other stakeholders during this time. Flexibility and innovation in local jobcentre arrangements for signposting to food banks, within the parameters of the existing guidance, are encouraged during the covid-19 outbreak.
I think I did, Mr Speaker. I gently point out to the hon. Gentleman that jobcentres are working with local partners to signpost claimants to the support available in their local area. The Trussell Trust and the Independent Food Aid Network are putting in place appropriate solutions where food banks are in operation. I stress that local councils in England will be able to use funding from the new £500 million local hardship fund to provide further discretion to support vulnerable people.
Dedicated DWP staff continue to be available in jobcentres throughout the country. For claimants with the most complex needs, if we are unable to help by phone or online, face-to-face support is still available. In addition to that, the Help to Claim service is undertaken on our behalf by Citizens Advice and Citizens Advice Scotland.
I thank the Minister for that answer and congratulate him, the Department and the original designers of universal credit on their success in registering so many new claimants. As he knows, the original idea was for a universal support system, alongside UC, to help people with multiple and complex needs. Will the Minister consider reviving that idea to help the most vulnerable people and make the UC system work better?
I thank my hon. Friend for his question. I know that he shares my passion for supporting the most vulnerable and disadvantaged in our society, who often have complex needs, which is exactly why we introduced Help to Claim to support people who need support to access the welfare system. It has been a huge success over the past year, helping more than 250,000 people. I am pleased to say that we have commissioned the service for a second year.
I have regular discussions with the Minister for children and families, my hon. Friend the Member for Chelmsford (Vicky Ford), and others on mitigating the effect of covid-19 on vulnerable groups. We are providing them with support as they implement the free school meals voucher system, and we have increased universal credit and working tax credit by more than £1,000 a year over the next 12 months, which will benefit more than 4 million households.
Given that we know that nearly 90% of vulnerable children are not at school or learning and that there are new frontiers of vulnerabilities in children suffering from possible domestic abuse and mental health issues, what further work, other than that which the Minister has mentioned, is the Department doing specifically with the Department for Education to help those children learn and to give them and their families proper financial support?
I thank my right hon. Friend for that question. We are committed to ensuring the safety and protection of vulnerable children and young people, particularly during the current period, and that is why we have invested an extra £6.5 billion in our welfare system. I know that he has huge expertise in this area. In addition to my work with the Minister for children and families and others across Government, I would be very happy to work with him to explore other ways that he thinks we may be able to support vulnerable children.
In April, in response to covid-19, we introduced increased local housing allowance rates for housing benefit and universal credit claimants to the 30th percentile of local rents, providing additional support for private renters. This significant investment cost almost £1 billion and ensures that more than 1 million households will see an increase, on average, of £600 per year.
Thousands of families in Britain are at risk of being pushed into homelessness as a result of this crisis. What urgent steps is the Minister taking to ensure that the most vulnerable will not lose their homes as a result of the covid-19 outbreak, at a time when there is no option to find cheaper accommodation to move to?
Over and above the measures introduced by the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government, we have increased universal credit and working tax credits by more than £1,000 a year, and increased the local housing allowance rates. In this respect, in southern Greater Manchester, which covers Stockport, the two-bedroom LHA has been increased by £76 a month—£900 a year—and the four-bedroom rate in the hon. Gentleman’s constituency has increased by over £200 a month. That extra £6.5 billion going into our welfare system is supporting the most vulnerable and disadvantaged in our society.
The Department for Work and Pensions is leading a joined-up approach across and beyond Government to address the unprecedented impacts of the covid-19 outbreak. This includes working with colleagues across Whitehall as well as employer representatives, think-tanks and others.
I thank my hon. Friend for her response. The black country still remains the workshop of the United Kingdom, and nowhere exemplifies that more than the communities that I represent in Wednesbury, Oldbury and Tipton. It is likely that many skilled workers in my constituency will need to be redeployed or reskilled as a result of this crisis, so what work will my hon. Friend be undertaking, alongside our West Midlands Mayor, Andy Street, to ensure that communities such as mine are not left behind as a result of this crisis?
I thank my hon. Friend for that question. My Department works closely with Mayors such as Andy Street on the devolution in skills deals. In the west midlands, we are also working with the combined authority on its local industrial strategy, skills advisory panel and innovation pilots. We are engaged with regional labour market issues and pressure points so that all regions and communities can benefit from the recovery.
Our economic recovery will depend much on public confidence, yet polling this morning found that almost half the population believe that the Prime Minister has gone too far. Many have deep concerns that they could put themselves and family members at risk if they cannot properly social distance when they return to work, and it is clear that the workforce and management must agree safe arrangements that people will trust. Will the Government adopt the TUC’s proposals for employers to publish covid-secure risk assessments and urgently increase funding for the Health and Safety Executive, which the Minister knows has been cut by a third since 2010, to enforce these measures?
I thank the hon. Lady and welcome her to her place. I am very interested to hear her policy priorities, ideas, thoughts and views, and I am keen to meet to discuss what the Department for Work and Pensions is doing. It is absolutely right that, as people look to return to work, we have published our plan—a cautious road map—this afternoon. We recognise that this is not a short-term crisis. I can tell her that our Secretary of State has been engaged in broader support for the HSE, which has done a magnificent job—
Thank you, Mr Speaker. We have launched two key new websites, “Job help” and “Employer help”, to provide additional information tools and links to the DWP’s “Find a job” website, which has approximately 1.7 million users signed up and over 145,000 public and private sector employers registered. The DWP is currently considering a wide range of options for how best to support people back into work.
I commend Ministers and civil servants for the tremendous work they have done to get millions of people on-boarded over the last few weeks. What steps are being taken to get self-employed people, in particular, back on their feet in the next stage?
I thank my hon. Friend for that question. We have temporarily relaxed the minimum income floor to allow self-employed claimants to access UC at a more generous rate. Meanwhile, the Treasury’s self-employment income support scheme online service is available from 13 May, and the DWP is providing mentoring and business support through our new enterprise allowance programme. As the economy restarts, we will continue to keep under review how we can best support all of this cohort.
The Health and Safety Executive is involved in safer workplaces and, across Government, this work is being led by the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy. The DWP has put a number of measures in place itself. We have closed jobcentres to the public; suspended appointments, except in exceptional circumstances; introduced social distancing, extensive communications and a route for staff to raise concerns; and deployed up to 15,000 laptops to allow people to work at home.
I thank my hon. Friend for that. It is vital that we work with trade bodies, which play a vital role in supporting businesses and ensuring the right messages reach employers within their sectors. In the last few weeks, I have been listening to and engaging with key stakeholders such as the Federation of Small Businesses, the British Chambers of Commerce, the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development and UKHospitality. One key theme in getting across the message is confidence for both employers and employees to be able to come back to work together.
Thank you, Mr Speaker. It is clear from the Government’s publication today that many employers that closed initially, out of an abundance of caution, can actually stay open provided they can do so safely. I welcome the covid-secure guidance that is going to be published. Could the Minister set out how the covid-secure guidance will be publicised, and will there be a PR campaign to make sure that employers that can be open do open?
As the Prime Minister announced yesterday, those who can return to work safely should do so, and I do encourage all employers and employees to use the safety at work guides due to be published later this week to help, support and inform decisions about safety in the workplace. Colleagues will have an opportunity to hear more from the Prime Minister when he makes his statement to the House shortly.
Many employers and employees in my constituency in the Scottish borders are very keen to go back to work. They want to do so as safely as possible, so could the Minister outline what the Government are doing to foster good relations between employees and employers to allow that to happen, and also to allow them to adjust to the new normal way of working?
As I said previously, the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy is leading the way on safer workplaces. There are lots of opportunities to build relationships between employers, employees and trade unions as we open up the economy, and the guidelines will be published in due course. The Health and Safety Executive is an arms-length body of the DWP. It has been actively involved in each of the work strands in the sectors. Our Department takes an interest in recruitment, helping to build confidence so claimants can return to work or take up new employment.
That concludes what are referred to as questions to the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions. The arrangements for hybrid proceedings allow Departments to reorder questions according to the answering Minister, but I do not believe that it was the House’s expectation that this would lead to the Secretary of State not answering any questions and to important issues raised by Members from the Opposition parties being relegated to the bottom of the list. I will raise this matter with the Leader of the House, and I do not expect to see this repeated.
Foreign and Commonwealth Office
The Secretary of State was asked—
British Citizens: Repatriation
We estimate that over 1.3 million people have now returned to the UK from abroad on commercial routes. I can also tell the House that on the charter flights—the special arrangements—that we set up, over 30,000 British nationals have now returned on 141 flights chartered from 27 countries and territories.
Many of my constituents who had their flights cancelled are facing considerable financial hardship as they are yet to see any refund for these flights or for hastily arranged alternative flights that were also cancelled. So will the Secretary of State guarantee that those whose flights have been cancelled will be refunded and that the Government will step in to make sure that this is the case?
We certainly share the concern expressed by the hon. Gentleman about flights that are cancelled. There is an onus on the operators to make sure that they can be reimbursed. Insurance can also kick in. In the last resort, there is also financial assistance that can be made available in the form of a loan, but of course that would have to be repaid on return.
Many of my constituents have said, “We’ve all been locked down but people have still been allowed to come into our country.” Why is the quarantine about to be launched at airports being done now, and will it include arrivals by port and the channel tunnel?
The reason the measure is being introduced now is that the advice that we have always had is that there was little point, if any, in introducing quarantine at the border with R—the level of the prevalence of the virus—at a high level, particularly above R1. Now that it has come down, and is still coming down even further, it makes sense, as we reduce the level of coronavirus in the UK, to introduce the measure to stop reinfection coming in from people carrying it from abroad, particularly those who would not necessarily be showing symptoms. There will be some flexibility in the detailed arrangements set out, but this will cover, in principle, all people coming in, whether it is to ports or to airports.
A number of my constituents were overseas when this pandemic struck and are now unable to get together the money they need to pay for new flights home. What action is my right hon. Friend’s Department taking to financially support British nationals who are unable to get home and have no access to funds?
We have, in the first instance, worked with insurance companies to make sure that they extend travel policies by 60 days when emergency support is needed. I can also tell the House that the Foreign Office has introduced a special package to make sure that those who are stranded and cannot get back can receive support with food, accommodation and other essentials of up to £3,000 for individuals, £4,000 for a couple, and £5,000 for families. That is a last-resort option, but we are making sure that those who are hunkered down or stranded and cannot get back have the support that they need.
My hon. Friend raises an important point. In March, when the Foreign Office changed its travel advice to advise against people travelling on cruises, we had more than 19,000 British passengers aboard 60 cruise ships. I can tell him that they have all now been brought home safely. There is still an outstanding issue with a number of UK crew on cruise ships around the world, but we are working with operators such as Royal Caribbean and Costa Atlantica to make sure they can get back as soon as possible.
The Philippines has been a challenge, but I can reassure my hon. Friend that we managed to secure the return of over 600 British nationals on UK charter flights in April. I spoke to Foreign Minister Locsin at the end of March to secure those April flights. My hon. Friend will know that the Government of the Philippines suspended commercial flights earlier this month. They have resumed today. On the financial support that she referred to, in exceptional circumstances, as a last resort, there are loans available to enable UK nationals to return home on flights.
It is now clear that other European countries used emergency repatriation flights in parallel with commercial options to much greater success. The German Government chartered 30 times more of these flights by April than the UK Government, so it was the Foreign Secretary’s decision early on to rely almost solely on commercial options to get people home that left so many British citizens stranded abroad for so long. So will he publish the official advice that he received on his decision, which led to so many British citizens being stranded abroad for so long?
I share the hon. Gentleman’s concern about any British nationals stranded abroad—Brits are a nation of travellers—but his comparison with Germany is not correct, because he is not including, as far as I understand it, all those who came back on commercial flights. We worked very hard with airlines, airports and foreign jurisdictions to enable that to happen. We have secured and helped to facilitate the return of 1.3 million British nationals on those commercial flights—50,000 from Australia, 15,000 from Pakistan, 7,000 from Indonesia and close to 4,000 from New Zealand.
I have constituents stuck in many countries, including Nigeria and Australia. The one in Nigeria says that he is No. 3,233 on the repatriation list, and only one of the Australian cases has reached home, at substantial personal cost. How can the Minister say that this is an adequate response?
In terms of Nigeria, we are concerned. It has been a challenge, but I can reassure the hon. Gentleman that over 1,700 British nationals have been repatriated to date, on seven charter flights, in addition to which a further flight came home on 8 May, and we will continue to do everything we can. Of course, he will know that all airports in Nigeria are currently closed to all international commercial flights until east of 4 June. That is the challenge we face, but we are doing everything we can.
Thank you very much, Mr Speaker; I think that is the last time Chorley will be nice to Wigan in this place.
I thank the Minister for the weekly briefings that he has arranged for me and for his kind words on my taking office. It has enabled us to work together to bring many more Britons home. However, he will know that this is the sixth time that I have had to raise the lack of quarantine measures and the fact that the UK is one of the few countries with no specific policies in place for returning citizens. Thousands will be flying into the UK in the next few days from parts of the world where infection rates are rising and healthcare and testing are limited, on packed planes with no social distancing measures, and as of Wednesday many of them will be asked to go straight back to work. This really is absurd; so will he personally intervene to get a grip on this situation, not in a month, but now?
I thank the hon. Lady for her comments and welcome her to her position. I know that she has huge tenacity and will scrutinise everything that the Government are doing, but that she also looks forward to and enjoys engaging on a constructive basis; that will certainly be reciprocated on our side.
The crucial thing about the quarantine and self-isolation that the Prime Minister announced last night is that all the scientific evidence we received said there was little point in introducing it until we got the prevalence of the coronavirus and the level of transmission down. At that point, it does make sense to introduce it because of the risk of reinfection—or re-seeding, as it is sometimes referred to by the scientists—in the UK. I can reassure the hon. Lady that we have followed the scientific and medical advice at every step along the way.
Well spotted, Mr Speaker. It is good to see everyone.
I echo the shadow Foreign Secretary’s concern about the quarantine restrictions coming in. We need a lot more clarity on why they have not been brought in before now, and on what they are actually going to mean in practice for people who are making travel arrangements and for vulnerable people coming back and sharing concerns about their own health and the risk of passing the virus on to others. I would be grateful for more clarity on that.
Let me also pick up on the Foreign Secretary’s comments about the repatriation efforts to date. Now, I would not say that nothing has happened, but we need to acknowledge that the FCO’s response has been patchy and pretty stretched in parts. I have already called for an inquiry into this, so that we can learn lessons for the future. I think that we need to reiterate that point today, and would be grateful for an assurance that we will properly look at how the FCO has handled this situation. The expectations that were put upon the FCO by—
And the Foreign Office has got a grip of the problem as well. I take the hon. Gentleman’s point. We have been stretched, and I think that that is the case for countries around the world. I talk to Foreign Ministers every day and every week, and we have had a shared challenge—but particularly with a great travelling nation like the United Kingdom. At the same time, working with those countries and with the airlines, we have returned 1.3 million Brits from abroad on commercial flights. We have now returned over 30,000 people on the charter flights that we have arranged. We have also got all those who were travelling on cruise ships back. The consular team at the Foreign Office and our networks around the world deserve great praise, but we take nothing for granted and are not complacent for a moment. We will keep up those efforts, with all the other scheduled flights and charter flights that we are looking into in order to return other stranded nationals.
The UK is playing a leading role in supporting global research and development efforts to find a vaccine, with vaccine trials commenced in this country, and the UK leading internationally to find and distribute vaccines abroad.
The Prime Minister acknowledged that, although there is an international race to find a vaccine, it is not a competition, and a breakthrough could come anywhere around the world, although one of the first likely candidates is the Oxford project. If the project is successful, that vaccine will be manufactured by a consortium including Cobra Biologics in my constituency of Newcastle-under-Lyme, but I know that it is keen to produce enough not just for the UK, but to send around the world, especially to the many countries with no manufacturing capacity of their own. Could my right hon. Friend reassure me that we are coming to reciprocal understandings with other nations around the world to ensure that any vaccine, wherever it is produced, both reaches the UK swiftly and is made available on an international basis as soon as possible?
My hon. Friend is absolutely right. We want to spearhead the pursuit of a vaccine through the research that has been conducted in this country—and, if possible, manufacture it at the kind of scale that would deal not just with UK needs, but with those more broadly. Through the contributions that we are making to the Coronavirus Global Response Initiative, to CEPI and to the Gavi funding calls, we are the leading donor in the latest call for donations to ensure not only that we can provide vaccines for UK nationals here at home, but that those vaccines can be expanded, particularly to the most vulnerable countries abroad.
May I thank my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary for his personal intervention, after a text to the Moroccan authorities at 11 o’clock at night led one of my constituents to return home to Morecambe? Does he agree that keeping commercial routes into the UK open is critical to ensuring that British nationals can continue to return home? These routes have been a vital connection for many of my constituents who were stuck abroad.
I thank my hon. Friend for his tenacity and for raising the case of his constituents so swiftly. I am delighted and relieved that they have been able to get home. On his broader point, he is absolutely right. Yes, the charter flights are important—we have got more than 30,000 British nationals back on those flights—but we have had to work very hard to keep the airports and particularly the transit hubs open. As a result, we have managed to secure the return, safe and sound, of more than 1.3 million UK nationals on vital commercial flights.
Thank you, Mr Speaker. Thanks in part to our leadership and our work with international partners on the Gavi programmes, we are in a leading position to collaborate on developing and manufacturing vaccines. Does my right hon. Friend agree that we need to take the same collaborative approach to developing and, crucially, manufacturing a vaccine to tackle covid-19?
My hon. Friend is absolutely right. We are proud to be pioneering trials in this country to crack the issue of finding a vaccine. Of course, we need to leverage the manufacturing base we have here and our incredible pharmaceutical sector. We are proud that we co-hosted the coronavirus global response initiative on 4 May, and we will host the global vaccine summit on 4 June. On CEPI and Gavi, as I said, we are the largest donor to the recent calls for funding, and we will continue that international collaboration, which is so vital.
The UK’s participation in the international pledging conference was extremely welcome, but it is deeply concerning that the USA was notable by its absence. Without US participation, the search for a vaccine will undeniably be slower and more lives will be lost, so can the Foreign Secretary reassure us that he or the Prime Minister asked the United States to attend? What was its reason for turning us down? What realistically does he think the UK can do to turn this situation around before not just the Gavi summit that he mentioned but the crunch G7 leaders summit in June?
The shadow Foreign Secretary raises an excellent point. This is a moment when we need to try to reduce political tensions and work collaboratively right across the world. On returns, I work with my Cuban opposite number, my Chinese opposite number and Foreign Ministers from around the world, and when it comes to finding the vaccine there is an even stronger impetus. We will keep making the case in the G7 and bilaterally, with the Americans and all the major countries, to try to get really strong international leadership, and of course we will continue to try to ensure that the coalition is as broad and deep as possible.
The humanitarian situation in Zimbabwe is bad. I had been an optimist on Zimbabwe post Mugabe, but things are bleak across the political, economic, social and humanitarian fronts. Her Majesty’s Government stand ready to support, but only when we see genuine reform. Until then, we support the people of Zimbabwe with a £140 million development package, but, crucially, none of that money goes directly through the Government of Zimbabwe.
I thank the Minister for that update. There are currently 7 million people in urban and rural areas of Zimbabwe in urgent need of humanitarian assistance, compared with only 5.5 million in August last year. What conversations has he had with the Zimbabwean Government to discuss their humanitarian needs?
Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps
We are concerned about Iran’s destabilising regional activity. The Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps provides military and financial support for groups that include the Houthis and Hezbollah. Support for those groups is in contravention of UN Security Council resolutions and undermines prospects for regional stability. We have called on Iran to play a constructive role in the region, and Ministers and senior officials routinely raise concerns with Iranian counterparts and regional partners.
The Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps is the nexus of Iran’s destabilising activities, distributing funds and weapons in Iraq, Lebanon, Syria and Yemen. The revolutionary guard is already subject to UK sanctions, but does the Minister agree that full proscription should now be applied? Does he share my concerns that the expiration of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action arms embargo in October stands to enable the revolutionary guard to expand its murderous regional actions?
We have long expressed our deeply held concerns about the destabilising activity of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps. I take into consideration the points my hon. Friend makes about its activity, but the UK Government do not routinely comment on organisations that they may proscribe. The proscription list is regularly reviewed and we will always take situations on the ground into consideration when we update it.
Covid-19: Israeli and Palestinian Authority Co-operation
We welcome the ongoing co-operation between Israel and the Palestinian Authority towards tackling covid-19, a matter I was pleased to discuss directly with the Israeli ambassador to the UK and the Palestinian Prime Minister recently. UN agencies, the Israeli Government and the Palestinian Authority are working together to ensure essential medical supplies and staff reach the most vulnerable areas, including Gaza. We encourage continued positive interaction between Israel and the Palestinian authorities in their efforts to fight covid-19.
My right hon. Friend will be aware that the UN special co-ordinator for the middle east peace process recently praised the way the Israeli Government and the Palestinian Authority have been working together to tackle covid-19. Does he agree that that kind of practical co-operation—the building of trust and meeting shared challenges head on—is the way that peace will get built in the region? Will he step up his efforts to encourage genuine negotiations based on the two-state solution?
In conversations I have had with representatives of both the Israeli Government and the Palestinian Authority I have praised the way they have worked together on this matter. I absolutely agree with my right hon. Friend that international co-operation is the way that we, as the international community, will fight it. As the Prime Minister said at the coronavirus global response international pledging conference he co-hosted in May, the race for a vaccine is not a competition between countries, but the most urgent shared endeavour of our lifetime. If the attitudes we bring into fighting this disease can be more broadly applied, I think the world will be a better place.
I thank the Minister for his comments. Will he join me in welcoming the news that Israel has approved a $230 million advance payment to the Palestinian Authority, alongside coronavirus test kits, intensive care beds, ventilators, drugs and protective equipment? Is that not exactly the kind of behaviour we should welcome and encourage?
I thank the hon. Gentleman for the points he makes. We have indeed commented positively to the Israeli Government on how they have worked with the Palestinian Authority. I made the same point to Palestinian Authority representatives on the way they have worked with the Israeli Government. It shows a pattern of co-operation that should be replicated. I hope it is a step towards building trust that will enable a sustainable peaceful solution to the situation in Israel and the Palestinian Authority.
Thank you, Mr Speaker. As has been said, there is encouraging co-operation between Israelis and Palestinians with regard to covid-19. I am sure the Minister agrees that that highlights how wrong it is for a new Israeli Government to pursue a policy of illegal annexation of large parts of the west bank. What are the Government doing to mobilise international opinion against that annexation?
I welcome the hon. Gentleman to his place, although it is virtual. The UK Government have expressed, both publicly and to the Government of Israel, our concerns about reports of annexation, which we have consistently said we oppose and could be detrimental to the chances of the peaceful, sustainable two-state solution that we should all be working towards.
Occupied Palestinian Territories
The UK is deeply concerned about the reports that the new Israeli coalition Government have reached an agreement that may pave the way for annexation of parts of the west bank. Any unilateral move towards the annexation of parts of the west bank by Israel would be damaging to efforts to restart the peace process and contradictory to international law, and might make the chances of a sustainable two-state solution harder. We recently made clear our concerns at the UN Security Council remote meeting on the middle east peace process on 23 April.
I appreciate the Minister’s concern, but does he believe that the proposed annexation by Israel of the Palestinian territories would be illegal under international law? If so, does he think that the United Kingdom Government’s response should be the same as it would be with other countries guilty of illegal annexation, such as Russia?
Our long-standing position is that such a move would be contrary to international law. We continue to have a constructive relationship with both the Government of Israel and the Palestinian Authority, and we will continue to work towards a peaceful resolution that takes us to a sustainable two-state solution. That is our long-standing position, and we continue to work towards it.
I am pleased to hear the Minister condemn any proposed annexation of territories in the west bank by the Israeli Government. Will he go further and accept that such an annexation would render any future Palestinian state unviable, would destroy its geographical integrity, and as such would render a two-state solution obsolete? Is it not absolutely essential that the Government act now with others to stop the Israelis annexing territory in the way that they currently intend?
As I said, our long-standing position is that we do not support the annexation of parts of the west bank, as doing so could make a sustainable two-state solution harder. We support actions by the Israeli Government and the Palestinian Authority that take us closer to a sustainable two-state solution, and we express our concerns about anything that might put that at risk.
Sino-British Joint Declaration
There have been a number of concerning recent developments in Hong Kong. As co-signatory of the joint declaration, the UK expects the mainland Chinese authorities to respect Hong Kong’s high degree of autonomy and the rights and freedoms provided in that legally binding treaty. We are monitoring the situation very closely and will provide a full assessment of implementation of the joint declaration in six-monthly reports to Parliament.
Beijing’s top political office in Hong Kong recently referred to pro-democracy protesters as a “political virus” and declared itself as being entitled to interfere in Hong Kong as it sees fit—clear breaches of the joint declaration. What plan do the Government have to help British national (overseas) passport holders in Hong Kong, should the deterioration of relations continue?
The Foreign Secretary commented in Parliament on 26 September that the status of British nationals overseas was
“part of the delicate balance”—[Official Report, 26 September 2019; Vol. 664, c. 865]—
in the negotiations that led to the Sino-British joint declaration. We believe that it would undermine the commitments made under the memorandum exchanged in connection with the joint declaration to change the arrangements regarding the status of BNOs, but we monitor the situation constantly. I know the right hon. Gentleman takes a keen interest in the issue.
Before calling the Prime Minister to make a statement, I would like to make a statement of my own accord. I am aware of widespread concerns across the House about delays in Government Departments, and the Department of Health and Social Care in particular, responding to written questions and correspondence. I have received representations on this matter from the Procedure Committee and from Back Benchers across the House from Opposition parties.
Last Wednesday, the Leader of the House argued that a degree of latitude is allowable for the Department. However, the Secretary of State himself has referred repeatedly to the value of parliamentary scrutiny. Written questions and letters to Ministers are integral to such scrutiny. I accept that the Department of Health and Social Care faces many challenges, but I am sure that resources across Whitehall can be mobilised to support it in maintaining proper standards of accountability.
While I think it is right for me to call for improvements within the Government, I also make a plea to all hon. Members to be targeted and considered in the written questions that they table at this time, and to avoid swamping Departments with questions on a fast-moving situation that will be superseded before they can be answered.
I now call the Prime Minister, who should speak for no more than 10 minutes.
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
“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.
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 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.
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.