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Oral Answers to Questions

Volume 676: debated on Wednesday 20 May 2020


The Secretary of State was asked—

Covid-19: Discussions with Scottish Government

I regularly attend cross-Government meetings, which include the devolved Administrations, to discuss how to minimise the impact of covid-19. There is a high level of co-operation between all Administrations and there will continue to be. We are committed to a UK-wide approach, as we have been from the start.

What justification does the Secretary of State have for ignoring the Scottish Government guidelines to stay home, protect the NHS and save lives, by undertaking an almost 700-mile round trip to Westminster when he could safely have worked from home today virtually? What kind of message does that send to the Scottish people? Will the Secretary of State be self-isolating on his return to his constituency?

To be absolutely clear, first, as the hon. Gentleman’s colleague, the hon. Member for Perth and North Perthshire (Pete Wishart), has made clear, Members of Parliament are key workers. More importantly, as a Cabinet Minister and a Secretary of State, it is right that I should be here in the Chamber so that I can be properly scrutinised and answer these questions. I came down at the weekend and travelled on a train very safely. I will return safely and I will be isolating myself when I do, but that is solely because I go back to family. I do not see why we cannot have proper scrutiny of Parliament when we have the virtual proceedings, which work for some, but for me it is absolutely about being here, being scrutinised and being at the Dispatch Box.

At last week’s Scottish Affairs Committee sitting, the Secretary of State made the welcome admission that the Prime Minister’s announcement on exiting lockdown did cause confusion, given that the advice applied only to England. The crystal-clear message in Scotland remains to stay at home, protect the NHS and save lives. In that same spirit, will the Secretary of State accept that prematurely ending the modern ways in which we are currently working in Parliament would disregard Scotland’s clear public health guidance, increase infection in our communities and put our constituents at risk by forcing people to travel hundreds of miles back and forth to London?

I have already given the answer on the first point. On the messaging, the messaging in Scotland is different to that in England, which is fine, but the “stay alert” message in England is that people should stay at home and work from home if they can work from home, but if they cannot, they can go to work. That is very clear. In going to work, they stay alert, wash their hands and socially distance themselves—they do all those things. If Scottish Members of Parliament do not want to come back to be scrutinised or to scrutinise Ministers, that will be a matter for them, but at some point we will have to move to a stage where Parliament is operating on a virtual and covid-safe basis, and that is exactly as it should be.

I welcome the shadow Secretary of State for the first of his two questions from the Front Bench.

That is very kind of you, Mr Speaker; thank you very much indeed.

The Secretary of State will be aware of the February outbreak of covid-19 at an international Nike conference in central Edinburgh. In a catastrophic error of judgment, the Scottish Government decided that the Scottish public would not be informed, despite that being contrary to Scottish public health legislation. The public could have helped with the tracing and used their own common sense, as the Prime Minister has said, to make choices about attending large events and gatherings. A BBC documentary reported that a lockdown then could have saved 2,000 Scottish lives. Will the Secretary of State tell the House whether the UK Government were informed; why the public were not told, given the subsequent disinfecting and closure of Nike outlets all over the UK; and how many UK lives could have been saved as a result?

I welcome the hon. Gentleman back to his rightful place on the Opposition Front Bench. I fear he spent far too long in the wilderness that was the previous regime’s Back Benches. That said, I must pay tribute to his predecessor, the hon. Member for Rochdale (Tony Lloyd), who I am pleased is making good progress in recovering from a very nasty bout of coronavirus.

On the shadow Secretary of State’s question, I believe that maximum transparency is important when it comes to matters of public health, because it is important that we treat the public as adults. To that end, I wish to make it clear that the Scottish Government informed Public Health England—an agency, as Members know—of one case of covid-19 on 2 March and two further cases on 4 March. I should also make it absolutely clear at the Dispatch Box that the chief medical officers of the four nations agreed, before there were any confirmed cases, that each Administration would announce their own cases and take their own decisions about what was appropriate to release and when they released it, so it is a matter for the Scottish Government and how they handled it.

I accept that response from the Secretary of State, but the UK Government did have a responsibility, given that Nike outlets across the United Kingdom were closed and disinfected.

I thank the Secretary of State for his welcome and for what he said about my hon. Friend the Member for Rochdale (Tony Lloyd), whom I spoke to shortly after being appointed; he is back and fit, with his old sense of humour—he has not lost that, thankfully. My hon. Friend the Member for Ogmore (Chris Elmore) and I will work closely with the Government when they agree with us, but we will be a ferocious Opposition when we disagree. We should work collaboratively when we agree, but we will be ferocious when we do not.

In advance of a vaccine, the only way to ease lockdown measures is to test, trace, track and isolate. The key to that process is mass testing. Given that the UK Government consistently fail to hit their 100,000 a day target, and Scotland has one of the worst testing rates in the whole world, we need mobilisation of both Governments to have testing centres everywhere—mobile, workplace, home testing, in airports and so on—to make this strategy work. A “go it alone” policy, encouraged by the Prime Minister’s clumsy announcements, is counterproductive. What work is going on across both Governments to ensure not only that the capacity of testing is exponentially increased, but that there is a system in place for effectively testing and retesting the majority of the population, starting in our care homes?

The hon. Gentleman makes a good point. The testing capacity in Scotland is 12,000 tests a day. On Monday, they only used 4,559 of those. That is a matter for the Scottish Government, because health is devolved, and they determine what tests are undertaken. I want to make it clear that the UK Government have funded for the Scottish Government five operating drive-through test centres in Edinburgh, Glasgow, Aberdeen, Inverness and Perth. The Ministry of Defence is operating 30 pop-up units across Scotland. Again, they can go at the behest of the Scottish Government. There is plenty of capacity there. It is not being used. It should have been used more in care homes; I agree with him on that. There is a firm line between the Scottish Government being cautious and being slow, when in fact, they could be less cautious about easing the lockdown if they had been a lot quicker on testing.

I welcome the shadow Secretary of State, the hon. Member for Edinburgh South (Ian Murray), to his position. Given that England has decided to ease lockdown measures earlier than the other three nations of the UK, can the Secretary of State give assurances that the citizens of the devolved nations will still have access to the UK furlough scheme for as long as lockdown must continue in the devolved nations?

This is the first time that the hon. Lady and I have met, in virtual circumstances, and I welcome her to her role. The answer is one for the Chancellor. That is a matter for the Treasury.

If this Parliament insists on following a policy of England’s way or no way and does not leave any leeway for the devolved nations, will the Secretary of State, as Scotland’s representative in Government, lobby the Prime Minister for the devolution of the fiscal powers necessary for the Scottish Government to implement their own furlough scheme?

This is not the time for the Scottish fiscal framework to be opened up and looked at again. The UK Government have given huge support to the whole United Kingdom through the furlough scheme, the self-employed scheme, the bounce-back loans and the coronavirus business interruption loan scheme. There has been a huge package of measures to keep money in people’s pockets and to keep the economy as strong as it can be when we return to something near normal. Have I argued Scotland’s case? Yes, I have. We have an extension coming on 1 August, running to 31 October. I hope that we can get people back to work over that period and get the economy up and running, to save people’s livelihoods. While we are very focused on saving people’s lives, we must remember that after that comes saving their livelihoods.

It is so disappointing to see the Secretary of State and his “better together” shadow in the House of Commons in London today. Their Government are telling them to stay at home and not to travel unnecessarily, but there they are in the House of Commons today. The Secretary of State is right that virtual proceedings allow Scottish Members of Parliament to work from home, so why are the Government pulling the plug on the virtual proceedings today? He is the voice of Scots in the Cabinet. What is he doing to ensure that Scots’ voices continue to be heard in the House of Commons on behalf of our constituents and to allow us to do our work?

The hon. Gentleman might be jumping the gun on that, because discussions are ongoing between the Whips Office and the House authorities. I want to make it clear to him that we are not going to put anyone at risk. However, we have to recognise that if we are asking schools to go back and the public to go back to work, we should lead by example, and we should return to a covid-safe—I emphasise that: covid-safe—working environment.

Covid-19: Scottish Universities

What recent discussions he has had with the Education Secretary in the Scottish Government on the effect of the covid-19 outbreak on Scottish universities. (902841)

Higher education in Scotland is, for the most part, a devolved responsibility. However, the UK Government very much recognise the difficulties faced by students, staff, and institutions across the UK, and we are working closely with the sector. The Department for Education has been engaging closely with ministerial and official colleagues in Scotland to discuss a range of higher education areas affected by the covid-19 outbreak.

Further and higher education needs to adapt to the long-term consequences of covid-19 in much the same way as our schools and other public services do. Although the crisis has taught us how well long-distance learning can be employed, will my right hon. Friend agree to discuss with the Scottish Government how such lessons can be implemented in the future to provide valuable education and, importantly, value for money for undergraduates and postgraduates?

I thank my hon. Friend for his question. The Department for Education has been engaging closely with ministerial and official colleagues in Scotland to discuss a range of higher education areas that are affected by covid-19. I am also pleased to say that the Under-Secretary of State for Scotland, my hon. Friend the Member for Moray (Douglas Ross), is meeting Universities Scotland’s funding policy group later this week.

Scotland’s 19 universities are not immune to the financial hardship caused by the pandemic. They currently face immediate in-year losses of £72 million, and Universities Scotland anticipates that 18 of Scotland’s 19 universities will go on to report deficits in this financial year. May I press the Secretary of State further on what work he will do as part of a UK Government working with the Scottish Government to ensure that any detrimental impact to universities across Scotland is dealt with and that universities are supported and helped in relation to the pandemic?

Funnily enough, I have spoken to the Education Secretary on that very subject. The UK Government are providing considerable funds to support research by Scottish universities, as indeed they do for other universities in the UK. Regarding the shortfall for universities, which I believe has been highlighted, I am told that that is largely due to the policy of the Scottish Government over the past 10 years of giving free tuition to Scottish nationals and charging English students and overseas students more. I have to say that that element of the budget is, and always has been, devolved and it is absolutely the responsibility of the Scottish Government to rectify that problem.

Covid-19: UK-wide Response

What recent discussions he has had with Cabinet colleagues on co-ordinating a UK-wide response to the covid-19 outbreak. (902844)

What recent discussions he has had with Cabinet colleagues on co-ordinating a UK-wide response to the covid-19 outbreak. (902846)

What recent discussions he has had with Cabinet colleagues on co-ordinating a UK-wide response to the covid-19 outbreak. (902847)

What recent discussions he has had with Cabinet colleagues on co-ordinating a UK-wide response to the covid-19 outbreak. (902848)

I have regular discussions with all my Cabinet colleagues on the covid-19 outbreak, including on the co-ordination of a UK-wide response. The Government are absolutely committed to a UK-wide approach and we will continue to work together with the devolved Administrations to ensure a co-ordinated approach across the UK, while respecting the devolution settlements.

Because of the actions taken by this UK Government, the Scottish Government will receive more than £3.7 billion in extra Barnett funding to help deal with the covid-19 outbreak. Does my right hon. Friend believe that this demonstrates the importance of tackling the pandemic as one United Kingdom, and that it is in the best interests of all four nations to work together as we emerge from this crisis?

As my hon. Friend correctly points out, Scotland has been allocated a total of £3.7 billion in extra funding so far, and, yes, I agree with him on the one United Kingdom approach.

In places such as Carlisle and south Scotland, we have a substantial amount of cross-border activity, including travel to work. Does the Minister agree that it would be far better to have a UK-wide policy on movement rather than having the Scottish Government causing unnecessary confusion, which does not help people in this part of the country?

As we know, different parts of the United Kingdom are experiencing this pandemic at different rates, so it is right to be flexible and to move at different speeds, as we have seen. But will my right hon. Friend confirm that he remains fully committed to working constructively with the Scottish Government, so that we can, as he says, get through this crisis together as one United Kingdom?

I can confirm to my hon. Friend that we are absolutely committed to working constructively with the Scottish Government on all fronts.

Adam Marshall, director general of the British Chambers of Commerce, has said:

“We need to see the whole of the UK moving together—the alternative for business is additional confusion and cost. Avoiding divergence for the sake of politics is important.”

Does the Secretary of State agree?

I think my hon. Friend said, “avoiding divergence for the sake of politics”, or something, towards the end. If that is indeed what he said, I completely agree with him.

Rescheduling of COP26

What discussions he has had with the Scottish Government on the rescheduling of COP26 to be held in Glasgow in 2021. (902849)

The decision on a revised date for COP26 in 2021 will be taken by the COP Bureau of the United Nations framework convention on climate change, in co-operation with the UK and Italy.

As a man born and bred in Glasgow, I welcome the fact that COP26 is going to be hosted there. However, the original plan included a proposal to house 30,000 delegates in cruise liners docked in the Clyde. Not only was that ludicrously expensive, but the pollution from the diesel from those vessels would have sent entirely the wrong message from the COP. What assurance can the Minister give that more suitable accommodation is now being prepared?

Clearly, decisions will continue to be taken on COP26 when it is rescheduled. The point about the 30,000 delegates is important, because that will make COP26 in Glasgow—a UK-secured summit—the biggest-ever summit, delegate-wise, in the United Kingdom, and that is something we should celebrate. We will continue to work on the valuable point that the hon. Gentleman has made. Glasgow will be ready to host this outstanding international conference.

Growth Deals

I am pleased to confirm that we have agreed a city or growth deal for each of Scotland’s seven city regions. We have also agreed, or are in the process of agreeing, growth deals for Ayrshire, Borderlands, Argyll and Bute, Falkirk, the Islands, and my own home area of Moray. Together, this will mean that a city or growth deal will be part of every area of Scotland.

I thank my hon. Friend for his reply and for his Department’s excellent work in delivering these growth deals for Scotland. But does he agree that we now need a growth deal for the whole United Kingdom based on free enterprise, an export boost from new free trade deals, and locking in some of the productivity gains we have made during this crisis on a transition to a more digital and cashless economy?

I do agree that as we come out of this pandemic we have to ensure that steps are taken to protect and restore people’s livelihoods, which are clearly at the forefront of everyone’s minds at the moment, because a strong economy is the best way to protect jobs and fund vital services that are required. I am certain that city and growth deals in Scotland and across the UK will play their part in helping to achieve this.

Oil and Gas Industry

In my role in the Scotland Office, along with the Minister for Business, Energy and Clean Growth, there is regular UK Government engagement with the Oil and Gas Authority and with the wider industry to discuss the significant levels of Government support available to it as part of our unprecedented package of support to business.

This is an extremely difficult and uncertain time for oil and gas companies in Scotland and across the UK. I am sure my hon. Friend shares my concern about the impact this uncertainty is having on thousands of people who work in the sector, so will he outline what support is available to British oil and gas workers, and will he work with the sector to prevent job losses during this pandemic?

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for that question. This is an issue that has been raised in my own constituency. People in Moray travel around the world working in the oil industry. Clearly, the coronavirus job retention scheme is open to the oil and gas industry. Oil and Gas UK has reported that about 30% of respondents to its recent business survey said that they were successful in securing that funding. I would encourage others to look at that as an option to protect their workforce.

Covid-19: Strengthening the Four-nation Approach

What recent discussions he has had with the Minister for the Cabinet Office on strengthening the four-nation approach to the covid-19 outbreak. (902834)

What recent discussions he has had with the Minister for the Cabinet Office on strengthening the four-nation approach to the covid-19 outbreak. (902835)

What recent discussions he has had with the Minister for the Cabinet Office on strengthening the four-nation approach to the covid-19 outbreak. (902857)

I have regular discussions with the Minister for the Cabinet Office and the Scotland Office is in regular dialogue with Scottish Government Minsters to ensure that the most effective measures are put in place in all parts of the United Kingdom. Throughout the covid-19 outbreak, we have been committed to a four-nation approach.

From the Secretary of State’s comments earlier, we know that the Government accept that coronavirus will affect different places differently. What discussions has the Minister been having with other Ministers about getting an official, sub-regional transmission rate—a sub-regional R rate—for the whole United Kingdom to enable authorities in different parts of the country to respond in the way that helps them locally?

There have been ongoing discussions about this. As the Secretary of State said—indeed, the Prime Minister included it in the UK Government document—not only will different nations of the United Kingdom come out of the pandemic at different rates, but different regions of England may also come out of the pandemic at different rates. It is right that this Government are committed to supporting everyone, no matter where they live, to have the best chances to come out of coronavirus and its effects. We will continue to do that as a Government, in dialogue and constructive discussion with the devolved Administrations.

Is the Minister aware of a survey by the charity Radiotherapy4Life, which says that there may be between 2,500 and 7,000 avoidable cancer deaths in Scotland as a result of deferred treatments for cancer patients as a consequence of the NHS focusing on the covid-19 response? Will he work with his counterparts in the four nations to put the case to prioritise advanced radiotherapy by seeking to increase funding, and to remove bureaucratic barriers and restrictions to modernising radiotherapy and encouraging the use of advanced radiotherapy?

The hon. Gentleman raises an extremely important point. We have to make it clear in Scotland, Wales, England and Northern Ireland that our NHS remains open. That message has been loud and clear. Cancer patients should be aware that we will do everything we can across the four nations of the United Kingdom to get the treatment they need and deserve, but the ultimate message is, yes, coronavirus has an impact on our NHS. Because of the actions of the Government and the public, we have been able to suppress the covid outbreak to ensure that we have not breached capacity, but we cannot allow important medical matters to go untreated for too much longer. That message is heard loud and clear throughout the Government.

When the Prime Minister ditched “Stay at Home” for “Stay Alert”, he did not appear to have been too alert to the fact that the other three nations were not with him. Is it not time to re-establish the four-nation approach as soon as possible?

I think we have seen a slight divergence in some areas, but together the four nations continue to work strongly in lockstep to ensure that we can beat coronavirus and save not only lives, but livelihoods. I am encouraged that Scotland will shortly announce similar measures to the rest of the United Kingdom to release some of the restrictions that are in place, but it is important that these decisions are taken in the devolved Administrations where public health is devolved to the respective Governments.

PPE Procurement

What steps he is taking to ensure that the procurement of personal protective equipment in response to the covid-19 outbreak operates effectively between the UK and Scottish Governments. (902838)

The UK Government are working tirelessly to procure PPE both internationally and domestically for UK-wide distribution. This is in addition to the Scottish Government’s own procurement processes. We are working with the devolved Administrations to ensure that the different parts of the UK do not compete against one another in the international market, and that the Foreign and Commonwealth Office can make a single approach to foreign Governments.

The lack of PPE is a scandal. It is part of the reason for the high mortality rate in care homes across the UK. What discussions has the Minister had with the Scottish Government to ensure that nations are not competing against one another for the vital PPE that our essential frontline workers need?

As I said in my opening remarks, the UK Government are committed to ensuring that we work as a United Kingdom, and the Foreign and Commonwealth Office has taken a lead on this issue to ensure that that can happen. I have had regular discussions with Donald Macaskill of Scottish Care about PPE, but also about the outstanding work that our care workers are doing in care homes and around the community across Scotland and the whole of the United Kingdom; they deserve our praise for what they are doing.

PPE: Distribution to Scotland

What steps he is taking to ensure the equitable distribution of imported personal protective equipment to Scotland. (902839)

We are working closely with the devolved nations to ensure that supplies of PPE, both domestic and imported, are distributed equally across the four nations. As I mentioned in my previous response, we are also working to ensure that different parts of the UK do not compete against one other when procuring PPE internationally.

Despite the England-only designation of some PPE imports, the grassroots medical association EveryDoctor has been collating a range of data on PPE availability, and anecdotal evidence suggests that the Scottish Government’s system of procurement and distribution of PPE for Scotland’s NHS has been more efficient and effective from its perspective than that experienced by frontline medical staff in the English NHS. Can the Minister advise the House of what discussions he has had—

I have had regular discussions with the Scottish Government about procuring PPE. Of course, it was the Scottish Government who had a delivery into Prestwick airport of PPE that was not properly labelled, which sat in the airport unable to get out into the care homes to protect the people we needed it to get to. The four nations across the United Kingdom continue to prioritise this issue. It is important for our NHS workers, our care workers and Scotland and the United Kingdom as a whole.

Prime Minister

The Prime Minister was asked—


One hundred and eighty-one NHS and 131 social care workers’ deaths have sadly been reported involving covid-19. I know that the thoughts of the whole House are with their families and friends.

This morning I had meetings with ministerial colleagues and others. In addition to my meetings in this House, I shall have further such meetings later today.

The Government keep saying that this virus does not discriminate, but that is not true. Office for National Statistics figures show that black people, African and African Caribbean people are four times more likely to die from covid-19. The figure is also disproportionately high for Bangladeshi, Pakistani or Indian communities. What is the Prime Minister going to do now about this, and will he act now to ensure that African, Asian and minority ethnic communities in Leicester East and across the country are supported in the next phase of this virus?

Yes. As the hon. Lady may know, we are looking at all the comorbidities associated with the coronavirus and all the reasons why people might be disproportionately affected. A rapid review is now being conducted by Professor Fenton, who will report at the end of the month about particularly vulnerable groups. We will take steps to ensure that they are protected where that is appropriate.

Today I submitted a formal expression of interest for a new rail line between Consett and the Metrocentre, connecting my constituency to the heart of the north-east in Newcastle. As part of the levelling-up agenda, may I ask the Prime Minister for his support for this scheme, as my constituents have supported him and me? (902885)

I congratulate my hon. Friend on his imagination and his plan for a new railway. It is entirely in keeping with our infrastructure revolution, and I can assure him that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Transport will be getting back to him. I note that Nexus has already identified several possible extensions of the Tyne and Wear Metro scheme, which may be of advantage to his constituents.

Last Friday, the Health Secretary said:

“Right from the start we’ve tried to throw a protective ring around our care homes.”

That caused quite a reaction. Yesterday, it was flatly contradicted by the chief executive of Care England. He was giving evidence to the Select Committee on Health and Social Care, and he said that we should have been focusing on care homes from the start and that despite what is being said, there were cases of people who either did not have a covid status or were symptomatic who were discharged into our care homes. The Government advice from 2 to 15 April was:

“Negative tests are not required prior to transfers/admissions into”

care homes. What is protective about that?

As the right hon. and learned Gentleman knows full well—of course he is right to draw attention to what has happened in our care homes, and we mourn the loss of every victim—no one was discharged into a care home this year without the express authorisation of a clinician, and they have the interests of those patients at heart. As I said to him last week—he does not seem to have remembered—actually, the number of patients discharged from hospitals into care homes was 40% down in March on January. The guidance was changed to reflect the change in the epidemic, and that guidance was made available to care homes—and, of course, since the care homes action plan began, we have seen a sharp reduction in the number of deaths in care homes. Indeed, since I last stood before the House, the number of deaths in care homes has come down by 31%. I think he should pay tribute to all those who have helped to fight that epidemic across the NHS and across our local services.

I think the Prime Minister rather missed the point. The question was whether people were tested going back into care homes. The chief executive of Care England says that because they were not, people who had no covid-19 status or who were symptomatic were discharged into care homes. That is a very serious issue that requires an answer.

Yesterday, the chief executive of Care England, in his evidence, was also asked when routine testing would start in care homes. This is the answer he gave yesterday: “I think the short answer is that we’ve had the announcement, but what we haven’t had is delivery, and we are not really clear when that will arrive.” This is the chief executive of Care England in his evidence. Even the Government’s Command Paper, published last week and introduced by the Prime Minister to this House, says within it—[Interruption.] The Health Secretary says, “He’s wrong.” I am quoting the Government’s paper. It says that

“every care home for the over 65s will have been offered testing for residents and staff”

by 6 June.

That is from the Prime Minister’s Command Paper. That is over two weeks away. What is causing the continued delay in routine testing in our care homes?

I am afraid the right hon. and learned Gentleman is simply in ignorance of the facts. The reality is that already 125,000 care home staff have been tested, 118,000—[Interruption.] Perhaps he did know that. One hundred and eighteen thousand care home workers have been tested, and we are absolutely confident that we will be able to increase our testing, not just in care homes but across the whole of the community. Thanks to the hard work of my right hon. Friend the Health Secretary and his teams, we will get up to 200,000 tests in this country by the end of this month. The right hon. and learned Gentleman may know this—perhaps it is one of those international comparisons he hesitates to make—but actually this country is now testing more than virtually any other country in Europe.

Again, the question was when would routine testing start, and the chief executive of Care England, who knows what he is talking about, gave evidence yesterday that it has not. [Interruption.] If the Prime Minister is disputing the evidence to the Select Committee, that is his own business. [Interruption.]

Order. Secretary of State for Health, please. I do not mind you advising the Prime Minister, but you do not need to advise the Opposition during this. [Interruption.] Sorry, do you want to leave the Chamber? We are at maximum numbers. If you want to give way to somebody else, I am more than happy.

To assure the Prime Minister, I am not expressing my own view; I am putting to him the evidence of experts to Committees yesterday.

Testing was referred to by the Prime Minister. That on its own is obviously not enough. What is needed is testing, tracing and isolation. At yesterday’s press conference, the deputy chief scientific adviser said that we could draw particular lessons from Germany and South Korea, which have both had intensive testing and tracing. The number of covid-19 deaths in Germany stands at around 8,000. In South Korea, it is under 300. In contrast, in the United Kingdom, despite 2 million tests having been carried out, there has been no effective tracing in place since 12 March, when tracing was abandoned. That is nearly 10 weeks in a critical period without effective tracing. That is a huge hole in our defences, isn’t it, Prime Minister?

I must say that I find it peculiar, because I have given the right hon. and learned Gentleman repeated briefings on this matter. He is perfectly aware of the situation in the UK as regards testing and tracing in early March. It has been explained many times to him and to the House. I think his feigned ignorance does not come very well. However, I can tell him that today I am confident that we will have a test and trace operation that will enable us, if all the other conditions are satisfied—it is entirely provisional—to make progress. I can also tell him that we have already recruited 24,000 trackers, and by 1 June we will have 25,000. They will be capable of tracking the contacts of 10,000 new cases a day. To understand the importance of that statistic, I remind the right hon. and learned Gentleman that today the new cases stand at 2,400. We are making vast progress in testing and tracing and I have great confidence that by 1 June, we will have a system that will help us greatly to defeat this disease and move the country forward. I therefore hope that he will abandon his slightly negative tone and support it.

Thirty-four thousand deaths is negative. Of course I am going to ask about that, and quite right too. The Prime Minister says “feigned ignorance”, but he knows that for 10 weeks there has been no tracing, unlike in Germany and South Korea. Tracing is critical—there is no getting away from that. The Prime Minister knows it is vital—he made a great deal of it in his speech to the nation a week ago last Sunday. He said,

“we cannot move forward unless we satisfy”

the tests that he has set, one of which is a “world-beating” test and trace system. World-beating. Leaving aside the rhetoric—“effective” will do—there now appears to be some doubt about when the system will be ready. This is the last Prime Minister’s questions for two weeks. Can the Prime Minister indicate that an effective test, trace and isolate system will be in place by 1 June—Monday week?

The right hon. and learned Gentleman seems to be in the unhappy position of having rehearsed his third or fourth question but not listened to my previous answer, brilliant forensic mind though he has. He has heard that we have growing confidence that we will have a test, track and trace operation that will be world-beating, and yes, it will be in place by 1 June.

To repeat the figures, since the right hon. and learned Gentleman has invited me to do so, there will be 25,000 trackers, who will be able to cope with 10,000 new cases a day. That is very important because currently new cases are running at about 2,500 a day. They will be able to trace the contacts of those new cases and stop the disease spreading. I hope very much, notwithstanding the occasional difficulty of these exchanges—and I totally appreciate the role that the right hon. and learned Gentleman has to fulfil—that he will support us as we go forward, that he will be positive about the test, track and trace operation and that we can work together to use it to take our country forward. That is what the people of this country want to see.

I am very happy to work with the Prime Minister on that. He knows that from our previous exchanges.

Every Thursday, we go out and clap for our carers. Many of them are risking their lives for the sake of all of us. Does the Prime Minister think it is right that care workers coming from abroad and working on our frontline should have to pay a surcharge of hundreds, sometimes thousands of pounds to use the NHS themselves?

I have thought a great deal about this, and I accept and understand the difficulties faced by our amazing NHS staff. Like the right hon. and learned Gentleman, I have been a personal beneficiary of carers who have come from abroad and frankly saved my life. I know exactly the importance of what he asks. On the other hand, we must look at the realities. This is a great national service—it is a national institution—that needs funding, and those contributions help us to raise about £900 million. It is very difficult in the current circumstances to find alternative sources, so with great respect for the right hon. and learned Gentleman’s point, I think it is the right way forward.

I am disappointed, because the Prime Minister knows how raw this is. The fee in question, the immigration health surcharge, is currently £400 a year. From October, that goes up to £624 a year. For a care worker on the national living wage, that will require working for 70 hours to pay off the fee.

The Doctors Association and a number of medical groups wrote to the Home Secretary this week, and they set it out this way:

“At a time when we are mourning colleagues, your steadfast refusal to reconsider the deeply unfair immigration health surcharge is a gross insult to all”—

of us—

“who are serving this country at its time of greatest need.”

We agree, and Labour will table amendments to the immigration Bill to exempt NHS and care workers from this charge. Can I urge the Prime Minister to reconsider his view as we go through this crisis?

I have given my answer, but what I will say is that I think that it is important that we support our NHS and that we invest massively in our NHS. This Government—this one nation Conservative Government—are determined to invest more in our NHS than at any time in modern memory. We have already begun that, and we will want to see our fantastic frontline workers paid properly. That is, I think, the best way forward. I want to see our NHS staff paid properly, our NHS supported, and I want to continue our programme of not just building 40 more hospitals, but recruiting 50,000 more nurses and investing hugely in our NHS, and I believe that will be warmly welcomed across the whole of our establishment of our fantastic NHS.

Looking at the economic recovery process, I am sure the Prime Minister will join me in thanking SELRAP—the Skipton and East Lancs Rail Action Partnership—for the continuing campaign to reopen the Skipton to Colne railway line, on which it has been confirmed that plans will be moving forward. It is also great news that the potential of the freight terminal is being considered, but can the Prime Minister assure me that Hyndburn and Haslingden will continue to be supported by potential investment in our town centres, business and the transport links that we so desperately need? (902891)

Indeed I can, and I am grateful to my hon. Friend. Hyndburn and Haslingden will indeed continue to receive funding for their town centres—indeed, the high streets taskforce will be increasing that support—in addition to 118 km of safe new green cycleways thanks to the Lancashire local growth fund, for which I know she has also campaigned.

Our thoughts this morning are with the communities in India and Bangladesh dealing with the landfall of super cyclone Amphan. I am sure the Government will be monitoring the situation and will seek to give all necessary support.

Every week, members of this Government applaud our truly heroic NHS and care staff, who have been on the frontline of this pandemic, regardless of whether they were born here or elsewhere. Indeed, the Prime Minister has thanked the nurses who cared for him, who were from New Zealand and from Portugal. The UK has the highest number of deaths in Europe, and without their sacrifice, we would be facing something much worse. I know the Leader of the Opposition has already asked the Prime Minister about overseas careworkers, but on Monday the Prime Minister ordered his MPs to vote for an immigration Bill that defines many in the NHS and care sector as low-skilled workers. Given their sacrifice, is the Prime Minister not embarrassed that this is how his Government choose to treat NHS and care workers?

This is a Government who value immensely the work of everybody in our national health service and our care workers across the whole community. I can tell the right hon. Gentleman that the reason for having an immigration Bill of the kind that we are is not to keep out people who can help in our NHS; on the contrary, we want an immigration system that works for the people of this country and works for our NHS. I think what the people of this country want to see is an immigration system where we control it, we understand it and we are able to direct it according to the needs of our NHS and the needs of our economy, and that is what we are putting in place.

I know it is rejected by the right hon. and learned Member for Holborn and St Pancras (Keir Starmer), and indeed by the right hon. Gentleman himself, but it is the right way forward.

The harsh reality is that the Prime Minister does not even pay NHS and care staff the real living wage and wants to block many of them from working here at all. We need an immigration system that is fit for purpose. The Home Secretary and the Prime Minister seem hell-bent on implementing a purely ideological immigration policy with no basis in fairness or economics. The Government have talked about giving back to our NHS and care staff. It is time for him to deliver. People migrating to these nations and choosing to work in our NHS and care sector must have the Government’s cruel NHS surcharge removed immediately. Will he make that pledge today, or will he clap on Thursday, hoping that no one really notices that he is giving with one hand and raking it in with the other?

First, the right hon. Gentleman mentions the living wage. This is the party and Government who instituted the living wage and have just increased it by a massive amount. Secondly, this is the party that is putting £34 billion into the NHS—the biggest investment in modern times—and believe me we will continue with that investment. He talks about discriminatory policies at the border. The logic of his policy is to have a border at Berwick.

The Defence Committee heard recently that France is conducting a root-and-branch review of its defence supply chain following concerns that China is buying up defence-related companies that are going bust during the pandemic. Does my right hon. Friend think it might be wise to consider doing the same thing here in addition to rowing back from his plans to allow Huawei to roll out 5G?

I am sure there is a legal term for imputing to me a policy that I have not yet announced, but my hon. Friend is right to be concerned about the buying up of UK technology now by countries that may have ulterior motives, and we are certainly introducing measures to protect our technological base. He will be hearing a lot more about that in the next few weeks.

In Ireland, both jurisdictions are working hard to organise contact tracing on a north-south basis, but the Prime Minister’s obsession with avoiding a Brexit transition extension means we risk crashing out without a data-sharing framework, which will critically undermine our ability to protect people from covid-19. When will he put the lives of people in our community above petty, narrow Brexiteer politics?

I must respectfully disagree with the hon. Gentleman. We are working very closely not just with our colleagues in the Government in Northern Ireland but with our colleagues in Dublin. I had a very good conversation with Leo Varadkar the other day and we saw eye to eye on the way forward. There is a huge amount shared between the UK and Ireland, and it will continue to be so.

As a stunning coastal destination built on hospitality and tourism sectors hard hit by the impact of the virus, Eastbourne is none the less looking to bounce back when it is safe to do so and is part of work on a covid-secure kitemark to inspire public confidence. Does my right hon. Friend see merit in this, and when the coast is clear, will he visit?

I am sure the coast is always clear in Eastbourne. I will do my utmost to get there as soon as I can within the social distancing rules that we must all observe. We will look at the kitemark idea. The best I can say is that my hon. Friend is a fantastic champion for Eastbourne and its attractions, and I look forward to supporting her in any way I can.

Women make up the vast majority of the workforce in our NHS, social care sector and schools. However, there is only a handful of women on the SAGE committee and only one woman in the Cabinet has led the Downing Street briefing in the past eight weeks on very few occasions. Does the Prime Minister agree with me, as the chair of the largest group of female MPs in the House, that we need a change of tone and more female voices at the top of Government to reflect the majority of the UK population, almost 52% of whom are women? If not, why not? (902884)

Actually, I think that the hon. Lady has an extremely important point, and I have taken dramatic action, even before a reshuffle. The most important appointment that we have made recently, after Lord Deighton doing the personal protective equipment, was Dido. One of the reasons we are making such fast progress, I think, now on test and trace is that Dido Harding has come on board, and Kate Bingham is leading the national effort to co-ordinate our search for a vaccine with other countries.

I am very grateful for my right hon. Friend’s hard work, and in particular, his commitment to doing whatever it takes to help people to make ends meet during this pandemic, but in West Dorset I have many constituents who were employed before 19 March who are not eligible to be furloughed under the job retention scheme—particularly those who have changed jobs. Will he look at this area again to see, please, what he can do to help those who have slipped through the net and those who have no financial support at this time?

Yes. We have pushed back the cut-off date in order to help people, but we are also looking to support people who are in difficulties with some temporary measures on welfare, as he knows—the significant £1,040 increase in universal credit standard allowance and the working tax credit basic element. If there are particularly hard cases, and there will be hard cases, I say what I have said before to the House: I am happy to take them up on my hon. Friend’s behalf.

Will the Prime Minister condemn or condone the reckless behaviour of the Secretary of State for Scotland in making a round trip of almost 700 miles to be physically in the Chamber today, in clear breach of the guidance from the Scottish Government to stay home, protect the NHS and save lives, when he could easily have taken part in the proceedings virtually from the safety of his home? Condemn or condone, Prime Minister? (902886)

All I can say is, no, I will not, and I think that the Secretary of State for Scotland does an admirable job.

My constituent, Elizabeth Gull, has proposed the creation of a medal for NHS workers and others to recognise their distinguished service in their work against coronavirus. I think that this idea has merit. Will my right hon. Friend consider a medal or other accolade in the fullness of time for those who have gone above and beyond in the last few months?

As I am sure the whole House can imagine, we are indeed looking at the excellent suggestion made by my hon. Friend’s constituent, Elizabeth. We are thinking how to recognise the work of healthcare staff, carers and many others, and we are engaging with staff and employers at the present time.

A senior Government figure told a reporter for The Sunday Times that the UK Government will end the job retention scheme even if the Scottish Government decide to continue with the lockdown to save lives in Scotland. This would be an act from the UK Government that undermined devolution and the Scottish Parliament by slashing incomes to force Scots back to work when it is potentially unsafe. Will the Prime Minister agree to extend the job retention scheme in Scotland for the length of time that Scotland’s Government and Parliament deem a lockdown necessary? (902887)

Perhaps I can just say that I continue to be very happy with the level of co-operation, in spite of what we sometimes hear in this Chamber, between the Governments of all four nations, particularly Scotland. I just remind the hon. Lady, of course, that Scotland has benefited from about £1 billion of coronavirus funding in the last period and will get about £3 billion overall, which is perhaps a material consideration on which she might like to reflect.

Unemployment in the under-24 age group has already doubled in Telford compared with this time last year, and it is clear that the aftermath of the pandemic will hit our young people hardest, with disruption to education and training, as well as job losses. I know that my right hon. Friend is passionate about opportunities for young people, particularly in areas such as Telford, which has suffered disproportionately in previous recessions. Will he ensure that the recovery strategy focuses on young people and equipping them with the skills they need to survive in a post-pandemic economy and, indeed, thrive in the longer term?

My hon. Friend is absolutely right to speak up for the young people of Telford and their immense potential, and that is why we will be supporting her and them with a new national skills fund worth £2.5 billion, so that young people can be at the very forefront of our effort to come out of this epidemic.

That is the end of PMQs. Before the urgent question, I should say that I plan to allow a statement by the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster on the UK’s approach to Northern Ireland protocol as part of the scrutiny proceedings. I will allow less time for the urgent question and the business statement as a consequence.

We now come to the urgent question to the Leader of the House. I will end the urgent question at 12.55. I call the Leader of the House, Mr Jacob Rees-Mogg, to answer the urgent question from Alistair Carmichael. The Leader of the House should speak for no more than three minutes.