Motion made, and Question proposed,
That this House has considered covid-19—(James Morris.)
Order. I am now introducing a time limit of four minutes. I advise hon. Members who are speaking virtually to please have a timing device visible because they will be cut off after four minutes, and I shall be very strict about that.
Thank you, Mr Deputy Speaker, for the opportunity to contribute to this important debate this afternoon. May I associate myself with the comments made by the Paymaster General, my right hon. Friend the Member for Portsmouth North (Penny Mordaunt), at the opening of this debate yesterday? This virus has tested every part of our society, but it has also shown that, when united in a national effort, the British people are a powerful force. It is thanks to the massive collective effort to protect the NHS that we have avoided an uncontrollable and catastrophic epidemic, which could have overwhelmed our health services. That said, I want to offer my sympathies to the families of the 101 people who have sadly passed away in Warrington as a result of covid-19.
On International Nurses Day, may I pay tribute to those community nurses at the Bridgewater Trust in Warrington, who have worked so hard to support people in their own homes, and to the nurses and doctors at Warrington Hospital for the work that they have done throughout this period? It fills me with great pride to see the hospital make headline news for its pioneering work around black boxes. Let me remind Members of what these are: black boxes are normally used for sleep apnoea and doctors have modified them in such a way that they can treat covid-19 patients who are struggling to breathe. That has meant that there has been less need for the more intrusive and invasive ventilators, which has, in turn, led to a far quicker recovery rate, and this has been reflected in the data. Indeed, Warrington’s performance is one of the best in the north-west, and I know that clinicians from all over the world are now looking at this work.
As much as any of this news can be positive, it has been encouraging to see a hospital trust managing these challenging times so well. There are no problems with the availability of ICU beds and, to date, there has even been no significant issues with personal protective equipment. That is mainly due to the great collaboration that has taken place across a number of hospitals in the region to share stocks where necessary. From the conversations that I have had, I am really confident that this challenge is being well managed by the trust team.
I also want to thank those people working in care homes for their tireless efforts, and Warrington Borough Council staff. I pay tribute to locally co-ordinated volunteer groups in the villages across our constituency. I have been so impressed by the outstanding community spirit that has enabled armies of volunteers to deliver food and medicine to self-isolating, vulnerable and elderly members of the community. We even saw a new community radio station launched by volunteers in the village of Lymm to keep everyone in touch.
I welcome the Government’s gradual easing of the restrictions. Getting out of lockdown was always going to be much more difficult than getting into it. The past few weeks have been really tough for the small businesses here in Warrington that make up the majority of employment in my constituency. I have been heartened by their support for the measures the Government have taken to protect employees and the self-employed. I congratulate the Chancellor on his determined efforts, with a welcome extension and increased flexibility of the job retention scheme announced earlier today. If I have one anxiety, it relates to support for owners of small businesses who have taken professional advice and structured their companies to pay themselves through dividends, and those on short-term PAYE contracts.
Local economies are strengthened when we have strong local media—newspapers, commercial radio stations and news websites where advertisers can promote local business and journalists can deliver reliable local news. I therefore encourage the Government to continue to support this important sector as the economy bounces back.
As one constituent wrote to me by email last night, the next few weeks are about personal responsibility, with each one of us taking small, sensible steps to inch our cities, towns and villages back to a new normal, all within the broad guidelines that the Government have now set out.
I speak today as an MP from one of the areas outside London that has been hardest hit by covid-19. Tragically, 246 people in Salford died due to covid-19 in the first two months—a death rate of 95 per 100,000 of our residents. Our thoughts are with their families and the families of everyone who has died due to the pandemic. At the start of—[Inaudible.]
Order. We have a problem. Can we please try audio-only to see if that is an improvement?
Do you want me to start again, Mr Deputy Speaker?
No, there is still an audio problem. Let us go to Theresa May and come back to Barbara Keeley.
First, I pay tribute to all those in the NHS, in care homes and in other settings for working so hard to save lives. But I also pay tribute to all those other workers—the people in local authorities and the emergency services, and others, as well as volunteers, including those in communities across my Maidenhead constituency, who are ensuring that the country can keep going.
Let me say to Ministers that having been there, I do not envy the Government the difficult decisions they have to take. There are no risk-free answers. It is not about eliminating risk, because that is not possible; it is about managing and mitigating risk. It is right that science should underpin decisions, but the science can only take us so far, because essential data is lacking. We do not know how many people have had covid-19 in the UK. Although the Office for National Statistics survey is building a better picture, the scientists are still making estimates and debating consensus. The Government are putting an emphasis on R—the rate of infection—but that varies across areas, across different parts of the UK, and across different settings. So there are no absolutes, and both scientists and Ministers have to exercise judgment.
As I say, it is not possible to eliminate risk, but in assessing the risk to be managed and mitigated, it is necessary to assess other risks to lives and livelihoods from covid-19. While the number of people dying from covid-19 has been falling, we see lives being lost prematurely not from covid but because people have not been going to hospital and treatments have been postponed that could impact their prognosis in future. And that is without thinking about all those whose mental health will be affected by this lockdown, increased domestic abuse, and the impact of loneliness. So dealing with covid has unintended consequences.
Protecting the NHS for the future, and protecting our public services for the future, means ensuring that we have an economy that can provide the taxes that pays for them.
Without that, as The Sun commented this morning, many more lives will be lost. As well as listening to the science, the Government need to apply common sense and, as I said earlier, judgment. To do that, I hope that alongside assessing the science and assessing the rate of infection, the Government are also looking closely every day and assessing the wider impact of the lockdown on lives and livelihoods.
This is about judgment. As we pull away from lockdown and as we take those steps to return to a more normal life, we need to ensure that we are being driven not just by an absolute science, which is not there, but by an assessment of the wider impact of covid on people’s lives and their livelihoods. I trust the Government are making those assessments, because it is only by making those assessments that we can ensure not only that we restore our economy to a normality that will supply taxes for our NHS and public services, but that people are able to return to a more normal life.
Last week, I held a roundtable with small businesses, facilitated by the Federation of Small Businesses. A number of issues arose.
On nurseries, Miss Houghton, who owns Highmeadows nursery in Bolton, has not been able to access the £10,000 rates relief because the rates on her business premises are too high, although it is in fact a small business. Nurseries cannot access the £25,000 grant that is available for those in the retail and leisure sector. They cannot furlough their employees, as the Government have said that as they receive state funding, they must use that money. The Early Years Alliance says that one in four nurseries will go out of business in the foreseeable future, which is a real shame. We rely on key workers to be able to go out to work and we need to ensure that their children are safe and being looked after. Wales has given nurseries 100% rates relief, and I believe we should have that in England as well.
Another issue that arose was for those who rent serviced offices. They are not able to get the rates assistance that other people that are in their own physical building can. That is particularly unfair for small businesses and new start-ups, which often use serviced offices.
Sole-person limited companies are another issue. Many are self-employed people who put money into their business, and pay themselves through dividends. Under the scheme for the self-employed, the income that they receive through dividends cannot be counted so they are not able to take advantage of the security available for self-employed people. Will the Government reconsider and allow dividends received through their companies as salary?
My hon. Friend the Member for Leicester East (Claudia Webbe) wrote to the Chancellor about the Asian wedding and hospitality industry, which is worth about £3 billion. It has its own unique challenges, because Asian weddings tend to be very big. To date, it seems that many of those businesses have not been able to get any assistance from the Government’s aid programmes. I ask the Chancellor and the Prime Minister—anybody who is listening today —to please ensure that the hospitality industry is funded, and in particular the Asian wedding industry.
I have received emails from people who work as freelancers for the BBC on the pay-as-you-earn system. They are not being furloughed and they cannot get self-employed benefits either, because they are not self-employed. They are caught between the two. Will the Government look at that issue again and ensure that they are properly looked after?
Recently, the Government have said that where the person who owns a premises is claiming rate relief, but the small businesses that operate within that large premises are not, local authorities should perhaps use some of their surpluses to pay and to help those people, but no guidance has been issued. It would be great to have guidance on that as soon as possible.
Many people have fallen into a trap and are not able to be helped by the various Government schemes, so will the Chancellor or the Business Secretary join in a roundtable discussion with my constituents, in order to hear from small businesses and people who are working but who have now lost their income—
Order. We have to leave it there.
I wish to make a few quick points. First, I wish to welcome the Chancellor’s statement today, because this is an area where a lot of us have been pushing him to give some security to businesses as they go forward. The idea of the furloughing scheme going on and, we hope, reducing as it does, as businesses go back to work, is an important one. However, we must bear in mind that there is a huge cost to it, at some £13 billion every month. He is right to say that he is prepared to extend the scheme, but we must be careful that we do not end up spending so much money that it makes it difficult for the economy to thrive.
I also wish to raise with the Government a few areas where I have concerns. The work they have done so far has been remarkable, and they have rightly received the full support of people in this House and, I believe, in the country at large, but I wish briefly to raise some issues with them. They say they have been guided by the science, but a number of people have concerns that this is not just about the science alone; there needs to be a much broader sense of where we are—the balance between the economy and covid. Some of the language has been loose on that, with the idea that it has been a choice—this is a false choice—between saving lives and saving the economy. Both are about saving lives; the point is when one becomes so big that we need to deal with it. I think we are at that moment now, and have been for a little while, in terms of the economy.
My concern is that we seem to have been wedded in the early days to the Imperial College model, which has had some quite significant criticisms and a poor record in the past of forecasting in these areas. I am glad that the Government have now widened this out. I note that Sweden ran the figures on the Imperial model and found that it was wrong by about 15 times, overestimating the number of deaths as against what they had witnessed—the same applies in respect of what Edinburgh University and others had managed to do. I am therefore concerned that there is a deal of pressure on that, but I am also glad the Government have moved on from there.
Another point to make is about testing, where the Government have had to shoulder a lot of difficulty and blame, but quite a lot of that should also be targeted, in due course, at Public Health England. The big mistake they made early on was the decision not just on having more testing, which they should have done from day one, but the decision not to include all the private laboratories. They should have done that straightaway; even though they were building their own and getting their own, we should have maximised and gone out to the private laboratories, which would have helped enormously.
The other thing I do not understand at the moment is that at the beginning of lockdown we did not close the airports but now we are looking to make coming into the airports more difficult as we come out of lockdown. It is a puzzle why it was not right at the beginning but it is now right as we try to open the economy. I am particularly concerned about that.
I just want to say to the Government that for four weeks I have been arguing that they need to open the economy and be talking to the public to bring them with them and give them a sense of what is coming. The paper produced yesterday and the statements that have been made at last are the right indication. I am with the Government: people should use their common sense. There are going to be areas and times when we cannot always meet that argument and that deal about social distancing. I want to ask one question: why does every other country have a lesser distance than we do? That makes a big difference on things such as public transport. Ours is the only country that has a 2-metre rule—Germany’s rule is 1.5 metres, some countries use 1 metre and the World Health Organisation says that 1 metre is enough. Such an approach would help enormously with public transport—on the tube and so on—where there is a great problem. I urge the Government to get on with opening the economy and with giving people the opportunity to get back to their livelihoods. We should trust them, with their common sense, to be able to implement these sets of guidance and to make sure they do the right thing as they go back to work.
We will now try to go back to Barbara Keeley—[Interruption.] Oh, we have video as well. We will try video and audio, and see if that works.
Thank you, Mr Deputy Speaker. I speak today as an MP for one of the areas outside London that has been hardest hit by covid-19. [Inaudible]—with their families and the families of everyone who has died due to the pandemic. At the start of this crisis, the Government said they would do whatever it takes to defeat covid-19. [Inaudible]—council took them at their word and has done a fantastic job in supporting vulnerable people, our care system and our local businesses, but now the Government seem to be backtracking and expecting councils to foot not just the bill, but the crisis response. Across—[Inaudible.]
Order. I am sorry, but that has not worked. Can we move on to Neil Gray?
Thank you, Mr Deputy Speaker. I start by paying tribute to all those who are working on the frontline in the battle against this virus. In my area of Airdrie and Shotts, they are the fantastic staff of NHS Lanarkshire, North Lanarkshire Council and other key workers who have been doing the essential work to keep us all safe and well, and also the many wonderful community groups that are doing what they can to help others. I pass on my condolences to all those in Airdrie and Shotts who have lost friends and family to covid-19.
Some of the issues I wish to discuss today have emerged since the lockdown. The first is the impact on people. The UK Government schemes to support individuals, businesses and the self-employed have left millions behind. Millions have had to apply for universal credit, with some who will be encountering the social security system for the first time and who will be facing hardship. The self-employed scheme falls way short and needs to be looked at again. Basing it on profit rather than turnover is a basic flaw in the experience of my constituents.
The furlough scheme needs an independent arbiter for employers unwilling to furlough. Those who had only just started a new job before the lockdown are still being neglected; a contract of employment should have been enough to qualify. There is also a need for the UK Government to provide certainty that they will phase the end of the furlough scheme to ensure there are no redundancies. Where is the help for company directors who take their wages via dividends? This is how so many small family businesses in Airdrie and Shotts derive their income, and it has gone.
The impact the lockdown is having on people’s mental health—for some because they have lost their livelihoods, others because they have lost social contact or because they already had underlying problems—needs much greater attention. The Scottish Government have looked at this, and are increasing funding, but it is a long-term issue that is going to need greater attention.
Staying on the topic of welfare, sadly, the mixed messages of last week and the reckless unpreparedness of the Prime Minister’s announcement the other night— basically, it was to get back to work—have put at risk the relative success of the lockdown in starting to get the virus under control and therefore put lives across the UK at risk. The lockdown has not ended, and the message is still crystal clear in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland: stay home, protect the NHS, save lives. However, some people have already been in touch with me to ask if the Prime Minister’s statement means they can do this, that or the other. For how many more has the Prime Minister’s easing of the lockdown and change in message meant a licence to take more risks?
The Prime Minister did all of this without consulting the devolved Governments or, apparently, the Cabinet. This is not a time for making it up as you go along. A crisis like this needs clear, consistent messaging and support packages that ensure that nobody faces hardship. In another world before this lockdown, the Prime Minister promised that nobody would be punished for doing the right thing. Tell that to the millions of people who have been forced on to universal credit or the families in Airdrie and Shotts who are part of the reported 47% increase at the Airdrie food bank.
The UK Government need to do much more listening before doing their talking, and that will be as important in the long term as it is now. Society is going to change, and some changes are already happening. Some are positive and others negative, but there will be opportunities to harness change to deliver a more prosperous society with greater wellbeing. Areas such as the environment, waste and recycling, social security, employment and industry will need radical change and investment. That is for the future, but we need to start thinking now about the good society we want to see emerge. It cannot be what we left behind before the lockdown.
The focus right now has to be on containing and ending the health crisis, but there will be opportunities to make things better when that is resolved. I just worry, after this last week of chaotic and irresponsible mixed messages and anonymous briefings from Downing Street, that it will take longer than it should for us to get to that point.
First, I would like to relay messages of thanks to the Treasury from a plethora of businesses in my constituency of Wrexham. Without the Government’s generous package of support, we would now be facing business closures and job losses. I would also like to put on record how the people of Wrexham have stepped up to support one another during this crisis. Small cottage industries, community interest groups and neighbour groups have sprung into action to check on the vulnerable people, keep morale high, and deliver food parcels and prescriptions. Wrexham, you have answered the call and I am proud to serve you.
Wrexham sits on the border with England. Life for us involves weaving between England and Wales, and we look to the UK Government for advice during this national crisis. However, here in Wales, under a devolved Welsh Labour Government, we have seen disjointed plans; delays in the delivery of shielding letters, the 111 service and shopping delivery slots; confusion over public health data collection; and, latterly, the abolition of targets against which successes or failures can be measured. Testing and analysis have been chaotic, which has had a particular impact on our care homes. The organisation of volunteering on a national level was also slow to get off the mark, with the Welsh Government taking weeks to decide to delegate the co-ordination of volunteering to statutory agencies or charities.
As a former nurse, I joined the covid-19 temporary register to support NHS Wales nurses on the frontline. After two months of waiting, I have now started back to the floor, and have been overwhelmed by the resilience, spirit and determination of the hospital staff at Wrexham Maelor Hospital. Tonight at 8.30 pm, we will be asked to shine a light through our windows to show support for our nurses—our ladies with lamps. I encourage everyone to do so, and to show our appreciation on this International Nurses Day.
The UK Government have confronted this virus as one United Kingdom. Our Prime Minister has set out a road map to rebuild the United Kingdom for a world with coronavirus. It is a plan that will give the United Kingdom hope. However, the virus has spread at different rates across the country. Therefore, parts of the UK are beginning to move at slightly different speeds. It is this progression of the virus and its consequences that has now caused us, who live on the border with England, some practical challenges. Should people drive the few miles over the border to go to work if that work is not possible from home? Should they drive a few miles over the border to drop their children off at school when schools in Wales are closed? Are our neighbours in England aware that they cannot drive the few miles here to enjoy our countryside for their recreation without risking a fine? This is why a one nation approach to monitoring and managing the R number is vital.
I hope that the trial of the UK Government’s contact tracing app is successful. When it is available, it is essential that the Welsh Government waste no time in deploying this app across Wales—the same app as in England. To design their own will only cause further delay. However, if this route is taken, I request that the Welsh app at least communicates with its English counterpart; otherwise, it will not serve us who live in a border constituency, nor will it benefit the national monitoring of this pandemic. The UK Government have introduced a cautious and measured recovery plan—
Order. Sorry, but the four minutes are up. We now move on to Jamie Stone.
Greetings from the far north of Scotland. I want to talk about tourism in the highlands.
Visitors and tourists from the UK and overseas are always very welcome in this most beautiful part of the UK, and our hospitality and tourism industry is critical to the local economy. It is an industry that is sustainable in the long term, and which, most importantly, provides local jobs for local people. As long as we have a high-quality tourism product, by which I mean landscape, culture, top-quality food and drink—that sort of thing—we can attract tourists to come back again and again to a truly special part of the world. But we are in the midst of the current pandemic. People leaving home and moving about simply increases the risk of the disease being spread. Many in the highlands and many of my constituents are concerned that visitors will look at the map of where the virus is most common and think, “Oh well, the highlands looks pretty free. Let’s go there.” The trouble is that in the highlands, health services are at best limited. The NHS staff and care workers are doing a fantastic job, but they work with limited resources and that is why we have taken the lockdown rules so seriously in the highlands. That is why we have taken every precaution to look after one another and that is why we continue to “stay home, safe lives and save the NHS”.
The health and safety of my constituents is my greatest concern during this difficult period, so I say this to potential visitors. In normal times you would be really, really welcome, but right now please stay in your usual homes, wherever they may be. Please, please wait until the medical advice says that the risk of you spreading the virus to my constituents has gone. Surely those who truly care for the highlands and highland people will respect the need to prioritise our health and safety.
Despite our strong feelings about the need to keep safe, we in the highlands also know that the longer the pandemic goes on, the more the long-term damage our local businesses will suffer. The absence of visitors paying money to our tourism businesses possibly for weeks and months could actually cause many businesses to go under. It is a vicious circle. For every business that goes under during the pandemic, the highlands becomes all the poorer in what we can offer visitors when it is safe for them to return. It is worse than that, however, because unlike many other enterprises tourism businesses are seasonal. The money taken in during the tourism season has to be sufficient to see that businesses have enough in the bank to get through what we call the dark cold months in the highlands. That is why I suggest that the present pandemic is so particularly dangerous for those tourism businesses. Even if the pandemic were to end in a few months, much of the tourism season will have gone. That is why I support the proposal from my hon. Friend the Member for Westmorland and Lonsdale (Tim Farron) for the UK Government to introduce a 12-month financial support package to secure the survival of the tourism industry until summer 2021.
To conclude, my plea is to both the UK and the Scottish Governments. Those tourism businesses are doing all they can just now. For instance, selling vouchers that can be used at a later date when travel is absolutely safe is a seriously good idea, one which we should all wholeheartedly endorse and support. But I believe that both the Scottish Government and the UK Government owe it to those tourism businesses to go a specially tailored extra mile for them right now. Otherwise, they will go under and we will have a disaster on our hands. I believe that all of us really owe the tourism businesses that hand of help—nothing less than that.
I, too, would like to thank all for the hard work to get us to this point, particularly those in Hyndburn and Haslingden. I welcome the document released by the Government that sets out the strategy to both return to a normality for people, while maintaining that the overriding priority remains to save lives and move with caution.
I, and many others, still have concerns about the minority who are still flouting the social distancing measures, while so many have sacrificed seeing their loved ones. That is why I welcome the news that the Government are examining more stringent enforcement measures for non-compliance. We also need an assurance that the supply chain for PPE is consistent and efficient, and that testing is readily available for those who need it and results are returned in the timeframe specified. There has been a momentous effort, but as the Prime Minister said, there remains much more to do.
Many communities and areas went into this fight less resilient and less able to take the economic and social hit needed to win, with disadvantaged communities the worst affected. That is all the more reason why the levelling up agenda is now more important than ever, so that we in the north can bounce back from the hardships that will follow. That is not out of a need for charity, however. We here in east Lancashire are ready and able to play our part when it is right to do so. With the right investment and incentives, we can play a leading role in the recovery. We have already shown that in the role we played in the response. I am proud to say that I worked closely with my council in Hyndburn to make sure business grants were issued swiftly, which resulted in Hyndburn being placed in the top three of over 300 councils.
That was a huge joint effort by all, but let us go further here in east Lancashire. Some very credible figures make a compelling case for investing in green and sustainable infrastructure as a way of boosting the economy as we come out the other side of this crisis. Where better to start than in the heart of east Lancashire, where we have some of the finest manufacturers and businesses that the UK has to offer?
To put it simply, I would like to see our engineers and plumbers out there installing insulation and new boiler technology, and working on new technology for cars, solar farms and wind power. I want to see northern advanced manufacturers, who have done so much in the field of aerospace, turn their attention to next-generation sustainable technologies and infrastructure. They just need the boost, and then we can let those amazing entrepreneurs do the rest. That will increase employment and put money back in the pockets of our local residents. Help us to help you. Let us level up as promised and let the north lead.
In order to do that, we have to beat the virus. As we enter the next phases of the Government’s plan, individual responsibility to do the right thing will become ever more important. It is on each and every one of us to be alert to the threat that is still posed and to make sensible and responsible decisions. Please, let us consider Hyndburn and Haslingden, and east Lancashire, as part of the process of this country’s recovery from covid-19.
I start by saying an enormous thank you to everyone in my constituency. The community spirit has been extraordinary. We were told to socially distance, but I always thought the phrase should be “physically distance”. In some ways, we are now closer than ever socially, and I do not want to lose that.
As we emerge, there will be elements that we do not want to lose—communities connecting more; less air pollution; the return of wildlife; the fact that every single person who is homeless has a bed for the night if they want it; more time to engage in creativity, and more time with family—but it has not been the same for everyone. Although some call covid the great leveller, I would argue that it has been more of a common backdrop, against which the stains in our social fabric have become even more obvious.
We are all in this together, yet the lifeboats have not been evenly spread. Someone is twice as likely to die from the virus if they live in a deprived area where housing is more overcrowded and it is harder to have any personal space. Deprived children struggle to access education because they do not have broadband or a device, and they are falling behind. That is secondary, of course, to whether they are eating or even safe. People from black, Asian and minority ethnic communities go to work knowing that they are more at risk than others.
This has been a time of reflection. As we look in the mirror, we must ask ourselves whether we are comfortable with what we see. Do we want to go back to how it was, or do we want to negotiate a new social contract that nurtures individuals and respects nature? The time is coming to make a decision, and I sincerely hope that we choose to seize the opportunity that we have been afforded.
Before that, however, we have the small matter of easing out of the current state of lockdown and the confusion of the Government’s most recent announcement— and it has been confusing.
My inbox was inundated last night by constituents asking questions about their jobs. Do they have to go in or not? Will it be safe? And schools are much of the focus. Given the age groups that the Government are allowing to go back—they include nursery age children, who cannot socially distance at all, but not secondary schools, where studies show that the disadvantage gap is likely to be widening—it is clear that the Government are prioritising the economy over learning. No doubt many parents will be pleased at the prospect of some peace and quiet to enable them to get on with work, but not all. Opinion is mixed.
After reading the Government’s guidance carefully last night, I remain very sceptical of how this will work in practice. The economy is one thing, but what about safety? I am especially concerned about the lack of scientific evidence presented alongside the plans to reassure us that it is safe for children to mix in this way. Are we sure that they will not spread the disease? How do we know? Some heads are saying that they will not open because they do not feel that it is safe. And what of the teachers? Chris Whitty has said that we need a “proper debate” about teachers’ safety as schools reopen. I believe that it is irresponsible to not have had that debate before Sunday’s announcement. I am therefore immensely grateful to the Speaker for granting us the opportunity to question the Secretary of State for Education tomorrow in an urgent question on this matter, and I will save the rest for then.
Order. I suspend the House until 4.20 pm.
What a good job the Prime Minister is doing. He is showing superb leadership in the most terrible of times, but the Government cannot win. So many of my constituents are emailing me to say that the Government have eased the lockdown too much, and an equal number are saying that they have not eased it enough. The Opposition used to say that they wanted a grown-up conversation about the future, but when the Government provide just that, the Opposition scream, “It’s too confusing!” It seems that the Opposition are facing both ways at the same time.
But that does not excuse how badly the Government communicated their message this weekend. The television presentation by the Prime Minister was plain wrong. Too many of the Prime Minister’s special advisers and aides think they are running a presidential Government, where the Prime Minister goes on television and announces all sorts of Executive orders without any reference to Parliament. Many of them have clearly been watching too many episodes of “The West Wing”. They just do not understand how government works in this country.
Let me run through some of the reasons why Sunday’s television address was wrong. First, the Speaker had warned the Government twice not to do it. He made it clear that the Government should announce new policy in the Chamber of the House of Commons first. The Government decided to disobey the Speaker’s wishes. That is not how our parliamentary democracy works.
Secondly, the Government clearly breached the ministerial code. On page 23, under the section “Ministers and Parliament”, it says in bold type:
“When Parliament is in session, the most important announcements of Government policy should be made in the first instance, in Parliament.”
Clearly the Prime Minister’s television address breached the ministerial code.
Thirdly, every Member of Parliament knows in detail the concerns and issues raised by the coronavirus pandemic because we have hundreds and hundreds of emails, letters and phone calls from worried and concerned constituents. MPs would have been in the best position to constructively question the Prime Minister when the change in policy was announced.
Fourthly, the fine details of the change in policy, which has now been published in a 51-page document, should have been published at the same time as any change in Government policy. That would have enabled people to understand the exact detail of the changes, but it was not published, and therefore uncertainty and confusion reigned.
Fifthly, with parliamentary scrutiny of Government policy severely hampered by the hybrid nature of proceedings, the Government should have gone out of their way to give the utmost opportunity for Parliament to scrutinise changes to the most important issue facing the country.
What should have happened was that a statement should have been made in the House of Commons first. The Prime Minister should have been questioned by MPs. The Command Paper with the details should have been published at the same time, and there should have been absolutely no media briefing in advance. That would have given the best launch to the changes to Government policy.
I would like the Minister who winds up the debate to confirm that what happened on Sunday was a mistake and that in future, all new Government policy will be announced in Parliament first. In conclusion, spin and presentation do not make good government. It is Parliament that makes good government.
I do not always agree with the hon. Member for Wellingborough (Mr Bone), but what he said about the need for the Government to show proper respect to Parliament and to this House is correct, and I hope that it will be heard on the Treasury Bench.
I welcome the announcement by the Chancellor of the Exchequer of his intention to extend the furlough scheme. For businesses in the Northern Isles that will provide welcome clarity, which is very much needed. It will also allow us time to work out how we can build sufficient flexibility into the scheme in order to see a glide path coming out of it. However, my welcome for the announcement is very much tempered by my regret that so much of the provision that remains for self-employed people is wholly inadequate. We still have no answer for those small business people who rely on dividend income rather than a salary for their income. Although it would be complicated, surely it is not beyond the wit of man if the political will were there.
The Government are allowing too many self-employed people to be left behind. Here in the Northern Isles we particularly see that in the visitor economy, which is crucial to us. The assistance for bed and breakfast operators, or operators of self-catering accommodation, leaves too many people without the assistance they need. As my hon. Friend the Member for Caithness, Sutherland and Easter Ross (Jamie Stone) said earlier, the seasonal nature of our provision means that a support scheme that finishes at the end of August, or September or whenever it will be, simply will not be adequate in parts of the country such as ours. Those parts of the country that have seasonal tourism require a 12-month programme, or else the tourism industry that will be left to be resurrected at the end of this process will be that much weaker, and the rebuilding and recovery that much more difficult.
We all know that at some point we will need some sort of inquiry into this. I do not suggest that now is the moment to start that—obviously, the important thing at present is to deal with the job in hand—but we should be thinking about how the inquiry will be done. Without prejudging the outcome, it is pretty clear that when we look back at this time, we will realise that the response to this pandemic has been at its strongest when all four Governments of the United Kingdom have been able to work together. I commend them all for embarking on a four-nations approach right from the start, although we saw the first divergence from that this weekend, with the Prime Minister changing his messaging away from staying at home, to being alert. That is an intrinsically problematic message. It lacks clarity, but worse than that, it also lacks credibility with the population as a whole. I hope that as we go ahead, the four Governments of this country will see that not as an opportunity to score points against each other, but as a warning about the need to keep a unified message. Only with that unified message can we possibly hope to bring all four parts of this United Kingdom successfully through to the other side of this outbreak.
I speak as an MP for one of the areas outside London that has been hit hardest by covid-19. Tragically, we know that 246 people in Salford died due to the disease in the first two months—a death rate of 95 per 100,000 of our residents. Our thoughts are with their families, and the families of everyone who has died due to the pandemic.
At the start of this crisis the Government said that they would do whatever it takes to defeat covid-19. Local authorities such as Salford City Council took them at their word, and have done a fantastic job in supporting vulnerable people, our care system, and local businesses. The Government now seem to be backtracking and expecting councils to foot the bill for the crisis response. Across Greater Manchester, Government support for local authorities is already £400 million lower than the costs our councils have incurred, with Salford Council spending £33 million extra in the first six months of the year.
Can the Minister confirm that Government Ministers meant what they said and that all additional costs incurred by councils will be covered by Government funding? Will the Government look carefully at the suggestion from our Greater Manchester Mayor Andy Burnham about English regional representation at Cobra meetings?
On the sustainability of local businesses, I have heard from businesses across my constituency that are not eligible for the funding support that they need—from private limited companies to veterinary businesses, from dentists through to the Veterans Garage, which operates in a shared space to provide vital support for veterans.
Given that none of the businesses that I have highlighted are eligible for any support apart from loans, what reassurances can the Minister give them about their situation? Ministers also need to look again at the need for support for self-employed people in the creative industries. I have been contacted by many constituents working at MediaCityUK in Salford quays, who are not eligible for support.
The Prime Minister’s announcement on Sunday, and the guidance published since, have led to confusion about what is and is not allowed. Many of my constituents now fear that they will be forced back to work before it is safe for them. I have heard from one constituent whose son has been told to report back for work this week, despite the fact that he lives with his mother and she has been told to shield. The son has been on furlough but was asked to go back to work yesterday, even before the covid-19 secure guidance had been published.
Will the Minister confirm that businesses will be required to put the necessary protections in place and that no staff will be expected to go back to work until they can be sure it is safe to do so? Will the advice on shielding cover the issue of how that can work when another family member has to go out to work, increasing the risk?
Finally, I want to talk about family support. The Prime Minister set out a plan for getting people back to work, but the only concession for family contact was allowing one person to meet one member of another household outside, while maintaining social distancing. I was contacted after the Prime Minister’s speech by a new mother who had given birth to her baby during lockdown. None of her family or friends has been able to meet her baby or support her, and she is now feeling exceptionally isolated.
My constituents are being directed back to work, where social distancing is advised but is not even guaranteed. Why is it acceptable for someone to meet large numbers of people at work, but not get the support they need with a new baby from family members? Can the Minister clarify when we will see updated guidance for that new mother and when she will be allowed to meet family members to get the support that she needs with her baby?
The people of the United Kingdom have done a great job in looking after our communities and our country during this difficult time. They have, in very large part, followed the rules on social distancing, which has enabled us to get to the stage where we can start to look at easing the lockdown and turn our focus towards economic recovery.
It is immensely sad that people have died during this outbreak, and my heart goes out to everyone who has lost a family member or friend to this dreadful disease. We should not forget a single life taken early, and we owe it to those people and our hard-working NHS and care workers not to allow the virus to rise up again.
In a Zoom meeting the other day, the CBI discussed the need to focus now on renewal and the idea of rapid recovery. The Bank of England monetary policy committee has also recently predicted a V-shaped economic recovery. That is something that we must strive to achieve, as it is only by ensuring that our industries are thriving that we will be able to maintain and create the jobs that people need to support their families and get ahead in life.
Unfortunately, it is inevitable that some businesses will not survive, and we must ensure that those that do can grow and take on those who now find themselves unemployed. Undoubtedly, the action that the Government have taken over the past decade to restore the health of the public finances has meant that we have been in a much better position to support businesses and their employees over the course of the first phase. I particularly thank the Chancellor, Her Majesty’s Treasury and HMRC, who have been working tirelessly to ensure that businesses and individuals have access to vital funding, which I know has been a lifeline for many.
The work of the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government, through local councils, has also been exemplary, with grants to support many of our small businesses, so that we can start up their operations once again with vigour. In the new discretionary grants, I would ask that small businesses in multi-tenancy buildings, and dentists, are also included in the scheme.
As a country, we have learned some notable lessons over the past couple of months, which need to be taken forward.
Many small businesses have been adapting their business models to meet the needs of the current climate and produce the goods and services in highest demand. These businesses will need to be agile again coming out of the lockdown, to capitalise on their strengths and meet the needs of the markets in the new normal.
The hard work and dedication of those businesses should not be forgotten: businesses such as JRE Precision in Loughborough, which made the decision early on to start making ventilator parts to ensure that the NHS has the equipment it needs to save so many lives; Tarmac, based at Mountsorrel Quarry, which donated PPE to our frontline workers; and shops such as Bradley’s in Quorn, whose hard work providing essentials for the local community should be rewarded for many years to come with patronage from local residents.
If we are to achieve a rapid recovery, we need to implement the right policies to ensure that all sectors can mobilise and ramp up activity as soon as possible, from farmers, who are the very backbone of our nation, to universities, which drive innovation and provide young people with the skills needed to support the economy tomorrow, and our largest home-grown businesses, which provide people with opportunities and generate huge amounts of revenue for the Exchequer. This is the best case scenario for our country, and I would ask that the Government continue the fantastic work they have done to date and do all they can provide a route for rapid recovery.
It is a great privilege not only to follow the hon. Member for Loughborough (Jane Hunt), but to participate in this debate. I wish to add my support to the comments of the right hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland (Mr Carmichael) about the opportunities that are there and the importance of approaching this pandemic and our country’s response as one nation, recognising of course that our devolved areas will have distinct differences, but that they should operate within this United Kingdom, drawing on the bonds and support we can give one another.
It is also important during this general debate to praise the enormous warmth and enthusiastic support that members of my local community in east Belfast have been offering their neighbours, from the network centre in the East Belfast Community Development Agency, through the BT16 covid-19 community response team and the Ballymack centre, where they are making meals every day, to those in Connswater community centre. It has been heartwarming and encouraging to see just how many people within our community are prepared to step up and support one another.
Can I also, given the day that’s in it and the statement from the Chancellor, recognise the importance of extending the job retention scheme? My colleagues and I, particularly those with airports in our constituencies, have been concerned about the cliff edge proposed for the end of June. Belfast City airport is in my constituency, Madam Deputy Speaker, and you will recall that a fortnight before this pandemic really took hold Flybe went into administration, representing 80% of all the passengers who travel through our local airport and 67% of all routes. As we approach the end of the job retention scheme and that cliff edge in June, there is huge concern, even though it has been extended, that the aviation and tourism sectors will struggle to recover from this pandemic. Although the extension is welcome, I hope that there will be further and sustained engagement not only for tourism and aviation but for all the associated sectors in the aerospace industry.
I am particularly concerned, even though there has been an extension of four months today, that we have yet to hear from British Airways that it is prepared to delay its redundancy plans, for example. The plan is not only to make 12,500 employees redundant, irrespective of Government support, but to cruelly assault the terms and conditions of those workers who will be retained after the pandemic. That is totally wrong.
I want to make mention of the self-employed income support scheme and highlight my concern that those who have accessed the portal thus far have found that their Northern Ireland driving licence is not sufficient to satisfy the ID requirements. Nor is an Irish passport, even though many residents of Northern Ireland are perfectly entitled to hold one under the terms of the Good Friday/Belfast agreement. I hope that that will be challenged and changed by HMRC in the days to come.
May I raise my concern about health sector capacity? It has been noted that in Northern Ireland there has been a 40% increase in non-covid-19-related deaths compared with this time last year. It is important that we have capacity within our health service, but it cannot be at the cost of healthcare in other sectors or for other individuals. There are huge strides being made not only to protect our community but to do what is best for it in the light of the pressures we face. The resolve needs to continue, and I know that the Government will work with all the devolved Administrations in ensuring we fight the pandemic and that we, as a country, succeed.
The plan that the Prime Minister set out yesterday shows the difficult choices involved in creating a pathway on which we can continue to suppress the virus while easing some of the restrictions. I will focus my remarks in three areas. First, I pay tribute to the key workers in North West Norfolk, and particularly those in the NHS and care sector. Two weeks ago, I joined staff at the Queen Elizabeth Hospital in King’s Lynn to pay respects to their friend and colleague Chrissie Emerson, who sadly died from coronavirus. The dedication that the staff show every day deserves to be recognised with capital investment to modernise this acute hospital as part of the health infrastructure programme. I look forward to working with my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State on the proposals put forward. As well as mortality figures, the QEH publishes data on patients who have recovered and been discharged. Such figures could helpfully be published nationally.
A quarter of the care homes in my constituency have now reported outbreaks. While that is below the national average, there is no room for complacency. It is vital that care homes have access to testing and PPE to protect residents and staff.
Secondly, the bold package of support for businesses and individuals has been rightly welcomed across west Norfolk. My area relies on tourism, and the measures taken by my right hon. Friend the Chancellor—grants and bounce-back loans in particular—have so far been the difference between businesses surviving and not. However, the lockdown has come a time when pubs like the Crown Inn, restaurants, hotels and attractions in Hunstanton and across the coast should be bustling. As the plan sets July as the earliest date at which hospitality businesses could start to reopen, those firms need help. I am therefore pleased that the Chancellor today extended the furlough scheme and introduced a more flexible approach, including part-time working. He has also responded to calls that I and many other Members made for new funding for local authorities to assist businesses that did not qualify for the earlier schemes. As well as that grant support, insurance premiums, holidays and other steps would help firms be ready for the day when we can safely welcome visitors again.
On that, Norfolk police has done a great job of enforcing the current social distancing rules, in difficult circumstances. I share the concerns that travel changes in the plan may make the police’s job harder and see people flocking to the coast. Everyone must act responsibly and follow the rules. If there is a repeat of the overcrowding at the coast that occurred before lockdown, stricter measures must follow. Please, let us use common sense, stay local, only make reasonable journeys and not overcrowd the coast.
Finally, the response to the crisis from voluntary groups, including on rough sleeping, has been incredible. When I worked in the Cabinet Office, the advice was that it would take years to end rough sleeping, yet in the space of a few weeks there has been a fall of over 90%. That is thanks to the great work of the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government, with local authorities, charities and hotel chains. It is now crucial that we seize the opportunity to move people into long-term accommodation rather than see them return to the streets. According to Purfleet Trust, a charity in my constituency, that means long-term funding and a focus on prevention.
We have a road map to ease restrictions in a measured and controlled way. Everyone who has followed the rules so far has helped us get this point. Now we must continue to stay alert, and together we will come through this.
I begin with an observation: there had been a consistent approach across the four nations, but, at a time when clarity is critical, we find ourselves in a situation where three of the four nations of the UK are still trying to be clear, consistent and cautious in their approach to tackling and beating the coronavirus pandemic; it is a great pity that the Prime Minister muddied the waters so badly over the weekend. While it is absolutely the Prime Minister’s right to change from a very clear “Stay at home” message to the imprecise “Stay alert” message for England, it is irresponsible to spread the change in the media as if it applied collectively across the entire UK without even consulting the Scottish, Welsh or Northern Irish Governments. This is a public health matter that is rightly being considered by the devolved Administrations on the basis of scientific evidence. It seems that the UK Government’s idea of a four nations approach is less about working respectfully together and more about, “Do as we say.”
The advice in Scotland remains clear. For the avoidance of any doubt, I will reiterate it here: stay at home, protect the NHS, save lives. While the pandemic has undoubtedly brought challenges, it has also brought out the best in our communities. From fundraising to helping neighbours to the willingness of our communities to help, it has been incredible, nowhere more so than in my own Midlothian constituency, with resilience groups in Bonnyrigg and Lasswade, Dalkeith and Woodburn, Danderhall, Eskbank and Newbattle, Gorebridge, Howgate, Loanhead, Newtongrange, Penicuik, Roslin and Bilston, Rosewell and the Tynewater area. I make particular mention of the Mayfield and Easthouses community resilience team, which has so far delivered more than 3,550 hot meals to elderly and vulnerable members of our community. There will undoubtedly be other amazing examples of help and support, and Midlothian Council’s #KindnessMidlothian campaign is certainly well-named to reflect that.
I also for the most part welcome the Treasury’s response to this pandemic, although there are many areas that still need to be addressed. I welcome the business support that has been put in place by the Chancellor and his efforts so far to resolve problems that have emerged with the schemes, but a lot more urgently needs to be done to help those still left behind. I have many constituents who have yet to receive any support and who had a viable business but cannot get a loan to see them through. The business interruption loan scheme is too cumbersome, and too many banks are still failing to lend. While the bounce-back scheme tackles some of those issues for smaller businesses, the reports that I have heard suggest that it remains far from a streamlined process, and there are only five accredited lenders compared with 50 for the interruption loan scheme. There is also still the issue of support for the self-employed, particularly those who left a good job to run their own business.
I welcome the extension of the furlough scheme announced by the Chancellor earlier today and the suggested flexibility. I am keen to see the detail of that much more clearly. As we move forward, we need to ensure that protection remains in place for those who need it. At the end of the day, I argue that the best and most flexible support that could be put in place would be for the Government to introduce a universal basic income and genuinely ensure that nobody is missed through these tough times.
Protecting people’s lives while they are protecting their livelihoods is a complex matter. One size does not fit all and a degree of flexibility to suit differing circumstances is needed from Government—flexible support and flexibility over strategy in the different parts of these isles. I welcome the more cautious approach from the Scottish Government in easing lockdown. I advise the UK Government to take a similar approach. I appreciate that they would choose not to, but they must respect the devolved settlement and not undermine the clarity of message we have here in Scotland.
The covid-19 pandemic has affected all our lives in so many ways. First, I offer my condolences and prayers to all those who have lost loved ones during this crisis. I pay tribute to all those on the frontline in our NHS and the care sector who have been working tirelessly to look after people and to keep us safe. I also thank the key workers who have kept society going, be that in looking after children, supporting our food supply lines or working in our vital public services.
I thank all those who have come together in Cumbria to support our local communities: our local resilience forums, local volunteer groups, emergency groups, churches and the like. It has been so heartening how people have rolled up their sleeves and are looking out for their neighbour and providing much needed help and support, especially to the vulnerable at this time.
I very much welcome the unprecedented support measures that the Government have put in place during this crisis, which have provided the lifeline and bridge to allow jobs and businesses to be there on the other side. I also thank the Government for listening to feedback from me and other colleagues and adapting the support schemes so that more people can be included.
In my constituency of Penrith and The Border, key changes that have helped our tourism sector include the expansion of business grants to bed and breakfasts. I am also so grateful to the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs for responding to our calls for a dairy hardship fund. I hope that the Government can further and widen the support to include directors of companies who have paid themselves a salary through dividends, to expand the flexibility of the furlough scheme —I very much welcome the Chancellor’s announcements today—and to widen the business grants and rates relief strategies. That will really help vital businesses such as vets and dentists.
As a vet, I pay tribute to the profession of which I am a proud member. Vets, nurses and their allied staff have stepped up in this crisis to provide necessary care for our animals and support for our food supply chains. In addition, the veterinary sector has transferred much needed medical equipment, such as ventilators, into the NHS, and veterinary staff have stepped up in large numbers to volunteer in the NHS and in their communities.
As we are now looking ahead to the transition phase, it is important that support is in place and is targeted at businesses that may be slower to recover, such as those in the tourism and hospitality sectors, which are so important for Cumbria. [Inaudible].
The covid pandemic has thrown into sharp relief the importance of food production and security, and the critical areas of health and social care. Newton Rigg College in Penrith has over 1,000 learners and 130 staff, and provides education in vital areas such as agriculture, land-based studies, and health and social care. The college is now the subject of a local provision needs analysis by the Further Education Commissioner’s office, creating uncertainty over its future. It is critical that the Government work with local stakeholders to try to secure a viable and sustainable future for this important institution. Now more than ever, we must look after colleges such as Newton Rigg, that play such a big role in supporting our vital farming industry and providing important career options for our local communities. Covid-19 can and will be overcome, but we must make sure that our communities, businesses and institutions are supported to be there for the long term.
I start by sharing my huge gratitude to all the key workers in East Renfrewshire, who are doing such important work, and to the brilliant volunteers supporting our local community at this difficult time. I also pass on my condolences to those in East Renfrewshire who have lost loved ones.
For the UK Government to be described as “reckless” by the British Safety Council in the midst of a pandemic should make even this Prime Minister pause. It was a disappointment that he did not share his planning or consult—not just with the devolved Administrations, but with local authorities, trade unions, employer representatives, and even, reportedly, his own Cabinet. Having set his announcement for Sunday to allow people to get going with the measures on Monday, it emerged that no preparation had been done with regard to transport, childcare and many other issues. Confusion reigned, even among the Ministers set out to do the morning media rounds. Most announcements applied only to England—although you would struggle to tell—but many in the Prime Minister’s party are demanding that all four nations march towards the cliff edge in lockstep. The response from Scotland is firm: no chance.
Is it really time to stop protecting the NHS? If not, why is that disappearing from the heart of the campaign in England? And why was the “Stay Alert” slogan launched with green imagery? It is not difficult to see the signal that that is designed to send. As the Prime Minister prevaricates and blusters, it is clear that he is trying to nudge the population into an ill-considered move. Telling people to deal with the pandemic by staying alert is an abrogation of responsibility. A crisis of this magnitude demands leadership; thank goodness for Nicola Sturgeon and her fellow First Ministers.
But there is no going back to the same old, same old—even if we wanted to. The Prime Minister’s enthusiastic but vague encouragement for people in England to hop in their cars and get back to work is neither sensible nor realistic. It displays a lack of connection to the reality of people’s lives, never mind their working lives. The Prime Minister needs to remedy that as a matter of urgency if he has any interest in workers’ safety and wellbeing.
I applaud the UK Government for bringing in the furlough scheme but, as ever, the devil is in the less publicised detail. There will be disquiet at the impact on jobs of the employer contribution that the Chancellor announced today that he is looking for. I and other colleagues have been calling for flexibility in furloughing, and the Chancellor said today that there can be flexibility from August; we need to see partial furloughing before that. The Scottish Chamber of Commerce asks that flexibility takes account of a company’s ability to contribute, which will differ depending on location and sector. I hope that the Chancellor will take that on board.
Despite the recognition of the vulnerability of pregnant women at the start of this crisis, it took until yesterday for half a sentence of guidance to be produced. Women have had to take sick leave or annual leave because the UK Government failed to listen when the issue was highlighted to them. If we are to achieve an orderly end to lockdown when the time is right, listening will be vital, and fair, safe, flexible work will be key. The Government should focus on not only sustaining jobs but enhancing fairness and employment rights as we look ahead. They must properly examine how a universal basic income could underpin a sustainable and fair recovery, which will be so important in the months and years ahead.
It is a pleasure to speak in this debate and to see you looking resplendent in the Chair, Madam Deputy Speaker.
I wish to take the opportunity to thank all my constituents, who have done the most amazing job rallying around and looking after each other—that is what makes my part of the East Sussex coast so special. I also wish to recognise and thank the Government for the support that they have given and the lead they have taken in these difficult times.
As MPs from all parties will be aware, we face day-to-day challenges. For the past few weeks, my daily challenge has been to try to get our Bexhill testing centre plugged into the central link. We have a frustrating situation whereby we have a testing centre, but it is not plugged in. If anyone from Deloitte is following proceedings, I ask them to plug our local centre in to the national link so that local people can use their local testing centre.
In my few remaining minutes I wish to focus on the Transport Committee’s inquiry on coronavirus and the implications for the transport sector. We have been looking at the aviation sector, which is clearly on its knees right now and needs our assistance. I note the Government support and welcome it, but recent days have seen us looking towards quarantine. My question to the Government is why now? If it is required from a health perspective, why was it not introduced at the start of lockdown? If it is required now, what help will there be for the aviation sector so that it can pick up? It is important not just for jobs and travel, but for our imports and exports. Some 40% of all imports arrive in the belly of airliners arriving at Heathrow, and it is important that we support them.
The aviation sector itself needs to do more to support its staff. Yesterday, the chief executive of British Airways’ parent group, Willie Walsh, appeared before the Select Committee. Almost a third of BA staff are facing redundancy, and those who remain have been told that their terms and conditions will be lowered and altered. Some of those terms and conditions have nothing to do with costs—for example, they may relate to grievance procedures. It feels as if BA is using this as an opportunity to undertake long-held reforms of terms and conditions. I asked the chief executive whether he would be willing to allow those employees to share the proceeds of growth if things return back to normal times, but he refused to give that assurance. Thousands of BA staff have contacted me and other members of the Select Committee. They are clearly the best of employees—they care about their carrier and they care about each other— and I hope that BA will use the welcome extension of furlough to put the redundancy plans back in the hold, where they deserve to be.
I also want to talk briefly about Gatwick, my local airport. It is—or has been—the busiest single runway airport, handling 46 million passengers each year. It is an important national asset, and I really hope that it will survive.
The next Committee session for us will be on buses and trains. We are very concerned about the worker situation. There are 9.9 coronavirus deaths per 100,000 UK males, yet in the bus sector the figure is 26.4 deaths. Clearly, more needs to be done to protect those workers. I support the measures that the Government have brought in today regarding passengers using their own PPE, although I note that, in France, PPE is being handed out on a more professional basis by workers. In Germany, the transport system is back operating as normal because it recognises that social-distancing just does not work in practice. As we move out of lockdown, I hope that we can be more flexible so that we protect our economy and our transport sector.
Thank you, Madam Deputy Speaker, for the opportunity to take part in this general debate on covid-19 and to be a voice for the people of Coatbridge, Chryston and Bellshill in these unprecedented times. This pandemic has presented completely new challenges for us all, demanding responses that have no precedent, but this is by no means an excuse for the response of this UK Government.
This is not the first time that these nations have been faced with a crisis. Indeed, just last week, images of world war two were again broadcast into our homes. It was a time when our nations fought bravely together and when strong leadership provided the ultimate protection against our enemy threats. Today, we face a new fight and a new enemy, but there is no protection in the leadership of this Prime Minister. Where we looked for leadership, calmness, and direction, we found stand-ins, mixed messages and confusion. Covid-19 is no more a natural disaster than a famine; both are highly politicised events. We can waste time blaming the outbreak of disease on global agribusiness, but it would be an insult to the intelligence of the people of these nations if we do not recognise that the true failure in preparation lies at the very heart of the UK Government. For years, this Government have tried to fool us into thinking that their austerity-driven attack on our vital public services has been a societal necessity. Yet the current crisis has magnified the absurdities of these complacent assumptions. Will they now admit that austerity has always been an entirely political decision from which we are all now suffering: hence, the failure to implement immediate isolation and contact tracing for all those entering our borders; hence, the fatal delay in implementing lockdown; hence, the vast shortages of PPE in our hospitals and care homes; hence, the failure to meet revised testing target after revised testing target; and hence, the thousands upon thousands of lonely, untimely deaths that could and should have been prevented.
Despite those vast failings, a vague optimism has been added to proceedings: a vague optimism that people can go back to work but only if their work is open; a vague optimism that we can travel as far as we desire for exercise, but as long as public transport is not involved; and a vague optimism that we can meet with another outwith our household, but only if we do not plan to meet up with them beforehand. This vague optimism has become the epitome of the UK Government’s message. It is a strange pretence that everything is suddenly normalised: that witnessing the news of hundreds of deaths on our TV screens every evening is just to be accepted and that we can continue with life as we did in the past. A de facto muddling-through has emerged in this UK Government, one that is concentrating on maximising market power rather than on prioritising public health. It is quite disgraceful.
My constituents, like many others up and down these countries, are bearing the brunt of this confusion. No one should be forced to risk their health or the health of their loved ones in order to maintain their employment, and yet that is the very dilemma that my constituents are facing after this Prime Minister, on Sunday night, chose, as he always does, to prioritise one-nation Conservatism over a four-nation approach.
Let me finish by saying this, Madam Deputy Speaker: our death toll is nothing short of catastrophic. Our daily counts have far surpassed that of our neighbouring countries and somehow there is a determination to cloak this in the illusion of a Great Britain; a mythology built on inflated pride and lowered expectations. It is not this Government who are great—far from it—but the people of these nations who make it so. It is the health and social care workers, our security officers, our emergency responders, our till operators, our delivery drivers, and our teachers. It is to them that I give my thanks and appreciation. Those people are the backbone of our society and only when this UK Government begin to prioritise human life over economic prosperity will this country have something to be optimistic about.
In addition to placing on record my gratitude to everyone in the NHS and on the frontline, I would like to pay tribute to the many of my constituents who have gone above and beyond. From the community hub set up by Buckinghamshire Council, the support network on Facebook for the town of Buckingham, St Laurence’s church in Winslow delivering meals to the most vulnerable, and the Haddenham Scrub Hub sewing garments for the NHS and care staff, every corner of my constituency is playing a part.
In particular, I would like to highlight two schemes: the incredible Risborough Basket, set up by Councillor Matt Walsh and the team at Princes Risborough Town Council, which delivers orders from local shops and has its own fruit and veg service for isolating households; and Bernie the Bus, set up by Councillors Paul Irwin and Ashley Waite, which collects food bank donations from people’s driveways. It blasts out music, bringing a note of cheer as it passes through the villages, and on the days I volunteered with it in Quainton, Ashendon, Wescott, Marsh Gibbon, Grendon Underwood, Oakley and Brill, I was blown away by the generosity that so many people showed through their donations. Once we are through this crisis, I hope we can capture the very best of the great British spirit shown by these community heroes, and ensure that we can strengthen our country’s strong record of voluntary service for the long term.
I have also been proud of the many businesses that have adapted, including farm shops doing deliveries and pubs doing takeaways, and even the drive-through beer service at the Chiltern Brewery. So many businesses have done their very best, and I encourage everyone to shop local to support them. One business, sadly, has completely failed to follow the guidance. HS2 Ltd’s contractors have worked throughout the crisis, not social distancing and causing great alarm in villages such as Steeple Claydon. Contractors have been refusing to follow the rules on staying on site, instead using local shops and making residents fearful of the virus being spread. The chief executive of HS2 Ltd gave me many assurances on this at the Transport Select Committee, but the gap between promises and reality continues to be wide. I am hopeful that the HS2 Minister can use the evidence I am sending him to hold HS2 Ltd fully to account.
On business support, the speed with which the Government put in place financial support and security for people’s jobs, including today’s extension of the job retention scheme, has been incredible. That was no small or easy task. With an economy as diverse and dynamic as ours, however, it was inevitable that not every eventuality would be covered, and I am grateful to the Government for listening and adding support throughout the crisis. An example is the additional £10,000 grants announced for the hardest-hit dairy farmers, which I and other colleagues argued for.
However, a couple of pieces of the jigsaw need to be put in place if we are to complete the picture. Many owner-directors of small businesses—the backbone of our economy—who perfectly legitimately pay themselves through dividends are becoming increasingly desperate. They are facing uncertain futures. I accept that there is no easy solution, but for those who continue to be unable to trade, support needs to be made available. Secondly, many suppliers to the events and hospitality sector do not have the support that the companies they serve have received, despite their inability to trade being the same. I am hopeful that councils will use their new discretionary grants to support them, along with other firms that have contacted me, such as coach companies, kennels and hauliers. With those two calls heard, I commend the Government for their continuing strong response to this crisis.
It is a pleasure to take part in this debate today, as I look out of the window at this beautiful day in Edinburgh. Although the past few months have been tough and we have come through much, the people of this city and my constituency know that it will take every ounce of our energy to preserve what it is that makes Edinburgh such a wonderful place. Traffic at our airport is now almost negligible, the Royal Highland Show, which contributes £65 million to our economy, has been cancelled, and that shining gem in Scotland’s cultural calendar, the Edinburgh Festival, will not bring the world to our city this August. Across Edinburgh, myriad small, medium-sized and international companies are concerned for their future—a future of challenges for which they are not responsible.
For us here in Edinburgh West, as in most constituencies up and down the country, perhaps the biggest task is looking after the thousands of people concerned about their health, their jobs and their financial future. We calculated yesterday that during this period of lockdown we have dealt with around 1,000 pieces of individual casework, every one a personal emergency.
Much of this crisis has been managed by the UK Government, but also directly, here in Edinburgh, by the Scottish Government. The issues that they face are exactly the same; but in tackling them I would appeal to both our Governments to work together. Much has been said this week about mixed messages, uncertainty, a lack of clarity about what the UK Government were saying about lifting lockdown. Imagine what that is like for the people of Northern Ireland, Wales and Scotland, with advice that is often contradictory—not just different: completely contradictory. Can I go out? Can I go to work? Which Government do I listen to? Which advice do I follow? Which guidelines are appropriate if I am out walking my dog? That is ridiculous. It is also not good enough for my constituents, or for any other constituent in any other part of the devolved nations. And for those organisations and companies that I mentioned earlier, any uncertainty is a potential recipe for disaster. In Scotland, our businesses have now had more than eight years of debate about our future. Will our economy be in an independent Scotland? Will our economy be in the UK? Will we be part of the European Union or not? All the uncertainty they have had to deal with seems small now in comparison to the emergency that is Covid-19.
I would ask both our Governments to work together, so that our airports and our airlines, which are so vital to our economy, are able to build a strategy in which they know that they will be speaking to not just the devolved authority but the UK authority and wider authorities, so that companies like Diageo, based here in Edinburgh West, know which framework they are falling into, and the people of Edinburgh West, Scotland and the rest of the United Kingdom have a clear path- way out of this crisis—a clear, united pathway, with their Governments walking in lockstep for everyone’s future.
It is nice to have the chance to put on record my thanks to constituents in Bosworth and the key workers. A couple of weeks ago, I wrote to the GPs, the pharmacies, indeed the police, the schools, the care homes, to congratulate them on the work they are doing, and continue to do. I am most grateful for all that they do.
It is fair to say that the virus reaches all areas of our lives, and in turn all areas of Government, and that brings pain—pain with the loss of businesses, pain with the loss of jobs, but, most importantly, pain with the loss of lives. However, out of crisis comes opportunity, and there are some positives. I would like the Government to take those forward. I envisage that in the form of a time-limited department called the “department of virus legacy”.
At the end of April, I wrote to the Cabinet Office and the Prime Minister, because I think it is so important, as we have heard in these debates, to encapsulate and draw on all the positive aspects that have come out of this crisis. We have had a revolution overnight, rather than the usual evolution. In my sector as a GP, literally overnight everyone has begun teleconferencing. That is something that the industry has tried to do for over a decade, and has not been able to achieve—and just like that, it has happened.
Pharmacies are now all digital, with electronic prescribing. In my role on the Health and Social Care Committee, I asked all the witnesses we have had what positive aspects had come out of this. Those in cancer care talked about how they were able to bring 10 teams into one hospital to deal with a patient, and maternity talked about the fact that they have actually had more contact because they can do remote teleconferencing. It is the same with mental health. There are positives out there, and that is just in the sector that I come from.
More widely, we have looked at remote working. We have looked at the societal benefits of now knowing your neighbour, caring for your neighbour and caring for your community. These are absolutely critical things, which we need to embed into our society. To do that, I urge the Government to consider establishing such a department.
Legacy planning, as we found in the Olympics, is absolutely critical. Now more than ever we have the time-limited opportunity to enshrine, post virus, the positive changes in the fabric of our policies and, in turn, our Government and society. To the Minister listening I say, “I hope you will take this on board when you hold discussions with the rest of Government.”
I would like to begin by saying that nothing is more important than people’s lives, health and safety—nothing. Every death from covid-19 is a death too many. Every person or family suffering hardship right now is a person or family too many. No one is expendable.
Protecting people in the first and utmost duty of any Government, and the primary function of our economy should be to serve the interests of our communities. This is why so many of us are simply appalled by the Government’s statement on lifting coronavirus restrictions. Workers’ lives are being put at risk by the call for them to be pressured to return to work. It has further demonstrated that we have a callous, cold Government who have chosen to put big business above the welfare of the country—and above the people of my constituency, Poplar and Limehouse, who are already forced to endure the highest rate of child poverty in the entire country.
New local figures today show that Tower Hamlets residents of Asian background are twice as likely to be showing signs of covid-19, yet shockingly this is not news per se, but confirmation of what had already become increasingly clear. Many of us have been raising concerns about the disproportionate effect of covid-19 on black, Asian and minority ethnic people for weeks and weeks now—right since the onset of this crisis. The Government finally announced that they were launching a review of the impact of covid-19 on BAME communities, but what has actually happened since—what actual steps have been taken? I am forced to continue to say it again and again: urgent, immediate and robust steps must be taken to address the unequal health and economic impacts of covid-19 on black, Asian and minority ethnic groups—not tomorrow but today.
On top of this, we are seeing how the hostile environment has resulted in many migrants being left destitute and at greater risk of infection. Undocumented migrants, particularly in my constituency, are contacting me daily in despair, calling for an amnesty and support in order to survive.
I pay tribute to those delivering public and essential services, and especially to our NHS staff on the frontline, but it is clear that our public services as a whole are ill-prepared for dealing with this large-scale health risk because of spending cuts on a scale not seen for generations. Today, as we celebrate International Nurses Day, the Government should honour nurses with the pay rise they so desperately need. They should take urgent action to ensure the safety of public safety workers, particularly those in the NHS and care staff, and those from BAME backgrounds—because what do our tributes and gestures actually mean to those literally dying on the frontline?
Sadly, at least 65 education staff have died with coronavirus, of whom 43 were women and 22 were men, as of 20 April. How can the Government not see that schools must not be reopened until it is safe to do so? There has never been a more important time to either join or become active in a trade union when trade unions are forced to step in to take action against bosses who put their members’ health at risk. The unions will have our full and unwavering support. This includes supporting the National Education Union’s call for the Government to rethink their risky and dangerous approach.
It is truly shocking how the Government have dragged their heels every step of the way regarding the greatest health crisis of our generation. We have had to push for PPE, push for testing, and push for daily updates on covid-19 deaths so that older people are not airbrushed out of the death toll. Despite securing promises around testing and tracing, particularly in relation to the horror and tragedy of those in care homes, there is still much more to be done. Yet not only are the continued delays and lack of urgency incomprehensible, but there is talk about things going back to normal. The UK has suffered the second-highest number of recorded coronavirus deaths in the world and the fourth-highest number of recorded new cases in the world. Official figures confirm that the number of UK deaths during the coronavirus pandemic over and above normal levels has exceeded 50,000. Fifty thousand people have died—50,000 deaths. Now is clearly not the time to ease the lockdown, and I fear for us all if the Government continue with this risky and reckless disregard for people’s lives, wellbeing and safety.
I am grateful for the opportunity to contribute to this debate. Like so many Members who have spoken in the Chamber and by video link, I want to start by paying tribute to all the work that has been done in my constituency over the last few difficult months. In particular, I want to put on record my thanks to everybody at Chesterfield Royal Hospital who has dealt so brilliantly with such a challenging time, to the healthcare workers in the community, to the people working in our GP surgeries across the towns and villages of North East Derbyshire, to the pharmacists who have been in touch and are working hard, and to everybody working in our care homes and social care settings across north Derbyshire. My thanks go out to all those who are working so hard at this incredibly difficult time.
And it goes beyond that. I also want to thank the people working in our jobcentres in Chesterfield and Staveley, those who are helping in our schools to allow the sons and daughters of keyworkers to continue, and our local councils. Derbyshire County Council has been ensuring that the people who need to shield—of whom there are 1 million across the country—by staying out of the community for their own safety get the medicines and food that they need. North East Derbyshire District Council has done some wonderful work over the last few weeks, contacting those who are self-isolating to make sure that they get the support and help they need and to check up on people where necessary. I am incredibly grateful for all the work that has been done.
The little acts of kindness are particularly important, and I want to mention a few that have come through my inbox in the last few days alone—the PPE that is being created by Dronfield Henry Fanshawe School and St Mary’s at the moment; the pupils of New Whittington Community Primary School who have done a video to say thank you to their teachers; Mrs Shelagh Cheetham and her friends, who have made thousands of pieces of PPE for local hospitals and healthcare settings; and James Cutts from Wingerworth, who goes on his daily run around the village not in normal running wear but in a Batman or Superman suit, to cheer up local children when he goes past their windows. I am grateful for all that they are doing, and I hope that they continue.
In the time I have left, I want to spend a few moments looking at the broader challenge that we face. Members have raised many different questions today. Some are fair questions. Some, in my view, are unfair questions, but I understand why they are being asked. A series of broader truths has come forward over the past few weeks. We live in unprecedented times. There is no absolute certainty in decisions, and fundamentally, it reminds us all of the frailty of humanity. We think that we control our environment. Actually, our environment controls us. However brilliant our science, however able our politics and however fantastic our communities, ultimately, decisions are sometimes beyond us.
We have done so much over the past couple of months to get on top of this virus, and I am confident that we will do more in the coming days, weeks and months. This is the first pandemic in a century that we have had to deal with, and it is the first pandemic in a globalised world. We are seeking to do something that has never been done in the history of humanity: to turn back the tide of a pandemic and stop it overwhelming us. We have made huge progress, and I am grateful to everybody for the work they have done. Together, we will continue to do that work, and together, we will get through this, to a better world at the end.
It is a pleasure to be beaming into the Chamber this afternoon. Like every other MP, I want to pay tribute to my community in Richmond Park and the way that they have stepped up to the challenge of coronavirus. On International Nurses Day, I want to talk in particular about the nurses at Kingston Hospital and those nurses and midwives who are taking time out from their training at the hospital to serve on the frontline. We thank you from the bottom of our hearts for everything that you are doing.
I also want to take this opportunity to highlight our transport sector and, in particular, the extraordinary contribution that our transport workers have made throughout this crisis. They have kept our buses and trains moving to get our frontline workers to their places of work, and they have had to face the same dangers. I pay tribute to the 29 Transport for London workers who have died during this crisis, including 23 bus drivers, and I know that the whole House will join me in paying tribute to Belly Mujinga, a ticket checker at Victoria station who died after contracting coronavirus from a traveller who spat at her.
We are asking a huge amount of our transport workers. We are now asking them to keep us safe as we return to work. We can all appreciate how enormously difficult it will be to maintain social distancing on public transport, and I acknowledge the efforts of all those who will be charged with keeping us safe. With the support of MPs from across the House, I wrote to both the Secretary of State for Transport and the Mayor of London last week to call for PPE for transport workers to protect them as they go about their essential work. When we think of the families of those who have already died, we know that this is the very least we can do.
The Government need to think now about the future of our transport network. We have the opportunity that we have been waiting for to drive through real change to achieve a greener transport network and to meet the challenge of climate change. The massive drop of cars on our roads has led to massively increased air quality, and I know that this is a benefit that my constituents and those elsewhere will want to maintain. It was extremely encouraging to hear from the Secretary of State for Transport about his support and game-changing investment in cycling and walking solutions, not just for our cities, but for communities elsewhere. It is beyond time that the Government threw their support behind active travel for all the environmental, financial, mental, social and physical benefits that it offers to every traveller. It will be not just a crucial part of getting people back to work, but part of a long-term solution for our cities and towns as we adjust to the challenge of the climate emergency, because as long as we understand that we need to avoid public transport, our bus and train companies will continue to see a catastrophic loss of revenue. The Government need to start thinking now about how public transport networks can be maintained so that they are ready to support our workforce as they make a full return to work, as we all hope one day to do.
We also need to think long term about essential economic infrastructure and how we move freight around our country and internationally. Hauliers and the aviation industry are also facing disaster. They make an essential contribution to our critical supply lines, such as food and medicine, and we need to think long term about how we support those supply lines. I have been calling on the Government to address this; if they feel that it is necessary to support those industries with a Government bail-out, this is the opportunity we have been waiting for to force the pace on meeting the challenge of climate change and to ask those industries to really start embedding greener forms of fuel and movement into their industries.
Madam Deputy Speaker, thank you for the opportunity to contribute to this most important debate. Covid-19 is a devastating enemy and it is right that parliamentary time should be given to debate its causes and effects. Given that so many people remain on the frontline, I wish to pay my own tribute to key workers right across the UK and beyond who continue to serve others. I also wish to pay my respects to the families and friends of those who have been so gravely affected.
In my constituency, I have been proud to witness the superb provision of life support to those in isolation. Within Wokingham borough, the hub at St Crispin’s leisure centre has been a beacon of community spirit, and I have been privileged to deliver food to families who cannot venture out. Well done to everyone at Wokingham citizens advice bureau, Link and all the volunteers, who have done so much. In Bracknell, many others have come together to support Healthwatch Bracknell Forest and involve Community Services. I say thank you to them and to both Wokingham Borough Council and Bracknell Forest Council for underwriting this vital provision, and for their fiscal responsibility.
As for central Government, there has been a commendable and entirely conditions-based approach to the pandemic. The word “unprecedented” is often overplayed, but it is quite true that there is no policy precedent for covid-19 and the Government have rightly needed to feel their way on medical and scientific advice. Now is not the time for media hysteria, nor for political point scoring. Indeed, the time for a public inquiry will come and the benefit of hindsight is a powerful weapon, but it is time for an incremental approach to easing the lockdown, based upon common sense. As I stated yesterday, it is not down to the UK Government to regulate every aspect of people’s lives, nor is it for the media to seek definitive clarity on every permutation of what we can and cannot do. It is in fact for us as individuals to follow the guidelines, maintain social distancing, respect others and hence prevent further loss of life.
In the short time I have left, I urge the Government to think carefully about further mitigation in key areas. First, the decision to impose 14 days of quarantine upon entry to the UK by air will have a devastating effect on individuals, businesses, our global ambitions and the airline industry, particularly in constituencies such as mine that are closely to major airports. At a time when we need the economy to start breathing again, we must consider whether testing before or immediately after arrival will suffice, and ensure that we do not disincentivise air travel. Getting our children back into schools and our staff back into work is also essential. For our country to pay for our public services and enviable support measures, we need to re-stimulate the wealth creation that comes from a vibrant economy. Although many in the Cabinet are conflicted, it is our duty to keep people safe, while we also ease lockdown, and I believe that social distancing remains the key. If people are given the personal responsibility to ensure that the virus does not spread, we will all be able to carry on with our lives as before.
Lastly, formalised testing arrangements need to be rolled out more widely into care homes. Councils need to know whether they will be reimbursed in full for the expenditure incurred as a result of covid-19. We must find a reliable antibody test, and of course money can be no object in our exhaustive hunt for a vaccine.
I wish to put on record my warmest thanks to all our doctors, nurses and care workers here in Bath, to the police and emergency services, key workers and council workers, and to everybody else who has helped us keep going during lockdown.
The covid pandemic has forced us all to change our lives in ways we would not have imagined only a few months ago. In all of the hardship and tragedy of this time, one of the brightest points has been the improvement in our air quality, because many fewer cars are on the road. As we have adjusted to lockdown, many people have commented that they have thought about the benefits of talking a walk or going for a bike ride, because it is much more relaxing and there is more time to reflect. Walking and cycling contribute greatly to our wellbeing. We have talked at length about social distancing measures and the space we need to give each other when we are socially distancing. In this country, safety has always been a barrier to cycling, but now, as our towns and cities are less congested, cycling has become a much safer option. Of course, we want to restart the economy as soon as it is safe to do so, but when we do we have a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to look at our streets with fresh eyes. We need to think about what did and did not work before lockdown, and at what we want to achieve as we put in place the conditions for a new normal.
For decades we have been overdependent on cars, and that must change. I have also spoken before about the need to tackle emissions from surface transport. We have been having these discussions in my city of Bath, which has suffered from severe air pollution, for many months now. As we slowly emerge from lockdown, we need to look at ways to avoid a dramatic resurgence in car use, particularly as many people may be nervous about using public transport. Other countries are already looking at ways to rebalance the priority given to cars over cyclists and pedestrians in urban areas, through segregated cycle lanes, speed reduction zones or new and widened pavements. I welcome the Transport Secretary’s new guidance to local authorities. Early action will be crucial, in order to embed changes in behaviour This is a great moment for change, and we must ensure that our economic recovery is focused on the need to get to net zero.
I now call the shadow Secretary of State to wind up for the Opposition and ask that he speaks for no more than eight minutes.
I am grateful to you for that, Madam Deputy Speaker. We have heard many fine speeches over two days, and I hope Members will forgive me for not being able to mention them all. Throughout this outbreak, our paramount concern has been to save lives and minimise harm. That means suppressing the virus, not managing its spread. We are tracking towards one of the worst death tallies in the world, with more than 40,000 deaths, every one a tragedy, and this House cannot ignore the disproportionate impact the virus is having on black, Asian and minority ethnic communities—a thorough inquiry is a necessity. Today’s debate is not an inquest. No doubt there will have to be, in the future, a full and proper public inquiry, with access to an abundance of material and data. However, the Government must understand the concern, grief and anguish of our constituents who have lost loved ones or suffered great harm.
Ministers should expect searching questions. For example, did we enter lockdown too late? Ministers tell us they were following the science, but a SAGE paper from February on social distancing concedes:
“It is a political decision to consider whether it is preferable to enact stricter measures at first…or to start with fewer measures”.
As the Chair of the Health Committee, the right hon. Member for South West Surrey (Jeremy Hunt), said yesterday,
“Ministers have to take responsibility for their decisions.”—[Official Report, 11 May 2020; Vol. 676, c. 59.]
This virus exploits ambivalence. It demands clear public health messaging. Points about confused messaging have been made eloquently throughout the debate, but fundamentally the point is that nobody should be asked to go to work or send their children to school without it being safe to do so, and many do not believe that the Prime Minister’s instructions on Sunday evening yet meet that test. The Government must work with the TUC to ensure that strict safety measures are in place. No worker should be forced to put their health at risk. I hope the Minister can tell the House what the impact of asking people to go back to work will be on the R0.
The lockdown has been a powerful tool to bring down transmission, and easing lockdown too soon risks a dangerous second wave, with unacceptable further loss of life, so we support its continuation. But lockdown has a cost. It has an economic cost, certainly. It has a detrimental cost for children who spend months out of school; UNICEF has warned that children are not the face of this pandemic but risk being among its biggest victims. It also has a cost for health. We talk about protecting the NHS, but the extra surge capacity in the NHS has been built on the back of 2 million operations cancelled, cancer treatment delayed, unquantifiable mental health problems left to fester, and falling A&E attendance. There will indeed be long-term mortality and morbidity as a consequence of this lockdown. Ministers need to fund the NHS for that growing burden of unmet clinical need.
However, we cannot leave the lockdown safely unless thorough public health measures are in place. We need case finding, testing, tracing and isolation, which have been vital to the success of nations such as South Korea, Australia and New Zealand. Testing and surveillance are crucial to properly understanding prevalence and the estimates of the R0.
The former Business Secretary, the right hon. Member for Tunbridge Wells (Greg Clark), put it well yesterday when he said:
“A lack of testing has caused a lack of data, which has meant that too many of our policy decisions have been taken with a self-imposed blindfold.”—[Official Report, 11 May 2020; Vol. 676, c. 84.]
I agree. We were doing tracing in February, and then we abandoned it on 12 March. It took until 29 April for adverts to start appearing to recruit tracing call centre staff, a service that is to be handed over to the private sector. I do not believe that that tracing should be done by Serco. Instead, we must use the expertise in local public health services, our environmental health officers and our strength in primary care, and GPs should routinely be sent the test results of their patients.
Given the levels of significant asymptomatic and pre-symptomatic transmission, we need a proper targeted testing strategy too. All healthcare workers must be screened regularly. A study by Imperial suggested that that would reduce transmission in healthcare settings by up to a third. Because Office for National Statistics data show higher mortality in more deprived areas, with those in lower-paid occupations at greater risk, inequalities in accessing testing must be stamped out, and people must be provided with the means to self-isolate. That should include making use of hotel rooms and providing decent, more generous statutory sick pay if people cannot isolate at home.
We need to take other public health measures too. We support the quarantining of arrivals for 14 days at airports, but why did the Government not implement that earlier, and why is there still a lag in enforcing it? I am sure I am not the only Member struck by the curious irony that a party that promised to take back control of borders has conspicuously failed hitherto to enforce any border restrictions at a time of a devastating global pandemic.
We need to minimise outbreaks in vulnerable settings. Exercise Cygnus warned about the risks in care homes. The Government document published yesterday proclaimed that
“the Government will continue to bolster the UK’s social care sector”.
Today we learned of 8,312 tragic deaths in care homes. Why did Government official guidance until 12 March say:
“It remains very unlikely that people receiving care in a care home or the community will become infected”?
Why were patients discharged from hospital and transferred into the hands of social care without a test? And why still today, when we know that all staff and residents should be tested, are the Government promising to deliver that testing only by 6 June, a month away? This is not swift action. In many ways it looks like utter negligence.
Today is International Nurses Day and many will light a candle or shine a light from their windows at 8.30 pm to thank and pay tribute to every nurse. We will remember them and every health and care worker who has paid the ultimate sacrifice to this horrific disease. Our NHS staff and care staff, many of whom are exhausted and fearing burn-out, need more than Thursday evening clapping. They need our full support, safe staffing ratios, PPE and decent fair pay. They have been asked to give so much. They too often get so little in return. We hope that they are recognised for their true worth at the end of all this.
Coronavirus presents the most serious public health emergency that our nation has faced for a generation. I thank Members for the many contributions made in this debate, which have showed vividly the impact that the pandemic has had on our constituents and our country as a whole. Today, on the international day of the nurse and as a former nurse myself, I echo the sentiments of Members and express my gratitude for the crucial work and commitment to duty shown by our nurses everywhere in all that they are doing to care for others at this important time.
With regard to the devolved Administrations, we have taken a four-nation approach and have worked closely with the devolved Administrations every step of the way, but, as the Prime Minister set out, part of that four-nation approach will be acknowledging that the virus may be spreading at different speeds in different parts of the UK. I assure the House that at all times we will be guided by the science, which the hon. Member for Leicester South (Jonathan Ashworth) has himself just mentioned.
On the science, my right hon. Friend the Member for Chingford and Woodford Green (Sir Iain Duncan Smith) queried the 2-metre distancing rule. Modelling data supports the view that large droplets expelled during breathing and talking, which are the main droplets associated with respiratory viruses, in the main drop to the ground within a 2-metre radius of a person. The distribution of droplets is influenced by a very large number of factors, including humidity, temperature, ventilation, velocity, size and composition of the droplets. There is general agreement that large droplets are unlikely to spread beyond 2 metres.
Members have raised the benefits for the green economy and our environment and the increase in wildlife and cleaner air. As people return to work, we have encouraged flexible working. We have asked people to work from home if they can, and to get to work by foot or by bicycle, which is a greener way to travel.
Several hon. Members have raised the impact of coronavirus on BAME communities. It is critical that we find out which groups are most at risk so that we can take the right steps to protect them and minimise that risk. We have commissioned Public Health England to better understand the different factors that may influence the impact of the virus on these communities.
We have also heard widespread support from across the House for our care sector. We have overhauled the way PPE is delivered to the care sector, ensured that residents and staff are tested and have supported local authorities with £3.2 billion of additional funding to help frontline care services.
Another common theme during this debate was the supply of PPE. It is important to recognise that there have been real challenges in this area, given the sudden and high global demand for those products and the need to establish new supply chains from scratch. Despite that, since the beginning of the pandemic, we have still managed to deliver more than 1.2 billion items of PPE. We are continuing to source more PPE through our new Make strategy, which is headed up by Lord Deighton.
We also heard several contributions about testing. The Government’s ultimate goal remains that anyone who needs a test should be able to access one and we will continue to expand our capacity until that is achieved. As our capacity has continued to increase, we are now able to test all essential workers and those who are unable to work from home and everyone over 65 and members of their households, if they have symptoms. We are also ramping up testing for NHS staff and patients and social care staff and care home residents, both with and without symptoms.
Some have suggested that Public Health England should have involved private testing companies earlier. Unlike some countries, we did not enter this crisis with a major private diagnostics manufacturing industry to call on. However, over a very short period of time we have seen our life science companies and pharmaceutical giants step up. Working with our world-leading but smaller diagnostic companies, they have built an impressive British diagnostic industry at scale.
Some Members asked about the transparency of scientific advice. At all times during this pandemic, we have been consistently guided by the scientific advice. All advice put to the Government by SAGE has been published online and the membership has also been published online.
Members asked about returning to school and pay for key workers. I note that that will be covered in a debate tomorrow. However, there are ongoing discussions on the issue of schooling. We will be setting out detailed guidance on that shortly. Regarding pay for key workers, we are incredibly proud of our social care workers and are determined to do everything we can to show them that they are valued. The national minimum wage and living wage apply across social care, and we expect local authorities to work with providers to determine a fair rate of pay.
The healthcare situation regarding non-coronavirus patients has been raised. Thanks to the efforts of NHS staff and the success of social distancing, the NHS has not been overwhelmed. We have been able to start the reopening of several important NHS services, for example fertility services. I would like to take this opportunity to encourage anyone who needs urgent care to seek help as they normally would do. If you experience chest pain, feel a lump or have any health worry whatever, please come forward and seek help.
Members paid tribute to the NHS workers who lost their lives. Nothing can replace the loss of a loved one, but we want to do everything we can to support families who are dealing with this grief. We have recognised the sacrifice that health and care workers are making by setting up a life assurance scheme for NHS and social care frontline colleagues who contract coronavirus during the course of their work.
Members rightly stressed the need to avoid a second peak of cases. The Prime Minister reiterated that we will not make major changes to the lockdown rules until we are confident that we can avoid a significant second peak of infections.
Members raised the issue of support for the charity sector. Last month, the Chancellor announced that charities would receive a £750 million package of additional Government support.
Every single Government Department is engaged in tackling coronavirus. As the Minister with responsibility for mental health, I would like to take this opportunity to thank all mental health trusts. The Government recognised the mental health impact of covid-19 very early in the pandemic and the support has been there for those affected, including the rapid establishment of 24-hour open access telephone lines for those in need of urgent support, and, in addition to that, a confidential helpline to support the health and wellbeing of frontline workers who have also been affected. The NHS is there for everyone and continues to provide the very best care for all.
This has been an important debate that starkly confirms the impact of coronavirus on all our lives. I am grateful for all the points raised today. I can assure the House that the Government are committed to defeating this invisible killer once and for all.
Before I put the Question, I remind hon. Members that the Question is to be decided by a remote Division in accordance with my provisional determination announced earlier. There is therefore no need for me to collect the voices or for Members present in the Chamber to shout Aye or No. The Clerk will initiate the Division on the MemberHub and Members will be invited to record their votes using the remote voting system. Hon. Members will have 15 minutes to record their votes.
The House proceeded to a remote Division.
The remote voting period has now finished. I will announce the result of the Division shortly.
We will now proceed to the next business.