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Covid-19: Role of the Union

Volume 676: debated on Wednesday 3 June 2020

Our co-ordinated UK-wide response to the threat posed by covid-19 is testament to the strength and value of the Union. People and businesses in Wales and across the UK have benefited from the Government’s unprecedented package of support, which is far beyond the scale that any UK nation could offer alone.

I thank the Secretary of State. As all nations start to lift lockdown measures and interconnectivity starts to increase, it is really important that we work together to track and trace the movement of any covid-19 cases, especially across porous borders such as the one between England and Wales. Does my right hon. Friend agree that this is in fact an opportunity to show how we are stronger working together and that we are better off tackling the crisis as one United Kingdom?

My hon. Friend makes a very good point, and I absolutely agree with her. Covid does not respect political boundaries and it does not respect national boundaries. As a result of that, we have had something in the region of 110 meetings now at which the Welsh Government were present so that we can approach this issue, for example through the joint biosecurity centre, as one United Kingdom, because that is the way that we will crack this.

The contact tracing systems are now active in all four nations across the UK, and will require thousands of people to self-isolate to stop the virus spreading further, but for many self-employed and low-paid people who do not qualify for support such as statutory sick pay, this means there will be no money coming in to support them or their families. Will the Government urgently look to fill the gaps in statutory sick pay so that no one faces the impossible choice of self-isolating or putting food on the table?

My opposite number makes a very good point. Right from the start, as I think he will agree, the Chancellor has said that we will always look at every possible anomaly in these support systems, because he and all of us, I suspect, in our own constituency examples recognise that even though the measures are widespread and generous and try to account for every individual circumstance, they do not always do so. Where people slip through the net and where there are anomalies, yes, of course, we will work to see if we can rectify those.

The furloughing scheme has been a lifeline for businesses in every corner of the United Kingdom and demonstrates the strength and the value of our Union, but with the scheme becoming co-financing in August, could I ask my right hon. Friend urgently to discuss with the Chancellor the need for ongoing financial support, particularly for tourism businesses in Wales? Frankly, they will not have the money to contribute a share of staff costs, and they see little prospect of the Welsh Government allowing any kind of late tourism season this year.

My right hon. Friend rightly points out what is becoming known as the risk of the 12-month winter, and he might be pleased to hear that I have already had such conversations with Treasury Ministers including the Chancellor himself. We are looking, as we always do, at ways of making sure that for industries that find themselves in a particularly difficult position—tourism and leisure is one such example—there are ways in which we can be as flexible as possible, but obviously within the overall financial ambitions and constraints that we all understand.

The furlough scheme in Wales has rightly been a success. However, as the Secretary of State knows, one large company called BA—British Airways—has decided not only to furlough its staff, but to consult about losing their jobs. It is morally reprehensible that during this time people are worried about their jobs. Will he make a commitment, first, to condemn this behaviour and, secondly, to speak to the chief executive of BA about the jobs that are at risk in constituencies such as mine and those of other colleagues across Wales?

Indeed, I have examples in my own constituency of people who have come to me feeling completely bewildered at the position they find themselves in. Absolutely, I offer that guarantee to take it up with BA. It does seem, on the face of it, to be a mystifying decision, particularly in the circumstances we are in. The answer to that is yes, of course, we will look into it. I am sure that, UK-wide, there is going to be much more debate in this place about that very problem.