House of Commons
Monday 23 November 2020
The House met at half-past Two o’clock
[Mr Speaker in the Chair]
Virtual participation in proceedings commenced (Order, 4 June).
[NB: [V] denotes a Member participating virtually.]
Oral Answers to Questions
The Secretary of State was asked—
Schools: Safe Opening and Covid-19
To support schools to open fully from the autumn, we published guidance in July and updated it as necessary. Schools have access to an advice service and supply of test kits. By assessing risk and maximising the use of Public Health England-endorsed control measures, schools reduce risk for pupils and staff.
Schools are facing huge budget pressures as costs escalate for increased supply cover as teachers self-isolate and from unfunded covid-19 cleaning costs. More than a quarter of all state schools are using reserve budgets to ensure that pupils have devices and access to the internet to study while isolating at home. What assurances can the Secretary of State give that schools will get the funding they need to cover these unforeseen costs?
I thank the hon. Gentleman for raising that important point. We know how important it is. We already outlined a package for the summer term, and tens of millions of pounds have been distributed to schools. We have kept this matter under review and will update the House in the near future.
I am disappointed that the Secretary of State does not know those figures. Parents, pupils and teachers have told me of students having been sent home three, four, even five times; some have missed up to one third of their time in school. I am sure the Secretary of State agrees that that will have a disastrous impact on their learning. As we have heard, promised help with laptops and additional costs has not always arrived. School leaders and staff are stressed and exhausted. I support him in wanting pupils to be safely in school, but please will he tell our dedicated and desperate teachers, heads and support staff what he is going to do to support them and keep children learning?
At every stage, we on the Government side of the House have championed the importance of schools and getting children back into schools. We have done everything we can to support schools to welcome children back. We have done everything we can in terms of the over half a million laptops that are going to be distributed, and are being distributed, to schools to support remote learning. We recognise that children have lost out as a result of this covid pandemic. That is why the Government pledged £1 billion-worth of support to schools to help them catch up that lost learning.
School Admissions Code: Summer-born Children
The Department published updated guidance in September 2020 on the admission of summer-born children. The guidance will help to ensure that decisions are taken in the best interests of the child concerned. It remains our intention to legislate to change the school admissions code when an opportunity is available.
I thank my right hon. Friend for that answer. I agree with him that legislating would ensure that all summer-born children have the opportunity and the life outcome they deserve. Will he agree to meet me and perhaps a member of the Treasury so that we can ensure that that legislation comes through in this Parliament?
May I first pay tribute to my hon. Friend for highlighting the important issue of summer-born children? Of course, I would be delighted to meet him to discuss the legislation that we need to put through to ensure that his and others’ strong opinions about fairness for summer-born children are implemented.
We have made an unprecedented investment in childcare of £3.6 billion this year. Childcare settings have been prioritised for reopening, childcare bubbles have reduced pressure on working parents, and from next Easter, disadvantaged children will be able to take part in our holiday activities and food programmes all across the country.[Official Report, 24 November 2020, Vol. 684, c. 5MC.]
My hon. Friend shares our passion for making sure that we improve education in Wolverhampton and all across the country. He has been championing that non-stop, lobbying my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State. The free schools programme has created thousands of high-quality school places. Three secondary applications have been received from my hon. Friend’s constituency, and we hope to make a decision later this year.
Self-isolating Children: Online Education
We are clear that schools have a duty to provide remote education for state-funded children who are unable to attend school due to coronavirus. I gave a direction that placed a legal duty to provide remote education in those circumstances. That has been in effect since 22 October 2020.
We very much are, and we are encouraging schools with teachers who are not in a position to be in the classroom, to ensure and support online learning straight into children’s homes. It is absolutely vital we do so. As we see more and more testing becoming available, we can release staff so they can be back in the classroom supporting the amazing work that is already going on there.
Thank you very much, Mr Speaker. We have a good Secretary of State already.
Last week, The Sunday Times reported that a record 600,000 children were absent from class for to covid-related reasons. We know that around the country sending pupils home has, sadly, become more commonplace. It is right for exams in some form or another to take place next year, but will my right hon. Friend set out the measures he is taking to ensure there is an absolutely level playing field for those left behind during the coronavirus outbreak, as well as those who are sent home to self-isolate, so they have as fair a chance as possible in their exams as every other pupil?
What all the evidence points to is that exams are the best and fairest way to ensure that children, especially children from the most disadvantaged backgrounds and children from black and ethnic minority backgrounds, get the best possible grades. What is so important is that we deliver fairness for all youngsters right across the board. We have already announced a package of measures to push back the date when exams will take place, so that people can catch up on lost learning. We have also announced a £1 billion package to support schools to deliver extra assistance for those youngsters. We will announce further measures to ensure absolute fairness in our exam system, so that young people have the best opportunity to prove themselves when they have the opportunity to take their exams.
National Funding Formula
The national funding formula distributes funding based on school and pupil characteristics. Despite budget pressures due to covid, we have increased funding for the lowest-funded schools to ensure every school has the resources it needs to deliver an outstanding education, with at least £5,150 per pupil next year for all secondary schools and £4,000 per pupil for primary schools.
The headmaster of Caistor Grammar School has contacted me. This school produces, for kids from all sorts of backgrounds, some of the best results in the east midlands, but its buildings are in a shocking state. He has been refused a condition improvement grant, despite the fact that he has temporary and mobile classrooms that are classed by the Secretary of State’s Department as grade A. Will the Secretary of State assure me that, in his national funding formula negotiations, there is no discrimination against grammar schools? I often find that, while the education is wonderful, the buildings are peeling.
I can absolutely assure my right hon. Friend that there will be no discrimination shown against grammar schools. I encourage him to be in contact with the school as the next round of condition improvement funding is due in January next year. I very much encourage that school, as well as other schools in his constituency, to apply. That gives me the opportunity to highlight the fact that we are spending more on the condition and improvement of our schools, with an extra half a billion pounds allocated to support schools and their rebuilding.[Official Report, 24 November 2020, Vol. 684, c. 6MC.]
Home Learning: IT Provision
We are making over half a million laptops and tablets available for disadvantaged students across the country by the end of the year. Since September, over 100,000 devices have been delivered to schools, building on over 220,000 delivered in the summer term. Where children lack access to the internet at home, we have also delivered over 50,000 routers.
Knowsley is one of the most deprived boroughs in the country and has had its allocation of laptops cut from 1,065 to 282 since the Government’s 80% cut in allocations. Fifty-six of the 61 schools in Knowsley have at least one bubble self-isolating, and one primary school in Halewood in my constituency which currently has 60 children self-isolating has been allocated six laptops. Half the children in that school have no access to technology at home, so how exactly are headteachers meant to comply with the Government’s regulation that schools must provide immediate access to high-quality remote learning for pupils who are self-isolating?
Any school where pupils are self-isolating, and which has disadvantaged students who do not have access to a computer, is able to contact the Department to acquire extra computers beyond those allocated. I am told that it takes 48 working hours to have those laptops delivered to the school. In the context of significant global demand for laptops and tablets, we have updated the process of allocating those devices to schools to align more accurately with the number of students typically self-isolating. That will help to ensure that those who are self-isolating and need a laptop or a tablet are able to receive one.
Teachers in Coventry South have stressed to me the importance of pupils having access to computers at home, but many children from working-class communities do not have that. One school in my constituency, Ernesford Grange Community Academy, found that 12% of students—101 pupils—struggle to access a device at home. The Government introduced a new duty on schools to provide online learning, but the next day they slashed the allocation of laptops. Ernesford Grange saw its allocation fall from 111 to just 22, so will the Minister today guarantee that every school in Coventry has the laptops that their students need?
The allocation is to schools that are not necessarily sending children home to self-isolate—that is, to all schools, whether or not their pupils are self-isolating. We need to make sure that there is a computer—a laptop—for every disadvantaged pupil who does not have one and who is self-isolating, and because we made that decision, we are able to ensure that every pupil in those circumstances will receive a computer. All they have to do is phone the Department for Education, and they will have the computer, if they fulfil the eligibility criteria, within 48 hours of putting in that call.
Exams and Assessments 2021: Covid-19
We are working with Ofqual and engaging widely with the education sector to identify risks to examinations at a national, local and individual level and to consider the measures needed to address any potential disruption. That could be a student unable to sit examinations or schools affected by a local outbreak. More details will be published shortly.
GCSEs and A-levels are two-year courses. Most students have missed six months of in-school teaching for these courses. Ofsted has concluded that that has impacted on the disadvantaged the most, and significantly, in the three months since school has started, some students have missed even more, with high pupil and staff absences reflecting the high infection rates. That is particularly the case for the disadvantaged, those in the north and BME communities. How can any form of traditional exams take place on a level playing field, particularly for poorer kids in the north? Will the Minister be happy that the huge attainment gap that follows will be his personal legacy?
Our No. 1 priority is to make sure that we help young people catch up on their lost education. That is why we have allocated £1 billion to schools—the catch-up premium—to help students catch up and, of that, £350 million is allocated to disadvantaged pupils. We have delayed this summer’s exams—GCSEs and A-levels—by three weeks to free up teaching time. Ofqual consulted in the summer on changes to assessment on issues such as science practicals, field trips, spoken language and optionality in history and English literature, again to help reduce pressure on teaching times. We will shortly announce other measures to help to ensure that exams are fair, including the approach to grading to ensure that the 2021 cohort is treated fairly compared with previous years’ students.
Secondary heads in my constituency told me last month that it was already too late to plan properly for even the delayed GCSEs and A-levels next summer, and they are still waiting. If the Republic of Ireland Government could give students and teachers a clear road map for summer 2021 back in August, and a plan B that went along with it if the situation changed, why can this Government not do the same and give students in years 11, 12 and 13 a fighting chance?
As I said to the hon. Member for Manchester Central (Lucy Powell), everything we are doing is about ensuring that every student has a fighting chance to do well in the exams. There is a broad consensus that exams are the fairest way to judge a student’s assessment. We want to ensure that that fairness is spread right across the country, regardless of the experience any individual will have had as a result of the virus. That is why we are delaying the exams, why there have been changes to the assessment and why we are still working with Ofqual and the exam boards on further mitigations and contingencies to ensure that every student is treated fairly. We will have more to say about those issues shortly.
Young people across this country, including Sophie, an A-level student in my constituency, are extremely anxious about this year’s exams after last year’s fiasco, and due to the precious face-to-face teaching time lost in the first lockdown and to the current self-isolations and teacher absences. Why will the Minister not, please, listen to Sophie and follow the lead of the Liberal Democrat Education Minister in Wales by providing clarity and certainty now, by cancelling exams and moving to a robust teacher-led assessment? As Sophie said to me, “We are not lazy. We need your help.” Will the Minister please listen to her and help her?
We listen to all opinions on this issue, but there is a broad consensus, including among unions and school leaders, that holding exams is the best option for next summer. That is the fairest and best way of judging students’ performance. But as I said earlier, we know that all students due to sit exams next year have experienced disruption to their education due to the pandemic, and that is why we are working closely with the school sector to ensure that clear contingency plans are in place for students who are ill or have to self-isolate. We are engaging widely on contingency plans and other measures to ensure that exams are fair this year.
Yes, I can. We of course look at the decisions taken by the devolved Administrations on such matters, but the broad consensus remains that exams are the fairest and best way of assessing student attainment and of ensuring that young people have the qualifications that they need for the next stage of their education. The £1 billion catch-up fund, £195 million on laptops and computers, the delay of three weeks in the exam timetable and the changes to assessment already announced by Ofqual are all designed to ensure that the experience of students next summer is as stress-free and as fair as possible.
I have received a number of letters from the heads of primary schools in Sittingbourne and Sheppey concerned about the potential further loss of learning time if pupils have to sit standard assessment and other tests. What reassurances will my right hon. Friend offer to my hard-working and valuable teachers that those tests are essential to the future development of children as they are being prepared for future individual and group study later in life?
My hon. Friend is right, as he so often is. The exams, and the preparation for revision, tests and exams at primary and secondary are the best way of ensuring that knowledge is retained, so it can be built on in the next stage of a young person’s education and training. That is why we are determined to do all we can to help young people catch up on the lost teaching time that they may have suffered while schools were closed to most pupils.
Despite the excellent news regarding vaccines this morning—Britain has the largest vaccine portfolio in the world—and despite the millions being put into getting schools on to a level playing field for all students regarding virtual teaching, it is estimated that right now some 80% of schools are disadvantaged when it comes to training their students who are isolating at home. Can the Schools Minister please tell me what discussions he is having with the examining boards? Will he ensure that they take all this into account when they are allocating grades next year?
My hon. Friend will know that 99% of schools are open and that overall attendance is 83% in secondary schools. We are working with the exam boards and with Ofqual on the issue of grading, and we will have more to say on that shortly, but we are also working with the exam boards and Ofqual to ensure that the experience students have next summer is as fair as possible, given all that they have experienced over the last year.
I was recently in touch with schools across my constituency and, other than the money to meet the costs of covid, a common theme was the disproportionate number of days lost by teaching staff and pupils in towns such as Rochdale and in Greater Manchester across the piece. The Minister says that he will make exams fair, but how can he do that when young people in Greater Manchester have lost more teaching hours than those in other parts of the country? Also, how can it be fair when young people who are at the end of the fourth term of their A-level syllabus still do not know what the regime will be as they approach their exams next summer?
We have been very clear that exams are the fairest and best way of assessing student attainment, but we are also conscious of the fact that a large number of pupils have suffered a different experience from other pupils up and down the country. We want to ensure that the exams are as fair as possible while also being valid qualifications. That is the work we have been doing with Ofqual and the exam boards for several weeks, and we have announced a delay of three weeks in the holding of those exams to try to free up as much teaching time as possible.
We all agree that exams would be the fairest and best way to assess pupils this year, and given the absolute chaos at the heart of last year’s exams, it would have been reasonable to expect Ministers to have a plan in place by now, yet the Minister’s answers this afternoon have been woefully inadequate, at a time when school leaders, teachers, parents and pupils are crying out for certainty. Given the obvious challenges to ensuring that exams go ahead in a way that is fair to all pupils, and the fact that any delay makes the job harder, when will Ministers present a plan, which teachers and pupils can see, for exams to go ahead in a fair way?
The hon. Gentleman is a serious Member of this House—I was delighted when he was appointed shadow Schools Minister; I congratulate him on that appointment, and welcome him to the Front Bench—so I know that he knows that these issues are complex. They need to be thought through and they need to be consulted on, and that is what we are doing with pace, rigour and energy, but I recognise that, in opposition, there is always a temptation to reach for the slogan rather than the solution.
Self-isolating Schoolchildren: Numbers
The latest published data shows that, as of 12 November, 0.2% of pupils in state-funded schools were absent due to a confirmed covid case, and between 5.8% and 6.7% were self-isolating due to contact either in or outside school. Statistics are published weekly, and the data for the week of 23 November will be published on 1 December.
First, will my right hon. Friend join me in congratulating Herne Church of England Junior School on achieving an extraordinarily high placing in The Sunday Times listings? There are schools in North Thanet with whole classes isolating, including year 1 and year 2 children. Those are the children scheduled to undergo phonic screening, and others are facing SATs. Further to the question put to the Minister of State by my hon. Friend the Member for Sittingbourne and Sheppey (Gordon Henderson), will the Secretary of State look carefully and again consider the possibility of allowing teacher assessments to take the place of SATs, for this year only?
I join my right hon. Friend in congratulating Herne Church of England Junior School on its exceptional ranking, which is obviously down to the commitment and dedication of the teaching and support staff, as well, of course, as the pupils and parents, who do so much to support the school. He raises an important point about SATs and assessment. This is a useful internal tool for schools, enabling teachers to have a good grasp and clear understanding of where those children are, especially after so much disruption this year. We will be working closely with the sector to ensure that anything we do in this field is very much to support them and the children, and to support the learning and understanding of what support those children need going forward and not add extra pressures to them.
UK Internal Market Bill: Scotland’s Education System
Throughout the development of the United Kingdom Internal Market Bill proposals and preceding White Paper, the UK Government have engaged constructively with many businesses, professional organisations and other groups, including the General Teaching Council for Scotland.
During the debate on that Bill in the other place last week, Lord Callanan assured peers that
“the devolved Administrations will retain the right to legislate in devolved policy areas.”—[Official Report, House of Lords, 18 November 2020; Vol. 807, c. 1520.]
However, during the previous Education questions the Secretary of State would not give a clear answer on whether the Bill could impact the Scottish Government’s ability to set university fees in Scotland. So can the Minister now confirm that her Government’s internal market Bill will not undermine the Scottish Government’s provision of free university tuition?
Well, that is a very unequivocal answer, so we look forward to that not coming back to bite them at any point in the future. I am glad the Minister is engaging with the GTCS, because in the other place the Minister has had to table an amendment to specifically include school teaching in the list of exempted professions. School teaching could be interpreted narrowly as solely relating to the education of children, but of course GTCS-registered teachers teach in many different educational settings, so will this Minister clarify whether the amendment is intended to include any institution in which teaching is delivered?
We have listened to the concerns about the Bill’s provision covering the mutual recognition of professional qualifications and have decided to exclude the teaching profession, so on Thursday 19 November the Government tabled an amendment to do just that.
That is an encouraging answer from the Minister, so I thank her for that response. She says that the Government have engaged with the GTCS, but last month the GTCS wrote to the Secretary of State on this very matter and has yet to receive a response. Is that normal Government practice when dealing with professional organisations? When should the GTCS expect to hear from the Secretary of State?
As the hon. Lady will know, officials from the Department for Education and the Scotland Office have met the GTCS to discuss these concerns and have passed them to those who are leading on the implementation of the UK internal market proposals. As a result, an amendment to exempt teachers from the recognition clauses of the Bill has been tabled.
There are still too many parts of the UK that have been left behind, and this Government are committed to bridging the gap in every region and levelling up opportunity in every corner of our country. That is why we are investing £2.5 billion in the national skills fund to turbocharge our economic recovery and introducing a lifetime skills guarantee, so that no one is left behind, no matter their age or stage of learning.
I thank my hon. Friend for that answer. As she is planning the budgets and assessing the regional challenges, will she take into consideration the different levels of pandemic across the country? The highest levels of infection lead to the highest levels of people having to isolate, including teachers, so there are increased budgetary costs from having to backfill teaching staff. King James’s School in Knaresborough, a secondary school in my constituency, briefed me that this is running at £7,000 a week, so schools are facing a significant challenge.
Of course, we are here to support schools and colleges, and we know that they are facing challenges. On top of their existing budgets, we have provided up to £75,000 additional funding to schools to cover unavoidable costs that could not be met from their existing budgets, which includes additional cleaning, support for free school meals and increased premises costs associated with keeping schools open for the holidays. There will be a further opportunity later in the year for schools to claim for eligible costs that fell between March and July that they did not claim for during that first window and, as the Secretary of State mentioned earlier, support for schools is kept under review.
My hon. Friend is absolutely right. This Government are committed to bringing excellent post-16 provision to every corner of the country. I was really glad to learn that West Nottinghamshire College, which serves many of his constituents, ranks among the top colleges in the UK for student satisfaction. He will be aware that local authorities have responsibilities regarding young people’s participation in education and training, and I have asked my colleagues in the Education and Skills Funding Agency to look closely at post-16 provision in the Bolsover area to identify whether further action is required.
I am sure the Minister will agree with me that children cannot learn if they are subject to exploitation and neglect, but that is precisely what is happening in children’s homes across the country. Last year, more than 37,000 cases were reported of looked-after children going missing from children’s homes. That is a 150% increase from 2015 and experts attribute this to rising criminal and sexual exploitation. The Government promised a review into children’s care nearly a year ago. What on earth is delaying this?
Local authorities have a statutory duty to protect all children from wherever they go missing. Children who go missing from home can face the same risks as a child going missing from local authority care. The Department for Education’s statutory guidance on children who run away or go missing from home or care settings sets out clear steps that local authorities and their partners should take to prevent all children from going missing and to protect them if they do go missing. Responsibilities to missing children remain unchanged during the pandemic. We expect local authorities to feel empowered to use their judgment to find suitable ways to safeguard children from the risks of going missing.
Holiday Activities and Food Programme
Rolling out the excellent holiday activity and food programme for children across the country will mean that even more children will benefit from free healthy meals and enriching holiday activities. We have already written to all the local authorities with guidance. We will work closely with them, including sharing best practice from our pilot programmes, and we are appointing a national organisation from spring next year to support the local delivery.
Ipswich was lucky enough to be one of those pilots and, this summer, it actually had the holiday activity and food programme in operation. It was great to go there to meet not only the children who benefited from it, but the different organisations and the young adults from Ipswich who were able to play a part in delivering that service. Can the Minister outline what plans are in place, looking ahead to the Easter and summer holidays, to make sure that this continues to happen and that the community is completely aware of how it can get involved in this fantastic project?
It was a huge pleasure to visit the Government’s holiday activity and food programme with my hon. Friend in Ipswich this summer. We saw at first hand how local partnerships helped to deliver these excellent schemes, so we want to encourage schools, childcare providers, food suppliers, voluntary organisations, sports experts, and arts experts all to come together in partnership. Interested parties should contact their local authorities and together we will all make sure that next year’s holidays are full of food and fun.
Healthcare Higher Education Funding
The Government keep the funding arrangements for the education of all pre-registration undergraduate and postgraduate NHS health professions under close review to ensure that students are appropriately supported. Most NHS professional student placements are funded by the education and training tariff, and the allocation of funding is reviewed and published annually.
Nursing and midwifery students are required to undertake 2,300 hours of clinical placement to qualify. Maintenance grants were reintroduced in England in September, but those student nurses and midwives who just graduated or who are about to, and who stepped up in the first wave of the pandemic despite the personal risks, have huge debts because the Government abolished their bursaries in 2016. What will the Minister do to acknowledge their tremendous contribution and ensure that they do not begin their careers in caring feeling undervalued, taken advantage of and carrying this massive financial burden?
I echo the hon. Member’s sentiment about the true value that nursing students and graduates have given this country during one of the hardest times that we have faced. The Government are extremely grateful for all those students who opted into a paid clinical placement in the NHS during this extremely difficult time, and we have ensured that all those students were fairly rewarded for their hard work. Nursing, midwifery and allied healthcare students who volunteered were paid and received the appropriate pensions remuneration.
Union Learning Fund
The Government are transforming the provision of skills. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Education and I regularly meet a diverse spectrum of stakeholders from around the further education sector to hear their views. On Unionlearn specifically, I met the TUC general secretary, Frances O’Grady, on 12 October to discuss this matter and our expanding commitment to skills through the national skills fund. The Secretary of State for Education met Frances O’Grady on 9 November for the very same reason.
The recent Westminster Hall debate on Unionlearn was as illuminating for what was not said as for what was. There was no attempt by the Government to pretend that there had been a serious consultation with employers or educators before ceasing funding, nor was there a single Conservative Back-Bench MP willing to turn up to that debate to speak in favour of this cut. Does the Minister realise that no one will believe that the Government are serious about levelling up while they are cutting access to level 2 skills for the lowest paid workers?
This Government are committed to substantial investment in further education, with priority given to qualifications aligned with our economic need, but, as I said during that debate, we need to focus taxpayers’ money on those who need it. With only 11% of users unemployed, Unionlearn simply is not the solution.[Official Report, 30 November 2020, Vol. 685, c. 2MC.] That is why, from April 2021, we will be fully funding the first level 3 qualification for adults who do not currently have a level 3 qualification. As I said during the debate, many of the basic provisions to which Unionlearn signposts learners are available right across the country, and have been available and introduced since Unionlearn was in existence.
This Government have a strange way of levelling up, and education is no different. Since its creation in 1998 by the Labour Government, the Unionlearn fund has enjoyed cross-party support and the backing of dozens of businesses. It is a flagship policy that costs the Government £12 million and returns £1.4 billion to the economy. It currently supports 200,000 individuals per annum to access learning; it is absolutely huge. Minister, put your cards on the table—this is an out-and- out attack against the trade union movement and its members. What is it about this hugely successful programme, which helps low-paid working people, that so antagonises the modern Conservative party?
I am the first to recognise that, thanks to the funding provided by the Government, Unionlearn has done good work in directing and supporting people to take advantage of education and training opportunities in the workplace, but with millions in this country still lacking basic skills that they need to progress, we need a solution at scale that can reach everyone, not just those able to access the Unionlearn network. We have therefore created the £2.5 billion national skills fund and the £500 million skills recovery package to transform lives up and down the country, and to build our country back better; and we are making that available to everybody across the country.
Free School Meals: No Recourse to Public Funds
This Government are completely committed to free school meals, and no Government have ever been more generous with entitlements, extending eligibility to all infants and disadvantaged children in further education. But throughout the pandemic we also extended eligibility to groups with no recourse to public funds, and we continue to work across Government on longer-term eligibility for these families. Meanwhile, the extension of eligibility for free school meals remains.
It is Government policy that has forced overstretched schools, charities and councils like Southwark to pick up the pieces and pay the price of the hostile environment that has left over 100,000 with no recourse to support, according to the Children’s Society. The Minister says that there are cross-Government talks. What representations has she made to the Home Office to end this scandal and save schools from this huge, inappropriate burden when they are already struggling with covid?
I remind the hon. Member that our new £170 million covid winter grant scheme will directly target the hardest-to-help families and individuals, and also provide food for children in need of it over the holidays. Some families with no recourse to public funds do receive support from the Home Office as is provided for under the Immigration and Asylum Act 1999, and section 17 of the Children Act 1989 requires local authorities to safeguard and promote the welfare of children within their area if they are in need, regardless of their immigration status.
Last week I announced the Department’s intention to explore a post-qualification admissions system for higher education where by students would receive and accept offers after they have received their A-level or equivalent grades. As set out in our manifesto, we are committed to levelling up our education system so that everyone with the ability to benefit from higher education can do so, regardless of their background. This is a fairer system that we are moving towards, especially for those youngsters from the most disadvantaged backgrounds. The Government will consult universities, colleges, schools, students, and, of course, devolved Administrations to understand how a PQA system can best be delivered in the interests of all students.
We all want to see things returning to normal, but I note from the two local education authorities in my constituency that so many staff and pupils are off at any one time because of covid transmission and self-isolation. Given that this is likely to be the situation going into the new year, does the Secretary of State really expect routine Ofsted inspections to begin in January, and if so, how is that going to work for schools affected by covid?
The hon. Member highlights an important issue about the fact that so many people right across the teaching profession and support staff are putting in so much effort to ensure that all our children get the benefit of a world-class education. We all know—especially Government Members, and many Opposition Members—the importance of keeping schools open and welcoming children into the classroom. We will continue to work with Ofsted so that our approach ensures that we have high standards and that the safeguarding measures that are properly in place remain in place, but always having proper regard for the good functioning of all schools and making sure that we do not get in the way or create barriers or obstacles to schools properly functioning.
My hon. Friend raises a vitally important point, because students right across the United Kingdom see it as one higher education system and are choosing the best universities for themselves, with many English students studying in Scotland and vice versa, and many Northern Irish and Welsh students studying in all the other three nations. It is absolutely important that we have a consistent approach. We have been working very closely with the DAs. This does show the strength of our higher education system as a Union system and how all universities working together in the United Kingdom strengthens all universities in all four nations.
University students have been an afterthought in the Government’s thinking throughout the covid crisis, whether that is the A-level fiasco, the huge spike in cases after return in September, financial hardship, mental health or digital access. All have been palmed off to universities with only slow, token Government support, and now time is again running out. Will the Secretary of State take this opportunity to get ahead of events and publish clear, crisp and quick guidance for universities, so that they can plan for a safe and smooth student return in the new year?
Following the end-of-term break, our top priority is January, and we will be ensuring that the welfare of students, staff and communities in higher education providers is at the forefront. We will look to utilise mass testing to make the return of higher education as safe as possible, and we will indeed produce further and comprehensive guidance.
Both Stamford College and Grantham College are great examples of brilliant further education provision, and I want to see more and more further education colleges coming to the fore, making sure that the skills revolution that this side of the House is absolutely committed to delivering is delivered, because far too often our attention and focus has been on higher education. We know that our further education colleges can be a real driver of productivity, skills, jobs and opportunity in local areas, including in Grantham and Stamford.
With the end of the transition period fast approaching, the Home Secretary’s toxic immigration environment gives our universities little comfort, so how is the Secretary of State countering the Home Secretary’s damaging rhetoric? What discussions has he had with the Home Secretary and the higher education sector about the importance of our international staff and students?
I thank my colleagues in the Home Office, who have worked so closely with Universities UK and universities right across all four nations to make sure that visa applications have gone smoothly. Despite the concerns and worries that many people voiced earlier this year that international students would not turn up, actually international students have been turning up, and I pay tribute to the cross-Government work that has been going on. What a powerful brand the United Kingdom has around the world, demonstrating that universities not just in England, but also in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, benefit from being part of the Union.
I thank my hon. Friend, who has done so much to highlight the concerns and issues—not just of the University of Keele, but also of students whom he represents—and flag them up to the Department. We have worked very closely with the university sector, and it would be right for me to pay tribute to the Minister for Universities, my hon. Friend the Member for Chippenham (Michelle Donelan), who has done so much to ensure that all students will be able to return home for Christmas in an orderly and safe manner.
Our universities are world leading when it comes to research, and the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy recently published a road map. This is a priority for the Government. As the hon. Member will know, Horizon is being actively negotiated with the EU, and that Department has publicly said that it is preparing an alternative, should we not be successful in those negotiations.
Even before he was elected to this House, my hon. Friend was campaigning to ensure that the people of Radcliffe and their children have a high school for their town. I know how passionately he feels about that; he has had a petition highlighting the issue and numerous meetings with me. We are still in the final phases of allocating round 14 of free schools, but his passionate campaigning has been noted, and I am sure we will all work to ensure that his constituents get the best educational attainment possible.
The hon. Gentleman will know that everything we have been doing since 2010 is about closing that attainment gap, and we have closed it by 13% in primary schools and by 9% in secondary schools. We know that the impact of the covid pandemic has been devastating across all sections of society, but particularly for disadvantaged pupils. That is why we have implemented a £1 billion catch-up fund. We are determined that no young person will suffer in the long term as a consequence of interruption to their education caused by the pandemic.
We all recognise the important role of the creative industries in driving the economy and the importance of having the right skills and training for young people who want to go into that industry. I would be more than happy to meet my hon. Friend to discuss the challenges he faces in his constituency and how we can best assist.
We are investing in skills right across the country through the lifetime skills guarantee, which gives a sense of opportunity to so many people who have never had it before. We want to invest the £12 million in our colleges up and down the country, to ensure that they have a real impact in our local communities. Unionlearn was costing £4 million in admin alone. That money is better spent on delivering skills for not only young people but people of all ages.
I can absolutely assure my hon. Friend that under-16s should not be using that app. I would like to thank schools and the leadership of schools, which have done so much in working with Test and Trace to ensure that the number of youngsters who need to self-isolate as a result of a case has been reduced significantly over the past few weeks, making sure that as many children as possible are attending school. I will take up the point my hon. Friend has made and look at guidance on how best we can give people the right and proper steer.
This was the Government Equalities Office scheme to support a number of anti-LGBT bullying schemes. I have seen these schemes in action myself, and they are very good indeed. We will be looking at what more the DFE can do after the spending review to ensure that our anti-bullying programmes are LGBT-inclusive.
As a Yorkshireman myself, I would agree that many exemplars come out of Yorkshire. The EdTech demonstrators the Department has been rolling out are a brilliant example, and I think that what Malton School has been doing really shows how we can best use technology to support pupils, including pupils from the most disadvantaged backgrounds.
The hon. Gentleman raises an important point about vaccines. We are working very closely across Government to ensure that those people who have the greatest clinical need get the vaccine. He highlights a really important issue, and he would not be surprised to hear that, as Secretary of State for Education, I always see education as the absolute priority, but I would be very happy to work with the devolved Administrations to make sure that we have as combined and co-ordinated an approach as possible, which is really the greatest strength of our Union.
I have some good news: on 14 January —after Christmas—there will be an opportunity for such schools to apply for the next round of condition improvement funding. There is more money in this pot than ever before because we are spending more money on the improvement of our schools. Of course, I would always be happy to sit down with my hon. Friend and discuss her educational priorities, including for the schools in her constituency.[Official Report, 24 November 2020, Vol. 684, c. 6MC.]
We know how important it is to give children the opportunity to be in school, and that is why the Government prioritise school opening. We had more than 1.6 million children back in school before the summer holidays. We opened the door to all our schools right across the country to welcome children back, and it is great to see that 99% of schools are open. We continue to take the safety and security of not just pupils but staff incredibly seriously. That is why, at every stage of the way, we will do everything to ensure schools remain a safe environment. As the chief medical officers for England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland and the Children’s Commissioner for England said, children are best in school. That is why—
Thank you for squeezing me in, Mr Speaker.
It was absolutely right for the Government to keep schools open through the tiered system and lockdown, despite the pressure on my right hon. Friend from some of the unions and various others. One of the things that many teachers in my area have complained about is the patchiness of some of the advice in its application: whole school groups—sometimes whole year groups—are going down because of the fear of infection. Would my right hon. Friend or the Schools Minister be prepared to deal with the guidance again and possibly participate in an online roundtable with my local teachers, who are very keen to speak to them?
I absolutely assure my right hon. Friend that the Schools Minister would love to do that with his teachers, and is enthusiastically penning in the date. My right hon. Friend is right that there have been some inconsistencies. That is why we set up the national helpline to ensure there is consistency of advice, and are working with schools groups and schools trusts to support them to ensure there is a common approach. We know that getting children into schools, where they have the benefit of education and learning, will give them the best opportunities, and that is why it continues to remain our focus.
Last month, during National Adoption Week, it was announced that more than 600 children were still waiting to be placed with their forever families. I know that my right hon. Friend has since launched a national recruitment campaign, but could he say what progress is being made, despite the challenges of covid, and what plans he has to ensure that those children are placed with their forever families as quickly as possible?
My hon. Friend and I share a common passion about the importance of adoption. We want to drive up the rate of adoption right across the country. There have been delays in Her Majesty’s Courts and Tribunals Service, which have meant that a number of adoptions have been held up. I am meeting my right hon. and learned Friend the Secretary of State for Justice to see what more we can do to speed up that process and give children the opportunity to be with a family forever. There is nothing more generous that people can do than open up not just their homes but their hearts to ensure that those young people have the opportunities that we all want them to have.
Covid-19: Winter Plan
Before I call the Prime Minister, I point out that British Sign Language interpretation of the statement is available to watch on parliamentlive.tv.
Some of the screens in the Chamber are not working, so we will see how we go. We will take it a bit easy if need be.
With permission, Mr Speaker, I will make a statement on the Government’s covid winter plan.
For the first time since this wretched virus took hold, we can see a route out of the pandemic. The breakthroughs in treatment, testing and vaccines mean that the scientific cavalry is now in sight, and we know in our hearts that next year we will succeed. By the spring, these advances should reduce the need for the restrictions we have endured in 2020 and make the whole concept of a covid lockdown redundant.
When that moment comes, it will have been made possible by the sacrifices of millions across the UK. I am acutely conscious that no other peacetime Prime Minister has asked so much of the British people, and just as our country has risen to every previous trial, so it has responded this time, and I am deeply grateful.
But the hard truth is that we are not there yet. First, we must get through winter without the virus spreading out of control and squandering our hard-won gains, at exactly the time when the burden on our NHS is always greatest. Our winter plan is designed to carry us safely to spring.
In recent weeks, families and businesses in England have, once again, steadfastly observed nationwide restrictions, and they have managed to slow the growth of new cases and ease the worst pressures on our NHS. I can therefore confirm that national restrictions in England will end on 2 December, and they will not be renewed. From next Wednesday people will be able to leave their home for any purpose and meet others in outdoor public spaces, subject to the rule of six; collective worship, weddings and outdoor sports can resume; and shops, personal care, gyms and the wider leisure sector can reopen.
But without sensible precautions, we would risk the virus escalating into a winter or new year surge. The incidence of the disease is, alas, still widespread in many areas, so we will not replace national measures with a free for all, the status quo ante covid. We are going to go back instead to a regional, tiered approach, applying the toughest measures where covid is most prevalent. While the previous local tiers cut the R number, they were not quite enough to reduce it below 1, so the scientific advice, I am afraid, is that, as we come out, our tiers need to be made tougher.
In particular, in tier 1 people should work from home wherever possible. In tier 2, alcohol may only be served in hospitality settings as part of a substantial meal. In tier 3, indoor entertainment, hotels and other accommodation will have to close, along with all forms of hospitality, except for delivery and takeaways. I am very sorry, obviously, for the unavoidable hardship that this will cause for business owners who have already endured so much disruption this year.
Unlike the previous arrangements, tiers will now be a uniform set of rules—that is to say, we will not have negotiations on additional measures with each region. We have learned from experience that there are some things we can do differently. We are, therefore, going to change the 10 pm closing time for hospitality so that it is last orders at 10, with closing at 11. In tiers 1 or 2, spectator sports and business events will be free to resume inside and outside—with capacity limits and social distancing—providing more consistency with indoor performances in theatres and concert halls. We will also strengthen the enforcement ability of local authorities, including specially trained officers and new powers to close down premises that pose a risk to public health.
Later this week—on Thursday, I hope—we will announce which areas will fall into which tier, based on analysis of cases in all age groups, especially the over-60s; the rate by which cases are rising or falling; the percentage of those tested in a local population who have covid; and the current and projected pressures on the NHS. I am sorry to say that we expect that more regions will fall—at least temporarily—into higher levels than before, but by using these tougher tiers and using rapid turnaround tests on an ever greater scale to drive R below 1 and keep it there, it should be possible for areas to move down the tiering scale to lower levels of restrictions.
By maintaining the pressure on the virus, we can also enable people to see more of their family and friends over Christmas. I cannot say that Christmas will be normal this year, but in a period of adversity, time spent with loved ones is even more precious for people of all faiths and none. We all want some kind of Christmas—we need it and we certainly feel we deserve it—but what we do not want is to throw caution to the winds and allow the virus to flare up once again, forcing us all back into lockdown in January.
So, to allow families to come together, while minimising the risk, we are working with the devolved Administrations on a special, time-limited Christmas dispensation, embracing the whole of the United Kingdom and reflecting the ties of kinship across our islands. The virus will obviously not grant us a Christmas truce—it does not know that it is Christmas—and families will need to make a careful judgment about the risk of visiting elderly relatives. We will be publishing guidance for those who are clinically extremely vulnerable on how to manage the risks in each tier, as well as over Christmas. As we work to suppress the virus with these local tiers, two scientific breakthroughs will ultimately make these restrictions obsolete. As soon as a vaccine is approved, we will dispense it as quickly as possible. But given that that cannot be done immediately, we will simultaneously use rapid turnaround testing—lateral flow testing—that gives results within 30 minutes, to identify those without symptoms so they can isolate and avoid transmission. We are beginning to deploy these tests in our NHS and in care homes in England, so people will once again be able to hug and hold hands with loved ones instead of waving at them through a window. By the end of the year, this will allow every care home resident to have two visitors, who can be tested twice a week.
Care workers looking after people in their own homes will be offered weekly tests from today. From next month, weekly tests will also be available to staff in prisons and food manufacturing, and those delivering and administering covid vaccines. We are also, as the House knows, using testing to help schools and universities to stay open. Testing will enable students to know they can go home safely for Christmas, and back from home to university.
There is another way of using these rapid tests, and that is to follow the example of Liverpool, where in the last two and a half weeks over 200,000 people have taken part in community testing, contributing to a substantial fall in infections. Together with NHS Test and Trace and our fantastic armed forces, we will now launch a major community testing programme, offering all local authorities in tier 3 areas in England a six-week surge of testing. The system is untried and there are many unknowns, but if it works, we should be able to offer those who test negative the prospect of fewer restrictions—of, for example, meeting up in certain places with others who have also tested negative. Those towns and regions that engage in community testing will have a much greater chance of easing the tiering rules they currently endure.
We will also use daily testing to ease another restriction that has impinged on many lives. We will seek to end automatic isolation for close contacts of those who are found positive. Beginning in Liverpool later this week, contacts who are tested every day for a week will need to isolate only if they themselves test positive. If successful, this approach will be extended across the health system next month, and to the whole of England from January. Of course, we are working with the devolved Administrations to ensure that Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland also benefit, as they should and will, from these advances in rapid testing.
Clearly, the most hopeful advance of all is how vaccines are now edging ever closer to liberating us from the virus, demonstrating emphatically that this is not a pandemic without end. We can take great heart from today’s news, which has the makings of a wonderful British scientific achievement. The vaccine developed with astonishing speed by the University of Oxford and AstraZeneca is now one of three capable of delivering a period of immunity. We do not yet know when any will be ready and licensed, but we have ordered 100 million doses of the Oxford vaccine and over 350 million in total—more than enough for everyone in the UK, the Crown dependencies and the overseas territories. The NHS is preparing a nationwide immunisation programme, to be ready next month, the like of which we have never witnessed.
Mr Speaker, 2020 has been, in many ways, a tragic year when so many have lost loved ones and faced financial ruin, and this will still be a hard winter. Christmas cannot be normal and there is a long road to spring, but we have turned a corner and the escape route is in sight. We must hold out against the virus until testing and vaccines come to our rescue and reduce the need for restrictions. Everyone can help speed up the arrival of that moment by continuing to follow the rules, getting tested and self-isolating when instructed, remembering “hands, face, space”, and pulling together for one final push to the spring, when we have every reason to hope and believe that the achievements of our scientists will finally lift the shadow of this virus.
I commend this statement to the House.
I thank the Prime Minister for advance sight of his statement and for his telephone call earlier today, when he set out a summary of the proposal.
Let me start with the good news: the tremendous progress on vaccines. Last week, the shadow Chancellor and I went to the Oxford vaccine group at Oxford University. It was inspiring. It was remarkable to see the work that they are doing. Our thanks, and I think those of the whole nation, go to all those who have taken part in the vaccine trials and research. We wish them Godspeed. I also want to make an open offer to the Prime Minister: Labour will provide any support we can in the national effort to deliver the vaccine safely across the country. That is an open offer.
I welcome the fact that the Prime Minister is seeking a four-nation approach on the arrangements over the Christmas period. We will obviously await details on that, and the evidence that supports the steps being taken, but the four-nation approach is the right approach.
Now for the more difficult bit. The vaccine is the light at the end of the tunnel; the question today is how we get there and protect lives and livelihoods along the way. The Prime Minister proposes a return to the three-tier system. That is risky, because the previous three-tier system did not work. Tier 1 areas drifted to tier 2, almost all tier 2 areas ended up in tier 3 and those in tier 3 could not see a way out, and we ended up in national lockdown. That was the sad reality of the tiered system before. Nobody wants a repeat of that.
I accept that the new tiers are different from the old tiers, but many of the questions are the same. They are not trick questions. I acknowledge that none of this is easy, but if the Prime Minister is going to carry Parliament and the country on this, they need answering.
First, on the tier system—the Prime Minister touched on this—which local areas will be in each tier? This is the red-hot question. This is the question everybody is going to be asking over their kitchen table tonight. I had a roundtable with business leaders this morning, and it was the first question they asked me. The Prime Minister says it will be decided later this week, possibly Thursday. I cannot emphasise enough how important it is that these decisions are taken very quickly and very clearly so that everybody can plan. That is obviously particularly important for the millions who were in restrictions before the national lockdown, because the message to them today seems to be “You will almost certainly be back where you were before the national lockdown, probably in even stricter restrictions.” People need to know that so that they can plan for that. I really emphasise how important that is for the Prime Minister.
Secondly—the Prime Minister said he wanted uniform rules—will the tiers simply be imposed region by region, come what may, from 3 December, or will there be an element of local consultation and negotiation? I understand the uniform rules, but simply to impose them runs the risk of not getting buy-in from local leaders and local communities, which is incredibly important to people complying with the rules.
Thirdly, how long does the Prime Minister anticipate that each local area will remain in each tier? For those that are going to come out of lockdown and almost certainly go back to more restrictions than they left, that is going to be a very pressing question.
Fourthly, will there be a new economic package to accompany these new tiers? There is huge concern among many businesses about their viability in tier 3, particularly a strengthened tier 3, so what new support can they expect? May I touch again on those who are self-employed who are outside the self-employment scheme—the so-called excluded? They will be hearing a message about the next three months in relation to schemes that they are not currently in, and that needs urgently to be addressed.
I turn to the public health impact of this approach, because one of the major reasons that we ended up in a national lockdown was that, in the words of the Government’s scientific advisers—the Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies—test, trace and isolate was only having
“a marginal impact on transmission”.
It is one of the reasons that they suggested a national lockdown.
I know that the Prime Minister will talk about increased testing, mass testing. That is welcome but it is only part of the story, because the other two parts—trace and isolate—are not fit for purpose. SAGE advised, and continues to advise, that for trace and isolate to be effective, the percentage of contacts traced needs to be about 80%. It is currently nowhere near that level. It has never been near that level, and the figures are not getting any better. The latest figures actually show that every week, about 120,000 close contacts—that is, people who should be self-isolating—are not being traced by the system. The likelihood of getting the virus under control when 120,000 people who should be self-isolating are moving around their communities is very low.
Only a fraction of people able to self-isolate are doing so when asked to. We said to the Prime Minister that this needed to be fixed in the period of the national lockdown, and it has not been. It was barely mentioned in the Prime Minister’s statement today, and many people will be forgiven for thinking that the Prime Minister has given up on trace and isolate and is about to abandon that scheme altogether to reach out for a different scheme—mass testing. It is very important that we understand that if we are going into a tiered system, abandoning trace and isolate, or not getting trace and isolate where it should be, we are running a major risk.
This is not about knocking those on the frontline or knocking those working on track and trace; it is about being grown up about risk. If we are reintroducing a three-tier system without having fixed trace and isolate, that is a major risk and we all need to acknowledge it, because it raises the million-dollar question: how confident is the Prime Minister that the approach he is proposing today will keep the R rate below 1? If it does not, the infections will go up. They will go back out of control and we could well be back in a national lockdown. That is the million-dollar question.
Labour has backed the Prime Minister on all the big decisions that the Government have had to take to protect public health, including the two national lockdowns. We have done so because we want there to be a national consensus on such difficult issues and because we will always put public health first. Ideally, I would like to be in a position to do so again, but there are huge gaps in this plan, huge uncertainties and huge risks. We will await the detail. We want the Prime Minister to get this right. He has a week to do so. Will he start by answering these straightforward questions?
I would like to thank the right hon. and learned Gentleman for his qualified welcome of these measures. He says that they are risky. It is not quite clear whether he is supporting them or not. I think they are the right thing for the country. I think they are the right way of getting the virus down. If he wants to go back into another lockdown or keep one going, I do not think that is the right way forward for this country. We want to get the economy moving as far as we possibly can and keep schools open, while suppressing the virus.
The right hon. and learned Gentleman asks when we will make the announcement about who goes into which tier. As I said to him earlier on, and as I said in my statement just now, that will be announced on Thursday. The reason for the delay is quite simply that we need to see the data as it comes in. Of course, we will work with local authority leaders on which tiers they need to apply. We will discuss it with them, but in the end, we have to take some decisions and get on and do it. I think that we saw from the last experience that it was those local authorities—Liverpool springs to mind—that went early and were very collaborative that were most successful in getting the incidence down.
Some of the things that we will look at in deciding which tier is appropriate are case detection rates in all groups, case detection rates in the over-60s, the rate at which cases are rising or falling, the positivity rate overall and the pressures on the NHS in the region. Those are the things that we will be looking at as we make our judgment. Clearly, in some ways, the tiers have been changed—I mentioned the point about curfews, and there are extra possibilities for indoor and outdoor sports and events, as I said in my statement—and it is right that the balance of the impact of those should continue to be tough.
Once again, the right hon. and learned Gentleman criticises NHS Test and Trace. People should bear in mind that that operation has helped, indisputably, in identifying the areas that have the greatest prevalence of disease; it is not just to drive down the disease in those areas that it has been of immense value. We now have testing capacity of over 500,000 a day. NHS Test and Trace has done more than in any other country in Europe. What is so exciting about the new lateral flow testing is that, when we come to isolate, there is the prospect of using lateral flow tests, as I said, to check whether people are actually infected or infectious, thereby obviating the need for the 14-day quarantine.
Science is really beginning to ride to our rescue. It is in that context, with the combination of the tiering system, lateral flow tests and the gradual roll-out in the weeks and months ahead of the vaccine, that we are able to come out of the lockdown next Wednesday and to make the progress that we have described. I am grateful to the right hon. and learned Gentleman for such support as he felt able to offer at this stage. I am aware that his support is one of those things that are, “Now you see it, now you don’t,” but never mind, I will take it while it seems to be there, at least temporarily, and I look forward to further conversations with him in the next week.
After the tremendous news about testing and the encouraging developments on vaccines, may I welcome the news that the blanket national lockdown is ending? In the spirit of a wise constituent who told me that if the Government impose stupid rules, we will all stop obeying the sensible rules as well, may I ask my right hon. Friend that the new tiers be imposed at a local level—districts, rather than counties or regions? Restrictions that people feel are unfair to their particular community will simply not be respected or obeyed, and that itself will have a damaging effect on our long-term health.
I am grateful to my right hon. Friend and for the wisdom of his constituent, but I respectfully disagree. The people of this country have been obeying the rules to an astonishing degree. It is thanks to the heroic effort of the people of this country in following the guidance and the recent measures that we have the R down in the way that we have and that we have got the incidence down in some of those areas where the disease was really taking off—if we look at the graphs, we see that in the north-west in particular. It is now starting to track down across the country. I have every confidence in the wisdom of the British people to follow sensible guidance and rules. On my right hon. Friend’s point about local versus regional, alas, the disease is no respecter of borough boundaries. We have to have some regions in which to constitute the tiers that are sensible and large enough.
I thank the Prime Minister for advance sight of his statement and for his telephone call earlier today.
This morning, people right across these islands woke up to the more encouraging news on the development of vaccines to fight this deadly virus. It is right that we pay tribute to the remarkable efforts of thousands of scientists across the world who worked at unprecedented speed to produce those vaccines. All those scientists offer us hope that there is a way out of this pandemic, based on the primacy of safety for our society. Far too often in the recent past, expertise and science have been questioned or demeaned by right-wing politicians. Let us now ensure that those same politicians never forget that it is the commitment and dedication to science that are now coming to our society’s rescue.
While we all welcome that hope on the horizon, there remain far too many of our citizens who have not received a single penny of support since the beginning of the pandemic. Three million freelancers, sole traders and the recently self-employed all remain excluded from any of the economic support established by this Tory Government. Those include people across our community —painters, bricklayers, musicians, artists, entrepreneurs and plumbers—and because of the choices made by this Tory Government, they are now facing Christmas with no help and no support. I, and my party, have been raising that issue since March, eight months ago. The excluded are not asking for any special treatment; they are looking for some of the same fairness that others have seen. Others have received support, and those who are excluded should also be getting it.
The Chancellor’s spending review this Wednesday will take place exactly one month before Christmas day. Will the Prime Minister guarantee today that a package of financial support will finally be put in place for the 3 million people who have been excluded from any economic support? Will there be some pre-Christmas cheer for the 3 million who have so far been excluded from help?
I do not know who the right hon. Gentleman means in his attack on those who do not encourage investment in science. He certainly cannot mean this Government, because we put forward the biggest ever programme of investment in research and development and in the creation of an advanced research projects facility that we hope will rival that of the United States. We are investing in pure science and applied science at a scale undreamed of by any previous Government—I think it arrives at about £22 billion a year at the end of the spending review period. I really do not know who the right hon. Gentleman is talking about, but whichever right-wing foes he has in view, they cannot be this Government.
On the point about supporting the self-employed, this has been very difficult, and we are doing whatever we can to help the self-employed and the excluded. So far £13.5 billion—I think more now—has gone to support the self-employed. Those particularly in the artistic and cultural sectors are beneficiaries of the £1.57 billion investment in the arts and culture. There are many things that apply generally, such as the cut in VAT, bounce back loans of all kinds and grants that are available to everybody, but the best thing for everybody in all sectors is just to get the economy moving again, get the virus down and move forward. That is the objective of this winter plan.
I thank the Prime Minister for agreeing to meet me and my hon. Friend the Member for Wycombe (Mr Baker), who were there on behalf of 70 colleagues who wrote to him at the weekend, and we look forward to discussing that matter in more detail later. Many hon. Members will reserve their judgment on this plan until we know which areas go into which tiers, and I think that areas that go into tier 3 will struggle to spot much of a difference from the lockdown. For each of these restrictions that have such an impact on people and businesses, will the Prime Minister set out the impact that he is expecting it to have on dealing with covid, as well as the non-covid health impact, and—importantly—the impact on people’s livelihoods, so that we know that each measure will save more lives than it costs?
Indeed; I would be delighted to meet my right hon. Friend and my hon. Friend the Member for Wycombe (Mr Baker), who have written an excellent letter to me. I hope that my right hon. Friend agrees that many of the points in that letter were answered in my statement: about sport, the curfew, non-essential retail, gyms, personal—[Inaudible.]
Order. Have you pressed the button, Prime Minister? I think we are going to have to stop for a moment so that we can check the sound, as we lost your answer. Have you pressed the mute button by mistake? It is not our end, Prime Minister; it could well be yours. I wonder whether Mr Hancock would like to take over with the answer. Is one of you going to do it or not? It is no use looking at each other. We are going to suspend the House for three minutes.
Thank you, Mr Speaker. In addition to what the Prime Minister said before we lost the audio, although the tier 3 restrictions that have been set out are less stringent than the national lockdown, it is necessary to get the R down under the tiered system in order to avoid a further national lockdown if the cases still go up. As we have set out, we have seen the case rates come down in some areas of the country, and now, thankfully, we are seeing the case rates come down nationally.
The final point made by my right hon. Friend the Member for Forest of Dean (Mr Harper) was about other health and economic impacts. Of course we recognise the economic impacts. On the other health impacts, I simply reiterate what I have said many times before, which is that the health impacts of not locking down on health conditions other than coronavirus and of the spread of the coronavirus becoming too broad are also bad. The best way to protect the health of the nation both from coronavirus and from all other conditions is to keep the virus under control.
I think this makes the case for investing in broadband.
May I ask the Secretary of State a very serious question? From the lack of tests and PPE to the claims about a protective ring around care homes while people died in horrifying numbers, the Government’s abject failure to protect care home residents and care staff has been one of the biggest tragedies of this pandemic. Will the Secretary of State today guarantee that no care home in England will be required or pressurised to admit anyone from an NHS hospital who has tested positive for covid?
Over the summer, we put in place a new regime for ensuring that people who test positive but need to go to a care home can get the support they need in a way that protects them and also protects other residents. That means nobody leaves hospital without a test, and those with a positive test who need to leave hospital must be isolated in a CQC-approved isolation facility. We, of course, need to support people who have tested positive and hospital is often not the best place for them, but we need to do that in a way that protects all other residents as well. At the same time, I am delighted that we are able to announce the expansion of the availability of testing for care homes, domiciliary care workers and care home visiting, which I know is hugely welcomed.
We have seen huge efforts across Stoke-on-Trent to get covid rates down. The city council has done an excellent job of rolling out testing and rates are now falling locally. Will my right hon. Friend do everything possible to ensure support continues to be given to local health and council services, so we do not exit lockdown at the highest tier?
I pay tribute to everybody in Stoke: the council, the Royal Stoke University Hospital, the wider NHS and our three colleagues in this House who represent Stoke, including my hon. Friend, who have worked so hard together to get high-quality public health messaging out. We can see the cases coming down in Stoke. As the Prime Minister said, on Thursday we will announce decisions, taking into account the very latest data on which areas fall into which tiers.
While millions will welcome the fact that they will now be able to shop, worship, and associate with friends and family over Christmas, does the Secretary of State not realise how alarming this statement is today? Rather than being grateful for an announcement that allows us to exercise some basic freedoms, should we not be alarmed that the ability to do the things that people would normally expect in a democracy now rests in the hands of a Minister and the state? Does he accept that today’s statement will still deny people the right to earn a living, will drive millions into poverty, and will still instil fear? That should indicate that this policy is the wrong track.
I hope the Secretary of State will not think me too eccentric if I say that on a winter’s morning I like to start my day by swimming the Serpentine and then going to mass. Of course, he abolished both those things in the past four weeks. More important, he abolished them for hundreds of thousands of people. My question to him is this: under any tier or future lockdown, can we never return to the abolition of healthy outdoor sports or going to religious services? There has never been a shred of evidence that they cause any problem. By the way, this is the first time in 800 years that people have been prevented from going to church in this country, since it was put under an interdict by a medieval pope. We want reassurance on that. As well as having that conversation, could he give us some more reassurance about Christmas carols? We do not want it to be just a holy night; we do not want it to be a silent night either.
I very much hope that we will not have another national lockdown at all. One of the reasons that we have toughened up tier 3 is to ensure that, if areas are in tier 3, we can get the virus coming down as opposed to just flattening at a high rate, as we were seeing earlier. In that way, I hope that we can prevent the whole country from ever having to see the sorts of restrictions that we have had to introduce in order to keep people safe.
It has to be said that news of the three vaccinations brings us a much-needed dose of hope as we face the winter months. Wales is especially vulnerable to covid-19 because of our older population and our higher levels of deprivation. Will the Secretary of State ensure that Wales receives a sufficient allocation of vaccines based on need and not per head of population?
It is absolutely vital that we vaccinate fairly across this country—across the whole of the UK— according to clinical need. That is the agreement that we have reached among the four nations. It is the principle that I am determined to follow, given that, obviously, the UK vaccination programme will cover the whole United Kingdom. On that basis, we have agreed a fair allocation of vaccine so that vaccination can occur at the same speed in all parts of the country according to clinical need.
Given the big sacrifices that York residents have made to get the virus down locally, does the Secretary of State recognise how unfair it will feel if the city is kept in high tier restrictions even when our covid rate is considerably lower than it was when we entered tier 2 and one of the lowest in our regions? Does he agree that the new restrictions policy has to give people hope that self-discipline and resilience will be rewarded?
Yes, those values are important and should be rewarded. I hope that, in the areas of the country where the case rate has really come down a long way and is coming down fast, we will see the fruits of that effort. Having said that, it is absolutely critical that areas that need to go into tier 3 do so in order to get the case rate down and to protect the population. We will make these judgments based on public health advice over the forthcoming days. The reason we have not set those details out today is that the more data we have the better. We want to give businesses time to plan to be able to reopen, but, at the same time, we do want to take into account the very latest data. In York, as in some other parts of the country, the number of cases is coming down, and I welcome that, but I want to see a few more days’ data before we can take those final decisions.
If these tougher tiers are to deliver sustained reductions in transmission, test, trace, isolate has to work better. Will the Secretary of State learn the lessons from countries where compliance with self-isolation is much higher, pay people more where necessary, offer hotel accommodation if needed, and fix the app so that people told to self-isolate via the app can now qualify for support? Will the Government stop repeating that they have given £13 billion to the self-employed when 3 million of them have been unfairly deemed to be ineligible? It is not good enough to say that it is too difficult or that we should wait until the economy is moving again. I say to the Minister: no ifs, no buts, no excuses, when will he give those people some hope?
The whole country knows that we are going through very difficult times, but I hope that the news, especially on vaccines, that we have seen over the past fortnight offers some hope about the way out. The hon. Lady mentions the test and trace system, as did the right hon. and learned Member for Holborn and St Pancras (Keir Starmer). I am very glad to say that not only are the testing regime and the opportunities that we have to roll out testing expanding very rapidly—I pay tribute to the team for that—but the contact tracing is improving. I am really pleased about that and pay tribute to all those who have been working to make that happen.
Quite rightly, we are keeping young people in full-time education at this time. The outdoor education sector provides an amazing parallel education for children, and there are many centres in Cumbria and across the UK. These centres are ready for covid-secure programmes where pupils who are in bubbles at school can be safely accommodated. Will my right hon. Friend work across Government to look at reopening these centres as soon as possible for residential visits, so that whole cohorts of young children do not miss out on this vital and life-affirming educational opportunity?
I welcome the progress that has been made on a co-ordinated approach across the four countries of the UK over the Christmas season. Given the particular context of Northern Ireland and, indeed, all the links across the Irish sea, can the Secretary of State ensure that this planning also includes the Irish Government? Can I also suggest that, in doing that, the most immediate priority should be given to clarity on travel arrangements, but some care also needs to be taken in relation to the precise guidance on household mixing?
Yes, I will absolutely take the hon. Gentleman’s points on board in the conversations that Ministers are having across the devolved nations of the United Kingdom, including his point about the enormous number of ties, including family ties, between the UK and the Republic of Ireland. As he knows, the common travel area is there between the UK and the Republic, so travel to the Republic from the UK side has never been restricted. That is a point of principle and policy, and I know that it is important for the people of Northern Ireland.
It is welcome news that Ipswich Hospital found out on 11 November that it would be receiving £5.2 million for a new molecular laboratory. This will allow the hospital to ramp up rapid testing to almost 3,000 a day by the end of March. We have also heard reports that Suffolk’s first site for delivering vaccinations will be ready in two weeks’ time, with the NHS proposing the Gainsborough sports centre in Ipswich. Testing and vaccinations are two crucial ways to beat the virus, so does my right hon. Friend agree that having Ipswich at the forefront of both these key issues will be a real boost for Ipswich residents?
We have put millions of pounds into Ipswich Hospital, and I know that my hon. Friend supports Ipswich Hospital very strongly indeed. I am glad that across Suffolk, and across the whole country, we are now putting in place the vaccination hubs that will be there and ready, should the regulator sign off a new vaccine. I do not want to intrude on the rigorous independence of the medical regulator—the Medicines and Healthcare products Regulatory Agency, which will make the decision on the safety of these vaccines—but should it be approved, the NHS will be ready to begin the roll-out and I set the NHS the challenge of ensuring that it can roll out at the speed at which these vaccines can be manufactured and produced.
Will the Secretary of State impart my question to the Prime Minister? Can I beg him at this late stage to change his mind? This is a national emergency, and his policy announced today will end up with critical and perhaps tragic results for my constituents and for our country. I represent Huddersfield, in Kirklees, which is a classic average typical town in Britain, and we have worked better and harder than anyone else to get the rates down under the tier system, but we have not been successful. Under the national plan, however, we have started to get there. We only have to keep ourselves under restrictions for a few more weeks, and then we will have the antidote. Please change your mind, Minister. Change your mind, Prime Minister. We must stop deaths occurring that could be avoided.
The tiered system that has been set out by the Prime Minister today is calibrated very carefully, learning all the lessons from the lockdowns that have been in place and from the previous tiered system, as well as from evidence from around the world and, indeed, from the devolved nations. It has to be calibrated to be able to bring infections down, but to do so in a way that also protects the other things that matter in life as much as possible. It is necessary that tier 3, in particular, is tougher than before, not least because of the experience of Huddersfield, Kirklees and other places that were in tier 3 for quite a long time, but saw a flattening rather than a reduction in their rates. That is why we have brought in a tougher tier 3. It nevertheless allows for the reopening of religious settings and non-essential retail, which are so important to so many.
Millions of people will be delighted to hear that grassroots sports will return from 3 December. Will the Secretary of State confirm that that will be the case in all three tiers? With regard to the tiers, will consideration be given to variances across big counties and regions? For example, the conditions in the Thames estuary can seem very different and distant from those on the south Kent coast.
I am delighted that outdoor sports are able to reopen. Like the Secretary of State for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport, I have had significant representations from people who want to exercise, which of course is good for their health, so I am glad that we have been able to do that.
When it comes to the geography of the application of the tiers, of course we have to look at the areas in which people live and travel. Where it is clear that there is a genuine difference that is not represented by administrative boundaries, we will look at it and make a decision on that basis, as we did previously. For instance, with the previous tiers, we even split a borough in two in one example. Nevertheless, we do have to look at where people live and travel to get these decisions right.
Thousands of jobs have been lost and will be lost in the pub and hospitality sector. At the beginning of the crisis, the Prime Minister said that Government action would follow the science. At a recent meeting, the national health director was clear that there was no science behind the 10 o’clock—soon to be 11 o’clock—curfew and said that it was a policy decision. If there is no science behind this decision, what are the reasons for it?
We have put in place an enormous amount of support for the hospitality sector and we understand the challenges posed by the measures that were brought in. The reason behind the restrictions on hospitality is that in order to protect people’s ability to go to work and, in particular, to protect education, it is important, sadly, to reduce the social contact on which the virus thrives. It is upsetting and frustrating, but it is true. It is clear from the evidence that later in the evening and late at night, social distancing declines, and we know that when social distancing declines, transmission increases.
May I ask the Prime Minister, through the medium of my right hon. Friend, what progress has been made to achieve integration between the lockdown measures and testing at the country’s airports? Should we not follow the example of countries that have been successful at boosting business travel, helping the airline industry, helping inward and outward tourism, and getting airport workers back to full-time employment? What encouragement can he give to those at Bristol international airport in my constituency?
This is a really important issue. It is another example of how the increased testing capacity we have built can help improve lives. I have worked with my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Transport, the airline industry and the airports, including the important regional airports, to try to get a better regime in place. My right hon. Friend the Member for North Somerset (Dr Fox) will not have to wait very long to get an answer.
The uplift in universal credit was welcome, but people on legacy benefits, the sick and the disabled have also faced additional costs and hardships because of the pandemic, many of which were incurred to follow Government advice on shielding or protecting themselves. How does the right hon. Gentleman justify not applying the same uplift to those people, and can this injustice be rectified going forward?
Many people in those circumstances are also in receipt of universal credit. We have put in an increase of £1,000 for those in receipt of universal credit, which is a significant and generous increase, alongside the furlough arrangements. That is a very substantial package of financial support, and the International Monetary Fund has described it as one of the most generous in the world.
May I return to the question asked by my right hon. Friend the Member for Forest of Dean (Mr Harper)? The Secretary of State said that he recognises the damage done by these restrictions. Will he go further and publish the Government’s assessment of what the impact is in both economic and health terms? Will he ensure that on Thursday, when it becomes clear which regions are going into which tiers, the Government publish the exact criteria that will be used to make that judgment?
Yes, we will publish the statistics that we look at to make the judgments that my hon. Friend refers to. It is not possible to put a specific number on it, though, because there are a number of criteria. We would not want to put an area into lockdown—a higher tier, more accurately—because it triggered numerical criteria if there was a specific reason. For instance, there has been a very significant outbreak at a barracks in the past month, which meant that it looked like that area had a huge spike, but it was entirely—literally—confined to barracks. Therefore, an element of judgment is important in making these decisions, but we will publish the data on which they are taken. My hon. Friend asked about the economic impact assessment, and I will raise that point with my right hon. Friend the Chancellor.
Diolch, Mr Speaker. The news of the successful development of three vaccines is to be warmly welcomed because it offers light at the end of the tunnel. However, the Secretary of State will recognise that distribution will be a huge logistical challenge. What guarantee can he give that the Welsh Government will receive any additional resources they require to meet the task at hand?
The vaccines programme is a UK programme, and of course the costs of the roll-out incur Barnett consequentials and will therefore be available across the whole of the UK. We are working closely with the NHS in Wales to make sure that happens as smoothly as possible, but it will be the most almighty huge logistical effort for everyone involved.
As my right hon. Friend knows, I do not support lockdowns, tiered or otherwise, but I welcome the move to get these vaccines. That is very good news. As I understand it, the Government’s main weapon is test and trace. May I suggest that test and quick result is equally important? When will the Government be able to tell the House when the whole country can be tested and get a quick result, so that when it is negative we can all get on with our lives?
I hope that the system for people to test daily if they have been in close contact with somebody who has tested positive, as the Prime Minister has, instead of having to isolate, will be in place in January. As the Prime Minister said, we are piloting it from this week, and then we will roll it out over December. I hope it will be available nationwide from January.
I direct my question to the Prime Minister or even the Chancellor, but I ask it to the Secretary of State. With the infection rates still high across the north-east, it is looking likely that the region will come out of this national lockdown in a worse position than it was in going in. When the tier restrictions were last implemented, local leaders had to fight the Government for a fair amount of funding for our region. Can the Secretary of State assure us that this time the north will not be left behind again? In line with their levelling-up agenda, will the Government ensure that all businesses and people receive the correct level of the financial support that they desperately need?
I am glad to see that the number of cases in the north-east is falling. That is good news and testament to people right across the north-east. Yes, there will be financial support to the councils that are in higher-tier areas, alongside the huge amount of financial support to individuals through furlough and the increase in universal credit, and to businesses.
Physical and mental wellbeing go hand in hand, and both are under attack from this virus. I welcome my right hon. Friend’s comments on outdoor sport, but at this time of year, it is the fitness studios, Pilates studios and dance studios that are crucial to keep people active. What reassurance can he give the House that, even in areas that are in a higher tier, every effort will be made to ensure that people can keep active, recognising the enormous efforts that the industry has made to put in covid-secure measures?
I talked to Hounslow’s director of public health this morning. She welcomes the opportunity to have rapid lateral flow testing under her local jurisdiction, and we both welcome the fact that the Government have finally recognised that local health and public health professionals are essential to the successful tackling of infections such as covid. However, councils and health trusts cannot roll out rapid testing for vulnerable groups, employ, train and enforce in the way described by the Prime Minister and roll out the vaccination programme without significant additional resources. The Army has been helping with the rapid testing in Liverpool, but will the Government adequately resource local authorities and local health trusts to deliver what is needed?
The hon. Lady is right to praise local public health officials. Local directors of public health have done an amazing amount of work throughout this crisis, and we work incredibly closely with them right across the country. It is very important that further funding will come forward for those areas in higher restrictions, not least because of the amount of work that we all need to do together.
As the Prime Minister said, 2020 has been a difficult year, and unfortunately, freelancers and directors of limited companies in Lincoln and across the UK have had a particularly hard year, with many of them receiving next to no financial support from the Government as yet. While today’s announcements are welcome and we are moving in a positive direction, many will still have to wait several months before small businesses can return to some form of normality. Will my right hon. Friend urge his close friend the Chancellor to provide grant funding for those individuals and businesses? Local authorities can and will step in to provide this funding on a case-by-case basis, and to finance that, we can seek the repayment of taxpayer funding from the supermarkets, which have clearly misused taxpayer support that they do not need. Will he back the Blue Collar Conservative campaign and right this wrong?
The Government have committed to level up the country, and in particular the north of England. Given the risk that covid will level us down, what assurances can the Secretary of State give that in Wednesday’s spending review, the Chancellor will reform the Green Book, replace the local growth fund with the shared prosperity fund and deliver the investment needed to tackle regional inequalities?
The Treasury has already updated its Green Book, which is a significant step, and I know that the Chancellor has been discussing this further. The levelling-up agenda is even more critical after the pandemic than it was before. It is the agenda on which all Government Members were elected with enormous enthusiasm about a year ago, and we look forward to putting it in place with renewed vigour once this pandemic is over.
I heard the Secretary of State say some welcome things about sport. Given the importance of maintaining fitness to the ability to deal with this illness, can he confirm whether people will be able to go to indoor swimming pools and play golf?
I welcome the plans in place to test students, enabling them to travel home for Christmas, and I commend the work of the University of St Andrews, in my constituency, which has stepped in to facilitate that, but a gap remains in terms of the new year. We need to ensure that when students must return to university they can do so safely, as well as giving reassurance to the communities in which they are situated. I understand from the covid winter plan that guidance will follow suit, but will the Secretary of State, on behalf of the Government, advise me as to what engagement is being had with devolved nations about the return and testing of students in January, including discussions on default online teaching?