House of Commons
Monday 18 May 2020
The House met at half-past Two o’clock
[Mr Speaker in the Chair]
The House entered into hybrid scrutiny proceedings (Order, 21 April).
[NB: [V] denotes a Member participating virtually.]
Oral Answers to Questions
The Chancellor of the Exchequer was asked—
Self-employment Income Support Scheme
The self-employment support scheme opened last week ahead of schedule and provides support worth up to £7,500 to millions of individuals. I am pleased to tell the House that, at the end of yesterday, there had been more than 2 million claims, with grants worth £6 billion in total being claimed for. Those people will have the money in their bank accounts within six working days of their claim, and of course, I will keep the scheme under review.
I thank the Chancellor for his response. Despite him saying that the self-employment scheme is one of the most generous in the world, tens of thousands are still missing out—new starters, pay-as-you-earn freelancers, those paid through dividends and those earning over £50,000. I have three simple questions for the Chancellor. Will the self-employed income support scheme be extended in line with the job retention scheme? Are there plans to lift the cap on profits? And will he please look again at supporting new starters?
Covid-19: Economic Support
Our plan to support businesses and individuals is one of the most comprehensive in the world. We have provided tens of billions of pounds in cash grants, tax cuts and discounted loans for businesses; deferred taxes for those who are self-employed, employed and in business; a world-leading job retention scheme to keep as many people in employment as possible; income protection for the self-employed; and a strengthened safety net to protect the most vulnerable in our society.
Successful businesses in the tourism and hospitality industries before the lockdown will face a very different reality at the end of it, with overseas visitors gone for the foreseeable future and social distancing in place. These businesses need time to reinvent themselves for the new post-covid environment. What measures will the Chancellor introduce to enable much greater flexibility in the furlough scheme to support them as they prepare for this new reality?
It is precisely because of the time it takes for businesses to ramp up that last week, I announced an extension to the furlough scheme all the way through to October, to provide that runway for growth—in particular, for those who will open later in tourism and hospitality. As I said, we will introduce flexible furloughing in the extension period of that scheme.
Those on fixed-term contracts are in a particularly difficult situation where employers have placed them on furlough but are unwilling to extend it past their contract end date. One employer highlighted to me that that is because they are concerned that if they continue to furlough an employee without formally extending the contract, Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs will deem the furlough frivolous and seek reimbursement. Can the Chancellor confirm that employers can continue to furlough those whose fixed-term contracts have ended without any financial repercussion?
I am happy to look at the specific example mentioned. It is important for us—and to protect the taxpayer—that we are paying furlough payments to those who are genuinely in employment and have a formal employment contract, but I am happy to look at that example.
Thank you, Mr Speaker.
Despite the interventions that the Chancellor has announced, some of our major industrial companies find themselves locked out of the lending scheme for the largest firms—the covid corporate financing facility—because they are not classed as investment grade. These companies support hundreds of thousands of jobs, either directly or through their supply chains, and are often the main employers in the towns and cities where they operate. Will the Government show the same flexibility and urgency in getting finance to these companies, which make up the industrial backbone of Britain, as they have done through the loan scheme for small companies, so that we can retain as much economic capacity as possible through this crisis?
The right hon. Member is absolutely right: finance should flow to the industrial base of our country. The investment grade rating, which relates to the corporate financing facility that the Bank of England runs, is important. Because that money is accessed by companies without any additional credit check by the Government, it is right that an investment grade rating is used, to protect the taxpayer. We have taken a flexible and generous interpretation of that, providing companies with the ability to use their bank rating to get access. For those companies for which commercial paper is not the right approach—many of the industrial companies he mentioned—we have a larger coronavirus business interruption loan scheme programme, and I am in conversations with various industry stakeholders to ensure that that is appropriately sized to provide finance to every part of our industrial base.
Research by the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development today released today has found that participants in the furlough scheme would otherwise have made up to 35% of their workforce redundant, rising to half the workers in hospitality, where the uptake of the scheme is particularly high at about 80%. Hospitality and tourism were first out and will be last back. Many of these companies have no income and are building up debt, and may feel compelled to sack workers if they are asked to pay more by the Government at the end of July. How does the Chancellor intend to prevent this and to support this part of the economy in the months ahead?
It is precisely the retail, hospitality and leisure sector that has received the most direct fiscal support from the Government through cash grants of £10,000 or £25,000 and a business rate holiday for the entire year—well beyond the point of reopening. That represents significant support, and the extension of the furlough scheme through to October gives those companies enough of a runway to grow back into a safe space.
Coronavirus Job Retention Scheme
New starters not registered with HMRC before 19 March and agency staff workers are some of those who currently find they are in limbo when it comes to accessing the job retention scheme. What more can the Chancellor do to help these workers now facing hardship?
When I announced the scheme, we said that those who were on real time information and had notified HMRC on 28 February would be eligible. That covers 29.5 million workers in this country. We found a way to extend that to 19 March—the day before the announcement was made. That protects the taxpayer against fraud and enables as many of those people to be included as possible. It brought another 230,000 people into the scheme. It is important to remember that this scheme now covers close to 30 million workers. As of the end of last week, 8 million people from about 1 million businesses are covered by the scheme and having their wages paid by the Government to protect their jobs and their future security.
Thank you, Mr Speaker.
The future fund will provide venture capital-backed businesses with vital support, but of course it excludes investments made through the enterprise investment scheme and the seed enterprise investment scheme. It is certainly the case that there is significant public subsidy within those two schemes. However, businesses supported by them still face the challenges of the virus and, where successful, still go on to generate significant numbers of jobs. Will my right hon. Friend therefore take a second look at the qualification requirements for the future fund to see whether EIS and SEIS might be accommodated in some way?
As my right hon. Friend will know well, EIS is a notified EU state aid, and that is what presents the challenge to providing EIS relief for convertible loan instruments into the future fund. That said, guidance was published today, and the fund will be open for applications on Wednesday. I have been crystal clear that should applications exceed the initial £250 million provided, I will be more than happy to expand the scheme. I think this will be a vital part of fuelling our recovery, because, as he said, these companies provide the growth of tomorrow and they deserve our support.
Labour supported the introduction of the furlough scheme, and we have consistently called for it to become more flexible. We recognise that it cannot persist forever. However, according to press reports, the Treasury is considering asking all employers to pay 40% of employee wages on the JRS from 1 August, which risks a massive spike in job losses.
As I think the shadow Chancellor has acknowledged previously, we are in deep consultation with both unions and business groups to ensure that we get the design right for the second part of this scheme. It is right both for the economy and, indeed, for the taxpayer to ask employers to make a contribution to paying the wages of their employees. They will have the benefit of flexibility in furloughing to help offset that. I cannot comment now on this, but I did say that details will be provided by the end of the month.
I appreciate the Chancellor’s comments, but we really need clarity around whether he is considering evidence from other countries, which, in many cases, are calibrating changes to their salary backfill schemes with the lifting of the lockdown. Is he looking at that evidence, particularly on the potential impact of unemployment, or is he only looking at potentially the introduction of a uniform contribution from 1 August?
As I said, there will be details at the end of the month, but the hon. Lady can rest assured that I speak regularly with my counterparts in countries across the world to learn from their experience and will make sure that our scheme continues to be one of the most generous, comprehensive and effective anywhere in the world.
Covid-19: Local Authorities and Devolved Administrations
We have announced £3.2 billion of new funding for councils, alongside the £3.4 billion of further support with cash flow. I am in regular contact with Ministers in the relevant Department on further support.
I welcome the Treasury’s unprecedented package of support, including the provision of grants, which are benefiting many of the smallest businesses right across Bishop Auckland, but many small businesses in my constituency and others do not pay business rates because they are in shared spaces. What steps is the Treasury taking to make these grants more readily available?
My hon. Friend raises an important point, which is why we have allocated a further £617 million of support to local authorities for discretionary payments for cases such as the one that she highlights. Local authorities are free to focus those payments in line with local need.
District councils are the level of local government closest to residents, and I know that they very much appreciated the support that the Government have provided, but responding to the virus has incurred both additional expenditure and a loss of revenue—they have had less income from things such as car parking and leisure services. How can the Minister ensure that district councils are able not only to meet their short-term demands, but to ensure a long-term, sustainable future?
My hon. Friend is right to point to the particular pressures on lower-tier councils, which is why councils such as Rugby have benefited from more than £1 million of additional funding. Seventy per cent of district councils have received more than £1 million, which is why the profile for the second allocation of £1.6 billion was changed to recognise the points that he highlights.
I pay tribute to the Chancellor and to the Chief Secretary for their approach. They will appreciate that the sums involved are staggering, but obviously necessary at this time. Does my right hon. Friend recognise that this is an occasion where we appreciate the strength of the Union—the financial muscle to protect economies and communities in all parts of the UK? Has the Chancellor calculated whether individual nations could have acted independently and, if so, what impact has the collapse in the recent oil price had on that assessment?
My right hon. Friend is absolutely right. That is why £7 billion has been allocated through the Barnett consequentials, including £2.1 billion of additional funding to the Welsh Government. That, of course, sits alongside the UK-wide measures, such as the furlough scheme or the self-employed income support scheme that the Chancellor has announced.
In Bristol, that current funding gap is £82.4 million as a result of the current crisis. Will the Treasury consider allowing local authorities to retain all surpluses against the business support grants so that they can be reinvested into local short-term interventions to get us through this crisis?
What we have seen through this crisis is an unprecedented level of support, including the £3.2 billion that has been announced and the further £600 million of support specifically targeted at the care home sector. That sits alongside earlier funding, including the estimated 4.3% real-terms increase that councils received this year.
Although the Government’s announcement of additional funding for local authorities in England is welcome, care staff, refuse collectors and social workers need to know that their work will continue to be funded once the current lockdown is over. My local council, Stockport, is facing a staggering shortfall of £25 million, with the cost of the coronavirus response standing at £41 million. Will the Minister offer those workers that assurance?
The hon. Gentleman is right to highlight the importance of that sector. It is why the initial £1.6 billion funding announced in March was not ring-fenced. It sits alongside the £600 million announced last week. In addition, there is money to help with cash flow, including the £850 million targeted at adult social care, which was paid in one go in April.
Local Transport Infrastructure
My hon. Friend the Member for Keighley (Robbie Moore) has, I know, been working hard to highlight the important pedestrian crossing issues in his constituency, and I am committed to working with him on that. He can benefit from the significant funding for cycling and walking included in the £2 billion announced recently.
I thank my right hon. Friend for that response, and I am pleased to hear that he will work with me in delivering a pedestrian bridge. May I seek further reassurance that he will meet me and the transport team, so that we can deliver this vital piece of local infrastructure, which will connect Silsden and Steeton in my constituency?
I am happy to continue to liaise with my hon. Friend on this important issue. He will know that, in addition to the £2 billion for walking and cycling, we also announced at the Budget £4.2 billion for long-term local transport. His authority, West Yorkshire Combined Authority, will be able to benefit from that.
I thank the Treasury team for their leadership throughout this crisis. As they look at ways to stimulate our economy, will they consider issuing a UK green gilt as a specific way to fund local transport infrastructure and to affirm this Government’s commitment to climate change?
My hon. Friend raises an important point. Although at present we have no plans to do as he suggests, he will be well aware, from the green finance strategy, that the Government remain open to the introduction of new debt instruments, and I am happy to continue to discuss the issue with him.
Business Rates Relief
The Government have committed to undertake a fundamental review of business rates and published the terms of reference at the Budget. The review will be comprehensive and look at the effectiveness and operation of different reliefs and compliance with the tax. The call for evidence will be published in the coming months; stakeholders will be invited to contribute their views throughout the review, and I will welcome any thoughts or ideas my hon. Friend may wish to add.
I welcome the Government’s wholesome package of support for the business sector and the hospitality and tourism sector, showing that we are a Government for the many, not the few. Would the Minister meet me to discuss how we might close the loopholes that may be used by those who would opportunistically exploit current business rates?
If there are people who are illegitimately taking advantage of loopholes in the rates, I am of course happy to discuss that. I remind my hon. Friend that there may well be circumstances in which people are in fact complying with the rules. It is a fiddly area, and I want to be certain that we are going after the people we should be going after.
Covid-19: 2019 Loan Charge
My right hon. Friend will know that taxpayers with loan charge liabilities can already defer submission of their tax return until 30 September this year. Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs has always worked very hard to support taxpayers who may need to help to managed their disguised remuneration liabilities, and this is no exception. HMRC will continue to offer people the time they need to settle, and of course that also applies to those who are affected by issues related to coronavirus.
In September this year, we will be in the middle of the recession that we are about to face. Given the hundreds of billions of pounds that the Treasury has already committed to supporting business to get us out of this recession, it would take a relatively trivial amount to write off the damaging loan charge policy. Originally, the Treasury forecast that it would raise £3.2 billion from the policy, and less than £2.5 billion from employees. What does the Minister estimate he will now raise?
The Treasury will have published its estimate at the time the original tax information was published. I understand the passion that my right hon. Friend brings to the issue, but I would remind him that 99.8% of taxpayers do not engage in disguised remuneration schemes, and the fact that we are supporting people across the country in their jobs and their livelihoods is not, in and of itself, a reason to let people who owe tax off the tax that is due.
Coronavirus Business Interruption Loan Scheme
The Treasury is working closely with the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy to monitor the uptake and effectiveness of the coronavirus business interruption loan scheme. The scheme has already helped thousands of businesses since its launch on 23 March and is continuing to ramp up. As of 10 May, almost 36,000 facilities with a value of over £6 billion have been approved through the CBILS. SMEs now have a choice of over 60 lenders offering finance under CBILS, and further announcements on numbers will happen later this week.
Despite that, the uptake of the coronavirus business interruption loan has been disappointing, leading to the bounce-back loans. Could we have much more accurate reporting on this, much more like the health statistics and perhaps also by region, so we can see what is actually happening?
We are looking very carefully at the figures and we publish them on a weekly basis. I am having conversations with banks on a regular basis, and we are having a roundtable this week to monitor progress. We will look to make further interventions should that be necessary, but absolutely it is important that the loans get out quickly, as they have been designed to do.
Business Rates: Small Companies
The Government have recently allocated up to an additional £617 million to local authorities to enable them to give grants to businesses excluded from existing schemes. That will enable many thousands of businesses in the situation described by the hon. Member to receive cash grants.
Covid-19: Regional Economies
The Government are closely monitoring the impact of covid-19 on local communities across the UK. We are engaging with local authorities, local enterprise partnerships and mayoral combined authorities, and remain committed to levelling up opportunity all over the UK.
The public transport infrastructure will be essential to Greater Manchester’s economic recovery, and funding has been provided to help Manchester Metrolink, but it is insufficient and the situation will be exacerbated because social distancing will mean that it can carry fewer passengers for the foreseeable future. Will the Treasury commit to fully funding Metrolink so that it can help to get the city region back on its feet?
I have been in conversation with the Mayor of Greater Manchester, Andy Burnham, and the Treasury is well aware of this issue. At the moment, we have provided £630 million for councils. We have provided some funding to Metrolink and we will continue to explore the issue further.
My hon. Friend is right that hydrogen could play an important role in our transition to net zero, which is why we are investing up to £121 million to support a range of projects to explore and develop the potential of low-carbon hydrogen technology.
My hon. Friend is absolutely right. Budget 2020 announced at least £800 million to develop carbon capture and storage infrastructure, and my hon. Friend will of course know that Teesside is one of four sites under consideration for support through that funding.
The Secretary of State was asked—
Covid-19: Repatriation of British Nationals
We estimate that more than 1.3 million people have returned to the UK via commercial routes, the majority through our work to keep the vital routes open.
It is hugely welcome that 1.3 million people have been brought home by commercial airlines. Will my right hon. Friend assure me that he continues to work with the Foreign and Commonwealth Office to ensure that support and guidance is available for those people who are struggling—there are many of them—to find commercial routes home?
Yes, I can absolutely provide my hon. Friend with that reassurance. The UK has close links with Nigeria and elsewhere, and I am pleased that we have been able to support charter flights, thereby enabling around 1,700 British travellers to return home since 18 April.
I thank my right hon. Friend for helping, with other Departments, to bring so many of my constituents home safely. Can he tell me, in my role as the Prime Minister’s trade envoy to Nigeria, what the situation is there with regard to the availability of aircraft? How many more repatriation trips are we looking to make?
My hon. Friend’s great work as a trade envoy is known throughout the House. Some commercial routes are still available, we are keeping the international travel advice under constant review, and we are still, on a daily basis, organising charter flights to bring the remaining overseas British nationals home. I think there are around 20,000 still to repatriate.
Covid-19: Aviation Sector Workers
We are speaking regularly to companies across the aviation sector to encourage them to draw on the Government’s various different packages of cross-economy financial support.
With Gatwick on my doorstep, a lot of my constituents work in the aviation sector. Will the Secretary of State outline what support he is giving to airlines to make sure that they are employing people and continuing employment where they can? What support will he give to aviation workers who will need to transition into other forms of employment?
My hon. Friend is absolutely right: we are making available a huge amount of support, including things such as the coronavirus large-business scheme—in other words, the coronavirus job-retention furloughing scheme—and various other business-interruption schemes, but it is true to say that airlines and the aviation sector in general are facing a particularly hard time. They were first into this crisis and we think there will be quite a long tail to their coming out of it. I am therefore working closely with my right hon. and hon. Friends in the Department for Work and Pensions to support workers who lose their jobs as well.
The Scottish Government have given full business rates relief to the aviation sector; by contrast, the UK Government promised sectoral support for aviation before reneging. Last week, Willie Walsh floundered before the Transport Committee when trying to justify the cull of 12,000 British Airways employees—including many from BA CityFlyer, which is based at Edinburgh—despite having access to €10 billion of liquidity, the vast majority of which was generated by British Airways profits. What are the Government actually doing to prevent tens or even hundreds of thousands of job losses in the sector?
Not only do we have the Bank of England scheme, which enables companies that would not ordinarily have the ability to raise money through a paper route; we also have the business interruption loan scheme for different-sized businesses, the time to pay flexibility, financial supports to employees and the VAT deferrals. We also have a special process in place, available only to the aviation sector, so that when it runs out of those other options, it can talk to us about it. That request needs to be made formally in writing to me. I then discuss it with the Treasury, and many aviation-oriented businesses are in the process of doing that.
British aviation is in freefall. BA, Ryanair, Virgin Atlantic and now the Emirates are set to lay off tens of thousands of staff. The job retention scheme is becoming the job restructuring scheme. We cannot allow that. With the added difficulty and confusion of the Government’s travel quarantine measures, will the Secretary of State urgently bring forward an aviation support package for the sector, matching Labour’s commitment?
It is a very welcome change, actually, because ordinarily I stand at this Dispatch Box and from my opposite numbers hear a lot of attacks on the aviation sector. I absolutely will bring forward enormous amounts of support to aviation businesses, including all those schemes I just mentioned. There are 43,500 furloughed staff right now from the airlines alone and another 2,600 from airports. I am acutely aware of the job losses and proposed job losses, about which we are very concerned, which is why we have the additional scheme, the Birch process, with the Treasury. Although I cannot go into details of individual cases, for reasons of confidentiality, I can assure the hon. Gentleman that that work is very much ongoing.
Covid-19: Transport Sector
The Government have announced financial support measures worth £350 billion and are working with the sector to overcome specific challenges.
We have heard about the challenges of the aviation industry, including the threat of 12,000 BA redundancies, but the entire transport industry is worried. Haulage is seeing volumes dropping and revenues plummeting, the coaching sector faces imminent ruin, and holiday companies have no idea if the Government will stand by them and their customers. What specific action is the Secretary of State taking to ensure we actually have a transport industry left when all this is over?
The answer is a multi-billion pound programme that rescued our railways; £400 million used to keep our bus services going; and a multi-million pound plan for critical freight routes, which enabled us to keep 16 routes available, with 17 different contracts in place, ensuring vital food and supplies to this country.
The Secretary of State will be aware that the aviation industry is a sector in need of support. Will he consider airbridges so that those entering the UK from countries where the infection rate is below one would not be subject to quarantine? This would boost confidence in aviation travel and target safety where it is most needed.
In answer to a previous question, I should say that final details of the quarantine scheme will be released soon and come in early next month. We should indeed consider further improvements—for example, airbridges enabling people from other countries that have achieved lower levels of coronavirus infection to come to the country, but those are active discussions that go beyond what will initially be a blanket situation.
English Regional Transport Infrastructure
It is a great joy to join you from sunny Pendle, Mr Speaker.
We are investing in transport infrastructure to level up the United Kingdom, with £500 million to reverse the Beeching cuts and £5 billion extra support for buses and cycling.
Some of us do not have those hair problems, Mr Speaker.
Will the Minister confirm his commitment to investment right across the north—not just the big projects, such as northern powerhouse rail, from the east coast through the west coast, but the smaller but no less important projects, such as the dualling of the A64 in my constituency?
I am happy to provide my hon. Friend with that reassurance. The integrated rail plan is looking at various transport investments in the north, and we very much intend that still to report by the end of this year. On the dualling of the A64, I can assure him that that is now officially in the road investment strategy 3 pipeline, and it will be investigated carefully as we prepare to make decisions for the next strategy.
It is so good to see so many cities and towns now putting in place infrastructure to support active travel, particularly cycling, but not everyone can work or cycle to work, not everyone has a car and no one wants the new normal to be cars clogging up the streets and despoiling the clean air. Why are the Government not working with city regions and other councils on a safety-led scaling up of passenger transport, why did they not talk to local leaders about public transport before urging a return to work and why is there a support package for Transport for London but not for other major cities?
We are working closely with all the metro Mayors and the devolved mayoral combined authorities to get this policy right. It is incorrect to say that we have provided support only for Transport for London. As was talked about in Treasury questions, we have already provided significant support for things such as the Manchester Metrolink and other schemes. It is right to say, though, that we need to ensure that inclusive travel is at the forefront of this, and there is a huge amount of work under way in the Department to ensure that disabled people particularly, are able to return safely to work and use the public transport network that so many depend on.
Covid-19: Public Transport Workers and Key Worker Rail Users
I pay tribute to all public transport drivers and workers, who have been working incredibly hard to ensure that those on the frontline can get to work. New safer transport guidance was published on 12 May, and we are working closely with transport operators across the sector on its implementation.
Last week’s figures from the Office for National Statistics show that public transport drivers have one of the highest covid-19-related death rates compared with other professions. With the Government encouraging people to go back to work and many workers having no choice but to use public transport, what extra measures have the Government taken to protect drivers and other public transport workers?
I thank the hon. Gentleman for his question. The safety of public transport workers is of course paramount for the Government, and we have been working with operators to ensure that additional measures are put in place. These include risk assessments, looking at who should be at work, social distancing and face coverings, workforce planning, queue and passenger flow management, and the way that emergency incidents are dealt with, in addition to cleaning ventilation, communications and other forms of training.
I thank the Minister for his answer. To protect public transport workers’ safety, they need job security. The Government’s funding arrangement runs out with the Metro and Nexus on 9 June, so it is fine that risk assessments are taking place, but we need the trains to run. Can the Government tell me when the arrangements will be made with the Metro and Nexus to allow our crucial Metro system to carry on running?
We continue to work with the metro Mayors to look at these issues, and we work closely, in conjunction with Treasury Ministers, to ensure that the funding necessary is provided and that we can support public transport networks right across the length and breadth of the United Kingdom.
Thank you very much, Mr Speaker. May I start by paying tribute to our frontline transport workers, and may I offer my condolences to the families of those who have lost their lives through covid-19?
The latest advice from the Government now explicitly rules out providing personal protective equipment, such as face masks, to drivers, instead reserving them for health and social care workers. The response on this is that the health advice apparently does not support it. If the evidence says that masks will not save them, gloves will not save them and banning the handling of cash will not save them, that begs the question: what will save them, given that transport workers, including bus drivers, are more likely to die from covid-19 than the general population? Can that evidence be provided to the House of Commons Library so that it can be properly looked at and investigated? We cannot allow transport workers on the frontline, working to keep our country moving, to face a greater risk than the general population.
I start by welcoming the shadow Secretary of State to his position. It continues to be Public Health England advice that face masks are not necessary outside clinical settings or where Health and Safety Executive employer risk assessments suggest that it would be necessary to protect against non-covid-19 risks. However, workers should refer to the guidance, which I mentioned, when considering whether wearing a face covering would be appropriate and they should consider using a face covering when social distancing is not possible.
LNER: Grimsby to London Service
Recent analysis by LNER indicates that such a service could be viable and the Department is exploring this further.
Mr Speaker, I am sorry that you do not have a picture because the broadband in rural Lincolnshire is so bad. That is why it is even more important that we get our through train from Grimsby and Cleethorpes down to London, which we have been promised again and again. It is a huge catchment area. All the Government have to do is to kick-start this project. Given that they are spending £100 billion on HS2, if they just give us £1 million, LNER will give us the through train. Will the Government fulfil their promises and kick-start the through train to London from Grimsby and Cleethorpes?
My right hon. Friend has lobbied me on this several times already. I know that the rail Minister, my hon. Friend the Member for Daventry (Chris Heaton-Harris), is looking very closely at what my right hon. Friend says, and hopefully he may have some good news in due course.
Covid-19: Financial Loss to Rail Passengers
We have extended refunds to all ticket types and made claiming refunds easier to ensure that passengers do not lose out financially.
What discussions has the Minister had with rail operators such as Southeastern over season ticket holders who have just a couple of months left on their season ticket, and who, because of the virus, have been unable to travel but are ineligible for a refund? These commuters have suffered quite considerably and it would be welcome news if some assistance were available for them.
The Government have been talking to train operators throughout this whole process, as my hon. Friend would expect, but we do not have plans to extend season tickets. Season ticket holders are already entitled to request a refund in accordance with the National Rail conditions of travel. Over 100,000 season ticket holders have already claimed refunds totalling £150 million in the current covid travel restriction period.
Mr Speaker, you may hear my toddler chuntering away in the background.
It is crucial that people who are doing the right thing and avoiding public transport are not left out of pocket. Will my hon. Friend therefore confirm that passengers in Morley and Outwood who have purchased their advance tickets—as well as those with season tickets, which he has already mentioned—will be able to receive a refund without any charge for any unused travel during the outbreak?
We have worked with the rail industry to temporarily extend refunds to all ticket types. These changes reflect the exceptional circumstances and the Government’s advice to avoid unnecessary travel. Anytime off-peak and super off-peak tickets can be refunded as usual, and since 17 March all admin fees have been waived. Advance tickets purchased before 23 March for travel from that date onwards are eligible for a fee-free refund, whether the train is cancelled or not. Unused carnet tickets can be refunded or extended depending on the train operator, and season tickets, including station car park season tickets, are already refundable, so we have not changed that policy. A £10 admin fee remains for season ticket refunds.
Rail Services: West Sussex
I am sorry, Mr Speaker—I was worried about my husband for a moment there. Problem or opportunity, whichever way you take it.
The Government are investing around £48 billion in maintaining and upgrading the rail network between 2019 to 2024, focused on increasing reliability and punctuality for passengers, including in West Sussex.
I thank my hon. Friend for his reply and for the significant extra investment that the Government are making in rail transport. As we seek to regrow the economy, may I ask him to consider the investment project known as the Arundel chord, which would enable trains to turn east near Arundel and travel directly to Horsham, significantly improving the resilience of rail services for my constituents in Arundel and South Downs?
Network Rail has recently concluded a study of services in the West Sussex area, produced in consultation with local authorities and stakeholders. While the Arundel chord might have value as a diversionary route, its capacity would be limited and it would cause a negative impact on existing Arun Valley and West Coastway services. However, the study has suggested numerous beneficial changes involving train services and infrastructure, which my Department will take forward with Network Rail and which will benefit all my hon. Friend’s constituents.
Rural Mobility and Supported Bus Services Funds
The Government are providing significant funding for the bus industry at this time. Our covid-19 funding package for England’s buses totals £397 million. As part of this, local authorities have access to a £30 million supported bus services fund. To date, 46 bids have been received. No bids have yet been received for the rural mobility fund because the deadline is 4 June.
Of course, hydrogen-powered buses have a much longer range, making them more suitable for rural routes and rural areas, and we have some of the leading hydrogen-powered bus manufacturers in the world. The Government have introduced the all-electric bus town scheme. Where is the equivalent for hydrogen?
The hon. Gentleman is right to say that we are focusing on new all-electric bus towns, which is an exciting part of the money that the Prime Minister has announced to support buses up and down the country, but it is not right to say that we are not focusing on hydrogen buses. We have actually allocated £4.36 million to hydrogen buses and supporting infrastructure.
The Government have recently published the safer transport guidance for operators, which is very welcome indeed, but I wonder whether the Minister could set out what steps are being taken to ensure the financial viability of bus services while maintaining social distancing.
Covid-19: Active Travel (Local Authorities)
On 9 May, the Government announced a £2 billion package of support for active travel. This includes £250 million of funding this financial year to support people to take up cycling and to enable local authorities to make their roads and pavements safer.
I welcome the £250 million funding so that cycling and walking improvements can be rapidly installed ahead of the expected tidal wave of traffic as people go back to work, but when will the Government finally publish their long-awaited revised design guidance on cycle-friendly infrastructure and the evidence that they commissioned back in 2018 on the amount of funding needed to meet their targets to double cycling and increase walking by 2025?
Covid-19: Food Delivery Drivers
Ministers have been in discussion with Cabinet colleagues about measures to protect the welfare of delivery drivers, including those carrying food.
At a time in this crisis when many of us are very dependent on home delivery, there is growing evidence that children as young as 16 on a provisional licence are wobbling on to the road, holding a mobile phone with Google Maps on it in one hand, to make deliveries. That is a very dangerous situation. Is the Minister not aware of the large number of reports of young people being killed and seriously injured because they are not qualified to drive and are doing a very dangerous task?
Of course the Government would be concerned by the incidents that the hon. Gentleman mentions. Ensuring the safety of drivers making deliveries is of paramount importance, and the Government do not want anyone to feel unsafe or unsure about whether they have the necessary equipment to work safely. That is why detailed guidance has been issued to all transport workers, in conjunction with our colleagues in the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy.
The Department and I are working with airlines, airports and unions to understand the full impact that covid-19 is having on the sector and its workers.
Many of my constituents are long-serving members of British Airways staff, yet they face redundancy or being stripped of their terms and conditions, despite BA furloughing some 23,000 staff. Does the Minister think that is responsible behaviour by Britain’s flag carrier? What pressure is she bringing to bear on the company? Will she guarantee that any bail-out will come with stringent and binding conditions on reducing carbon emissions?
I understand that it is a worrying time for airline staff and their families. I have been speaking regularly with companies across the sector to encourage them to draw down on the unprecedented support package. Terms and conditions of employment are for negotiation between the employee and the employer, but we in the Department stand ready to support any workers affected.
Gosport Ferry Service
My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State, my officials and I are working with the company and the councils, alongside the extensive financial packages announced by the Chancellor.
I thank the Minister for her reply. I know that when the Secretary of State met council leaders last week he spoke positively about the Government providing a package of support to secure the future of the ferry service. I look forward to the Department achieving that. The continuation of the Gosport ferry after this crisis is vital to the connectivity of communities along the south coast, but so too is tackling the climate crisis. As the fourth most congested city in the UK, Portsmouth faces some of the worst air pollution outside London. The Pompey Street Space campaign aims to give pedestrians and cyclists priority, widen narrow pavements and create commuter cycle routes to allow people to travel safely. What steps will the Department take to—
I thank the hon. Gentleman for his question, although I missed his last point. Absolutely, the Gosport ferry provides an important service for the local community to navigate their way around the peninsula. That is why my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State and I met the council leaders. We have spoken to the organisation, and my officials are working with the councils to find a suitable support package for the operator in order to maintain that service.
UK Aviation Sector
We are working across Government and closely with the sector on establishing a clear vision and objectives for the recovery of the sector.
The day prior to the announcement of BA CityFlyer redundancies at Edinburgh airport, Willie Walsh gave evidence to the Transport Committee in which he did not mention that once. It is inconceivable that he was not aware of the announcement. Does the Minister share my frustration that that lack of transparency simply prevents Parliament from performing effective scrutiny?
The aviation sector is so important for the UK economy, which is why it has been able to draw down on an unprecedented support package. The Department and I have set up a restart and recovery unit to work with industry, including unions, ground handlers, airlines and airports, in order to come up strong measures to aid the recovery and restart of the aviation sector.
We now come to the statement by the Secretary of State for Health and Social Care. In order to allow more Back Benchers to participate during the limited time available, I have asked the Secretary of State to keep his initial statement to eight minutes, with matching reductions for other Front Benchers.
With permission, Mr Speaker, I will make a statement on coronavirus. This is the most serious public health emergency in 100 years, but through the combined efforts of the whole nation, we have got through the peak. Let us not forget what, together, has been achieved. We flattened the curve, and now the number of people in hospital with coronavirus is half what it was at the peak. We protected the NHS, and the number of patients in critical care is down by two thirds. Mercifully, the number of deaths across all settings is falling.
This Mental Health Awareness Week is an important reminder that we need to look after ourselves, as well as each other. If someone needs support with their mental health, the NHS is there for them. This is particularly important for frontline staff, and we have supported all NHS trusts to develop 24/7 mental health helplines.
Our plan throughout this crisis has been to slow the spread and protect the NHS. Thanks to the resolve of the British people, the plan is working, and we are now in the second phase of this fight. I will update the House on the next steps that we are taking as part of that plan. First, we are protecting the nation’s care homes, with a further £600 million available directly to care homes in England. We have prioritised testing for care homes throughout, we made sure that every care home has a named NHS clinical lead and we are requiring local authorities to conduct daily reviews of the situation on the ground, so that every care home gets the support it needs each and every day. All this amounts to an unprecedented level of scrutiny and support for the social care system, and a level of integration with the NHS that is long overdue.
Secondly, the four UK chief medical officers have today updated the case definition to include a new symptom. Throughout this pandemic, we have said that someone who develops a new continuous cough or fever should immediately self-isolate. From today, we are including anosmia—losing one’s sense of smell, or experiencing a change in the normal sense of smell or taste—which can be a symptom of coronavirus, even where the other symptoms are not present. So from today, anyone who develops a continuous cough or fever or anosmia should immediately self-isolate for at least seven days, in line with the guidelines. Members of their household should self-isolate for 14 days. By updating the case definition in line with the latest science, we can more easily recognise the presence of the virus and more effectively fight it.
Thirdly, we are expanding eligibility for testing further than ever before. Over the past six weeks, this country has taken a small, specialised diagnostics industry and scaled it at breathtaking pace into a global champion. Yesterday, we conducted 100,678 tests. Every day, we create more capacity, which means that more people can be tested and the virus has fewer places to hide.
Today, I can announce to the House that everyone aged five and over with symptoms is now eligible for a test. That applies right across the UK, in all four nations, from now. Anyone with a new continuous cough, a high temperature or a loss of, or change in, their sense of taste or smell can book a test by visiting nhs.uk/coronavirus. Anyone who is eligible for a test but does not have internet access can call 119 in England and Wales or, in Scotland and Northern Ireland, 0300 303 2713. We will continue to prioritise access to tests for NHS and social care, patients, residents and staff, and as testing ramps up towards our new goal of a total capacity of 200,000 tests a day, ever more people will have the confidence and certainty that comes with an accurate test result.
Fourthly, I want to update the House on building our army of contact tracers. I can confirm that we have recruited more than 21,000 contact tracers in England. That includes 7,500 healthcare professionals who will provide our call handlers with expert clinical advice. They will help to manually trace the contacts of anyone who has had a positive test, and advise them on whether they need to isolate. They have rigorous training, with detailed procedures designed by our experts at Public Health England. They have stepped up to serve their country in its hour of need and I thank them in advance for the life-saving work that they are about to do.
The work of those 21,000 people will be supported by the NHS covid-19 app, which we are piloting on the Isle of Wight at the moment and will then roll out across the rest of the country. Taken together, that means that we now have the elements that we need to roll out our national test and trace service: the testing capacity, the tracing capability and the technology.
Building that system is incredibly important, but so too are the basics. We need everyone to self-isolate if they or someone in their household has symptoms. We need everyone to keep washing their hands and following the social distancing rules. We need everyone to stay alert, because this is a national effort and everyone has a part to play. The goal is to protect life and allow us, carefully and cautiously, to get back to doing more of the things that make life worth living. That is our goal and we are making progress towards it. I commend this statement to the House.
On symptoms, the right hon. Gentleman will know that many healthcare specialists were making these warnings eight weeks ago, so can he explain why there has been a time lag in updating the case definition?
I note what the right hon. Gentleman said about social care, but he will be aware that more than 12,500 people have sadly died in care homes because of covid-19. Last week, he said that he had put a protective ring around care homes from February, but yesterday a care home provider wrote in The Sunday Times:
“Elderly people weren’t a priority”
They also wrote:
“The government was asleep at the wheel.”
Is the reality not that there was no early lockdown of care homes when needed, and there was no testing of people transferred from hospital to care homes until mid-April, seeding the virus? Personal protective equipment was requisitioned from care home staff and given to the NHS because of wider shortages. There was guidance suggesting that infection was unlikely, and that guidance was still in place when there was community transmission.
We still do not have full testing of all residents and care home staff 12 weeks later. No wonder Age UK has said that this is “too little, too late”. I note that the right hon. Gentleman said that testing will be expanded. Can he bring forward the date by which all care home residents and staff will be routinely tested? The document last week says that it will be by 6 June. Why can the date not be sooner?
Has this crisis not shown that our care sector is staffed by exceptional, dedicated people, and that migrant care workers are not low skilled but immensely able? Does the right hon. Gentleman agree that the Home Office should acknowledge that, and praise such potential workers, not penalise them?
I welcome the wider roll-out of testing. The right hon. Gentleman did not mention the antibody test. Could he update the House on that front? It has also been reported today that 20% of hospital patients got covid while in for another illness. Two weeks ago, he suggested to me in the House that he planned to roll out screening of all healthcare workers, whether symptomatic or not. Can he update us on that front?
On tracing, I have long argued that the safe way to transition out of the lockdown is by having a test, trace and isolation strategy in place, but it depends on a quick turnaround of test results. Can the right hon. Gentleman tell us the current median time for test results to be received by someone when carried out by the Deloitte and other private sector testing facilities, and how soon do directors of public health and GPs receive those results?
The right hon. Gentleman knows that I believe he should be making better use of local public health services. None the less, he is pressing ahead with the national call centre delivered by Serco. Can he tell us by what date that tracing service will be operational? Will it be operational by 1 June?
The right hon. Gentleman did not talk about isolation as one of his key elements of the test-trace strategy. Many poorer people will not be able to self-isolate. Will he look at providing facilities for such people, such as empty hotel rooms so they can quarantine? Will those in insecure work be guaranteed sick pay if they are asked to isolate for seven or 14 days?
On the R number, will the right hon. Gentleman guarantee that every easing of restriction, such as asking children to return to school, is accompanied by a Government statement on the expected impact on the R number and the underlying prevalence of infection? If R rises to be greater than one in a region or local area, how will the Government respond?
As the right hon. Gentleman says, this is Mental Health Awareness Week. We are very fearful of a growing burden of mental health issues, especially in children, as a result of the lockdown. What extra investment is he putting into mental health services, particularly children’s health services? NHS staff, who are threatened not only by exposure to the virus, but the trauma, emotional distress and burnout associated with working on the frontline, need support as well. They need PPE, they need fair pay, they need mental health support. Those care workers who are caring for us need us to care for them and we should thank them again in Mental Health Awareness Week.
I will keep it concise, Mr Speaker—your instruction.
The hon. Gentleman is right to ask detailed questions about care homes, because making sure that we have that ring of protection around care homes is important. Of course, the majority of care homes have not had an outbreak at all. We should thank those running care homes for the incredible hard work and infection control they put in place, meaning that in 62% of all care homes there has not been an outbreak. Where there has been an outbreak, there has been rigorous infection control and a huge amount of work has gone into that. We have, as he said, now got testing for all. That started with testing throughout for people who had the first symptoms in a care home. Now, it is for all staff and all residents, whether symptomatic or not.
There was no large-scale removal of people from hospital into care homes towards the start of the crisis, as has been implied by some. In fact, the number of people moving from hospital into care homes has fallen throughout the crisis and those movements have been done with care. But I agree with the hon. Gentleman that the crisis has shown that there are many lessons for reform in the social care sector, not least the much closer integrated working with the NHS that we have seen in these crisis days.
The hon. Gentleman asked about the roll out of contact tracing. We now have the people in place. The app is successfully being piloted, and we are ready and preparing for rolling out that system.
The hon. Gentleman asked for the median time for a test to get back. The median time is, as far as I understand it, under 48 hours. He made a rather uncharacteristic dig at private sector businesses which are helping us to deliver that. None of the testing capability—not a single test—would be possible without the private sector. His attempt to divide people between private and public sector is entirely wrong. I think he should remember that that bit of the Labour party left the shadow Cabinet a couple of months ago. I thought good sense had returned.
The hon. Gentleman asked about local public health services. It is incredibly important that local public health services are involved. We have brought in Tom Riordan, chief executive of Leeds City Council and a brilliant public servant, to lead the work on engagement with local public health services, which the hon. Gentleman rightly—I totally agree with him—says are an incredibly important part of getting this right.
We of course keep R under review. We keep watching it and we keep surveying to find out what it is. We have said that, if it rises above one and we see an outbreak in an area, we will be perfectly prepared to take action in that area. Indeed, if it goes dangerously high nationally, we would be prepared, as we were before, to take the necessary action.
Finally, the hon. Gentleman talked about the importance of mental health services across the board. The support is there in the NHS for all NHS staff—in fact, it is there across the board. One of the interesting things in this crisis is that paediatric mental health services have discovered that many services are better received, especially by children, via computer than face to face. In some cases, therefore, the service is better provided at a distance, over a screen, than face to face, but he is absolutely right to highlight the importance of mental health services in this crisis and beyond.
Thank you, Mr Speaker. I would like to ask the Secretary of State for three pieces of data, all of which are essential for this strategy. First, what level of new daily infections do we need to be down to before contact tracing happens for all new infections? Secondly, how many daily tests will the test and trace system need? Thirdly, if we are going to introduce weekly testing for all NHS and care-home frontline staff, when will our testing capacity be sufficient to deliver that on top of test and trace?
With 21,000 contact tracers now employed, we think that that is capacity for the current level of new cases that have been demonstrated by the Office for National Statistics surveys, but I am perfectly prepared to hire more to make sure that we have spare capacity within contact tracing.
On the number of tests needed daily to service test and trace, it depends on exactly how many new cases there are. It depends on the relationship between the symptoms and the number of positive cases. There are many more people with symptoms than there are positive coronavirus cases, but the number is falling because we are moving away—well away now—from the flu season, and at this time of year the number of positive symptoms, including coughs and fever, tends to fall, because other non-coronavirus communicable diseases such as flu are falling. There is not a specific answer to that question, because it changes over time. On weekly tests, we are looking to put together a plan to ensure that we cut in-hospital transmission, which will include appropriate, regular testing of the right staff in the NHS. I shall write to my right hon. Friend with more details as and when that policy is fully announceable.
My right hon. Friend rightly points out that we have urgent dental hubs, so anyone who needs urgent dentistry can get a dentist’s appointment through their GP. Many people have asked how, in an emergency, they can see a dentist. Dentistry is there and available—it is an important message for all our constituents. However, we are also working on the restart of dentistry more broadly. I understand the challenges, especially for those who want to see their own dentist and for dental practices. With NHS contracts, we continue to keep the funds flowing, but of course many dentists rely on their private income as well, and we support the mixed market in dentistry. What we need to do is get dentistry up and running when we can, but it has to be safe.
I welcome that eligibility for testing is being widened to all symptomatic cases as the first step towards a test, trace and isolate approach, but does the Secretary of State agree that the system should have been in place before lockdown was eased? Without it, how can he know that the crowded public transport systems that we saw last week are not already leading to a rise in infections? The Secretary of State prides himself on having ramped up testing, but we know that many thousands of those are just in the post, so will he clarify whether those tests are counted again when they are actually carried out?
The Royal College of GPs has highlighted the difficulty in getting test results back from the Deloitte regional test centres. As it is contact tracing and isolation that stop the spread of the virus, how will the Secretary of State speed up results and ensure that they are fed back to GPs and public health teams, who are critical to detecting and controlling local outbreaks? The UK still has more than six times the number of new cases per day than when the lockdown was brought in. Does he not think that that is still too high to be sending people back to work and school?
We have been working very closely with the SNP Scottish Government on testing, so I am slightly surprised at some of the questions from the SNP spokeswoman. Of course the tests are not double-counted. There has been a ramp up in testing capacity. I am very glad to see in Scotland that testing capacity is now starting to rise—in the latest figures, it was up to around 5,000. I work very closely with my SNP opposite number on making sure that everybody has the very best capacity. The contact tracing system was also stopped in Scotland. The reason was that the number of cases right across the UK became very high. We needed social distancing to bring that number down. Now that that number is coming down right across the UK, contact tracing is once again effective. That is the reason we are bringing it in now, and I am pleased that we have hired 21,000 contact tracers in England to ensure that we can get it going. Therefore we are on track for the current proposed 1 June changes. That date is dependent on making sure that everything is right, and that it is safe to make the changes then.
The Minister has just confirmed that there will be thousands of contact tracers who are not medically trained, but who will be handling highly sensitive patient information and issuing clinical advice given to them. Will he bring forward primary legislation to govern the collection and any potential misuse of data, whether that is via an app, by qualified health professionals or by the non-medical call handlers, so that members of the public can have confidence that all strands of his data collection plans are effective and safe?
I thank the Secretary of State for his unstinting dedication to protecting the health of our nation during this crisis. First, will he update the House on when the roll-out for antibody tests will be revealed, so that we can start to get back to normality? Secondly, in last Friday’s statement, he spoke about the reform of health and social care. When will the Government bring forward a lasting care funding solution to stop people in constituencies such as Romford from being forced to sell their family homes to fund long-term care?
I think the whole country celebrated when there was the announcement last week that antibody testing that fits the bill and does the job had been approved by our Porton Down labs. We are in the closing stages of commercial negotiations to ensure that those tests are widely available, and I will let my hon. Friend know just as soon as I can when that roll-out will be, but I do not want to prejudice the commercial negotiations, which I am sure he will understand.
On the second point, I strongly agree with my hon. Friend that this crisis has demonstrated just how important social care reform is, just how important social care is and how we must maintain the benefits and improvements in delivery and working practice that happened because of the crisis and happened through the heat of the crisis. We must maintain and strengthen that close working relationship. The financial changes that we put through have proved very effective at bringing the two systems closer together, but there is much, much more to do.
A recent survey by Unison North West found that eight out of 10 care workers would not receive full pay if they were ill, self-isolating or shielding because of covid-19, receiving at most £95 per week statutory sick pay, with workers putting their lives on the line to look after us. Will the Government provide increased funding and direction to ensure that all care workers receive full pay when absent due to covid-19?
In addition, given the current failings of our fractured—
That is an incredibly important question, and one of the purposes of the £600 million extra that we are putting into the social care system and that will go direct to the frontline—local authorities are not allowed to use it for other purposes—is to ensure that when social care staff need to be away from work for infection control purposes, they are not penalised for doing so.
I join my hon. Friend the Member for Romford (Andrew Rosindell) and my right hon. Friend in welcoming approval of an antibody test for use in the UK. I understand my right hon. Friend cannot elaborate on the timetable for its introduction, but can he tell us whether he is preparing for individuals to be able to input the results of an antibody test into the NHS covid app to help demonstrate their immunity and improve our understanding of the prevalence of this wretched virus?
It is not through the covid app, but we have a process for people inputting whether they think they have had the virus. As and when we manage to land an agreement on antibody testing the proposition my right hon. Friend makes is a very good one. After all, at the moment the science is not clear as to the level of immunity and the risk that we pose of transmitting to others if we have antibodies, as many of us who have had the virus hope that we have, but as the science becomes clearer, so we will also be able to be clearer with our guidance to people who have a degree of immunity on what they can do.
Two weeks ago, 1.8 million people in this country who are currently shielding were told that they would have to shield for an extra two weeks until 30 June. Can the Secretary of State confirm what protection there will be for them and their families, so that they do not face the threat of redundancy or sanction for not going to work or not going to school in order to follow that medical advice?
We have put in place extensive protections for people who are shielded, and those protections will of course continue to apply until 30 June. Shielding is not something that we do lightly, because we understand the very significant impact it has on those concerned and their families, but it is necessary in a pandemic like this.
Lincolnshire is fortunate to have good supplies of PPE, a relatively low infection rate and excellent capacity in our hospitals at this time. Will the Secretary of State join me in thanking our NHS staff across Lincolnshire, who have been intensely dedicated to treating covid-19 patients, but who are also increasingly aware of the needs of non-covid patients?
Yes, I will. The NHS restart is incredibly important in Lincolnshire and across the country. I know Lincolnshire well, and it is very important that we restart other services that have had to be paused for understandable reasons. Not only is Lincolnshire the home to many dedicated health and social care staff—I pay tribute to all those who work in the NHS in Lincolnshire—but my grandmother was a nurse at the Pilgrim Hospital in Boston and our great deputy chief medical officer, Professor Jonathan Van-Tam, is himself a resident of Lincolnshire. Lincolnshire has many great things to offer in the sphere of health, and we must ensure that that is about not just covid but health services across the board.
The Office for National Statistics has reported that covid-19 mortality rates in the most deprived areas of England are twice those in the least deprived. Once again, this virus has reminded us of the extreme health and social inequalities in our society; although it can affect anyone, from any background, those from the poorest communities have the highest risk of severe illness and death. Here in the north-east, we have some of the highest levels of deprivation in the country, as well as the highest rates of infection. What do the Government intend to do to reduce health inequalities, both during the covid-19 lockdown and as part of our recovery from the impact of the virus?
The hon. Lady is absolutely right; this is an incredibly important subject, both, as she says, during the crisis and thereafter. We have a study under way, which Public Health England is conducting, on the impact of all sorts of different conditions on the likelihood that covid-19 will hit someone hard. It is true that there is a link to levels of deprivation, in the same way as one of the strongest factors, other than age, is obesity—that needs to be investigated. We have also seen a bigger impact on people from minority ethnic backgrounds. All these things need to be studied. Levelling up and closing that health inequality gap is an incredibly important part of the Government’s agenda for recovering from this terrible disease.
As my right hon. Friend has said, due to the hard work of the entire health and social care system we can now look beyond this crisis. As we do that, may I ask him to say more today, and in the coming days, about how we intend to balance the need to address a substantial backlog of more routine and elective work, which, as he says, has been understandably pushed aside by covid-19, with the need to make sure that NHS staff, who have been through an extremely stressful period, have the time to recover?
That is one of the many balances we will have to strike in the months and years to come as we recover from covid-19. There are, immediately, three things we are doing on that. The first is that we have brought in more staff, especially retired staff, and we want to keep them. They have been absolutely brilliant and a huge help to the NHS during the crisis. The second is providing more support to staff. I mentioned the mental health support, but this involves all sorts of other, wider support to staff right across health and social care. The third thing is making sure that we rebuild the NHS, gaining from the improvements that have been made in the eye of this storm, because there have been improvements to ways of working. Huge strides forward have been taken on the use of technology, and we have found areas where that has made a very big positive impact. Although there are, of course, parts of this crisis response that we want to roll back, there are other parts we want to pick up and take forward.
My constituent Rebecca’s mother tragically died from coronavirus while working as a nurse in a Rotherham care home. The care home did not have access to the personal protective equipment she needed to keep safe. Rebecca wants to know: how will the PPE available to health and care professionals who have died in service be recorded and considered? Will accepting the £60,000 death-in-service payment prevent her family from making a negligence claim? And who signed off on the Government’s strategy of sending untested patients to care homes?
As I have said, in care homes we put in place infection control procedures as much as was possible at the start of this crisis, and there was not an increase in the number of people going back to care homes. But my heart goes out to the family of the hon. Lady’s constituent, who died working in social care, joining, I am afraid to say, many others who gave service during this crisis and died as a result of it. I am very happy to look specifically into her constituent’s case. We do look into the death of any health or social care worker and make sure we get to the bottom of all the lessons that can be learned, and I am very happy personally to do that in the case of the constituent that the hon. Lady has rightly raised.
Care homes in Ashfield such as Wren Hall, with an outstanding rating, and Sutton Manor, which is in the top 20 care homes in the east midlands, face a difficult future. With empty beds due to covid-19 comes a dramatic loss of income, which has a significant impact on their business. Could my right hon. Friend advise me what safeguards are in place to ensure that our care homes are supported to keep their doors open and continue to provide this exceptional level of care?
I want to congratulate Wren Hall, because getting an outstanding rating is not easy, and it has done that. I congratulate every single member of staff, and I thank my hon. Friend for being a champion for them and bringing to my attention Wren Hall’s outstanding rating when it was received. The funding, of course, is a critical part of this. We put in £600 million extra on Friday, and as I said, that will all go direct to care homes—it is not to go into local authority budgets for onward consideration of passing to care homes; it is to get to the care homes. That will help with infection control, but we also have to ensure that funding is sustainable for the future.
Yesterday, the British Government announced in their daily briefing that they hope to have 30 million vaccines ready for use by September, yet on the same day, the Prime Minister wrote in The Mail on Sunday that there may never be a vaccine. Considering the way that Wales has been undermined by the British Government over the distribution of PPE and testing, what confidence can the people of Wales have that we will have our fair share of vaccines if one is developed?
It is not quite fair to say that Wales has not been served on PPE or testing. I have worked very closely with the Welsh Labour Government, and although the number of tests declared per day in Wales is low—it is only just over 1,000—there is access to UK-wide testing capabilities, such as home testing and the drive-through centres.
On the hon. Gentleman’s substantive point about the vaccine, I am delighted that we have been able to come to an agreement with AstraZeneca. If the science behind the Oxford vaccine works, it is likely to be one of the first available in the world, and we then have an agreement to ensure that 100 million doses are available for the UK, the first 30 million of which will be right at the start for the most vulnerable. That is a UK-wide policy—we will deliver it right across these islands. We should pay tribute to the work and the ingenuity of our scientists in Oxford and to the industrial might of AstraZeneca, who together, should they manage to pull off the science, will be able to deliver this vaccine to our population as we need it. Vaccine science is an uncertain business. That is why we cannot ever be 100% sure that there will be a safe and effective vaccine, but we are putting everything we can into making sure that we give them the best possible chance for every citizen of the whole United Kingdom.
Can my right hon. Friend confirm that, thanks to the actions that this Government have taken and the brilliant response of the British people, we have prevented the NHS from being overwhelmed at any point during the current crisis, which has meant that ordinary people have been able to receive a fantastic standard of care when they needed it?
Yes, that is absolutely right. Two months ago, the people of Blackpool were told that it would be difficult to get through this without the NHS being overwhelmed across the country. Through the hard work of people who have done their bit by staying at home and staying alert, and through the NHS expansion, we have managed to ensure that every single person with coronavirus could get access to NHS treatment. I think the whole country should be proud of that.
As a co-chair of the all-party parliamentary group on adult social care, I have been speaking with social care providers across the country every single week since the start of this crisis. Not a single one would recognise the Secretary of State’s description last week of a “protective ring” having been thrown around them. They had no access to PPE, no access to testing and, in some cases, were told that ambulances would not take their residents to hospital. Now the sector is clear that they need access to testing on a weekly basis for all staff and residents, with prompt access to results, so that they can act to maintain infection control. Can the Secretary of State say when that essential measure will be in place?
We absolutely did a throw a protective ring around social care, not least with the £3.2 billion-worth of funding we put in right at the start, topped up with £600 million-worth of funding on Friday. Further to that, the hon. Lady does know, I think, that testing has been carried out in care homes throughout. Of course there is always more that we should and will do, but we have been working very hard and closely with the adult social care sector. Towards the start of this crisis, I was meeting the leaders of adult social care in Downing Street with the Prime Minister. We have been working very hard to tie together our response in what is a very diverse sector.
Will my right hon. Friend join me in praising the work of local initiatives such as Makers 4 the NHS in Beaconsfield, who have volunteered their time and money to help to contribute and deliver PPE to the NHS and care homes? Following the announcement of the new guidelines surrounding PPE production, will my right hon. Friend ensure that local groups like Makers 4 the NHS are not excluded from delivery of PPE, and will he meet me to discuss how we can support local businesses who are already supporting the NHS and local covid-19 responses?
Yes, I would be very happy to meet my hon. Friend, possibly via Zoom—other videoconferencing services are available—to discuss what Makers 4 the NHS and other voluntary organisations and groups of volunteers have come together to deliver with regard to PPE: it is absolutely fantastic. I pay tribute, too, to the Daily Mail’s PPE campaign, which has raised an enormous amount to bring in PPE from China. But those who are making it here in Britain I salute and I thank.
Does the Secretary of State remember that about a month ago I upset him by telling him that his Government’s policy during this crisis was a shambles? I thought they were actually getting a grip on this crisis until last Sunday’s disastrous performance by his Prime Minister. Now we have relaxed the advice to the country at a time when Yorkshire and the north-east is doubling its R rate. What is he going to do about that? Can he not get a grip? Can he not stand up to the Prime Minister?
The R rate has not doubled in Yorkshire or indeed anywhere else in the country. By contrast, as I said at the start of my statement, the good news is that things are progressing: the number of people in hospital is significantly down, and the number of people in critical care is down by two thirds. I think we should be thanking and supporting our NHS staff and others, and working together to get to the best possible outcome.
I acknowledge that no Health Secretary has faced the scale of challenges that my right hon. Friend has. Will he join me in thanking all the staff at Southend University Hospital, and those who provide associated healthcare, for their heroic efforts during this time of national crisis, and will he reassure them all that we do have plans to deliver this vaccine?
Yes, absolutely. To deliver the vaccine, if the science comes off—and we hope as much as we possibly can that it will—we will have the plans in place to ensure that it can safely be delivered to those who will benefit from it. We have the agreement with AstraZeneca for the production of 100 million doses—30 million right at the start of the programme. I join my hon. Friend in thanking the staff of Southend University Hospital, who have done so much in such difficult times to make sure that all the community can get access to the support they need if they have got coronavirus, and who I know are working now on the restoration of other services so that people with any health need can get the support they need.
When it comes to “test, trace, isolate”, the Scottish Government are expanding the resilience of the public health system. The UK Government are expanding outsourcing. While the private sector is part of an overall solution, surely the Secretary of State should be doing more to limit the profits of the likes of Serco and Deloitte.
On the contrary, one of things that we have learned in this crisis, as a nation, is that things are best delivered with people working together in the public and private sectors. I think this crisis has ended for good the idea that the public sector alone should deliver certain services. Actually, teamwork is the best option.
We are rightly tackling the global pandemic, covid-19, but there is a danger that the totally preventable diseases of measles, mumps and rubella will re-emerge if vaccinations are missed. Will my right hon. Friend reassure me and the parents in Broxtowe that it is safe and vital that scheduled vaccinations continue?
Yes, it is very important that the scheduled vaccination programme continues wherever possible, and we have protected it as much as possible. We must remember that, with the hope of a vaccine for coronavirus, so, too, will we have to redouble efforts to vaccinate children for MMR and for flu this autumn. Everybody will need to get a flu jab if they possibly can, and we will have more to say on that soon. It is really important that people vaccinate and that anybody who hears messages from anti-vaxxers stands up to them and says that what they say is wrong and harmful.
There are reports that covid-19 test results are coming in some 96 hours after testing. In that time, health workers and their families are at risk of catching the virus. Will the Health Secretary confirm whether there are enough reagents, specifically in acute settings, to perform all covid-19 tests within 24 hours?
Obviously, being able to perform all tests within 24 hours would be a great success. We are trying, as much as possible, to shorten the amount of time it takes. The average time is much, much shorter than 96 hours, and I will write to the hon. Lady with an exact figure of the time that it takes in acute settings. It is much shorter than the time that she mentions. All test results under 24 hours would be great. Sometimes it is just a matter of minutes or hours depending on how busy the test centre is.