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Oral Answers to Questions

Volume 677: debated on Wednesday 10 June 2020

International Development

The Secretary of State was asked—

Covid-19 Vaccine: Developing Countries

What steps her Department is taking to ensure that developing countries will have access to a vaccine for covid-19. (903051)

I start by wishing you, Mr Speaker, a very happy birthday.

The UK is leading global efforts to ensure that equitable access to covid-19 vaccines is possible. We worked night and day to make the global vaccine summit last week a success. Not only did we significantly beat our fundraising target to buy vaccines for the world’s poorest people, but we pledged £1.65 billion of UK aid to be the world’s largest donor to Gavi, the Vaccine Alliance. We have also pledged £250 million to vaccine research through the Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness Innovations and are a key part of the brand-new scheme to ensure global vaccine production. But it is not just about money; the summit showed what true collaboration can do. The UK will leave no stone unturned to make everyone safe.

Businesses in M-SParc, a scientific park in my constituency, are developing innovation to fight the coronavirus pandemic, while at the further education college, Coleg Menai, and across the bridge at Bangor University, everyone is working hard in the fight against coronavirus by developing innovative technologies. For example, the science park businesses are developing proteins for vaccines and have made more than 8,000 visors. Can the Secretary of State tell me how we are supporting innovative British businesses to play a role in fighting coronavirus and developing a vaccine for the rest of the world?

It is lovely to welcome a scientist to our Green Benches. As my hon. Friend suggests, organisations right across the UK are playing a vital role in innovating to develop a coronavirus vaccine. It is a great pleasure to thank all the communities across the island of Ynys Môn helping to fight coronavirus with their technological solutions. My officials are also working closely with the Action for Global Health network to draw on the expertise of a range of UK charities and organisations as part of our approach to shaping global vaccine efforts. If UK-backed candidates for vaccines are successful, the Department for International Development funding for international efforts will help to ensure that those are scaled up and support equitable access for all who need them globally.

Happy birthday, Mr Speaker.

I start by welcoming the Secretary of State’s apology concerning the sharing of an unacceptable, offensive and xenophobic image, but it was extremely disappointing that it took so long to apologise.

The Secretary of State has said she wants to ensure equitable access for many new vaccines once developed. AstraZeneca has guaranteed the US and the UK the first 400 million of any new vaccine in September, while those in the world’s poorest countries will not begin to get any until the end of the year, at the very earliest. Does she think this is equitable access?

The vaccine challenge, and the race for scientists to crack that code and for industry to come in behind them to support, to produce and to deliver, is critical. AstraZeneca is leading the way with us and has now signed a licence for 300 million doses, should the Oxford vaccine be successful, which it has committed will go to low and middle-income countries, which is fantastic news. This is a huge piece of work, which is led by the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy and which DFID is involved in, to draw together that scientific effort. The key point about any vaccine that is found—obviously we hope one will be found—is delivery, which is why Gavi, the Vaccine Alliance is so critical, because it can reach out. It has effective networks for delivering vaccines in those poorest countries, where we want to make sure that everyone who needs it gets that vaccine.

The “Oxford Dictionary” defines “equitable” as “fair or just”; what the Secretary of State has just outlined is neither. She rightly praises Gavi and the number of people it has vaccinated, but as she knows the alliance would not be needed if access to vaccines was actually equitable. There is a disconnect between the Government’s rhetoric on this issue and their actions. Rather than outsourcing responsibility, will she step up and commit to attaching clear, transparent conditions on British taxpayers’ money to accelerate development and guarantee truly equitable access to vaccines based on need, not how deep your pockets are?

The UK taxpayer, through UK aid, has made a huge commitment. We gave £250 million to CEPI very early on in the crisis. Those who use that CEPI money as part of their vaccine development work have that commitment. That is fantastic. Gavi is a fundamental part of ensuring the whole world works together to make vaccines available. By being the organisation that vaccinates nearly 50% of the world’s children, it brings down prices. It can bring huge negotiating benefits so the value is spread across the world.

The Department’s work in funding the development of a vaccine for covid-19 is just one of many projects that help to protect some of the most vulnerable people in the developing world, but we cannot take our eye off the ball on the need to continuously tackle global poverty. Can the Secretary of State confirm reports that there is a rapid ministerial review happening of the aid budget and that the vast majority of new projects have been paused, and can she explain why these life-saving projects are being quietly put on hold without Ministers informing Parliament or engaging with the International Development Committee?

Our aid spending is linked to the growth of our economy. The challenge this year, in which gross national income will go down, means that the economy is likely to shrink. We are working closely with the Treasury to understand the likely forecasts and to ensure that we can meet our 0.7% commitment. We are working across Departments to ensure that we continue to drive UK aid spending and commit our official development assistance to the most vulnerable and poorest.

Developing Countries’ Debt: Private Creditors

What discussions she has had with her international counterparts on requiring private creditors to cancel debt owed by developing countries during the covid-19 pandemic. (903052)

What discussions she has had with her international counterparts on requiring private creditors to cancel debt owed by developing countries during the covid-19 pandemic. (903057)

What discussions she has had with her international counterparts on requiring private creditors to cancel debt owed by developing countries during the covid-19 pandemic. (903059)

The UK, the G20 and the Paris Club will suspend debt repayments from the poorest countries due this year. My right hon. Friend the Chancellor of the Exchequer and his G20 counterparts have called on private sector creditors to do likewise. At the World Bank spring forum, my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for International Development amplified that call, along with other World Bank governors.

Happy birthday, Mr Speaker. Following comments from the UN Secretary-General in recent weeks on the increase in allocations of its special drawing rights currency to give countries more access to funding, what is the Secretary of State doing to get an SDR issuance agreed multilaterally? Will she support the UK and other rich countries transferring some of their allocation to poorer countries?

Last time, the allocation was split, and I am sure we would want it to be used by developing countries if special drawing rights were exercised. That could be part of the solution, but as the hon. Gentleman knows, 85% of the banks need to agree, and the US effectively has a blocking right, which means that this is perhaps not a short-term solution but one to work on over time with international partners.

I welcome the Government’s role in the G20’s suspension of bilateral debt payments due in 2020 from the world’s poorest countries, as well as their donation of £150 million to an IMF debt relief scheme used for covid-19. However, the World Bank is yet to take action on debt relief, despite that being one of the most important things we can do to support developing countries in this global pandemic. Can the Minister tell me what actions the Government will take to ensure that the World Bank moves to cancel debt payments, to support the world’s poorest?

I thank the hon. Lady for recognising the work that has already been done on suspension and relief. That will perhaps be looked at again, in terms of private sector relief and expanding either the data or the amounts of both those schemes, before looking at cancellation issues, which will have a longer-term impact. We need to focus on solutions that will help immediately and leave longer-term solutions for the longer term, but that is still very much on the table. I would not want to leave the House with the impression that the World Bank is doing nothing. The international development banks overall are putting $200 billion into developing countries over the next 15 months as a result of the covid crisis.

Have a wonderful birthday, Mr Speaker.

The coronavirus is having a significant impact on developing countries. The economic impact of the crisis is very severe. Poor countries face a debt crisis unlike anything we have seen. Their finances have been decimated by the global crisis, with private creditors exploiting the debt. The commitments made by the G20 at the spring meetings were a great start in reducing countries’ debt burdens. However, does the Minister agree that suspension is not enough and that it will lead to a further debt crisis in two years’ time? Does he agree that what countries urgently need now from the G20 is the cancellation of debt payments?

The hon. Lady is right that suspension on its own is not an adequate response, but it was the right response to make immediately. She mentions the private sector. The Institute of International Finance is already working with the 450 main private sector lenders and put in place the terms of reference 10 days ago. The private sector, far from being abusive, can join that debt suspension. There will be a case potentially for extending that period and extending relief more generally, and we will continue our discussions with Her Majesty’s Treasury on that. Ultimately, for some countries, cancellation may be an option, but we have to remember that 50% of countries were struggling even before covid.

Covid-19: African Union

What discussions she has had with representatives of the member states of the African Union to help support the response to the covid-19 pandemic in Africa. (903054)

I was delighted that the chair of the African Union Commission, Moussa Faki, was able to join and speak at the Gavi summit. This week, I would have spoken to all eight AU commissioners. Under our strategic partnership with the AU, we are revising our joint plan to work on covid-19 implications and intend to hold a virtual high-level dialogue later this month. I also speak to member states of the AU more directly.

The pandemic has shown us the vulnerability of not only the health systems in African countries, but their economies. The African Union has warned that nearly 20 million jobs may be lost. Has the Minister seen the excellent work of the African Development Bank as it focuses on the recovery and, in particular, focuses on the private sector as the key to employment and prosperity?

I thank my hon. Friend for that question. He clearly shares my concern that this is an economic crisis as well as a humanitarian and health crisis. The private sector and the African Development Bank play a critical role alongside supply chains, but particularly the ADB in relation to protecting livelihoods. I look forward to working as an alternate governor to the Secretary of State for that great organisation in Abidjan.

FCO Objectives: Prioritising Development Opportunities

What co-operation there is between her Department and the Foreign and Commonwealth Office on prioritising development opportunities identified as FCO objectives. (903055)

Development policy and foreign policy are remarkably intertwined, which is why the Department for International Development and the Foreign and Commonwealth Office already work together in 32 bilateral posts, nine multilateral missions and eight FCO-DFID joint units. To deal with coronavirus as effectively as possible and to co-ordinate our international efforts, we established a superb joint conflict, security and governance covid-19 hub, so the UK has a stronger presence in the world when speaking as one Government, rather than only as individual Departments.

Beyond the immediate covid response, the past 30 years have shown us that trade, not aid, lifts developing nations out of poverty. With this in mind, does the Secretary of State agree that the considerable soft power that her Department wields should be used to encourage and expand trading opportunities with developing nations?

The UK Government are firmly committed to ensuring that developing countries can reduce poverty through trading opportunities. Indeed, that is one of the critical outcomes, and we will have to work very hard to help those countries get back on their feet. DFID has a joint team with the Department for International Trade, which is working to enhance market access for developing countries, ensuring that they can take advantage of this access through trade-related assistance and using our influence in organisations such as the World Trade Organisation.

Happy birthday, Mr Speaker.

Yesterday, the International Development Committee released its review of UK aid, which concluded that DFID was by far the best Department to deliver it. The integrated review is formally paused, but it seems that the Secretary of State is carrying out her own stealth review. The official development assistance meeting was chaired by the Foreign Secretary. All but 200 future DFID programmes are paused, and DFID looks as if it is taking most of the forecast ODA cuts. Can the Secretary of State tell us what is the scope of the review, what is the timetable, and why the Committee found out through whistleblowers rather than through official channels?

I thank the hon. Lady for her Committee’s report, which I was able to read overnight before it was published. I also thank her for her compliments about DFID. Indeed, the effectiveness with which DFID is able to deliver aid is because the Department has decades of honed experience in understanding the most effective and targeted ways of spending taxpayers’ money and getting the most developmental impact. It was a really encouraging report. As I said earlier, because of the likely drop in gross national income, we are having to assess, across the board, how we will manage the 0.7% target in the coming year. We are working across Government to ensure that we do that as effectively as possible, because as far as we are all concerned—the Prime Minister has been very clear on this—UK aid must be spent to help the world tackle covid-19.

Palestinian Authority Funding

What steps she is taking to ensure that funding to the Palestinian Authority is used to support her Department's objectives in that region. (903056)

The UK remains determined to work for peace in the region, and that means supporting a stable Palestinian Authority that can deliver essential public services to Palestinians and act as an effective partner for peace with Israel. In 2018-19, UK support helped the Palestinian Authority to provide education for 26,000 children, half of whom were girls, and deliver 3,000 more immunisations and 111,000 medical consultations. I recently announced £20 million in new funding to help Palestinian health workers battle the coronavirus on the frontline.

Happy 50th birthday, Mr Speaker. [Interruption.] I’ll definitely get called again.

There has been some excellent working between the Palestinian Authority and Israel in response to covid. However, an investigation has shown that groups funded by the OHCA—the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs—and the World Health Organisation have links to the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, which is a proscribed terrorist organisation. Can the Minister assure me that no UK aid money has been channelled in that way?

The UK has provided £840,000 to the WHO and UNICEF in response to covid-19. We maintain robust measures to ensure that aid is not diverted. We are determined to continue to play our responsible part in cross-Government approaches to support the Palestinian people and to work towards peace in the region.

Covid-19: Support for Charities’ Response

What steps her Department has taken to support UK charities in their response to the covid-19 pandemic in developing countries. (903060)

What support she is providing to international NGOs based in the UK to help those organisations respond to the covid-19 pandemic. (903064)

Charities and non-governmental organisations are crucial partners for DFID and play a critical role in ensuring UK aid reaches the most vulnerable. We have used schemes such as our rapid response facility to send £45 million of special funding to them. We want them to deliver some of the rest of the UK’s £764 million coronavirus response. Where our charity partners are struggling, we have introduced a special procedure to make sure they remain our partners for the long term.

Many happy returns from the residents of Bishop Auckland, Mr Speaker.

Earlier this week, Members from across the House marked World Oceans Day, outlining how we can put nature at the heart of a clean and resilient recovery. Does my hon. Friend agree that Durham University’s transforming energy access initiative will help the deployment of renewable energy sources, as part of the UK’s ambitious climate change targets?

Increasing the deployment of clean energy is a key part of helping countries build back greener after the covid-19 crisis. DFID’s transforming energy access programme, in which Durham University has played a valuable role, is supporting technology and business model innovations, accelerating access to affordable clean energy. It has already improved energy access for more than 5 million people in sub-Saharan Africa and south Asia. This is the sort of ambition we hope to be able to scale up from April 2021 under the Ayrton fund.

Many happy returns, Mr Speaker.

UK-based international charities are under unprecedented pressure at a time when their services are most needed, with the latest research indicating that more than half have cut back on their overseas programmes and nearly half, particularly small organisations, are at risk of not surviving for another six months. Will the Minister ensure that the review of their work begins by the Government dealing with those with the lowest transparency scores and tackling programmes that do not put poverty reduction at the heart of their work?

I ought to have wished you happy birthday as well, Mr Speaker. That was rather remiss of me.

The hon. Lady makes a very important point. Civil society is an important policy and delivery partner for DFID and I absolutely recognise the work it does. Our continued partnership will be critical in ensuring that UK aid reaches those most in need as a result of covid-19. There are a number of funding schemes and programmes that DFID has recently announced and allocated, including a new £30 million UK Aid Direct funding round that is open specifically for small and medium-sized charities based both in the UK and internationally to support the global response to covid-19.

Topical Questions

If she will make a statement on her departmental responsibilities. Happy birthday from Blyth Valley, Mr Speaker. Does my right hon. Friend agree that to tackle the virus, so that we can all be safe from future waves of infection— (903066)

I want to put on the record that black lives matter. We must listen to those communities that face discrimination, and solve the unconscious biases that still create injustice and lost potential. My Department will redouble its efforts to drive out discrimination and support the poorest countries to achieve genuine mutual prosperity free of prejudice. That struggle for equality is exactly why it was so important last week that the UK brought together, via video link, the London 2020 global vaccine summit as part of a 60-country effort. A historic $8.8 billion was raised to vaccinate the world’s poorest people. Gavi will immunise 300 million more children as a result.

Sorry about that, Mr Speaker, and happy birthday again.

Does my right hon. Friend agree that in order to tackle this virus so that we can all be safe from future waves of infection the international community must work together, co-ordinating and increasing support for vulnerable countries, and delivering the appropriate international financial and health system assistance?

Strong, resilient health systems are vital to national and global health security, and to helping to protect the world from infectious diseases, including covid. The UK has so far pledged £764 million of UK aid to help end the covid-19 pandemic, in support of the co-ordinated international response through the international financing institutions, multilaterals and global health initiatives, alongside DFID programmes. Through our multilateral partnerships and our regional and national programmes, we support developing countries to make their domestic healthcare systems stronger and more resilient and to better prepare for, prevent, detect and respond to health crises, including covid.

Penblwydd hapus, Mr Speaker.

The UK’s Commonwealth Development Corporation does important work, but deeply concerning evidence has come to light, thanks to the work of Finance Uncovered, regarding CDC investments in Myanmar, including $30 million in an internet service provider called Frontiir, which, on the orders of the Myanmar Government, has blocked independent news sites reporting on atrocities taking place against the Rohingya. Will the Secretary of State now urge CDC to immediately divest from this company? Is she sure that none of the other microfinance programmes being supported is indirectly helping the Myanmar regime?

The UK Government condemn any action to restrict the freedom of expression of journalists, and have repeatedly raised the issue of internet restrictions and shutdowns at the highest level with the Myanmar Government, but, after going through due diligence, CDC invested in Frontiir to extend internet access to more people in Myanmar and to combat poverty. The company has followed the international Global Network Initiative standards by posting transparency statements so that users know whether the site has limitations upon it.

Wishing you a bostin’ birthday from the Black Country, Mr Speaker. I was recently lobbied by a year 12 student from Wednesbury called Queenie, who wanted to ensure that no one in the world cannot access a vaccine. So I wish to ask my right hon. Friend: in addition now to being the largest funder of Gavi, The Vaccine Alliance, what work is the UK doing and what message does she have for Queenie to ensure that she can carry on in her fight to make sure that everyone can access vaccines globally? (903068)

Queenie is clearly a wise young person, and it is a really important question. The UK is at the forefront of efforts to drive global collaboration and resourcing, including our engagement through the access to covid tools accelerator and through industry for the development of new vaccines at the speed and scale required to ensure access for all those who will need them. As well as contributing £1.65 billion to fund Gavi’s core programme we have committed £48 million to its newly launched covax advanced market commitment, aimed at incentivising manufacturers to produce sufficient quantities of a potential vaccine to ensure future access for low-income and middle-income countries.

Happy birthday to you from Tewkesbury, Mr Speaker. Many people in east Africa have suffered from food insecurity for very many years, and of course the challenge has been multiplied recently. Will the Secretary of State give us a quick assessment of the position in east Africa and what the Government are doing to help people there? (903069)

The UK is proud to support the World Food Programme, with £500 million last year, the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organisation, with £40 million, and the International Fund for Agricultural Development, with more than £50 million, in their efforts to end hunger, achieve food security and improve nutrition across Africa. We are also assisting countries to respond to the desert locust upsurge in east Africa, which threatens 25 million people with severe food shortages. UK aid has funded a supercomputer to track that and help develop early warning systems and has provided £5 million to the UNFAO’s regional emergency appeal.

In addition to dealing with the point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Cardiff South and Penarth (Stephen Doughty), will the Secretary of State urge the Commonwealth Development Corporation to avoid investments that involve making, selling or utilising single-use plastic packaging? (903071)

I assure the right hon. Gentleman that all Departments are closely integrated in the work of humanitarian aid, economic development and improving our planet. The work of my right hon. Friend Lord Goldsmith means that we are fully integrated in ensuring that economic development is not done at the cost of the environment and the planet.

Prime Minister

The Prime Minister was asked—


As we approach the third anniversary, this coming Sunday, of the Grenfell Tower tragedy, I know that the whole House would wish to join me in sending our heartfelt sympathies and thoughts to the families and friends of the 72 people who lost their lives and to the survivors. Across Government, we remain committed to ensuring that such a tragedy can never happen again.

Members from across the House will want to join me in offering our very best wishes to His Royal Highness the Duke of Edinburgh on his 99th birthday. [Hon. Members: “Hear, hear.”] I am sure the whole House will also want to join me in wishing you, Mr Speaker, a very happy birthday.

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

As a shielded person, I am grateful to contribute to Parliament once again. Many shielded people have contacted me, worried about Government guidance on going for walks. They want a “safe hour” walk for shielded people similar to that adopted in many other countries. Will the Prime Minister do that? They also want more transparency on the shielding list, with each category named and risks published. Will he provide that? Finally, will he agree to review the furlough scheme so that shielded people, in the future, are not penalised?

Yes, I can tell the hon. Lady that we certainly will be doing as much as we can in the near future to ensure shielded people get guidance about how they can come out of their shielded environment safely, in a way that is covid secure. Her point about furlough is a very important one, and clearly newly shielded people may be asking themselves whether they will be entitled to furlough funds. I have been made aware of the issue very recently. I can assure her that we will be addressing it forthwith.

The threatened breach of the Sino-British joint declaration for Hong Kong is just the latest evidence of China’s increasingly overt rejection of the rules of international fair play. The Communist party of China expresses derision for the west’s short-termism and lack of unity, so let us prove them wrong. Would my right hon. Friend consider publishing a consultation paper on the development of a long-term strategy for our national and pan-national engagement with China? (903038)

Perhaps it would be helpful in advance of any consultation paper if I just set out my own broad position, and stress that I am a Sinophile. I believe that we must continue to work with this great and rising power on climate change or trade or whatever it happens to be, but when we have serious concerns as a country—whether it is over the origins of covid or the protection of our critical national infrastructure or, indeed, what is happening in Hong Kong—we must feel absolutely free to raise those issues loud and clear with Beijing, and that is what we will continue to do.

May I join the Prime Minister in his comments on Grenfell—that dreadful night—in his comments on the Duke of Edinburgh and, of course, in his best wishes to you, Mr Speaker? May I also say that I listened carefully to what the Prime Minister just said on furlough for those newly shielding, which I welcome? That has been something we have been concerned about. We will look at the proposal when it is put on the table, but I am grateful that he has listened to that and for what he has said this morning.

“founded on a cold reality”,

The Prime Minister said Monday that feelings of black and minority ethnic groups about discrimination are and I agree with him about that. There have been at least seven reports on racial inequality in the past three years alone, but precious little action. For example, most of the recommendations in the Lammy report on inequality in the criminal justice system have yet to be implemented, three years after the report was published. Similarly, the long-delayed and damning report by Wendy Williams on the Windrush scandal has yet to be implemented.

I spoke last night to black community leaders, and they had a very clear message for the Prime Minister: “Implement the reports you’ve already got.” Will the Prime Minister now turbocharge the Government’s responses and tell us when he will implement in full the Lammy report and the Windrush recommendations?

I am grateful to the right hon. and learned Gentleman, and of course I understand, as I said, the very strong and legitimate feelings of people in this country at the death of George Floyd. Of course I agree that black lives matter. We are getting on with the implementation, not just of the Lammy report but also of the report on Windrush. For instance, on the Lammy report, which this Government commissioned, and for which I thank the right hon. Member for Tottenham (Mr Lammy), we are increasing already the number of black and minority ethnic people in the Prison Service, as he recommended. We are increasing the use of body-worn cameras, and we are trying to ensure, among other things, that young BME people are not immediately prosecuted as a result of the trouble they find themselves in. We try to make sure that we give people a chance, but I must stress that on the Lammy report and all these matters, it is absolutely vital at the same time that we keep our streets safe and that we back our police, and that is what we are going to do.

I welcome what the Prime Minister says about implementing the reports, and obviously we will hold him to it. He will appreciate that people do notice when recommendations are made and then not implemented, so it is very important that they are implemented in accordance with those reports. The latest report is the Public Health England report on the disproportionate impact of covid-19. That report concluded that death rates are

“highest among people of Black and Asian ethnic groups.”

It went on to say—this was the important bit—that

“it is already clear that relevant guidance…and key policies should be adapted”

to mitigate the risk. If it is already clear that guidance and policy need to be changed, why have the Government not already acted?

Not only is it already clear, but we are already acting. I can tell the right hon. and learned Gentleman that as a result of the report by Professor Fenton, which again we commissioned, we are looking at the particular exposure of black and minority ethnic groups to coronavirus. We should be in no doubt that they have been at the forefront of the struggle against coronavirus, whether that is in the NHS or in public transport. Some 44% of the NHS workforce in London are black and minority ethnic workers. That is why what we are doing first and most directly is ensuring that those high-contact professions get expanded and targeted testing now, and that is what I have agreed with Dido Harding from NHS Test and Trace. I think that is the first and most practical step we can take as a result of Professor Fenton’s report.

The Prime Minister, I know, understands the frustration of those most at risk when they see a report like that and they know action is needed. Action is needed now, not in a few weeks or months, so can I ask for the Prime Minister’s complete—[Interruption.] Well, perhaps the Prime Minister will indicate whether that is all the action or whether there is more action. This is a serious issue, and we can make progress together, but it is important that it is done swiftly for those most at risk.

I want to turn to the overall numbers of those who have tragically died from covid-19, because those overall numbers haunt us. Since the last Prime Minister’s questions, the Government’s daily total figure for those who have died from coronavirus has gone past 40,000. The Office for National Statistics figure, which records cases where coronavirus is on the death certificate, stands at just over 50,000. The number of excess deaths, which is an awful phrase, stands at over 63,000. Those are among the highest numbers anywhere in the world. Last week the Prime Minister said he was proud of the Government’s record, but there is no pride in those figures, is there?

Let me just say that on the death figures for this country, we mourn every one; we grieve for their relatives and their friends. But I must also tell the right hon. and learned Gentleman—he has raised this point repeatedly across the Dispatch Box—that the best scientific evidence and advice is that we must wait until the epidemic has been through its whole cycle in order to draw the relevant international comparisons. I simply must repeat that point to him.

As for what this country did to fight the epidemic, I must say I strongly disagree with the way he characterised it. I think it was an astonishing achievement of the NHS to build the Nightingale hospitals. I think it was an astonishing thing that this country came together to drive down the curve—to follow the social distancing rules, in spite of all the doubt that was cast on the advice, to follow those rules, to get the number of deaths down, to get the epidemic under control in the way that we have. This Government announced a plan, on 11 May, to get our country back on to its feet, and that is what we are going to do. We have a plan, we are following it and we are going to stick to it.

It just does not wash to say that we cannot compare these figures with those in other countries. Everybody can see those figures and see the disparity, and we need to learn from those other countries—what did they do more quickly than us, what did they do differently? We can learn those lessons and ensure that the numbers come down. It is little solace to the families that have lost someone simply to be told, “It is too early to compare, and to learn from other countries.” And of course there will be long-term consequences of the Government’s approach.

I want to turn now to another aspect of Government policy, and that is school reopening. We all want as many children as possible back at school as soon as it is possible and as soon as it is safe. What was required for that to happen was a robust national plan, consensus among all key stakeholders and strong leadership from the top. All three are missing. The current arrangements lie in tatters; parents have lost confidence in the Government’s approach. Millions of children will miss six months’ worth of schooling and inequality will now go up.

Several weeks ago, I suggested to the Prime Minister that we set up a national taskforce, so that everybody could put their shoulder to the wheel. It is not too late. Will the Prime Minister take me up on that?

As I told the House before, I have been in contact with the right hon. and learned Gentleman by a modern device called the telephone, on which we have tried to agree a way forward, which he then seemed to deviate from later on. Last week—[Interruption.] Last week he was telling the House that it was not yet safe for kids to go back to school; this week he is saying that not enough kids are going back to school. I really think he needs to make up his mind.

Since he is so fond of these international comparisons, he should know that there are some countries in the EU—in Europe—where no primary school kids are going back to school, I think. We are being extremely cautious in our approach; we are following the plan that we set out, and I think that the people of this country will want to follow it. All the evidence—97% of the schools that have submitted data are now seeing kids come back to school. I think what we would like to hear from the right hon. and learned Gentleman is a bit of support for that, and a bit of encouragement to pupils, and perhaps even encouragement to some of his friends in the left-wing trade unions, to help get our schools ready.

Let us just have this out. The Prime Minister and I have never discussed our letter in any phone call; he knows it, and I know it. The taskforce has never been the subject of a conversation between him and me, one-to-one or in any other circumstance on the telephone; he knows it, so please drop that.

Secondly—he mentions other countries—plenty of other comparable countries are getting their children back to school. Wales is an example; across Europe there are other examples. We are the outlier on this. And it is no good the Prime Minister flailing around, trying to blame others. [Interruption.]

Order. We need to get through lots of other Members, so if we can listen to the question, I certainly want to hear the answers.

I was saying it is no good the Prime Minister flailing around, trying to blame others. A month ago today—a month ago today—he made the announcement about schools, without consulting relevant parties, without warning about the dates and without any scientific backing for his proposals. It is time he took responsibility for his own failures. This mess was completely avoidable. The consequences are stark. The Children’s Commissioner has warned of

“a deepening education disadvantage gap”

And she spoke yesterday of “an emerging picture, which doesn’t give confidence that there’s a strategic plan.”. She called for the Government to scale up their response and said, “It must have occurred to the Government that space would be a problem; that there would be a need for temporary accommodation and classrooms.” The Government built the Nightingale hospitals; why are they only starting on schools now?

The right hon. and learned Gentleman still cannot work out whether he is saying that schools are not safe enough or that we should be going back more quickly. He cannot have it both ways. It is one brief on one day and another brief on the next. I understand how the legal profession works, but what the public want to have is some consistency. I hope he will agree that it is a good thing that 37% of kids in year 6 in our primary schools are now coming back, and that is increasing the whole time. I think the message that teachers want to hear across the country is that all parliamentarians in this House of Commons support the return of kids to school and, furthermore, that they are encouraging kids to come back to school because it is safe. Will he now say that?

I want as many children to go back to school as possible, as soon as possible, as quickly as possible—when it is safe. I have been saying that like a broken record for weeks on end. I know that the Prime Minister has rehearsed attack lines, but he should look at what I said in the letter and what I have been saying consistently.

One way in which the Government could help those worst affected would be to extend the national voucher scheme. Because child poverty numbers are so high in this country, 1.3 million children in low-income families rely on those vouchers. They mean that children who cannot go to school because of coronavirus restrictions still get free meals. The Labour Government in Wales have said that they will continue to fund those meals through the summer. Yesterday, the Education Secretary said that will not be the case in England. That is just wrong, and it will lead to further inequality, so may I urge the Prime Minister to reconsider on that point?

Of course, we do not normally continue with free school meals over the summer holidays, and I am sure that is right, but we are aware of the particular difficulties faced by vulnerable families. That is why we are announcing a further £63 million of local welfare assistance to be used by local authorities at their discretion to help the most vulnerable families. This Government have put their arms around the people of this country throughout this crisis and done their absolute best to help—[Interruption.] I may say that this is not helped by the wobbling and tergiversation of the Labour party and the right hon. and learned Gentleman. Last week he said that it is not safe; this week he says we are not going fast enough. We protected the NHS, we provided huge numbers of ventilated beds and we are now getting the disease under control, but we will do it in a cautious and contingent way.

Today I will be announcing further measures to open up and unlock our society, but only because of the huge efforts and sacrifice that this country has made. We are sticking to our plan of 11 May. It is a plan that is working and will continue to work, with or without the assistance of the right hon. and learned Gentleman.

Britain’s new Advanced Research Projects Agency is vital to securing our status as a science and technology superpower, particularly as we recover from coronavirus. Will my right hon. Friend commit to protecting its funding and its independence, so that there are no obstacles to delivering transformational breakthroughs from clean energy to new vaccines? (903040)

Yes, and I thank my hon. Friend; he is absolutely right. We will be funding the Advanced Research Projects Agency to the tune of £800 million, and it will be tasked with supporting really revolutionary breakthroughs in this country. It is the UK—from the splitting of the atom to the jet engine to the internet—that has led the world in scientific research, and under this Government we intend to continue.

We are now heading up to Scotland. I call the leader of the Scottish National party, Ian Blackford.

May I associate myself with the remarks of the Prime Minister on Grenfell, and on the birthdays of both the Duke of Edinburgh and yourself, Mr Speaker?

The Prime Minister told the Liaison Committee:

“I do not actually read the scientific papers”.

It is no wonder, then, that it took the UK so long to act on quarantine measures. The Prime Minister’s scientific advisory group was not even asked for advice on this significant policy. This has been a complete shambles: too little, too late. We cannot risk ignoring the experts once again. Can the Prime Minister confirm what scientific papers he has read on the 2 metre social distancing rule?

I must say that I disagree with the right hon. Gentleman. I have read a huge amount about a disease that affects our entire nation. I have actually read many papers on the social distancing rule, and it is a very interesting point. Members across the House of Commons will want to understand that I believe that those measures—the 2 metre rule—need now to be kept under review. As we drive this disease down and get the incidence down, working together, I want to make sure that we keep the 2 metre rule under constant review, because, as I think the right hon. Gentleman indicates, there is all sorts of scientific advice about that particular matter.

Of course, we know that the Cabinet has discussed reducing the 2 metre social distancing rule, but that is not the experts’ advice right now. SAGE reported that being exposed to the virus for six seconds at 1 metre is the same as being exposed for one minute at 2 metres. That is a significant increase in risk. The last time that Professor Whitty was allowed to attend the daily press briefing, he stressed that the 2 metre rule was going to be necessary for as long as the pandemic continues.

People are losing confidence in this Government: a U-turn on schools; a shambolic roll-out of quarantine measures; and now looking to reduce the 2 metre rule far too soon. Will the Prime Minister continue to ignore the experts, or will he start following the advice of those who have actually read the scientific papers?

Actually, the people of this country are overwhelmingly following the guidance that the Government give. Tomorrow the House will be hearing a bit more about what has happened with NHS Test and Trace, and they will find that there is an extraordinary degree of natural compliance and understanding by the British people.

In spite of all the obscurantism and myth making that we have heard from the Opposition parties, I can tell the right hon. Gentleman that there are all sorts of views about the 2 metre rule. He is absolutely correct in what he says about the SAGE advice, but, clearly, as the incidence of the disease comes down—I think members of SAGE would confirm this—the statistical likelihood of being infected, no matter how close or far people are from somebody who may or may not have coronavirus, goes down.

Allowing zoos such as Africa Alive! near Lowestoft to reopen from 15 June is very good news, as it provides them with a realistic chance of survival. Would the Prime Minister give full consideration to allowing beer gardens also to reopen from 15 June, as the feedback that I am receiving is that many pubs are now facing the unpalatable and unwanted prospect of having to make staff redundant? (903042)

My hon. Friend is absolutely right. We want to reopen hospitality as quickly as we possibly can. The House will remember that, according to the road map, we were going to open outdoor hospitality no earlier than 4 July. That is still our plan, and we are sticking to it. Guidance is now being developed for such hospitality. What we do not want to see is a roiling, Bacchanalian mass of people who can spread the disease, so it is very important that people understand the continuing risks that this country faces.

The Prime Minister will be aware that the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland has today published the guidelines for the special payment scheme for severely injured victims linked to the troubles in Northern Ireland. The Prime Minister will also know that this House passed legislation that excludes those injured by their own hand. But the innocent victims have not yet been able to benefit from this scheme, not least because of the actions of Sinn Féin, who are blocking the next steps to implementation. Will the Prime Minister and his Government now commit to doing all they can to move this matter forward so that our most vulnerable of innocent victims can receive this pension?

Yes indeed. I think the scheme provides a fair, balanced and proportionate way of helping all those who have suffered most during the troubles. It is very important that Sinn Féin, along with all other parties, allow the scheme to go forward as soon as possible.

Many peaceful protests have been held across the country against racism following the appalling events in the US, including in my own constituency yesterday. Can I commend my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister for recognising the significance of these events? As well as scrutinising the health impact of c-19 on ethnic minority groups, can he look again, using the Race Disparity Audit, for any persistent and systemic racism in all Government Departments—from the treatment of BAME people in the judicial system through to how we teach children about these issues in our education system? (903043)

I thank my right hon. Friend. I completely agree with the need for all political leaders to promote these issues—to recognise how important they are in people’s hearts. I am very proud of what I did as Mayor to encourage the promotion of young BAME officers in our Metropolitan police; we had a system to move them up. I want to see that kind of activity across the government of this country. It is the right way forward for the UK.

The response from the US President to the death of George Floyd and the Black Lives Matter movement has been horrendous. Can the Prime Minister confirm to me if he still believes that Trump has “many, many good qualities”, and if so, what are they? (903037)

I renew what I have said many times; it is important for the House to hear it again. Yes, black lives matter, and yes, the death of George Floyd was absolutely appalling. As for the qualities of Mr Trump, let me say that, among many other things, he is President of the United States, which is our most important ally in the world today. Whatever people may say about it—whatever those on the left may say about it—the United States is a bastion of peace and freedom and has been for most of my lifetime.

Mr Speaker, I hope you will allow me to ask the Prime Minister also to welcome the birthday of the Primate of England—the 2007 Yorkshireman of the year—the Archbishop of York, who is just laying down his crozier after 14 years of service. His great words were that we can share the glories, the struggles, the joys and the pains of this country.We should remember that John Sentamu was tortured in Uganda, served in Tulse Hill, Stepney and Birmingham as well as York, and was a critical adviser to the Stephen Lawrence inquiry. Can I put it to my right hon. Friend that if, in a period of eight years, there are eight interrogations of a bishop, each time John Sentamu, we have got more to learn about making the colour of one’s skin as important as the colour of one’s eyes and the colour of one’s hair—something you may notice but does not tell you any more about them? (903044)

I join my hon. Friend warmly in paying tribute to the Archbishop of York as he lays down his crozier. He and I correspond very often and I take his advice very sincerely. I had no idea that today was such a distinguished birthday.

Under suspicionless stop-and-search powers, which this Government are expanding, a black person is 47 times more likely to be stopped and searched than a white person—47 times. On too many occasions, stop-and-search seems to mean that being black is enough to be suspected of being a criminal. So will the Prime Minister abolish suspicionless stop-and-search powers and end the pain and injustice they wreak on so many people in Britain’s black and minority communities? (903039)

It is very important that stop-and-search is carried out sensitively in accordance with the law. The fact that we now have body-worn cameras has made a great difference to the way it happens. I must say that section 60 powers can be very important in fighting violent crime. I am afraid that what has been happening in London with knife crime has been completely unacceptable, and I do believe that stop-and-search, among many other things, can be a very important utensil for fighting knife crime. It does work. It worked for us when I was running London and it must work now. I am not saying it is the whole answer—the right hon. Gentleman is right; it is not the whole answer—but it is part of the mix.

Hospitality and tourism businesses on the Fylde coast are concerned about their path to long-term recovery and the infrastructure needed to support that. Central to the issue locally is the M55 link road, a project that was fully funded but had an issue with some funding allocations. Will the Prime Minister put his weight behind this issue and help me to secure the £5.7 million needed to complete this shovel-ready project? (903045)

What I can say is that we will unite and level up with infrastructure projects across our country. I congratulate my hon. Friend on his lobbying for that particular scheme and can tell him that last year we put £31 million into the Preston western distributor scheme, which is a new dual carriageway that will reduce congestion in Preston and lead directly to the creation of 3,000 houses and more than 500 jobs. As for further expansion of the M55, my hon. Friend will have to wait, but there will be further announcements in due course.

Even before the pandemic began it was clear that the UK has one of the most manifestly inadequate systems of statutory sick pay in the world: we are second from the bottom in European terms, and it continues to shun millions of workers who are low earners, work in the gig economy or are self-employed. As we come back from the crisis in economic terms and make the workplace better, will the Prime Minister agree to work with those of us in the Opposition who want to see a [Inaudible.] system that is fit for the 21st century that can meet people’s needs? (903041)

Yes, of course, statutory sick pay is an important part of the way we tackle the problems of self-isolation and all the issues faced by people facing coronavirus, but people also receive additional funds. Anybody looking impartially at what we are doing to support the people of this country throughout this epidemic will concede that the UK has done more than virtually any other country on earth to look after the people of this country, whether through the furloughing scheme, the bounce-back loans or anything else. Having listened to the hon. Gentleman, I should say I have also pledged that we are going to put in gigabit broadband across the whole of the UK, so that he can be heard more clearly in future.

We have seen much disinformation about the R value in Bolton and the north-west. Does the Prime Minister agree that having increasingly up-to-date local data will give correspondingly greater confidence to Boltonians in reopening our businesses, schools and places of worship? (903049)

Yes, which is why I am encouraged by NHS Test and Trace and the progress that it is making. With the help of the joint biosecurity centre, we are now able to identify hotspots, to do whack-a-mole and to stamp out outbreaks of the epidemic where they occur.

East Lothian prides itself on its food and drink sector, which is gravely threatened by reduced standards in animal welfare and production. The Government failed to enshrine protections in the Agriculture Bill, and earlier this week Ministers equivocated on the issue; will the Prime Minister take this opportunity to be clear today that high standards will be protected, a food standards commission will be established, and we will not face chlorinated chicken on our table, along with Kentucky fried medicine in our hospitals? (903046)

Not only will we protect animal welfare standards but, on leaving the EU, as we have, we will be able to increase our animal welfare standards. We will be able to ban the treatment of farrowing sows that is currently legal in the EU, and we will be able to ban the shipment of live animals, which currently we cannot ban in the UK. We will be able to go further and better, and I hope that the hon. Gentleman supports that. By the way, I also hope that he will tell all his friends in the—SNP, is it?—SNP that that is one of the reasons why their plan to take Scotland back into the EU would be completely contrary to the instincts of the British people.

Owing to covid, we are facing a unique economic challenge. I urge the Prime Minister to respond with a major package of infrastructure investment to create jobs and level up the whole country, including turbo-charging the roll-out of gigabit broadband, upgrading the Manchester to Sheffield line and finally building the full Mottram bypass. The people of Glossop have been promised this by politicians for over 50 years. We will even let him call it the Boris bypass—let us please just get it built. (903050)

Thank you so much. I can confirm briefly to my hon. Friend that we are indeed committed under the road investment strategy published last year to building a bypass around Mottram, and I look forward to being there to see it done.

My constituents tell me that they have lost trust in the Government, as they are confused by mixed messaging around public health measures and angry that Dominic Cummings seems to have been left off the hook, but they are particularly worried about local jobs and livelihoods because of inadequate support schemes, a lack of crisis funding for Luton council and an illogical quarantine impacting on Luton airport. All of this has been on your watch, Prime Minister. How can my constituents feel confident about the proposed next steps for easing lockdown when your Government have fallen short so far? (903047)

Because I think the British public, with their overwhelming common sense, have ignored some of the propaganda that we have been hearing from the Opposition about our advice. They have ignored the negativity and the attempts to confuse and they are overwhelmingly following advice, and indeed, they are complying with NHS Test and Trace—which is the way forward—which will enable us to defeat this virus both locally and nationally.

Pre-covid, the Prime Minister made a firm commitment to reaching out to some of the most deprived areas and levelling up the country. This is needed now more than ever. Will he make a firm commitment—and re-commit—to Whitmore Reans, Chapel Ash, Penn Fields and the rest of Wolverhampton, so that they will not just survive but thrive?

Yes, I certainly will. I congratulate my hon. Friend on the way he represents Wolverhampton and the many campaigns he fights for that great city. I can tell him just for starters that Wolverhampton will benefit from around £217 million of the growth deal funding across the Black Country, which aims to create 5,000 jobs, 1,400 new homes and £310 million in public and private investment—just for starters.

Many happy returns, Mr Speaker. “Today they say that we are free, only to be chained in poverty”—not my words, but the words of Bob Marley in 1973. Figures from the Trussell Trust show an 89% increase in emergency food parcels across the UK in April, compared with the same month last year. People are struggling and they need help now. Will the Prime Minister meet the Chancellor, charities and local government leaders to discuss a much-needed funding boost for local welfare assistance schemes in England? (903048)

The hon. Lady is absolutely right. This country is going through a very difficult crisis—a public health crisis, an economic crisis—and of course, it has put many families to great hardship. I think the Government have done a huge amount to look after families across the country. We have, as she knows, put £3.2 billion more into local government. I announced earlier today—just now—that we are also putting another £63 million into extra welfare support for particularly disadvantaged families to help with meals throughout the summer period. She is entirely right. We face a huge economic problem. That is why we need to get moving, get this country going forward together, and work as parliamentarians and politicians to communicate to the public jointly what we are doing.

In order to allow the safe exit of hon. Members participating in this item of business and the safe arrival of those participating in the next, I now suspend the House for three minutes.

Sitting suspended.

On resuming—