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Prime Minister

Volume 685: debated on Wednesday 2 December 2020

The Prime Minister was asked—

Engagements

Today, I am proudly wearing purple to celebrate the International Day for Disabled People, which is of course tomorrow. Next year, we will publish our national strategy for disabled people, which will be the most ambitious intervention in this area for a generation, putting fairness at the heart of the Government’s work and levelling up so that everybody has the opportunity fully to participate in the life of this country.

I know that the whole House will want to join me in welcoming the fantastic news that the MHRA—the Medicines and Healthcare Products Regulatory Agency—has formally authorised the Pfizer vaccine for covid-19. The vaccine will begin to be made available across the UK from next week. I would like to pay tribute to and to thank all those who have made this possible. It is the protection of vaccines that will ultimately allow us to reclaim our lives and get our economy moving again.

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

I would like to share in the congratulations of the Prime Minister on the creation of this new vaccine and the speed with which it has been got out, and to give those congratulations especially to the engineers, technicians and scientists who have delivered it. I believe that we should support the widest distribution and take-up of safe and effective medicines, but does my right hon Friend agree with me that it should always be taken on a wholly voluntary basis by individuals and families?

Absolutely. I strongly urge people to take up the vaccine, but it is no part of our culture or our ambition in this country to make vaccines mandatory. That is not how we do things.

May I join the Prime Minister in his comments on disabled people?

Like the Prime Minister, can I start with the fantastic news about the licensing of a vaccine? This pandemic has caused so much grief and so much loss, but we are now a big step closer to the end of the tunnel. Like the Prime Minister, can I express my thanks and the thanks of everyone on these Benches and across the House to all the scientists who have worked on this and to everybody who has taken part in the trials. Delivering a vaccine fairly, quickly and safely will now be the next major challenge facing the country, and whatever our differences across this House, we have all a duty to play our part in this national effort and to reassure the public about the safety of the vaccine.

This morning, a priority list has been published for the first phase of the roll-out. We understand that around 800,000 doses will soon be available, and that is good news. Because of the two doses that will be required, that means 400,000 people can be vaccinated in the first batch. So can the Prime Minister tell the House: who does he expect to receive the vaccine next week?

I am grateful to the right hon. and learned Gentleman for his point about the roll-out, and I will perhaps update the House on what the Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation has concluded so far. The priority list will be: residents in a care home for older adults, and their carers, in order to stop transmission; those of 80 years of age or older; front-line health care and social care workers; all those of 75 years of age and over; all those of 70 years of age and over; and clinically extremely vulnerable individuals. There is then a list that I am sure the House will want to study closely, but that I believe represents common sense.

It is important at this stage for us all to recognise that this is unquestionably good news—it is very, very good news—but it is by no means the end of the story; it is not the end of our national struggle against coronavirus. That is why it is important that the package of moderately tough measures that the House voted for last night—the tiering system—is followed across the country, because that is how we will continue to beat the virus.

The Prime Minister has referenced the priorities for the first phase, and as he said, the top two priority groups are residents in care homes for older adults and their carers, all those of 80 years of age and over, and front-line health and social care workers. I am not criticising that list in the slightest, but it is obvious that that is more than 400,000 people. The Prime Minister will understand how anxious people in those particular groups are, after having sacrificed so much. Will he give the House the answer to the question that they will be asking this morning, which is: by when does he expect that all people in those two top groups can expect to be vaccinated?

At this stage it is very important that people do not get their hopes up too soon about the speed with which we will be able to roll out this vaccine. As my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Health and Social Care said, it is beginning from next week, and we are expecting several million doses of the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine before the end of the year. We will then be rolling it out as fast as we possibly can. That is why I put so much emphasis on the continuing importance of the tiering system and of mass community testing, at the same time as we go forward through these tough winter months. The right hon. and learned Gentleman is right to ask about timetables, but at the same time as we roll out the vaccine over the next few weeks, we will need to keep that tough tiering and testing regime in place.

May I press the Prime Minister a bit further about the plan for care homes? I do so because we all want this to work. The top category is residents in care homes, and this will obviously be a huge concern for many people. This morning the Welsh Government have already raised some serious practical problems about the delivery of vaccines into care homes, bearing in mind the temperatures at which the vaccines have to be stored. The Prime Minister must know that this is going to be a four-nation problem, and he must be aware that this problem will arise. We all want to overcome that problem, and in that spirit I ask the Prime Minister what plans he has put in place to address the particular problems of getting the vaccine safely and quickly into care homes, given the practical difficulties of doing so, and the anxiety that those in care homes will have about getting it quickly?

The right hon. and learned Gentleman is entirely right to raise the issue of care homes and our ability to distribute this particular type of vaccine rapidly into care homes, because it does need to be kept at minus 70°, as I think the House understands, so there are logistical challenges to be overcome to get vulnerable people the access to the vaccine that they need. We are working on it with all the devolved Administrations in order to ensure that the NHS across the country—it is the NHS that will be in the lead—is able to distribute it as fast and as sensibly as possible to the most vulnerable groups.

The right hon. and learned Gentleman is right to raise that particular logistical difficulty. That is why it is also important that we get the AstraZeneca vaccine, which we hope will also come on stream. While he is paying tribute to those who have been involved in the vaccines, perhaps he could also pay tribute to the work of the vaccine taskforce, which secured the deal with Pfizer and which he, I think, criticised only a few weeks ago.

I pay tribute to everybody who has got us this far, and we will work with all of them to get us where we need to go next. This has to be something that we all pull together to deliver as quickly and safely as possible over the next few months. I have made that offer to the Prime Minister before, and I do it again.

It is in that vein that I turn to the next question, which is about public confidence in the vaccine. That is a real cause for concern, because it is going to be crucial to the success of getting this rolled out across the country and getting our economy back up and running. As the Prime Minister knows, we have the highest regulatory and medical safety standards in the world, but it is really important that we do everything possible to counter dangerous, frankly life-threatening disinformation about vaccines. The Opposition have called for legislation to be introduced to clamp down on this, with financial penalties for companies that fail to act. Will the Prime Minister work with us on this and bring forward emergency legislation in the coming days, which I think the whole House would support?

We are, of course, working to tackle all kinds of disinformation across the internet. The right hon. and learned Gentleman is right to single out the anti-vaxxers and those who I think are totally wrong in their approach, and he is right to encourage take-up of vaccines across the country. We will be publishing a paper very shortly on online harms designed to tackle the very disinformation that he speaks of.

May I also urge the Prime Minister, once the Government have a communications plan for the vaccine, to share it with the House so that we can all say the same thing in the same way to the country and thus encourage as many people as possible to take up the vaccine?

The arrival of the vaccine is obviously wonderful news, but it will come too late for many who have lost their jobs already. I want to turn to the collapse of the Arcadia Group and Debenhams in the last 48 hours. That has put 25,000 jobs at risk and obviously caused huge anxiety to many families at the worst possible time, and it threatens to rip the heart out of many high streets in our towns and cities. Can the Prime Minister tell the House what he is going to do now to protect the jobs and pensions of all those affected by these closures?

We are looking at what we can do to protect all the jobs that are being lost currently across the country. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy has written to the Insolvency Service to look at the conduct of the Arcadia directors, and we will be doing everything we can to restore the high streets of this country with our £1 billion high streets fund and the levelling-up fund. But I must say that I think it is a bit much that the right hon. and learned Gentleman should attack the economic consequences of the fight against coronavirus when last night neither he nor his troops could be bothered to vote for measures—sensible, balanced measures—that would open up the economy and allow businesses to trade. How can he attack the economic consequences of our battle against coronavirus when he will not even support measures to open up the economy?

When I abstain, I come to the House and explain. When the Prime Minister abstains, he runs away to Afghanistan and gives the taxpayer a £20,000 bill.

On the question of jobs, there are serious questions that need to be answered about the collapse of these businesses. I do not want the Prime Minister to deflect from that and what it means for these many families. This is not an isolated incident; over 200,000 retail jobs have been lost this year—that is 200,000 individuals and their families—and 20,000 stores have been closed on our high street, and that is before the latest restrictions. I suspect that if we had seen that scale of job losses in any other sector, there would have been much greater action already.

I urge the Prime Minister to take this seriously; do not deflect. As well as providing emergency support, will he work with us, the trade unions and the sector to finally bring forward a comprehensive plan to save retail jobs and to provide the sector with the much greater support it needs through this crisis? These are real people, Prime Minister, with real jobs and families, who are facing the sack. They really need to hear from you.

We are, of course, supporting every job we possibly can, as well as supporting every life and every livelihood, with a £200 billion programme. I would take the right hon. and learned Gentleman more seriously, frankly, if he actually could be bothered to vote for a moderate programme to keep the virus down and open up the economy. We are getting on with our programme of rolling out the vaccine and sensible tiering measures, in addition to which we are delivering 40 more hospitals and 20,000 more police officers. He talks about abstention. When it came to protecting our veterans from unfair prosecution, he chose to abstain. When it came to protecting the people of this country from coronavirus at this critical moment, he told his troops to abstain. Captain Hindsight is rising rapidly up the ranks and has become General Indecision. That is what is happening, I am afraid, to the right hon. and learned Gentleman. He dithers; we get on with the job.

Next week marks one year since the Prime Minister won a mighty majority. His bold vision turned the red wall blue, ensuring our communities would no longer be neglected. As part of the Prime Minister’s plan to level up, a new infrastructure bank has been promised. Mr Speaker, you know Wakefield as the crossroads of the kingdom—our cathedral spire the tallest in God’s own county; historically, the principal city of West Yorkshire; and the pulsating, oxygenating heart of the red wall. All make it the perfect city for the new bank’s home. Will my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister commit to establish the new infrastructure bank in Wakefield and restore my city’s glory? (909765)

My hon. Friend is a magnificent and doughty campaigner for Wakefield. I know that my right hon. Friend the Chancellor will listen very closely to his call for the national infrastructure bank to be established in Wakefield. My hon. Friend should wait on events.

This morning, for the first time in months, people have woken up with a genuine sense of hope. The news on the vaccine approval is the news we have all been waiting for. For many, however, that hope on the horizon remains far too distant. There are millions who still have not had a single penny of support from this UK Government. As others rightly received help, they received none. Prime Minister, yesterday I met ExcludedUK, which represents many of those 3 million citizens. For the past nine months, the excluded have been living without any help and without any hope. It is now, tragically, costing lives. Prime Minister, they told me something genuinely shocking. They are aware of eight people who have taken their lives in the past 10 days—eight people in 10 days. Prime Minister, we are now a little over three weeks from Christmas. These people need help. Will the Prime Minister commit to looking again at the support package for the excluded, to ensure that no one, but no one, is left behind?

I obviously sympathise very much with those who have taken their lives and their families. This has been a very tough time for the country. We are investing massively in mental health support across the country, as the right hon. Gentleman knows, which flows through, in Barnett consequentials, to Scotland. We have put in a huge package of support. He knows this, but I must repeat this for self-employed people across the country. I know there are hard-to-reach people, but they are also supported with the increases in universal credit and the many other means of support that are currently on offer. When we look at the overall level of support this Government have given the people across the country, it compares favourably with any other Government around the world.

I have to say, and I do this with regret, that that simply is not good enough. These people need help, and I am asking the Prime Minister to think very carefully about this. This has been an abject failure by this UK Government, and the Prime Minister has been missing in action. The Government have U-turned on almost everything else, so why cannot the Prime Minister and the Chancellor change their minds on their support for these 3 million people? These are people working in construction, creative industries, events, education, hospitality, retail and healthcare. They have not just been left behind; they have been ignored for nine months. The Chancellor has repeatedly dodged this issue. ExcludedUK has not been offered one formal meeting with a Government Minister. Will the Prime Minister commit today to a meeting and working with ExcludedUK on a meaningful package of support, or is he simply going to abandon these people three weeks from Christmas?

We have abandoned nobody and we are continuing to support people. In addition to the support I have already mentioned, we have announced nearly £400 million to support vulnerable children and their families through the winter. We have increased universal credit, as I just mentioned to the House, increased the local housing allowance and provided billions more to local authorities to help those who are hardest to reach. I may say to the right hon. Gentleman that the best way to help the self-employed, and to help the economy of this whole country, is to get us moving again with the package of measures that the House voted for last night to allow retail to start up again and to allow business to start up again—

The hon. Gentleman says it is shameful. We on the Government side of the House do not think retail is shameful. We want businesses to open up again, and that is the nature of the package that was voted for last night, which I think was quite right. It is a great, great shame that the right hon. and learned Member for Holborn and St Pancras (Keir Starmer) could not bring himself to support it.

At this time of enormous pressure on our healthcare, I welcome the Government’s and the NHS’s continued commitment to the new combined medical facility in Edenbridge. Will the Prime Minister confirm to me that the sale of the existing Edenbridge and District War Memorial Hospital, which was built by public donation about a century ago, will now help to fund the new building? He is investing £20 million in the medicines and diagnostic manufacturing transformation fund to benefit Wales, Scotland, England and Northern Ireland, so will he join me in welcoming the skill of all those in the NHS and, indeed, the Health Secretary in making historical donations work for our communities today? (909766)

Yes, I can, and I congratulate my hon. Friend on his campaign. Any decision to allow for the sale of the hospital is, of course, a matter for the local clinical commissioning group, but I know that he fully supports the £12 million that we put in for the development of a new health and wellbeing centre for Edenbridge.

Diolch yn fawr iawn, Mr Llefarydd. I would like to add my voice to those welcoming the licensing of the vaccine; this really is a ray of light in dark times.

Last week, the Prime Minister’s Government published their statement of funding, showing a reduction in the amount that Wales receives from transport spend in England, from 80.9% to 36.6%. This reveals in black and white the iniquity of the rail betrayal being inflicted on Wales. Welsh taxpayers are paying for English transport and HS2, but we do not get a fair return. Will he inform the House how much investment he is funnelling away from Wales due to his Government’s decision to label this white elephant an England and Wales scheme, despite not a single inch of the railway being in Wales?

I simply fail to recognise the characterisation that the right hon. Lady makes of investment across the whole of the UK. The Welsh Government will receive an additional £1.3 billion next year. We are providing £240 million more to support Welsh farmers and £2.1 million to support fisheries in Wales. The last time I looked at transport in Wales, the Welsh Labour Government spent £144 million on plans for an M4 bypass, which they then junked.

The people of Aberconwy would like to thank the Prime Minister for his early Christmas present in this vaccine. Like many presents, we might not have made it, but this Government—this Union—could afford to buy it for this country. I was in Llanrwst this Saturday, talking with small businesses that have had to deal with flooding in February and the pandemic since March. All they want to do is trade. Will my right hon. Friend join me in thanking Y Siop Flodau, Siop Sioned and Emma James Cakes for battling through a really difficult 2020? Does he agree that this news of a vaccine and its licensing gives real hope to these three women, these three entrepreneurs, and thousands like them—hope for a better 2021? (909767)

Yes, indeed. I congratulate the three female entrepreneurs whom my hon. Friend mentioned. They will be helped by the vaccine, they will be allowed to do business again, and what a shame it is that our programme, which was sensibly and safely to open up the economy, was not supported by the Leader of the Opposition.

The Prime Minister has put at risk the Good Friday agreement and peace in Northern Ireland after promising the people of this country that he would not. He promised the country a world-beating test, track and trace system, but conveniently forgot to provide the track and trace part of the promise. He promised an oven-ready deal with the EU to win the 2019 general election, but we look like having no deal. When will the Prime Minister follow through and deliver on his promises, instead of behaving like a second-hand car salesman? (909768)

If the hon. Gentleman wants to keep this country in the EU, which I think was the gist of what he was saying, he will be sorely disappointed and so will the Labour party.

It is said that Britain is a nation of shopkeepers, and in Stockton we are proud to have some of the best retailers in the country. They have had a tough year. They are grateful for the support that they have received from the Government, but remain concerned about the future of business rates. Will my right hon. Friend confirm that the Government remain committed to a fundamental review of business rates, and will he join me in encouraging people to get down the local high street and shop local this Christmas? (909769)

Yes, indeed. My hon. Friend reminds me that it is Small Business Saturday this Saturday. Everybody should be shopping local. I can also tell him that the Treasury is considering the responses to the call for evidence on business rates ahead of the review’s conclusion in the spring.

We all know that it will take a long time for many industries to recover from the impact of coronavirus. The aviation sector and its supply chain, which support almost a quarter of a million jobs, have been uniquely impacted. Many workers and their families at GE Aviation in Pontypridd have been financially ruined. Sadly, that is a familiar scenario for families up and down the country. The Prime Minister urgently needs to wake up to the situation. Will he therefore commit to a sector-specific support deal to save our aviation industry before it is too late? (909770)

We are doing a huge amount to support our aviation industry, but I appreciate the stress and difficulties that many families are in at the moment because of the threats to that sector, which are global, alas, because people are just not flying in the way that they were before the pandemic. I have every hope that it will bounce back very strongly, particularly in this country, which is a world leader in aviation, once we get the economy moving again, as I hope we can.

In North Somerset, as in the rest of the United Kingdom, small businesses are the lifeblood of the economy, providing over 60% of all our jobs. Post covid, we will require a private sector, small business-led recovery. Will the Prime Minister consider a new discipline within the Government in the form of a small business test, so that every tax, regulation and bit of legislation is measured against whether it will provide support for that sector, which will be vital to our post-covid recovery? (909773)

I thank my right hon. Friend for his excellent suggestion. He is a great champion of small business. Every measure that the Government produce is judged by the effect or impact it will have on businesses large and small. As he knows, we are also providing for these particularly difficult circumstances about £100 billion in business support—the bounce back loans and many other forms of support—but the best thing for businesses large and small is for us to shop local, as I said earlier, and to allow the economy cautiously and prudently to reopen.

I want to congratulate the Prime Minister, as I think next week marks his first year in post. However, in that time: over 71,000 covid deaths, the highest rate in Europe; over £2 trillion in debt, with the worst-performing economy in the G7; failing Brexit negotiations; and at least £1.5 billion of taxpayers’ money spent on contracts for Tory friends and donors. At the same time, he has whipped his MPs to vote against meals for hungry children. Which one of these achievements is he most proud of? (909771)

I would take the hon. Lady’s point more seriously if she and her party could be bothered to vote for measures—[Interruption.]

I am sorry—she defied the Labour Whip. Forgive me, Mr Speaker. She defied the injunction to dither from the ditherer-in-chief. She did not obey his instruction to dither. I would take her more seriously if her party leader would vote for measures that would open up the economy while protecting lives across the UK.

I would like to thank my right hon. Friend and his Cabinet colleagues for last week granting my request to fund the North Hykeham relief road, the final part of the eastern bypass around my constituency of Lincoln. I look forward to seeing internal combustion engine vehicles gliding over its smooth tarmac surface for many decades to come. As the Prime Minister will know, my constituents have made their views clear to me on the recent decisions on lockdown and the new tier system, as they normally and refreshingly do. Lincolnshire is a very big space, so although my county colleagues succumbed to the wily charms of the Secretary of State for Health last night, will my right hon. Friend seriously consider allowing local decision makers the chance to set the tier systems locally? After all, local decision makers know their patches far better than any Whitehall official. Local businesses in Lincoln, including some ExcludedUK members who have yet to receive any support, are desperate to get back to work and to fire up our UK economy. (909776)

I am grateful to my hon. Friend, and I repeat what I said to the House several times yesterday afternoon. Of course we want to reflect local conditions as closely and accurately as we can in taking our decisions about tiering, but we must look at the entire national picture. On his point about internal combustion engines, I would just remind him that a hydrogen engine can also be an internal combustion engine.

My constituent was diagnosed with ME in 2019, and earlier this year her employer agreed that she was no longer able to work and to do the job she loved. She applied for the personal independence payment, but the Department for Work and Pensions has ruled that she is fit to work. It has not engaged with her previous employer, who has a wealth of evidence to the contrary, and has reached its own decision. Her life has been devastated by this diagnosis. She told me: “The PIP process is predicated on being able to stand up for yourself, and as a disabled person I cannot do this.” Will the Prime Minister meet me to ensure that our benefits system works for sufferers of chronic fatigue and does not limit decisions to single points of evidence? (909772)

I am grateful for the hon. Lady’s question. She is raising an important issue. I know that many people suffer from the syndrome that she describes, and I will ensure that she gets a proper meeting with the relevant Minister to discuss her objectives.

Some in the media discuss levelling up only through the prism of the north-south divide. However, Cornwall has pockets of deprivation, and many communities in my constituency also need investment and support. I welcome the Government’s announcement of the £4 billion levelling-up fund and the decision to review the Green Book so that projects outside London and the south-east are more likely to benefit from Government investment. However, in the light of the new spending commitments, can my right hon. Friend confirm that the shared prosperity fund is separate to the levelling-up fund, that there will be an announcement on that soon, and that the fund will be simpler and less time consuming for small businesses to access than the onerous EU schemes it is replacing? (909777)

Yes, indeed. My hon. Friend is completely right about the importance of the new UK shared prosperity fund. It will be different from the levelling-up fund and we are going to work closely with him and with people in Cornwall to ensure that we use the additional funding best for the needs of people and communities in Cornwall.

This week, the Scottish Government announced a £500 bonus scheme for our health and social care heroes who have helped to care for us through the pandemic. The Scottish Conservatives have been trying to claim some reflected credit for that policy over the past few hours. The Prime Minister is not responsible for health in Scotland, but he is responsible for it in England, so will he put his Government’s money where his Scottish colleagues’ mouths clearly are and match that bonus initiative for health and social care workers in England? Will he instruct the Chancellor to ensure that, whenever a bonus scheme like that is introduced, the Treasury will not try to snaffle back the tax from it, but let it be paid tax-free? (909774)

On the last point, that is a matter for the Scottish Government, who have the fiscal freedom to do that. I thank health and social care workers in Scotland and across the whole country, and I am proud of the increases we have been able to put in—12.8% over the past three years, and a pay rise for 1 million people in the NHS, as part of the biggest ever investment in the NHS, even before covid began. This investment will continue under this Government.

In 10 days’ time, the Government are hosting the United Nations climate summit, ahead of COP26 next year. I urge the Prime Minister not to curb his enthusiasm for the environment. Will he show international leadership by setting out an ambitious but achievable target for emissions in 2030 as the UK’s nationally determined contribution on the path to net zero Britain? (909778)

I am proud that the UK led the way in instituting a target of net zero by 2050; of all the developed nations, we were the first. We are looking at our nationally determined contribution, which will be extremely ambitious and will be published around the time of the climate summit on 12 December this year.

The Prime Minister mentioned universal credit earlier. His and the Chancellor’s decision to increase UC by £20 a week during the pandemic was an admission of what my constituents have known for years: UC simply is not enough to live on. In January, his Government will cap the benefits of thousands of UC claimants; the average losses will be £250 a month, mainly to families with children. He already knows that UC is not enough to live on, so will he now commit to scrap the cap and guarantee to continue the £20 a week uplift? Or is he going to throw these families to the wolves, too, just like the 3 million excluded? (909775)

I just repeat the point I made earlier about the huge sums the Government have invested in looking after families’ lives and livelihoods across the whole of the UK—this is well north of £200 billion now. As the hon. Gentleman rightly says, there has been a UC uplift of £1,000. We will continue to support families across this country throughout the pandemic, but the objective must be, as I hope he would agree, to get the economy moving again and get people back into work in the way that everybody would want. It is a fact that under this Government, despite all the difficulties we have faced, the unemployment rate is lower than that in France, Spain, Italy, Canada and the United States. We will continue to work to look after every job that we can.

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

Sitting suspended.