House of Commons
Wednesday 6 January 2021
The House met at half-past Eleven o’clock
[Mr Speaker in the Chair]
Virtual participation in proceedings commenced (Orders, 4 June and 30 December 2020).
[NB: [V] denotes a Member participating virtually.]
Before we come to the first item of business, could I thank all the staff of the House Service and the joint departments for their ongoing commitment and hard work to ensure that the House can conduct its business? Due to the current severe public health situation, every effort has been made to enable today’s proceedings to take place with the bare minimum level of travel to and attendance at Westminster. I should inform hon. Members that when a speaking limit is in effect for Back Benchers, a countdown clock will be visible on the screens of hon. Members participating virtually and on the screens in the Chamber. Before I call the Prime Minister, I would like to point out that the British Sign Language interpretation of the statement is available to watch on parliamentlive.tv.
Mr Speaker, I share your gratitude to the House of Commons staff for all their efforts and hard work to allow us to meet today in the way that we are. Before I begin my statement, I would like to say that I know the thoughts of the whole House will be with the hon. Member for Cardiff Central (Jo Stevens), who is currently in hospital with covid, and we wish her a full and speedy recovery.
With your permission, Mr Speaker, I will make a statement about the measures we are taking to defeat this new variant of covid-19, protecting our NHS while it carries out the vaccinations that will finally free us from this wretched virus. There is a fundamental difference between the regulations before the House today and the position we have faced at any previous stage, because we now have the vaccines that are our means of escape, and we will use every available second of the lockdown to place this invisible shield around the elderly and the vulnerable.
Already, with Pfizer and Oxford-AstraZeneca combined, we have immunised over 1.1 million people in England and over 1.3 million in the UK. Our NHS is following the plan drawn up by the Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation, which is aimed at saving the most lives in the fastest possible time. Given that the average age of covid fatalities is over 80, it is significant that we have already vaccinated more than 650,000 people in that age group, meaning that within two to three weeks almost one in four of the most vulnerable groups will have a significant degree of immunity. By 15 February, the NHS is committed to offering a vaccination to everyone in the top four priority groups, including older care home residents and staff, everyone over 70, all frontline NHS and care staff and all those who are clinically extremely vulnerable.
In working towards that target, there are already almost 1,000 vaccination centres across the country, including 595 GP-led sites, with a further 180 opening later this week, and 107 hospital sites, with another 100 later this week. Next week we will also have seven vaccination centres opening in places such as sports stadiums and exhibition centres. Pharmacies are already working with GPs to deliver the vaccine in many areas of the country, and I am grateful to Brigadier Prosser, who is leading the efforts of our armed forces in supporting this vaccine roll-out. We have already vaccinated more people in this country than the rest of Europe combined, and we will give the House the maximum possible transparency about our acceleration of this effort, publishing daily updates online from Monday, so that jab by jab hon. Members can scrutinise the progress being made every single day.
Yet as we take this giant leap towards finally overcoming the virus and reclaiming our lives, we have to contend with the new variant, which is between 50% and 70% more contagious. With the old variant, the tiers agreed by the House last month were working. But, alas, this mutation, spreading with frightening ease and speed in spite of the sterling work of the British public, has led to more cases than we have ever seen before—numbers that, alas, cannot be explained away by the meteoric rise in testing. When the Office for National Statistics reports that more than 2% of the population is now infected, and when the number of patients in hospitals in England is now 40% higher than during the first peak in April, it is inescapable that the facts are changing and we must change our response. And so we have no choice but to return to a national lockdown in England, with similar measures being adopted by the devolved Administrations, so that we can control this new variant until we can take the most likely victims out of its path with vaccines.
My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Health and Social Care will open the debate on the full regulations shortly, but the key point, I am afraid, is that once again we are instructing everyone to stay at home, leaving only for limited reasons permitted by law, such as to shop for essentials, to work if people absolutely cannot work from home, to exercise, to seek medical assistance such as getting a covid test or to escape injury or harm, including domestic abuse. We are advising the clinically extremely vulnerable to begin shielding again, and, because we must do everything possible to stop the spread of the disease, we have asked schools and colleges to close their doors to all except vulnerable children and those of critical workers.
I do not think the House will be in any doubt about our determination—my determination—to keep schools open, especially primary schools, for as long as possible, because all the evidence shows that school is the best place for our children. Indeed, all the evidence shows that schools are safe and that the risk posed to children by coronavirus is vanishingly small. For most children, the most dangerous part of going to school, even in the midst of a global pandemic, remains, I am afraid, crossing the road in order to get there. But the data showed, and our scientific advisers agreed, that our efforts to contain the spread of this new variant would not be sufficient if schools continued to act as a vector, or potential vector, for spreading the virus between households.
I know the whole House will join me in paying tribute to all the teachers, pupils and parents who are now making the rapid move to remote learning. We will do everything possible to support that process, building on the 560,000 laptops and tablets provided last year, with over 50,000 delivered to schools on Monday and more than 100,000 being delivered in total during the first week of term. We have partnered with some of the UK’s leading mobile operators to provide free mobile data to disadvantaged families to support access to education resources, and I am very grateful to EE, Three, Tesco Mobile, Smarty, Sky Mobile, Virgin Mobile and Vodafone for supporting this offer.
Oak National Academy will continue to provide video lessons, and it is very good news that the BBC is launching the biggest education programme in its history, with both primary and secondary school programmes across its platforms. We recognise it will not be possible or fair for all exams to go ahead this summer as normal, and the Education Secretary will make a statement shortly.
I know many people will ask whether the decision on schools could have been reached sooner, and the answer is that we have been doing everything in our power to keep them open, because children’s education is too vital and their futures too precious to be disrupted until every other avenue, every other option, has been closed off and every other course of action has been taken. That is why schools were the very last thing to close, as I have long promised they would be. When we begin to move out of lockdown, I promise that they will be the very first things to reopen. That moment may come after the February half-term, although we should remain extremely cautious about the timetable ahead.
As was the case last spring, our emergence from the lockdown cocoon will be not a big bang but a gradual unwrapping. That is why the legislation this House will vote on later today runs until 31 March, not because we expect the full national lockdown to continue until then, but to allow a steady, controlled and evidence-led move down through the tiers on a regional basis, carefully and brick by brick, as it were, breaking free of our confinement, but without risking the hard-won gains that our protections have given us.
These restrictions will be kept under continuous review, with a statutory requirement to review every two weeks and a legal obligation to remove them if they are no longer deemed necessary to limit the transmission of the virus. For as long as restrictions are in place we will continue to support everyone affected by them, from the continued provision of free school meals to the £4.6 billion of additional assistance for our retail, hospitality and leisure sectors announced by my right hon. Friend the Chancellor yesterday.
We are in a tough final stretch, made only tougher by the new variant, but this country will come together. The miracle of scientific endeavour, much of it right here in the UK, has given us not only sight of the finish line but a clear route to get there. After the marathon of last year, we are indeed now in a sprint—a race to vaccinate the vulnerable faster than the virus can reach them, and every needle in every arm makes a difference. As I say, we are already vaccinating faster than every comparable country, and that rate I hope will only increase, but if we are going to win this race for our population, we have to give our army of vaccinators the biggest head start we possibly can and that is why, to do that, we must once again stay at home, protect the NHS and save lives. I commend this statement to the House.
I thank the Prime Minister for advance sight of his statement and for his telephone call on Monday to update me. Can I also thank him for his kind words about the hon. Member for Cardiff Central (Jo Stevens)? She is still in hospital, but I am happy to say that she is now improving. I also want to thank everybody in our NHS and on the frontline for all the work they are doing at the moment in the most stressful of circumstances.
The situation we face is clearly very serious, perhaps the darkest moment of the pandemic. The virus is out of control, over 1 million people in England now have covid, the number of hospital admissions is rising and, tragically, so are the numbers of people dying. It is only the early days of January, and the NHS is under huge strain. In those circumstances, tougher restrictions are necessary. We will support them, we will vote for them and we urge everybody to comply with the new rules: stay at home, protect the NHS, save lives.
But this is not just bad luck and it is not inevitable; it follows a pattern. In the first wave of the pandemic, the Government were repeatedly too slow to act, and we ended 2020 with one of the highest death tolls in Europe and the worst hit economy of major economies. In the early summer, a Government report called “Preparing for a challenging winter” warned of the risk of a second wave, of the virus mutating and of the NHS being overwhelmed. It set out the preparations the Government needed to take, and I put that report to the Prime Minister at PMQs in July. Throughout the autumn, track and trace did not work. The Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies advised a circuit break in September, but the Prime Minister delayed for weeks before acting. We had a tiered system that did not work, and then we had the debacle of the delayed decision to change the rules on mixing at Christmas. The most recent advice about the situation we are now in was given on 22 December, but no action was taken for two weeks until Monday of this week.
These are the decisions that have led us to the position we are now in. The vaccine is now the only way out, and we must all support the national effort to get it rolled out as quickly as possible. We will do whatever we can to support the Government on this. We were the first country to get the vaccine. Let us be the first country to roll out that vaccine programme. But we need a plan to work to. The Prime Minister has given some indication in the last few days, but can he tell the House exactly what the plan is? Can the NHS deliver 2 million vaccines a week? I think it can and I hope it can, but does it have the resources and support to do so? We will support that, of course. Will there be sufficient doses available week on week to get us to the 14 million doses by mid-February? What can we do to help? It is vital that that happens. I am glad to hear that high street pharmacies will be helping. Can we use volunteers in support of this national effort?
Let me turn to financial support. Yesterday’s announcement will help, but the British Chambers of Commerce and others have already warned that it is not enough. There are big gaps and big questions. First, why is there still nothing to help the 3 million self-employed who have been excluded from the very start? That was unfair in March of last year and it was even more unfair in the autumn. It is totally unforgivable now. It may well be a whole year that that group will have gone without any meaningful support. That gap needs to be plugged.
Secondly, will the Prime Minister drop his plan to cut universal credit by £20 a week? That needs to be done now, and we will support it. Will he immediately extend the eviction ban? That is due to run out just in five days’ time now, just as we are going into this new phase. Thirdly, will he address the obvious issues with financial support for those required to isolate, including statutory sick pay and support for local councils? Will the Prime Minister finally recognise that now is the worst possible time to freeze pay for our key workers?
We all recognise the huge damage that closing schools will cause for many children and families, but Prime Minister knew that closures might be necessary, so there should have been a contingency plan. Up to 1.8 million children do not have access to a home computer and 900,000 children live in households that rely on mobile internet connections. Can the Prime Minister tell us when the Government are going to get the laptops to those who need them? He has spoken about the 50,000 delivered and the 100,000 more, but 1.8 million children do not have access to a home computer, so real urgency is needed as we go into the coming weeks. I welcome what the Prime Minister said about telecoms companies cutting the cost of online learning. It is vital that they do so. I am assuming that will happen straightaway, because we cannot delay.
Will the Prime Minister be straight about what will happen with exams this year? We cannot leave this until months down the line. That is a pressing question, in particular for those who are due to take BTEC exams in the next few days. Surely they must just be cancelled? Some leadership on this is desperately needed.
Next is our borders. The Prime Minister knows there is real concern about the rapid transmission of this disease. New strains are being detected in South Africa, Denmark and elsewhere. The quarantine system is not working. The Prime Minister said yesterday that we will be bringing in extra measures at the border. I have to ask why those measures have not already been introduced. They have been briefed to the media for days, but nothing has happened.
This is the third time the country has been asked to close its doors; we need to make sure it is the last. We will support the Prime Minister and the Government in these measures. We will carry the message and do whatever is asked of us, but we will demand that the Prime Minister keeps his side of the bargain and uses this latest lockdown to support families, protect businesses and get the vaccine rolled out as quickly and safely as possible.
I thank the right hon. and learned Gentleman, who made some sensible points, in addition to some slightly party political ones. On the political points, it is worth remembering that the waves of coronavirus we have seen across western Europe in the last few weeks we are also seeing here, with the additional pressure of the new variant of the virus. Most people understand that.
The right hon. and learned Gentleman asked about support for the self-employed. We have already given, I think, £13.7 billion to help the self-employed in particular, as part of a massive package of support for jobs and livelihoods across the whole of the UK totalling £260 billion. We will continue to support families through universal credit; as he knows, there has been an uplift of £1,000 at least until April. The eviction ban is under review. There has been an above-inflation pay increase for public sector workers; in particular, nurses have had a 12.8% increase over the last few years.
The right hon. and learned Gentleman asked about laptops and devices, and quoted a figure of 50,000. In fact, 560,000 have gone to schools. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Education will make a statement later about what we will do to support teachers and pupils. I repeat my immense thanks to them and to families who are now working so hard in unexpected circumstances to teach kids at home. I also thank the mobile companies and the BBC for what they are doing to assist. The House will hear more later about the BTEC exams. Obviously, we must be fair to those who are taking BTECs, and we appreciate the hard work they have done.
The right hon. and learned Gentleman asked a good question about borders. It is vital that we protect our borders and protect this country from the readmission of the virus from overseas. That is why we took tough action in respect of South Africa when the new variant became apparent there and we will continue to take whatever action is necessary to protect this country from the readmission of the virus.
I am grateful to the right hon. and learned Gentleman for supporting the vaccination programme. I must say that I do remember the derision with which he attacked the vaccine taskforce and that efforts that it went to to secure huge supplies.
I remember it well: it was at Prime Minister’s questions, Mr Speaker. It would be a good thing if the he could continue to keep up that spirit. Let me point out that not only did this country devise the first effective treatment of covid, secure the first stage 3 approval of a vaccine, and become the first to produce a vaccine that could be used at fridge temperature to great value to humanity across the world, but, Mr Speaker, as I stand before you today, it has vaccinated more people than the rest of Europe combined. It would be good to hear that from the right hon. and learned Gentleman opposite.
The Prime Minister is absolutely right to be taking the steps needed to protect the NHS at this very difficult time and I am very grateful for the work being done by my local Epsom and St Helier Trust team. The Prime Minister is also only too well aware that thousands of businesses, many of which fall outside the scope of Government support, face desperate times. Many of them support the Prime Minister in what he is doing but are very concerned that this House will not have an opportunity to take a further view on these regulations until the end of March. Will he give the House today an undertaking that he will personally lead a debate before the February half-term on progress towards reducing restrictions and that he will not wait until the end of March if it is possible to do so without overwhelming the NHS?
My right hon. Friend is absolutely right to say that this House should, and, I think, will inevitably, be given an opportunity to debate and discuss these issues at a national level before the end of March, and I hope substantially before the end of March. What we are trying to do, as he knows, is to vaccinate the first four cohorts in the JCVI list by the middle of February. If we can do that, if there is no new mutation in the virus, and if the vaccine programme proceeds as planned, then there will be substantial opportunities for relaxing the restrictions. Schools will be our priority, as I have said, and I have no doubt that the House will be consulted, as you would expect, Mr Speaker.
Mr Speaker, may I take the opportunity to wish you, your colleagues and members of staff a good new year? I also send my best wishes for a speedy recovery to the hon. Member for Cardiff Central (Jo Stevens).
People across these islands have entered into this new year feeling a mix of hope and fear: hope that the vaccine will finally end this terrible pandemic, but real fear, too, about the increased cases, the hospital admissions and, sadly, the lives lost. As our First Minister explained on Monday, this phase of the pandemic is now a race: a race to suppress the virus and a race to vaccinate our most vulnerable. If we are asking people for one last effort, if we are asking them to endure weeks of lockdown, then they need more clarity, they need protection and they need financial support. Most importantly, the UK Government have to act in a timely manner. It was said of the French designer, Pierre Cardin, that he was one step ahead of tomorrow. Nobody would say that this Prime Minister is one step ahead of tomorrow, or acts and shows leadership in dealing with this health pandemic. He was slow to act in the spring of 2020, slow in the autumn, and here again reacts after the events to the threats that we all face.
I want to ask the Prime Minister four specific questions on vaccines, on travel and on financial support, and I would appreciate it if he answered each of them not just for us, but for all the public who want answers. First, on the vaccine, Professor Jonathan Van-Tam said last month that the only thing that will solve the issue of vaccine availability are the “fill and finish” supplies, such as specialised vials. Can the Prime Minister tell us exactly what actions are being taken to ramp up these supplies?
On travel, is the Prime Minister prepared to learn from his Government’s past mistakes? Will he consider closing the UK border to all but essential travel to prevent new strains of the virus from spreading?
On support for the self-employed, why did the Chancellor again decide yesterday to exclude the 3 million freelancers and self-employed who have not received a penny of financial support since the start of this crisis? They are desperate and they need help, and they expect the Prime Minister to respond today.
Finally, on financial support for Scottish businesses, yesterday morning the Scottish Conservatives were busy making memes about an extra £375 million of Treasury support that they said was on its way to Scotland. Can the Prime Minister explain to Scottish businesses why, by the end of the day, it turned out there was no new money at all? Can the Prime Minister now give a personal commitment that the Scottish Government will get this money—this new money—for businesses in Scotland?
I am grateful to the right hon. Gentleman. On his questions about the self-employed, we have supplied, as I said to the right hon. and learned Member for Holborn and St Pancras (Keir Starmer), £13.7 billion already. We will continue to support people in any way that we can with a multitude of grants and loans already totalling, I think, about £260 billion, as I have said. The Barnett consequentials for Scotland from the new money will of course be passed on. As I said just now, we will make sure that we protect our borders from the readmission of the virus. He has seen what we did already in the case of the South African strain, and we will bring forward further measures to stop the readmission of the virus.
But I have to say that the general tenor of the right hon. Gentleman’s questions seemed to ignore the fact that, I am delighted to say, the whole of the UK has benefited massively from the natural strength of the UK economy and the ability of the UK Treasury to make these commitments, and the mere fact that Scotland, Wales, Northern Ireland and every part of the United Kingdom has received the vaccine is entirely thanks to our national NHS.
I make common ground with the right hon. and learned Member for Holborn and St Pancras: it is thanks to our United Kingdom NHS, and thanks to the strength of UK companies, that we are able to distribute a life-saving vaccine across the whole of our country. I think that is a point that the right hon. Member for Ross, Skye and Lochaber (Ian Blackford) might bear in mind.
Most of us do appreciate the difficulty of the judgments my right hon. Friend is having to make, so I thank him, in particular, for the access he has given Members of this House to the Government’s medical and scientific advisers so that we can understand them better. Does he agree that just as it is important that everyone understands the reasons why we have gone into a national lockdown, it is just as important that everyone understands the circumstances that will allow us to leave it? Can I therefore ask him—although I appreciate that he cannot yet give a date—to be more definitive that when a specific point has been reached in the vaccination of priority groups, with the consequent reduction in the risks of hospitalisations and deaths, then the balance of risk between health, on the one hand, and livelihoods and learning, on the other, will be significantly different, and restrictions can be lifted?
My right hon. and learned Friend makes a very important point that I know will be on the minds of everybody in the House, and everybody watching this can understand now the kernel of the debate. I understand why he wants a more detailed timeline; I know that colleagues across the House would love to have a more detailed timeline. Let me try to repeat what I can most sensibly say today. If our understanding of the virus does not change dramatically again as it has, and if the vaccines take effect in the way that we think that they will and the roll-out continues to be successful, and above all, obviously, if everybody continues to play their part in following this lockdown and following the guidance to stay home, protect the NHS and save lives, then, clearly, around about the middle of February, 15 February, when we have taken those four cohorts and immunised them, or shortly thereafter, there will be substantial opportunities to relax the restrictions that we currently face—if all those conditions are satisfied. Schools will clearly be the priority, and the whole matter will quite properly be debated by this House of Commons.
People are afraid and anxious. This lockdown should have come sooner, but we must all support it now and do all we can to vaccinate as many people as possible as quickly as possible. But we also need more action to save people’s jobs, their businesses and their livelihoods. Small businesses have shown incredible resilience, but now they worry whether they can survive another lockdown. Three million people—most of them self-employed—have been excluded from Government support since the start, and the Prime Minister’s answers today have not addressed that. We must leave no one behind as we tackle this terrible virus. Employers and workers need support and certainty, and they need it now, so will the Prime Minister instruct the Chancellor to publish an emergency Budget and to include a business rates holiday next year, an extension to furlough until at least the summer and support for every self-employed person in the UK, including those he has so far so unfairly excluded?
There will be a Budget in the course of the next few weeks and months, as I am sure the right hon. Gentleman is aware. He is also aware that the Government have made substantial cuts to business rates and to VAT and have produced a package of £260 billion of support for businesses, jobs and livelihoods across the UK, and I repeat the points that I have made about the self-employed. I have massive sympathy with everybody who is facing a tough time at the moment. I agree with the right hon. Gentleman very much in what he said about the resilience of our businesses—I think they are showing fantastic resilience under a huge amount of pressure—but the best way to help them now is for us to follow this latest lockdown, get that vaccine rolled out and get our economy moving again in the way that we all want to. The faster we can get through this period, the bigger the bounce back will be, and I am confident that it will be a very substantial bounce back indeed.
Stoke-on-Trent is keen to play our part in the national vaccination programme. Our mass vaccination centre is ready and able to serve the residents of Stoke-on-Trent and north Staffordshire. However, it has not been scheduled to go live before the end of January. Will the Prime Minister ask the Health Secretary whether that can be expedited if the supply of vaccines is available earlier?
I would also like to send best wishes to the hon. Member for Cardiff Central (Jo Stevens) and sincere thanks to everybody working on the frontline of the NHS.
A Conservative party newsletter recently told party members to say
“the first thing that comes into your head”
even if it is “nonsense”. Yesterday, it appears that the Chancellor took on board that advice when he unwrapped £227 million of already announced funding as new for Wales. This is, and I choose my words with extreme restraint, wilful misrepresentation, which deliberately misinforms desperate businesses in Wales. Will the Prime Minister apologise on behalf of his Chancellor and recognise that if Welsh covid measures are to be effective, there is an urgent need to lift the financial borrowing constraints imposed on Wales by Westminster?
I am sure the right hon. Lady, for whom I have a keen regard, would not wish to accuse the Chancellor of wilful misrepresentation, Mr Speaker. All the cash that we have announced, obviously, is passported on; the important thing is that the Labour Government in Wales spend it sensibly. The UK Government are here to support businesses, jobs and livelihoods across the whole of the UK.
Can I just say, while the right hon. Lady is on the line, that I am not over-happy with “wilful”? I think we have to think about the language we use within the Chamber. These times are unprecedented, but I really do think Members ought to be careful on the language they use.
I thank the Prime Minister for his statement. I know he has had to take difficult decisions, and I understand why he has had to and I fully support him. I am deeply concerned, however, about the impact of covid-19 and lockdown on our children and on our future generations, especially those children who come from disadvantaged backgrounds. Does my right hon. Friend share those concerns and will he work with schools, especially the ones in my constituency, to make sure that they get the IT support and laptops that they need, so that we leave no child behind?
My hon. Friend is absolutely right to raise that question and that is why we are putting so much cash—£300 million—in to help schools and young people continue with their education online. We have discussed already the role of the BBC, mobile phone companies and internet providers in helping as well, and the 560,000 devices that we have already delivered as part of a programme of a million for the children that need them most—laptops, computers and other devices.
It is extraordinary that, yet again, the Prime Minister did not say a word about the Government’s test, trace, isolate and support system. Vaccination and lockdown are essential tools but they do not replace the need to trace infections and isolate cases to help break the chain of transmission. It is an enduring scandal that we still do not have an effective contact tracing system, despite a whopping £22 billion being thrown at private companies and consultants, so will the Prime Minister fix it, including by ensuring that people can afford to self-isolate if they have to? Will he increase statutory sick pay and widen the eligibility criteria so that the nearly 2 million people locked out of it can finally benefit? Will he increase the value of support payments and offer hotel accommodation if people need it?
We have increased the support for those who are self-isolating and, obviously, have increased the penalties for those who fail to do so when they are asked to by Test and Trace. It is an absolutely vital part of our fight against the disease. What it has done, which I think people do not appreciate, is that it has actually allowed this country to have an incredibly detailed understanding of where the disease is and what kind of disease we are fighting. The UK is actually conducting 47% of all the genomic tests in the world to establish what is going on with the coronavirus and all its mutations, so NHS Test and Trace is a remarkable advance. Is it perfect? Of course it is not, but it is also indispensable to our fight against the disease, as is, of course, people’s self-isolation when they are contacted—you must self-isolate.
I pay tribute to everybody at Stepping Hill Hospital and GPs across Stockport for their superb efforts in rolling out the vaccine, where all care home residents and those over the age of 80 will have received at least their first jab by 15 January. Will the Prime Minister ensure that he blasts away any bureaucratic barriers that are getting in the way and ensure that vital vials and other such equipment are in abundant supply, because, frankly, there will be no excuses for any hindrance to this supreme national effort?
My hon. Friend speaks entirely for me in what he says about the need to blast away bureaucratic obstructions. I am proud to say, at the moment, that we have vaccinated more than any other country in Europe and, indeed, more than every country in Europe put together, but that pace must not only be kept up; it must now, as the whole House can see—because everybody can do the maths—be accelerated, and we will be saying more about how we propose to do that.
Prime Minister, for the third time in nine months, the Government have introduced a damaging lockdown policy, which we know will cause thousands of businesses to go bankrupt, cost hundreds of thousands of jobs, damage children’s education, lead the national debt to soar and remove basic liberties from people that we expect in a free democracy, all because the Government say, and their justification is, that we need to suppress the virus, protect the national health service and protect the vulnerable. Since those objectives were not achieved by the first two lockdowns, why does the Prime Minister believe that they will be achieved this time? Is there some firm evidence for it or are the Government just hoping that it will be third time lucky?
I do not think anybody in this House takes any pleasure or satisfaction whatever in what we are being forced to do, but the right hon. Gentleman should know that lockdowns like this are being conducted and have been conducted across much of western Europe, basically because we all face the same phenomenon and because we have to protect our NHS and stop it being overwhelmed. That is what the previous lockdowns did: they stopped the NHS being overtopped by the waves of the pandemic. Had that happened, the death toll would have been unconscionable. That is why, when the right hon. Gentleman looks at what his constituents and the public think, he will see that they know overwhelmingly that we are right to protect them, protect the NHS and save lives.
I asked the people of Ipswich to come up with ideas for this question and what I decided to go for was the importance of grassroots sports clubs in Ipswich, particularly boxing clubs. In the summer, I visited Patrick’s Boxing Club, which got help in the first lockdown but at the moment is struggling. It has still got fixed costs—rent, utility bills—that add to the burden. There is also Unity FC and Ipswich Kick Boxing Academy, which has a fantastic “Jab Not Stab” scheme to help combat crime and antisocial behaviour. Will the Prime Minister promise me that, when he considers any further support for these crucial clubs, which are based in the most deprived parts of the town that I have the honour of representing, he takes into account not just the benefits for physical and mental health, but the key role they play in keeping kids on the straight and narrow, out of harm and out of trouble, and in making a fantastic contribution to our wonderful town?
Ipswich will benefit from not just kickboxing jabs, but vaccination jabs. That will enable us to get through this crisis all the faster. I am delighted by what my hon. Friend says, but we are supporting clubs such as the one he so eloquently describes by an extra £210 million to help wonderful community sports institutions such as Ipswich Kick Boxing Academy throughout the pandemic.
Does the Prime Minister appreciate that the campaign against covid does not fall equally on everyone in our society? For many, this third lockdown is one of devastating fear: of mental ill health, isolation, job loss, poverty, loss of their place of residence, and stress about the future. Will he at the very least ensure that statutory sick pay is increased to £320 a week, that universal credit is not cut, and that the protection of private tenants continues after the end of the lockdown? Above all else, will he ensure that every child in every school and every student has the chance to learn online by provision of a computer and, yes, free universal broadband?
I thank the right hon. Gentleman, who seems to recapitulate what the right hon. and learned Member for Holborn and St Pancras has already asked me, as though he were still doing his old job. I do not want to repeat all the points that I made. Obviously, we are investing heavily to support jobs and livelihoods throughout the country. On mental health, the right hon. Gentleman is right to draw attention to the risk of increased suffering caused by the privations of lockdown. That is why we are investing hugely in mental health provision—another £13 billion, plus £18 million in support for our wonderful mental health charities across the country.
Pubs cannot compete with supermarkets for off-sales. Even within a household, people cannot play tennis or golf. Notwithstanding the assault on liberty and livelihoods, why are the regulations pervaded by a pettifogging malice?
Pettifogging, yes; malicious, no. I am going to have to take the hit here. The intention is to stop the virus, protect the NHS and save lives. To do that, we have to engage in restricting transmission between human beings. I know that my right hon. Friend and other right hon. and hon. Members will find all sorts of reasons to oppose all sorts of restrictions, but in the end, we have to look at the overall budget of risk caused by transmission between members of the human race, and that is what we are trying to restrict.
I have just come from a call with the big business organisations. I know that the Prime Minister is meeting them later, so let me give him the heads-up. Businesses are on their knees. It has been a year of lost trade and mounting debt. Cash grants are welcome, but they are not enough, and most businesses will not get them anyway. What they desperately want is not more sticking plasters but a proper long-term plan to help them survive to the spring and then thrive beyond it. It cannot wait until the Budget, because many will be bust by then, so will the Prime Minister urgently tell his Chancellor to come to the House with a proper plan for jobs and businesses? I say to him, please do not insult us by re-rehearsing what he has already done, because honestly, it is just not enough.
The hon. Lady asks for a timetable, as indeed have many colleagues on both sides of the House. Business rightly wants as much certainty as possible. What we have now, for the first time since this pandemic began, is clear sight of the end and the way to the end. We have set a deadline, as she knows, of the middle of February—15 February—to vaccinate the first four cohorts. I am sure she will appreciate that those groups comprise the overwhelming majority of those who have already, alas, died from covid. She will readily appreciate the implications of that for our ability to reopen our economy, and she will also understand, I hope, the implications that that could have, if all the conditions that I have already described are satisfied, for businesses across the country. I do believe that there are real grounds now for them to be very hopeful and very confident about the months ahead.
We have all seen the data, and people—normal people—do understand the need for this lockdown, but like so many Members on both sides of the House, I worry about our economy, jobs, businesses, mental health and children’s educational attainment. Perhaps the Prime Minister could tell us how normal people—people in Milton Keynes and beyond—will know that things are getting better.
I thank my hon. Friend; he is absolutely right about people’s feelings across the whole country. They want a sense of when things are going to get better, and I have tried to give that today. I really think that with the pace of the vaccine roll-out, if it can accelerate in the way that I think everybody would want, we will reach an important moment on 15 February. As I have said many times in this House, I do believe things will be much better by the spring.
Special schools were not mentioned in the Prime Minister’s statement, but they will remain open over the course of lockdown. Will he please advise the House what advice and support they have received to stay open safely for the often vulnerable young people who need them, and whether special educational needs school staff, students and their parents will be given priority access to the vaccine to keep them safe?
I thank SEN schools, their staff, parents and pupils for everything that they are doing—and all the work that is being done, by the way, by teachers across the country to continue to look after the children of key workers and vulnerable kids. The point that the hon. Lady makes about vaccination is one that many colleagues across the House have made, bringing forward the case for this or that group. It is vital that we as politicians leave that to the Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation, which is driven by a desire to stamp out the disease as fast as possible and to reduce mortality.
I fully support these measures and recognise how difficult the decisions are. Before Christmas, we were told that testing was happening at the Public Health England facility at Porton Down that would tell us within a couple of weeks whether the vaccines worked against the new strain. Would the Prime Minister update us on the latest on that, and if there is a glitch with the vaccine programme, are we implementing a plan B involving, for example, mass testing of high-transmission areas, deprived communities and so on so that we can properly isolate as quickly as possible anyone who could transmit the virus?
There is no reason to think that any new strain of the virus is vaccine resistant. On my right hon. Friend’s point about testing, I can say that mass lateral flow testing in communities across the country will continue to be rolled out, because we still believe in its usefulness.
As my right hon. and learned Friend the Leader of the Opposition said, whether it is on exams, financial support or the measures on test and trace, the Government seem to sit and wait for the situation to reach boiling point before they act. However, throughout the pandemic, most other Governments have acted early and have clearly communicated contingency plans. Will the Prime Minister acknowledge that the problem is his wait-and-see leadership strategy, which he needs urgently to revise so that the Government can get a grip?
I thought I understood the hon. Lady to be attacking the Government’s wait-and-see position on the vaccines, but I really do not think that anyone in their right mind could accuse us of moving too slowly in that respect. Indeed, she might add to her script that this country has vaccinated more than any other country in Europe put together.
I welcome the Prime Minister’s assurance that the House will be consulted on the lifting of restrictions, should that be possible, before the end of March. Many of us are concerned about being asked to approve a lockdown that could continue until 31 March. Can I ask him to reconsider and offer the House a vote at the end of January and at the end of February as well, not on whether to lift restrictions but on whether to continue them or not?
We have had Christmas on, Christmas off; schools in, schools out; eat out to help out; and stay at home. It is simply impossible to decipher the Prime Minister’s covid strategy. Given that the efficacy of the vaccines against emerging strains is not yet known, can he assure us that his strategy is not based on vaccines alone? To get our schools back, can he assure us that teachers will be a priority for vaccines, and can he detail his long-term covid exit strategy?
Possibly the best thing I can say in answer to that question is to repeat—and it is very, very important to repeat this—that we have no evidence that any strain of the virus is vaccine resistant. It is very important that the hon. Lady should express full confidence in the vaccine programme, which will be indispensable to our way out of this crisis.
Educating our children and giving them the best possible start in life is one of society’s most important jobs, and I know that the Prime Minister has not taken the decision to close our schools lightly. Yesterday, I spoke to the director of children’s services at Durham County Council about ensuring that Bishop Auckland’s pupils can still access learning. On that, can the Prime Minister confirm that the Government will do everything in their power to ensure that every child across the country has access to high-quality remote education during the closures?
I thank my hon. Friend for her campaigning for education in Bishop Auckland, and I repeat what I have already said today about everything that we are doing to roll out support to help remote learning of all kinds. It is a tough time for children, teachers and parents, but a huge amount is being done to supply remote devices and encourage remote learning of all kinds.
Given the examples of elections being held in other countries, including the elections held overnight in Georgia, can the Prime Minister confirm that it is his intention that the local elections in 2021 will go ahead as scheduled on 6 May, and will not be delayed any further?
May I congratulate my right hon. Friend on getting a world-leading vaccine strategy going? Clearly, its success will depend on the availability of both the vaccine and the number of staff who can administer it. As a qualified but non-practising doctor, I have volunteered to help with the scheme, and urge others to do the same. But can I ask the Prime Minister why, in order to give a simple covid jab, I have been required to complete courses on conflict resolution; equality, diversity and human rights; moving and handling loads; and preventing radicalisation? I urge him to get the NHS and the Department of Health to drop the bureaucracy, drop the political correctness, and do all they can actually to get the vaccine programme moving.
I thank my right hon. Friend. I can tell him that I was fit to be tied when I read several days ago an account of what he has described. I am assured by my right hon. Friend the Health Secretary that all such obstacles and all such pointless pettifoggery has been removed. There should be absolutely nothing to stop my right hon. Friend volunteering to be a vaccinator.
The decision to close schools this week was inevitable, but it will have a detrimental effect on many children, especially the most disadvantaged. School staff across Blaydon, such as those at Crookhill Primary School in my constituency, are responding brilliantly to the challenge, but it is just not the same for children as being in school. Will the Prime Minister commit now to working with teachers, trade unions and others to plan how we can level up the educational and life chances of our disadvantaged pupils post covid?
Yes, indeed; I will. We must tackle the impact of differential learning that the last 12 months have had. We will be looking in particular at the advantages of one-to-one tuition, which could be transformational—not just for kids who are falling behind, but for all kids.
Without question, one of the most important things that this Government did during the first lockdown was to strengthen universal credit. That has been a lifeline, not just for people who have lost their jobs, but for people who have kept going out to work during this pandemic—people on low wages, including in retail delivery jobs and cleaning jobs. Our plan is still to cut that support by £20 per week in less than three months’ time. I know that the Prime Minister understands this issue, but does he agree that now is really not the moment to weaken our welfare safety net, and that the right thing to do is to give families on low incomes greater security for the year ahead by extending support, rather than cutting it?
The Prime Minister will have heard the concern across the House for the 3 million British taxpayers who have been excluded from support since March last year. They have had a terrible Christmas and new year, and are looking at another three months with no support at all. It is no surprise that the Chancellor’s 92nd financial statement on Twitter felt like a kick in the teeth to those people with nothing. Does the Prime Minister believe that the excluded are important enough to get their own statement? If so, when will the Chancellor be coming to this House to deliver it, so that those taxpayers do not feel that they are completely abandoned by this Prime Minister?
With great respect, I do not think that the hon. Lady can accuse my right hon. Friend the Chancellor of not keeping the House informed. I am sure that he will be using the earliest opportunity to update her and the rest of the House on the massive package of economic support that we are offering both to the self-employed and to others across the country.
I welcome my right hon. Friend’s statement that these new regulations will be reviewed every two weeks, but can he reassure me that come mid-February, there will be a presumption, rather than a prospect, of an easing of restrictions? I understand that there cannot be a cast-iron guarantee as we are in a moving situation, but my constituents would like there to be a presumption, especially when it comes to schools.
Ofcom estimates that 1.8 million children in our country are digitally excluded, with a lack of access to equipment or broadband. I would place a bet with the Prime Minister that that does not include a single pupil from his former school of Eton. Digital poverty is a class issue. The Labour policy of universal free broadband that he derided in 2019 is now desperately needed. Will the Prime Minister outline how he will solve the issue of digital poverty, which is widening the already vast educational inequalities in this country, so that not one child is left behind during this lockdown?
The hon. Gentleman will of course know what the Government are doing to roll out gigabit broadband across the whole country to give every part of the country access to superfast broadband. In terms of the needs of people who do not have access to broadband yet, he will have heard what we have said about the mobile phone and internet providers coming together today to provide cut-price access for those who need it across the country. I think that is the right thing to do.
Once we have vaccinated the high-risk groups, so that the vast majority of people who are at risk of death from covid are protected, what will be the metrics in decisions made on moving areas down the tiers and reopening schools?
The weather is even worse now than it was last March. Will there be a repeat of the “Everyone In” initiative for rough sleepers, with the Prime Minister guaranteeing a repeat of the emergency funding at least at the same level committed last March?
One of the consolations of the previous lockdown was that we did succeed in helping so many people off the streets—I think it was about 29,000—and we will continue to do everything in our power. The hon. Gentleman raises a very important issue. We will do everything in our power to prevent people from finding themselves sleeping rough or homeless during this winter, and that remains the policy of the Government.
The vaccine is a massive achievement of which we are right to be proud, and the Prime Minister should be congratulated on all his efforts in that achievement. We must cut away all barriers to speeding up the roll-out: bin bureaucracy, incentivise 24/7 working by PHE, pay bonuses, use drive-throughs and pharmacies, and mobilise troops and volunteers. Will my right hon. Friend make this roll-out a dynamic, can-do, logistical British miracle, saving lives and livelihoods and not wasting a single day in taking us out of this lockdown hell?
I think that my hon. Friend perfectly captures the mood of the country about the vaccine roll-out. That is what we all want to see. We want to see a great national effort now, and she is right to call attention not just to the role of the NHS, GP clinics, GP services and hospitals, but to the vital role that can be played by pharmacies and the armed services. We want to bring them all together to roll out this vaccine as fast as possible. The picture she paints is entirely correct.
Surely those who cannot work because of Government restrictions should be compensated and supported. Given that the Chancellor has said that coronavirus restrictions could continue for months to come, will the Prime Minister commit to continuing furlough for as long as is needed and extending sector-specific furlough payments to the hardest-hit sectors? Will he ever do anything for the 3 million who have been completely excluded from any support?
They have not been excluded, and we continue to support people across the country. Furlough will indeed be continued further, as the hon. Gentleman knows. He should just bear in mind what I said to his colleague the right hon. Member for Ross, Skye and Lochaber (Ian Blackford): it is thanks to the might of the UK Treasury and the fundamental strength of the UK economy that we are able to make this support available across the whole of the UK.
I thank my right hon. Friend for his statement and commend him for his actions. Obviously, our clearest way out of these restrictions is to deploy the vaccine at speed and scale to protect those most at risk of serious illness. Will he therefore lay out plans not only on the first four groups in the Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation list, but on how we intend to get the vaccine to other key groups, such as teachers, police officers and home carers, to keep our country running day to day?
My constituent Ross has had no work since the first lockdown and is one of the people who have fallen through the gaps in the self-employed support scheme. His only income now is £598 per month universal credit. His rent, council tax and bills are £590 a month, so he is living on £8 a month. Could the Prime Minister live on £8 a month? If not, will he ask the Chancellor to look again at how he can help the people excluded by the self-employed support scheme?
I know that this has been raised many times already today by Members from across the House, but I must repeat what I have said: £13.7 billion has gone to support the self-employed already. I have no doubt that further measures will be forthcoming, but the overall package of support is £260 billion across the whole of the country.
The Prime Minister will know that Blue Collar Conservatism was instrumental in persuading the supermarkets to return the business rate relief that they did not need. We asked them to do that on the basis that there are many who have gone without support during this pandemic, and it was on that basis that they returned that money. So will he ensure that that £2 billion returned by the supermarkets will go to those who have not had any of the support so far and been excluded, because they cannot go another three months without any income?
Absolutely, and I thank my right hon. Friend and her fellow Blue Collar Conservatives for that initiative. It was entirely right, and those corporations—those supermarkets—were entirely right to return that cash. I can tell her that overall when we look at the Government’s support packages, we see that they go overwhelmingly towards the poorest and neediest in society; they are fundamentally a very, very progressive package of measures.
Cancer treatment has again been delayed; even though four-week delays are associated with increased mortality, many cases were delayed for longer than four weeks in the first lockdown. Today, the Health Service Journal reports that the NHS is having difficulty in agreeing payments with private providers for surgery and treatment. Will the Prime Minister take action to stop any profiteering and ensure that private providers use their capacity for NHS patients requiring urgent surgery? Will he also urgently bring a detailed plan to this House on how the Government intend to ensure that cancer patients get the treatment they need in good time?
Yes, I certainly can. One of the reasons for wanting to keep covid under control in the way that we hope to do with this lockdown is, of course, to allow the NHS to continue with cancer treatment and other vital services. The hon. Gentleman makes an excellent point about the need for all provision now to be dedicated to fighting covid or providing essential services for the British public, and he can expect to hear more about the way in which we intend to co-operate with private providers.
So far, the Welsh Government have had £5.3 billion in additional funding for covid, but they are still sitting on more than £1 billion in unallocated money while my businesses in Delyn are in serious danger. Can my right hon. Friend apply any pressure on the Welsh Government to provide more assistance to Delyn businesses, or could those funds be reclaimed by the UK Government so that we can step in to help businesses where Welsh Labour is letting them down?
Can the Prime Minister tell the House when every child in my Leeds constituency and across the country will have access to a laptop, when every parent who needs help will be able to afford the necessary broadband or phone charges so that their children can connect up to their lessons, teachers and classmates, and who they should contact if they cannot?
The right hon. Gentleman raises the very important needs of his constituents in respect of broadband connectivity and laptops, and I totally understand their concerns. Obviously, we are massively expanding those things and rolling them out, but for the detailed answer that he needs about each of his constituents and those in need, I will have to write to him, if I may, setting out exactly when they can expect the help that he talks about.
I thank the Prime Minister for listening to our representations on keeping places of worship open. Does this not show how, if we work together with a pragmatic approach, we can reopen the economy sensibly? Many of us who will vote for the Government tonight out of loyalty, or because we want to preserve the Government’s authority, are worried that every successive lockdown is less and less effective. That is because while every death is tragic, young people will have noticed reports that out of a population of tens of millions, only 400 healthy people between 16 and 60 have actually died.
Will the Prime Minister tell people like me in the priority groups that there has to be an element of self-reliance, self-isolation and looking after our own health, and that we cannot just rely on successive lockdowns? On carers, in particular, I noticed that the Gainsborough testing centre was turning away people who were not showing symptoms, but surely we want to encourage all carers of all elderly people to be tested. Let us get rid of all these bureaucratic hurdles and get more reliance on self-reliance.
My right hon. Friend is absolutely right that we need to encourage people to go ahead and be tested, and I think he should encourage all the people of Gainsborough to do that when they have symptoms. As he will know, there are initiatives available for community testing with lateral flow testing that I think should be encouraged by colleagues across the House, as I know that they are. I totally support that. I also think that the British public and this House overwhelmingly support measures to protect the NHS and save lives. He makes a valid point about the way that coronavirus impacts on the population. It does fall disproportionately on the elderly and the vulnerable, but those lives must be saved where we possibly can, and I think that is what people of all generations in this country want to do.
I thank the Prime Minister and the Government for all the help that they have given over the last nine to 10 months. However, may I highlight the aviation and aerospace sectors, which have almost entirely shut down since the beginning of the pandemic? As of 4 January, UK flight volumes were 73% below pre-crisis levels. There are now legal restrictions on travel and some countries have banned arrivals from the UK. This is having a catastrophic impact on aviation and aerospace and the millions of jobs that rely on them, but, unlike other industries such as hospitality, these industries have received no sector-specific support. In the light of the unique impacts being felt by these sectors, can I ask the Prime Minister to provide sector-specific support to aviation and aerospace to see them through this very deep crisis?
The hon. Gentleman has raised this with me before, and he is an ardent campaigner for aerospace. He is quite right: it is a vital industry for our country. As he knows, we have time to pay and other packages of support, but we will be ensuring that we do everything we can to get the aerospace industry in the UK back on its feet as fast as possible.
Every vaccination jab in the arm should be viewed as a pupil who can return to the classroom. It is vital that we view it through that equation.
I say to the Prime Minister that I have not always followed him through the Division Lobbies on the restrictions, but I will do so today because it clear to me that the vaccination changes the game and rids us of this pandemic. I ask him to ensure that the vaccination is available to rural areas, such as rural Rother which I represent, where we do not have a GP network or a hub in place as yet.
I am really grateful to my hon. Friend for his support and for what he has just said. We want to roll out the vaccine across the whole country as fast as possible. It is, I hope, common ground in the House today that we are right as a country to first put jabs into the arms of those who are most at risk of mortality. That is the way to reduce the death toll and, indeed, to get our country back on its feet as fast as possible.
We are in a race against time to save lives, save jobs and restore our freedoms. That is why we need a 24/7 vaccination programme that brings vaccination to every high street in the country. I therefore welcome the Prime Minister’s comments about the role of community pharmacy. Will he confirm that it is not just a few big chains that will be involved, but the thousands of independent community pharmacies, such as Goode’s chemist in Twickenham, which stand ready, waiting and able to vaccinate but have been knocked back. They would provide vital capacity and are able to reach people that mass vaccination hubs cannot.
The hon. Lady is absolutely right to draw attention to the potentially vital role of community pharmacies, of which there are about 12,000 in this country, as I am sure she knows. In my experience, they are great places: they are hygienic and the staff are knowledgeable and professional. I think we have already signed up hundreds to the campaign, and I assure her that there will be many more to follow.
It is exceptionally welcome that the UK has consistently tested more people than any other country in the world. This House owes a debt of gratitude to Kate Bingham and her team for procuring the vaccine in such large amounts and such diversified quantities—something the EU vaccination scheme never managed to achieve. Will the Prime Minister reassure me and other south-west Members that we will see the vaccine rolled out and that the lockdown will not be extended any longer than is necessary?
Yes, indeed. I thank my hon. Friend for his words about the vaccine taskforce. It was, as I say, satirised by the right hon. and learned Member for Holborn and St Pancras (Keir Starmer), which I think was a mistake. We will do everything we can to roll out the vaccine to my hon. Friend’s constituency and all constituencies across the country.
On Sunday, the Prime Minister came on national television and, looking into the eyes of the British people, told worried parents that it was perfectly safe to send their dearly loved children to school. The following day, after being buffeted around by scientists, the Leader of the Opposition and the devolved Governments, he announced that it was not safe for children to go to school and promptly closed them all down. Does the Prime Minister agree that the constant last-minute U-turns and this erratic approach to policy making are not conducive to assuaging the anxieties of people who are desperately seeking stability, certainty and assured leadership?
I really must ask the hon. Gentleman to withdraw what he has just said. I did not at any stage say that schools were not safe—that is absolutely not what I said. In all fairness, he should correct that. I give him the opportunity to do so if he chooses.
I have been contacted by several dentists and dental assistants who have been told locally that they do not qualify as health workers for early priority under the vaccination roll-out. I am aware that my hon. Friend the Member for Mole Valley (Sir Paul Beresford), a dentist himself, has campaigned tirelessly for dental teams to be in category 2 with other healthcare workers. Will my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister advise, for clarity, whether dental teams are in fact in priority 2 with other healthcare workers for the vaccination roll-out?
Like my hon. Friend, I am a big fan of our colleague, our hon. Friend the Member for Mole Valley (Sir Paul Beresford), the great dentist. I can tell him that all dentists in patient-facing roles, and members of their dental teams who may have social contact with patients, are eligible to be offered the covid vaccine. We encourage them all take it if they are offered it.
My local hospital, Queen’s, is one of many that is facing critical pressure on the supply of oxygen to patients. Demand for oxygen is running at 100% or more of the supply available. Will the Prime Minister assure me and my constituents that action is being taken to ensure a safe and secure supply of oxygen? Will he tell me what contingency plans he has in place to ensure that hospitals are not overwhelmed and closed, critically ill patients are not moved, and every patient receives the right amount of oxygen when needed?
Of course, the invisible shield goes first around the most vulnerable, and the JCVI determines that sequence. Once the highest-risk groups have been vaccinated, however, I encourage my right hon. Friend, with the JCVI, to look again at prioritising key workers, including teachers, because of the special role that teachers play in our society and because we prioritise education.
The Chancellor announced the financial support package via a 90-second video on Twitter yesterday. With him not coming before the House, it is difficult for us to ask questions, so perhaps the Prime Minister will help. Yesterday’s announcement about grants did not say how long this new one-off grant support is intended to last. Will the Prime Minister tell us what will happen with business support should the current lockdown have to be extended or the vaccine roll-out delayed?
I think that the Chancellor was very clear about the £4.6 billion, with its Barnett consequentials, which he announced to the House. I must say, I do not think that anyone could fault the Chancellor for his willingness to come to the House and to explain what we are going to do.
Will the Prime Minister join me in thanking the armed forces for their extraordinary efforts to beat this virus, especially those in Rutland and Melton? At this time of national crisis, however, some of our enemies are seeking to exploit opportunities to undermine us, so will the Prime Minister reassure me that our vaccination programme will extend to those in our armed forces and reserves most at risk from catching covid in the course of their duties, especially those deployed abroad on mission-critical operations, so that their safety and ours is protected?
I thank our armed forces from the bottom of my heart. I very much share in what my hon. Friend has just said. They have played an outstanding role throughout this pandemic—where necessary, moving patients to hospital from remote places, conducting testing, and now having a big role with the vaccines as well. I am sure, like every other part of the public sector, they will be considered by the JCVI as it comes to make its decisions about the allocation of the vaccine.
The Prime Minister will be aware that, as school lessons move online, the cost of pay-as-you-go broadband is completely prohibitive for poor families in areas such as Hackney. He is talking about coming to cut-price arrangements, but what so many families need is access to free broadband—an excellent policy, which was in Labour’s 2019 manifesto. No child should be deprived of an education because their parents cannot afford the broadband cost, so will he look again at providing free broadband when it comes to accessing online education?
Yes, indeed, but I think the arrangements that are being put in place by the mobile phone companies and others will cover the vast bulk of the cost, at the very least. I am happy to come back to the right hon. Lady about exactly what is being offered.
We in the Bridgewater and West Somerset constituency accept that the lockdown was vital and we appreciate the extra help for businesses, but will my right hon. Friend consider urgently the way in which Government help for local authorities is being paid? Somerset County Council has been given huge grants but has then diverted much of the money to balance its books, which is not what it was for. These cowboys want to become a new unitary authority. It is a con trick to use that cash, which was meant to fight covid. The Prime Minister is Somerset born and bred. I urge him to put a stop to this, so that the money goes to the people who need it most—the people of Somerset.
Happy new year, Mr Speaker. To govern is to choose. A lot of tough decisions have been made by the UK Government and we have supported a number of the business support mechanisms that have been announced. However, according to the House of Commons Library this afternoon, the UK Government have chosen to spend £3.3 billion of borrowed money on the stamp duty freeze, which is a vast subsidy to the middle classes who are buying and selling domestic property, who do not need subsidy. Does the Prime Minister regret prioritising that and excluding so many people, small companies and freelancers in the productive economy who really do need support?
That is entirely upside down and misrepresents what the package of support has done. The £260 million is overwhelmingly progressive and goes disproportionately to support the poorest and neediest in society, which is what I think this House and this country would expect.
Millions of Britons live in remote rural places, including here in Lincolnshire. The Prime Minister will know that isolation fuels fear, which exacerbates disadvantage, and that only vaccination will bring the safety that assuages those fears. Will he reassure my constituents that local doctors’ surgeries will be equipped and supplied so that they are able to vaccinate the vulnerable not later, but sooner?
Yes, it is our intention that doctors’ surgeries, which clearly play a crucial part in the vaccination programme, will be equipped as fast as possible with supplies of the vaccine—as plentiful, I hope, as the copies of “Wisden” that adorn my right hon. Friend’s shelf. That is what we intend to do. And may I say how delightful it was to see his wife Susan briefly in the background?
When the Chancellor announced his support schemes for businesses and workers last year, I warned him repeatedly that the coverage did not go far enough and that many people in Bradford would be unfairly excluded, putting jobs, businesses and the livelihoods of the self-employed at risk. Will the Prime Minister therefore listen to my calls and those of campaign groups such as ExcludedUK to ensure that the same mistakes are not made, and guarantee that everybody in Bradford who needs financial support during these difficult times will get it?
Yes, of course we will listen to the calls of ExcludedUK as we listen to all such calls. I repeat the message that I have been giving today: the support packages are there to help businesses and protect jobs and livelihoods across the country, but they benefit disproportionately the poorest and the neediest.
May I ask my right hon. Friend what the public health justification is for criminalising gatherings held exclusively between those who have already been vaccinated for more than three weeks, where there is no risk of infection or transmission? Will he use his libertarian instincts and immediately introduce an exemption for such gatherings, so that the many people in my constituency in the octogenarian group will be able to celebrate Brexit sooner rather than later?
I do not think any power on Earth is going to prevent my hon. Friend from celebrating Brexit, but his iron logic is applied to the restrictions that we have been forced to bring in. All I can say is that, as I think most Members across the House understand, the whys and wherefores of each restriction are not necessarily susceptible to iron logic, but cumulatively, they are there to protect the public, and I believe the public understand that.
The Prime Minister will be aware that the Welsh Labour Government have committed to providing the most generous financial package available to businesses across the UK. Sadly, in Pontypridd, even the very best support available has not been able to prevent mass redundancies and business closures. My constituents could have been helped if this Tory Government had stepped up to the plate sooner and committed to the Union when Wales went into an earlier lockdown. Can he explain why Wales continues to be an afterthought and what steps he will take to prevent people in Pontypridd from being excluded from any future support?
Wales is actually at the forefront of our thoughts and continues to be. We are anxious to continue to support the people of Wales in any way that we can. The salient point that I take from today is that there is £1 billion that the Welsh Labour Government have failed to spend in the way that they could, and I urge them to get on and do that, but the UK Government will continue to support Wales, as we support the people of the whole United Kingdom.
In Norfolk, those most at risk from covid have already received 27,000 vaccination first injections since 9 December, which are now available in our hospitals and 11 primary care networks, including the excellent Fakenham Medical Practice in my constituency. From Monday, those sites will be joined by many others. We are ready to do whatever it takes to keep up with vaccine supply, so what are the chances of securing more than 2 million doses of vaccine per week?
I thank my hon. Friend for what he is doing to campaign for vaccines in Broadland and to scale up at speed across the country. I have said the pace of roll-out that I want to see. That is already, as I think the Health Secretary would confirm, extremely challenging for our GPs and our hospitals. It is a big, big target—it is a big, big ask of the country. As my hon. Friend will know, because he will have heard me say this several times already today, this Government have been going faster than any other country in Europe, and we intend to remain out in front.
In March last year, the Government and the devolved Administrations laudably adopted a united response to the pandemic, with a clear, jointly agreed message that was easy to communicate. But since then, they have pursued different approaches with different terminology and different messaging, which can and, I believe, does lead to confusion. Could my right hon. Friend work with the leaders of the devolved Administrations by following the example of the four chief medical officers, who have worked closely together, and returning to the consistency and clarity of messaging that prevailed last March?
My right hon. Friend makes a very important point about the occasional dissonances between the UK Government and some of the devolved authorities, although actually, if we look beneath the political surface and some of the argy-bargy that goes on, the fundamental message is the same. It was very telling that the three devolved Administrations and the UK Government came together to enact fundamentally the same package of measures at the same time yesterday and today.
I have listened closely to the Prime Minister, but at no point have I heard him apologise to education leaders, teachers, students and parents for the chaos earlier this week. He rightly asks the public to change our behaviours, which is in all our interests, but there is a reciprocal obligation on him, too. What has he learned from all this, and what will he do differently in future?
I certainly wish to pay tribute to everybody involved in the education sector: teachers, parents, pupils, and everybody who has made a heroic effort to cope with this pandemic. I think the hon. Gentleman and I would agree that it was important to do everything we could as a country and a Government to keep kids in schools if we possibly could; indeed, I believe that was the policy of the Labour Opposition, at least on Monday morning. I understand why the Opposition wanted to keep schools open. We all wanted to keep schools open, but alas, the pandemic has not made that possible, and we have got to take the steps that we have taken. I hope that he will also support them.
PHE data shows that younger adults with learning disabilities and autism are up to six times more likely to die of covid. Please can they be added to the priority vaccination list immediately? Also, during previous lockdowns, vital exemptions included autistic people being able to exercise more frequently, which was incredibly important in helping them cope and continue to have that much-needed routine in their lives. Will the Prime Minister confirm that these exemptions will apply for the new lockdown, so that autistic people are not left stranded, and will he commit to accessible information about this being published as soon as possible?
Yes, indeed. I will commit to better and fuller information if that is necessary, although of course as my right hon. Friend knows, it is a general principle of these restrictions that people have more freedoms when they need to exercise for health needs.
If, as reports suggest, the Government intend requiring people arriving in the UK to have a negative PCR test within 72 hours of their arrival, how will British people currently abroad in areas where it is difficult to get quick turnaround PCR tests get home? I should declare an interest.
I recently had the chance to volunteer at our local vaccination centre, hosted by Burton Albion Community Trust, and I am grateful for the work of Dr David Atherton, chair of our local primary care network, and all his colleagues involved in the roll-out of the vaccine to residents across Burton and Uttoxeter. Will the Prime Minister consider the consent process when looking at ways of speeding up roll-out? At the moment, I am advised that individual consent by a healthcare clinician takes 10 to 15 minutes. This means that it will take 41,000 hours to consent and vaccinate the priority groups in east Staffordshire alone. Will he consider a national consent model to help speed up this process?
My hon. Friend makes a very interesting suggestion. I should stress that we have no plans to make vaccines compulsory in this country; however, we want to make it as smooth and as easy as possible, which I think is her objective, and I think she would join me in encouraging everybody who is offered a vaccine to take it up as soon as possible.
I wonder whether the Prime Minister has had a cursory glance at Scotland and seen the massive approval ratings for our First Minister and her handling of the covid crisis. Has he observed the clear leadership she has offered our nation? Does he ever think about comparing his poor performance with hers and wish that he could offer the same type of leadership to the UK?
I must confess I have not given that particular matter any thought, because I have been occupied entirely with protecting the NHS, fighting coronavirus and saving lives. I respectfully say that that should be the hon. Gentleman’s priority as well, if I may say so, rather than these slightly abstract political considerations.
Throughout this pandemic the UK Government have provided the Scottish Government with billions of pounds of additional support, but we know hundreds of millions remain unspent. These are vital funds that could help to protect jobs and support businesses. Is there anything further that could be done to encourage the Scottish Government to get these moneys out to Scottish businesses as quickly as possible?
The best thing I can do is encourage my hon. Friend in the excellent work he is doing in holding the Scottish nationalist Government to account, and encourage them to get on and use the funds that the UK Government are giving to the people of Scotland to support jobs in Scotland.
I am sure the Prime Minister will agree that councils have borne the brunt of covid, particularly during lockdown, and have given all our communities maximum support. Leeds has incurred £40 million of additional costs, as the council is not covered by the grants the Government have given, and will now face further lockdown costs, with an overall £100 million budget shortfall, in the main caused by years of central Government underfunding. Will the Prime Minister ask his good friend, the Chancellor, to grant local councils a one-off payment to offset the additional costs incurred due to covid-19 and ensure the financial stability of councils this year and next?
Of course, I know that many councils find themselves under great pressure, although some have handled their budgets better than others. We have given £4.6 billion, I believe, to support local councils, and we will continue to support them. I thank the staff and workforce of councils for the huge and vital role they all help to play in fighting this disease.
I received a worrying call this morning from the chair of Barnet Council’s health overview and scrutiny committee indicating that it may be that only 13 care homes in the borough have received vaccinations. Will the Prime Minister intervene to make sure the frail elderly and their carers in Barnet get the vaccinations they need as soon as possible?
Yes, I will. I have said that I want to have maximum transparency, and I want to see an accelerated roll-out of vaccination in care homes. So far, I believe that 10% of care home residents and 14% of care home staff have received the vaccine, but that clearly needs to be stepped up.
It has been great to see vaccination already starting in the Rhondda, but obviously we can only give the vaccine when it arrives. The Prime Minister quite rightly said earlier that we should be prioritising the vaccine for those who are at risk of mortality. Rhondda Cynon Taf, unfortunately, has the highest rate of death per 100,000 of any local authority in the country. We have a very large percentage of people who are extremely vulnerable, and we have a higher than average percentage of people who are working in the NHS, so can I urge the Prime Minister, as a matter of urgency, to prioritise communities like the Rhondda and make sure that Rhondda’s surgeries are getting not just 70 or 80 but hundreds of doses of vaccine a week so that we can vaccinate everybody who is at risk?
I welcome the Chancellor’s £4.6 billion in new lockdown grants, but can the Prime Minister please look again at more support for hospitality, pubs, breweries, the entertainment industry, tourism and weddings, as well as the self-employed and those excluded so far? Specifically, will he look at delaying the tax return deadline to help freelancers and the self-employed, and also look at extending the business rates holiday and the VAT reduction? Finally, will he look at setting up a hospitality and tourism recovery fund?
I thank my hon. Friend, and I know that our right hon. Friend the Chancellor is going to consider all measures necessary to allow the hospitality sector to bounce back just as fast as we can get it out of the restrictions that businesses currently face and get them bouncing back. That will depend, as the House has heard extensively today, on our ability to roll out this vaccine, but above all it depends on our ability to follow the rules, restrictions and guidance in these measures, and I hope very much that hon. Members will support them this afternoon.
Covid-19: Educational Settings
With permission, Mr Speaker, I would like to make a statement regarding schools in national lockdown.
The last thing any Education Secretary wants to do is announce that schools will close[Official Report, 20 January 2021, Vol. 687, c. 3MC.], and this is not a decision that the Government ever wanted to take. I would like to reassure everyone that our schools have not suddenly become unsafe, but limiting the number of people who attend them is essential when the covid rates are climbing as they are now. We must curb the escalating cases of covid throughout the country and prevent the national health service from being overwhelmed. That is why, today, I am setting out the contingency plans I had prepared but had hoped would never have to implement. I would like to thank all of our teachers, our education staff and our social workers for all that they have been doing to keep children and young people safe and learning.
During the lockdown, early years settings remain open nationally to all, providing vital early education and childcare. Schools will be open too for vulnerable children and the children of critical workers. Those at university will predominantly study online, although there are a small number of exceptions, including those studying medicine, healthcare and education.
Unwelcome though this latest lockdown is—and I am very conscious of the real challenges that parents are facing with their children at home—we are far better placed to cope with it than we were last March. We are now better prepared to deliver online learning. This is an important step forward in supporting children to make the progress with their education that they so desperately need. We will also do what we can to help their parents, and I thank all those parents and carers who are having to step up once more to take on the challenge of home learning.
We have set out clear, legally binding requirements for schools to provide high-quality remote education. This is mandatory for all state-funded schools and will be enforced by Ofsted. We expect schools to provide between three and five hours of teaching a day, depending on the child’s age. If parents feel their child’s school is not providing suitable remote education, they should first raise their concerns with the teacher or headteacher, and, failing that, report the matter to Ofsted. Ofsted will inspect schools of any grade where it has serious concerns about the quality of remote education being provided.
We have significantly stepped up the digital support we are providing to schools and parents. The fantastic Oak National Academy continues to provide video lessons for all ages across all subjects, and yesterday the BBC announced it will be delivering the biggest push on education in its history, bringing 14 weeks of educational programmes and lessons to every household in the country.
Our delivery of laptops and tablets continues apace: we have purchased more than 1 million laptops and tablets and have already delivered more than 560,000 of them to schools and local authorities. With an extra 100,000 being distributed this week alone, by the end of next week, we will have delivered three quarters of a million devices. We are also working with all the UK’s leading mobile network operators to provide free data for key educational sites. We are grateful to EE, 3, Tesco Mobile, Smarty, Sky Mobile, Virgin Mobile, O2 and Vodafone for supporting this offer. We have also been delivering 4G routers to families who need to access the internet.
Another area where we have learnt lessons is exams. Last year, all four nations of the United Kingdom found that their arrangements for awarding grades did not deliver what they needed, with the painful impact felt by students and their parents. Although exams are the fairest way we have of assessing what a student knows, the impact of the pandemic means that it is not possible to have these exams this year. I can confirm that GCSE, A-level and AS-level exams will not go ahead this summer.
This year, we will put our trust in teachers rather than algorithms. My Department and Ofqual had already worked up a range of contingency options. While the details will need to be fine-tuned in consultation with Ofqual, the exam boards and teaching representative organisations, I can confirm now that I wish to use a form of teacher-assessed grades, with training and support provided to ensure that these are awarded fairly and consistently across the country.
I know that students and staff have worked hard to prepare for the January exams and assessments of vocational and technical qualifications, and we want to allow schools and colleges to continue these assessments where they judge it is right to do so. No college should feel pressured to offer these, and we will ensure that all students are able to progress fairly, just as we will with VTQs in the summer.
I know that, understandably, there is concern about free school meals. We will provide extra funding to support schools to provide food parcels or meals to eligible children. Where schools cannot offer food parcels or use local solutions, we will ensure that a national voucher scheme is in place, so that every eligible child can access free school meals while their school remains closed.
Finally, I would like to turn to our programme of testing for the virus. There has been a brilliant, concerted effort in secondary schools and colleges to deliver testing for the start of this term, and none of the work done to roll that out is going to be wasted. Regular testing will take place of staff and students in school and in due course help us to reopen schools as soon as possible. Testing is going to be the centre of our plans to send children back to school, back to the classroom and back to college as soon as possible.
I never wanted to be in a position where we had to close schools again.[Official Report, 20 January 2021, Vol. 687, c. 3MC.] Schools should always have their gates open, welcoming children and being at the heart of their community. The moment that the virus permits, all our children will be back in school with their teachers and friends. But until then we have put in place the measures we need to make sure that they continue to progress. For that reason, I commend this statement to the House.
A happy new year, Mr Speaker. May I begin by paying tribute to the deputy general secretary of the NASUWT, Gareth Young, who tragically died shortly before Christmas? I am sure the House will join me in sending condolences to his loved ones and to his friends and colleagues in the union.
I thank the Secretary of State for advance sight of his statement, but it is disappointing that he did not make a new year’s resolution to avoid U-turns or chronic incompetence. Once again, where the Secretary of State goes, chaos and confusion follow, and it is children, families, and education staff across the country who pay the price for his incompetence. I can suggest a new year’s resolution for the Secretary of State: that he at least start answering my questions.
Every pupil who is not in school must be able to access education. We must do everything we can to safeguard learning throughout this lockdown. I pay tribute to everyone who has made it possible to keep pupils learning online—the incredible leaders, teachers and support staff in schools and colleges, and those such as Oak and the BBC who are doing a huge amount to make learning accessible.
I welcome the Secretary of State’s commitment on digital devices, and I am glad he has listened to Labour and to the charities across the country that called for zero rating of educational sites, but Ofqual estimates that up to 1.78 million children do not have access to a device. Can the Secretary of State guarantee that, under his plans, every child who needs a device will have one as soon as possible and that every one of those children will be able to learn remotely? May I also repeat the question the Leader of the Opposition asked the Prime Minister earlier: will the welcome data deal done with mobile providers take effect immediately?
I welcome the Secretary of State’s comments on free school meals, and I hope he can guarantee that every child eligible for this support is already receiving it. If not, can he assure me that they will do so within days?
Months ago, the Education Secretary gave a cast-iron commitment that exams would go ahead. At that moment, we should have known they were doomed to be cancelled. I wanted exams to go ahead fairly, but I was always clear that there must be a plan B if that was not possible. For months, there was no sign of any such plan, although the risk that exams could not happen has always been entirely predictable. The Secretary of State says he will be providing support to teachers to award grades. Can he tell me when they will receive that support and what form it will take, and can he confirm that it will be available in all schools? Can he tell me exactly what will be done to ensure that all grades are fair and consistent and support pupils to move on in their education or employment?
I heard what the Secretary of State said about technical and vocational exams, but frankly he is failing to show leadership on the exams taking place in January, and he is simply leaving it to schools and colleges to decide what they should do in these difficult circumstances. Will he now do the right thing and cancel this week’s BTEC exams, as parents, colleges and the Association of Colleges are calling for?
Staff in every part of our education system have faced a hugely challenging job and done extraordinary things to keep children safe and educated throughout the pandemic. Too often, though, the Secretary of State has refused to listen to their concerns or engage meaningfully with the expertise of professionals on the frontline. He can start to make it up to them today. Is the Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation working on a strategy to vaccinate all education staff to keep them safe and get children back in the classroom? Does he believe that they should be prioritised for vaccination to keep them safe and to allow schools and colleges to reopen?
Early years settings remain open to all children, but the Secretary of State has failed to explain how this will be safe for staff and families, so can he tell us what scientific advice he has received that made him think that they will be safe, and can he honestly say that he is following the science? Whether providers are open or closed, will he finally reconsider the unjustifiable decision to move early years funding in line with current occupancy, which will push tens of thousands of providers to the brink of collapse?
Finally, I turn to the return of schools in the months ahead. The decision to close them is not one taken easily or lightly, and although it is the right thing to do to control the virus and save lives, it has huge consequences for children’s learning and development. That is why Labour has always said that schools should be the last thing to close and the first to reopen. Yesterday, the Prime Minister could not guarantee that children would be back in school before the summer. Can the Secretary of State tell us when he expects children to be safely back in the classroom?
At every stage of the pandemic, young people have been an afterthought for the Government, and now we are back where we were nine months ago, with schools closed and exams cancelled. There is time to act, but the Secretary of State must act now to ensure that all pupils can learn remotely, that families are supported and that the most vulnerable are safeguarded.
I would very much like to join the hon. Lady in paying tribute to Gareth. I had the great privilege of working with Gareth during his time as deputy general secretary of the NASUWT, as well as with his colleagues there. Our thoughts and prayers are very much with his family and with his friends and colleagues.
The hon. Lady raises a number of very important points, including the roll-out of digital devices and our commitment to deliver 1 million digital devices across the country. We will be getting three quarters of a million of those devices out by the end of next week, supporting schools in delivering the full allocation of devices that they need and looking at how we can go further. It has been a great privilege to work with those brilliant teachers, those inspiring leaders, and to help fund and support them in setting up the Oak National Academy—a brilliant online school that is being viewed not just right across this country, but right across the world, for its quality of teaching. We want to see that used more and more as a vital teaching resource.
The hon. Lady is right to raise concerns about free school meals and how important this is for every one of our constituents. That is why we are putting the funding and support in place. There are many parts of the country where it will be best for schools to deliver those free school meals themselves, and they want to do that, but that will not be the case in other parts of the country where schools will want to do it as part of the national voucher scheme. That is why we will be standing up that scheme over the next few days and making sure that schools are not out of pocket and, most importantly of all, that children and families are supported at this incredibly difficult time.
The hon. Lady asks whether there will be training and guidance for teachers across the country as we move to teacher-assessed grades, and I can absolutely confirm that that will be the case. We have always been aware that there could be a situation where we would not be in a position to be able to proceed with examinations. We have always had a clear view that the best way of assessing children is through examination, so I will not apologise for being enthusiastic to ensure that we have been able to be in a position to roll out exams, but we do recognise that due to where we are as a result of this pandemic, we have to take a different course, and that is why we are taking the route that we are.
The hon. Lady mentioned technical and vocational qualifications. As she will know, it is very important that we give colleges, schools and all providers, including independent training providers, the necessary flexibility, because a lot of young people will need to complete some of their professional competency qualifications in order to take up work and job opportunities, such as those on electricians’ or gas courses where they have to do a practical assessment in order to be able to get the qualifications to take the work, the jobs and the opportunities. We want to ensure that the door is kept open for them. That is why we have taken the decision to give providers the discretion, because they will be the ones who best and most accurately understand the needs of their students and those who possibly need these qualifications to be able to progress into a job that they would not be able to do if they did not have that option.
On vaccination, the Government have already set out the important need to vaccinate those who are most likely to be hospitalised if they catch this disease, and not just hospitalised but most at risk of death. Like the hon. Lady, and like everyone in the education community, I very much want to see the vaccination of all those who are tirelessly, every single day through the week and every week, keeping schools open for the children of critical workers and vulnerable children, when schools are fully reopened again, but coupled with this is a really important step forward, the mass testing programme that we have already started rolling out in schools. The mass testing programme in schools will be one of the largest testing programmes that this country has ever seen. It is ready to go—ready to be implemented—and it will be an important plank in ensuring that we can get schools opened at the earliest possible opportunity.
It will not surprise the hon. Lady that we listen to the best scientific and public health advice in making the decision to keep early years open. We all have a clear understanding of how important early years education is for every child. As I have always said, I will do everything I can to keep every educational establishment open if that is possible and if it is the right thing to do. When we were given the health advice that we could be in a position to keep early years open, which is so important not just for those children themselves but for families, I felt that that was the right decision to take.
I do not want to see any school closed for a moment longer than it has to be. That is why, in June, we all worked so hard and fought so hard to ensure that schools opened right across the country for primary years. That is why, during June, we did so much to ensure that years 10 and 12 were able to return to school at the earliest possible opportunity. That is why, in September, we saw the opening of schools right across the country and all children being able to return to school.
I can absolutely assure the hon. Lady that I will not let schools be closed for a moment longer than they need to be. I will do everything I can to ensure that every school is open, so that children are able to benefit from the brilliant teaching that goes on in so many of our primary schools, secondary schools and colleges, because I know that is the best place for children. That is what I want for my children, I know that is what Members want for their children, but most importantly, that is what we want for our nation’s children. That is why I will give everything in order to ensure that schools are the first things to be opened in every instance, because that is what is best for every one of our children.
I strongly welcome the Government’s laptop scheme, but we know that there will still be possibly hundreds of thousands of people on the wrong side of the digital divide. Will my right hon. Friend confirm that those students who just do not have an internet connection or computers at home will be able to go to school alongside children of critical workers? Will he also confirm that any centre-assessed grade system will not only maintain standards but provide a level playing field for disadvantaged children and have a fair appeals process? Will he ensure that there are independent assessors—perhaps retired teachers or Ofsted inspectors—to provide a check and balance for each assessed grade awarded?
Finally, I welcome what my right hon. Friend has said about wanting to open schools again, and I know that he believes that strongly. Will he do everything possible to ensure that teachers and support staff are given priority for vaccination alongside NHS workers, so that we can get our schools open again sooner rather than later?
The reason we are rolling out and expanding our devices package is that we realise how important it is for all children, especially those from the most disadvantaged backgrounds. In the previous situation where schools had to be closed, during the months of March, April and May, children who did not have access to digital devices were able to access education in school, and I can confirm that we are issuing the same standard and the same guidance today.[Official Report, 20 January 2021, Vol. 687, c. 3MC.]
On disadvantaged children and the centre-assessed grades and teacher assessment, we will do everything we can to ensure that children are not left behind due to either their background or the community in which they have grown up and are learning. I look forward to working with my right hon. Friend and his Committee and taking their advice on any additional actions that we need to undertake to ensure fairness. I will certainly take on board his ideas and thinking about bringing in volunteers and people who want to support education, and about ensuring that teacher assessment is fair and robust and that it maintains standards and, most importantly, fairness for the children who are taking those qualifications.
We should not, of course, be surprised at this latest U-turn on schools. Any student teacher knows that planning is a key skill, but it is one that the Secretary of State has yet to master. His decisions have been made in a reactionary and last-minute manner. Schools in England have predictably gone from being open, with threats of legal action if they are closed, to being snapped shut in an instant, giving parents no time to put in place arrangements.
Let me say to all Members that we need to be careful about this narrative that children are falling behind. They are falling behind only on an external scale that we have defined for them. We cannot use the same metrics this year as we have before. Much as we all want schools to be open, young people are learning other skills too. That said, it is good to hear that the BBC is producing educational resources. Can the Secretary of State confirm whether there will be resources available for the Scottish curriculum at national 5, higher and advanced higher level?
Teachers are fed up with politicians paying tribute to them one minute and sending them into unsafe environments the next. The risk posed to children in school is small—we have evidence for that—but as the Prime Minister said earlier, pupils can act as vectors, and let us be clear that if a member of staff in a school catches covid, there is increased strain on the remaining staff, so it should not be only high-risk staff who are vaccinated. Before we talk about opening schools, we need a clear position on vaccinations for teachers and school staff. The First Minister has committed to look at that. The Secretary of State has said that he will do everything he can to ensure that schools open, so will he ensure that teachers are a priority for vaccination so that schools can open with confidence?
Finally, there are many students who are now learning at home completely and are not going to return to university after Christmas. They still have to pay for university accommodation. What support will the Secretary of State look at giving to those young people who have to pay out in that manner?
It was interesting to listen to the hon. Lady’s comments about students, which are probably indicative of some of the challenges in the Scottish education system, given that it has fallen down the rankings of the programme for international student assessment. It is really important that we support children so that they can learn. It is really important that we do everything we can to ensure that children are in a position to learn about maths, English, the sciences and the arts. It seems indicative in what she was saying that the Scottish National party is not very interested in making sure that children benefit from a knowledge-rich curriculum.
I would be happy to contact the director-general of the British Broadcasting Corporation on the matters that the hon. Lady raised, and I will write to her with details on that. It is always a privilege to work with colleagues across all nations of the United Kingdom, and it is really important that we share what works well and what works best. I would always be happy to work with her. We have funded extensively the Oak National Academy, which has an incredibly rich curriculum resource, and I notice from the latest figures that it is used by a lot of students in Scotland as well as in England. I would be very happy to share some of the work that we are doing to help to support students in Scotland as well as students in England.
I welcome the statement by the Secretary of State. The economic recovery will be skills based, and the Government have rightly placed much emphasis on the importance of BTECs. However, there is worry, confusion and uncertainty in colleges and schools. Many have cancelled this month’s exams, but others have not. They should not have been placed in a position of having to make their own choice as to whether to go ahead with exams. The Government should have shown clear leadership so that all students across the country were in the same situation. Will the Secretary of State work with Ofqual, the exam boards and the Association of Colleges to put in place as quickly as possible new arrangements that will provide students and teachers with certainty, clarity and confidence?
As my hon. Friend will have heard in my statement, that is exactly what I have said we would do. For clarity, there are many colleges that know for their students’ future prospects they need to complete assessments this month if those students are to be able access work and employment opportunities. So no, I am not going to go down the route that my hon. Friend suggested of taking that opportunity potentially to access work and other opportunities away from them, because I do not believe that that would be right for those children.
Teachers and school staff have put themselves at enormous risk during the pandemic to keep schools open. Now that the Prime Minister has accepted that schools are the epicentre of high community covid transmission, it is essential that the Government give teachers and school staff the priority access to covid vaccination that they deserve. Will the Secretary of State look at adding them to category 7, as that would make teachers and school staff a top priority for vaccinations after those who are 65 and over, all those who are clinically vulnerable, and our NHS and social care staff?
At every stage, we have put the safety of students, pupils, teachers and the whole workforce—and including the whole community—at the heart of everything we have done. All the evidence shows that the work, the precautions and the measures that have been put in place mean that schools have been able to operate safely and well. We will constantly work with the whole sector to ensure that every measure is undertaken so that that continues. That is why we are ready to roll out a mass testing programme, delivering millions of tests right across the board. That will happen in schools as they welcome the children of critical workers as well as vulnerable children into them. When schools fully return and can welcome all children back, the testing regime will be at the centre of that return.
I understand why GCSEs and A-levels have been cancelled and I am pleased to hear my right hon. Friend say that the substitute system will be robust and fair. What can he do to confirm for the young people of Hinckley and Bosworth that students will be rewarded for how they perform, that they are not disadvantaged by the school they go to and that the teachers who conduct the assessments have buy-in and ownership of what they are doing in the current situation?
My hon. Friend makes an important point. Our great advantage is that we have the opportunity and the time to roll out extensive training, guidance and support for those teachers making that assessment, to ensure that it is accurate and fair and reflects children’s abilities. We will undertake that with schools over the coming months. We endeavour to ensure that teachers and all those who work in the education system are supported in my hon. Friend’s constituency as they are throughout the country.
It was irresponsible of the Government to announce the cancellation of GCSE and A-level exams and to say nothing about BTEC exams, with no details of an alternative plan being agreed. Students and their families in Luton South have already suffered greatly over the past nine months and are deeply anxious about the continued uncertainty that has been created. Many students have contacted me to say that they are suffering negative impacts on their mental health as a result. What plans has the Secretary of State to provide additional mental health support for our children and young people?
Of course one of the great advantages of schools being back all the way through the latter half of last year is that teachers and those working in schools have been in the best possible place to assess and work with children and to have the best understanding of their needs and some of their problems, including mental health challenges. We will work with the education sector to support them. We have already taken several actions to support schools and education settings with children who have suffered mental health problems as a result of covid and of being out of school. We will continue to do that and step up those measures in the coming months.
I thank the Secretary of State not just for his statement but for the huge effort he must be putting in to try to balance conflicting priorities. As a father to an A-level student who was hoping to take her exams this year, I can relate to the anxiety that so many young people and their parents must feel in Dudley North and across the country due to the uncertainty of the situation. Will my right hon. Friend assure me that he will make every effort to remove that uncertainty by bringing clarity at the earliest opportunity, so that students can better focus on their studies and teaching staff on the best approach to support them?
As my own daughter was due take her GCSE exams later this year, I can assure my hon. Friend that we very much hope that this statement has given a clear sense of certainty and direction. We will be following this up with further detailed consultation: Ofqual will be leading a two-week consultation period, which will be launched next week. It is very important that we get feedback from the sector to ensure that the details of this policy are properly understood, and work best not just for schools and colleges but, most importantly, for those who are receiving the grades.
Given that the company Computacenter, which was awarded the £96 million contract with no competition, failed to deliver all the laptop kits to vulnerable children in the first lockdown, why is the Secretary of State sticking with Tory party donors from that company this time?
I pay tribute to Computacenter, which has done an amazing job of distributing hundreds of thousands of devices right across the country. The hon. Gentleman is right to say that we did a direct award on the first contract, as Computacenter was one of the few businesses that was in a position to be able to assist us at that time. Since then, tenders have gone out and Computacenter has won those tenders through fair competition.
Some North Yorkshire schools are operating a full, formal timetable, with checks and balances including roll calls and marking, but some schools are not. Does my right hon. Friend agree that all schools should use this kind of best practice to ensure that students work as hard and as effectively remotely as they do when they physically attend school?
As a former North Yorkshire County councillor and former member of the education committee of North Yorkshire County Council, I absolutely agree with my hon. Friend. It is vital that we keep as much formal education in place as possible. Schools have moved forwards in leaps and bounds in what they are able to offer, but we recognise that there has been variability. That is why we have taken the actions that we have, including the actions that we will take with Ofsted, to ensure that good, high-quality remote education is delivered in all our schools, right across the country.
I would like to place on record my thanks to the National Education Union and to Unison for the work that they have been doing to keep school staff and pupils safe. In my constituency of Liverpool, Wavertree, I have been inundated with inquiries from worried parents and nursery staff about nurseries remaining open, and the risk that that poses, particularly when elderly grandparents, as part of support bubbles, are often used to pick up children. I am afraid that the narrative from the Secretary of State that this group is the least at risk is not enough and does not instil confidence. Will he fully explain to my constituents why nurseries and early years settings are not closing, with the exception of providing services to the children of key workers?
Early evidence from SAGE has shown that early years provision had a smaller relative impact on transmission rates than primary schools, which in turn had a smaller relative impact than secondary schools; that is why the decision was taken. The hon. Lady mentions the National Education Union. I thank the National Education Union and Unison for recognising that the action they took and the advice that gave to their members on Sunday was incorrect, and for withdrawing that advice. It was the wrong advice, and I am glad that they have reflected on it and recognised that it was the wrong advice.
Ministers will know how bitterly disappointed I was when schools were so abruptly closed, because of the impact on mental health, the attainment gap and safeguarding. To give certainty and to enable schools to plan ahead, will the Secretary of State make the February half-term the default target date for return, barring any new crisis? And for those schools remaining open for key workers and vulnerable children, can we make sure that this time they are not turning away children on an education, health and care plan, in particular, on the basis that schools could not safely look after them? I am already hearing complaints from parents that their children who are entitled to attend are being placed on waiting lists.
My hon. Friend is absolutely right to point out that children on an EHC plan are entitled to and should be allowed into school and receive the care and support that school provides to those incredibly important children, so I absolutely, categorically make that totally clear to all schools and all colleges as well. I would like to see schools open tomorrow, as he will know. I never want to see schools in a position where they are not able to welcome children, but we have had to take this incredibly difficult decision. I want to see all schools opening on 22 February, but we obviously do have to take into account the scientific and health advice. Certainly, from a Department and a schooling point of view, every one of us is working towards welcoming all children back on 22 February, but we obviously continue to have to listen to the advice of both the scientific and public health community as to how we continue to beat this virus.
The Secretary of State has made a timely decision to scrap GCSEs, AS-levels and A-levels, and I very much hope that we can avoid the heartache that some of my constituents suffered last year when their algorithm-adjusted grades caused them to miss out on university places they had worked so hard for. This year, since exams are not being sat or needing to be marked, there is no need to delay the announcement of grades until August. An earlier announcement will help students and parents to plan their next steps and universities to manage a fair admissions process, and it will leave time for appeals and resits, so will the Secretary of State, in his discussions with Ofqual, consider bringing forward the date on which assessment grades are released?
The hon. Lady raises an important point, and it is something that I have already raised in discussions with Ofqual. We obviously have to make that judgment call in line with the whole system. We do not want the whole system of awarding to be dictated by the date when youngsters get their grades, but it will be one of those issues that is in active consideration, because, as she says, it gives students more time if there is a need for appeals, and it also gives them more time to make the best choices for them and their future.
The Secretary of State should know the incredible dedication and self-sacrifice shown by teachers and staff throughout Romford and Havering since the start of this pandemic. Their determination to reorganise the schools to keep everyone safe and to continue to provide the highest standard of education must be commended, but with schools now closing as part of the lockdown, they will have to do everything they can to move classes for the majority of students online to minimise the impact on their education. However, as in-person teaching will still be going ahead for vulnerable children and the children of critical workers, will my right hon. Friend please clarify whether only one parent or both need to be critical workers in order for their children to continue to attend school in person?
I very much join my hon. Friend in paying tribute to not just the teachers in Romford, but all those support staff who open up the schools, welcome the children and are such an important part of the fabric of that school community. In answer directly to his question, if one parent is a critical worker, it is deemed that they would have access to that school place for their child.
Many of my university student constituents have contacted me because they are desperately worried about the impact that covid restrictions are having on their learning, research, educational success, future careers, finances and mental health and wellbeing. Does the Secretary of State believe it is fair for them to continue to pay full fees and full rent when they are not receiving the university experience they expected, and what will he do to support students, especially those facing financial hardship?
The hon. Lady will probably be aware that just before Christmas, the Government announced additional support for university students, with an extra package to help those youngsters who are most vulnerable. We will continue to work with the sector to look at how best we can support students and the sector as a whole.
I cannot hide my disappointment and sadness to see school gates closed to so many students from across Stoke-on-Trent North, Kidsgrove and Talke. Remote learning has many challenges, from unsuitable learning environments to no online connectivity and not having the necessary digital devices. Will my right hon. Friend continue discussions with me and the Minister for School Standards to get textbooks distributed to pupils from disadvantaged backgrounds, so that they do not fall victim to the digital divide while learning remotely?
I have asked officials to organise a meeting between my hon. Friend, my right hon. Friend the Minister for School Standards and me next week to discuss this. We all recognise what an important role textbooks play in helping and supporting learning, and there has been some brilliant work and investment in producing exceptionally high-quality material. I look forward to meeting him next week to discuss how we can get textbooks distributed, especially to some of the most disadvantaged communities across our country.
I welcome the Secretary of State’s U-turn on GCSEs and A-levels, late though it was, adding to the pressure on schools and teachers. I am sorry that his approach on BTECs appears to be an afterthought and an abdication of responsibility, but I want to ask him about primary assessments. Does he accept that proceeding with SATs this year would place an unnecessary and pointless burden on schools, and will he take action to cancel this year’s tests and to do so in good time?
I always enjoyed working with the hon. Member, in terms of the work we did with the Motor Neurone Disease Association over a number of years. He often speaks a lot of good sense—just, sadly, in the wrong party. I can confirm that we will not be proceeding with SATs this year. We recognise that that would be an additional burden on schools, and it is very important that we are focused on welcoming students back into the classroom at the earliest opportunity.
I commend my right hon. Friend for the work being done to roll out online learning, but for a significant proportion of my constituents there is a small practical problem: up to 13% of households either have very slow broadband or no access to it at all, and mobile data is non-existent in many villages. What practical support can he offer pupils living in such households, competing against other members of the household and trying to work or learn with no or little broadband?
This is an incredibly challenging problem for many people living in rural communities. I would be very happy to meet my hon. Friend to discuss what further measures we could take. I am beginning to think about some of the additional resource of textbooks and other resources that can maybe be made available to families and communities that have these acute problems, where it may not be something we can work around in terms of a technical solution. There may be other routes forward, but I will ask my Department to organise swiftly a meeting between him and me to discuss this issue and any other educational issues in his constituency.
The pandemic has highlighted the injustice of tuition fees. Students are incurring on average £57,000-worth of debt to be isolated in university halls and to be restricted to online learning, and beyond that, education must be a universal right, not a costly privilege. The last decade of extortionate tuition fees has saddled young people with debt, deterred working-class people from gaining higher education and reduced our universities to profit-seeking businesses. Will the Government take this opportunity to support students by refunding rents, scrapping tuition fees and cancelling student debt for good?
The statistics bear out something rather different from what the hon. Lady said. We have seen a massive expansion of the university sector, with more young people going to university than ever before. If she took the time to look at the statistics and the facts, as opposed to not basing her question on the statistics or facts, she would discover that more children from the most disadvantaged families are going to university—often they are the first from that family—than ever before. That is something that this party should feel incredibly proud of, and I would like to see even more youngsters from the most deprived backgrounds going to some of the best universities in the country.
Dr Adrian James, president of the Royal College of Psychiatrists has described the covid-19 pandemic as the greatest threat to mental health
“since the second world war”.
As chair of the health all-party parliamentary group, I have been receiving concerned emails from parents across the United Kingdom regarding mental health. Given that children have experienced isolation and trauma—many have experienced bereavement—will the Secretary of State now take the opportunity to announce ring-fenced funding for a much-needed mental health and wellbeing strategy for children?
I thank the hon. Lady for raising such an incredibly important point, and it would be great to have an opportunity to meet her and other members of the all-party parliamentary group to discuss some of the wider issues that we face not only in schools in England, but in schools across the whole of the United Kingdom. There have been various different initiatives, some for the higher education sector that were UK-wide, and which our universities have done so much on, but also some initiatives in England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. It would be really good to have a four-nations approach to how we support young people with the real challenges of mental health. I look forward to having that discussion with her, because I know she feels passionately about this issue, as so many Members of this House do. It is very much a cross-party issue, and I very much hope we can find some cross-party solutions on how we can best support our young people.
Happy new year to you, Madam Deputy Speaker. May I ask my right hon. Friend about early learning? The hon. Member for Liverpool, Wavertree (Paula Barker) has already raised the point, but I would rather like my right hon. Friend to explain why in Bromley, early learning centres—they are semi-schools really—are still open. They have a real problem, because all of them are privatised, and there would be a certain loss of income, which would be a problem. Can I ask him—not that I dispute what he is going to say—for an explanation as to why these places are open when primary schools are not?
I assure my hon. Friend that at every stage we will go above and beyond to keep education settings open. The Prime Minister has many times outlined the Government’s commitment to and priority for education so, if we can, we will keep a sector of the education system open, because not only do the children who are in accrue enormous benefits—whether it is in a nursery, an early years setting, or a classroom in a primary or secondary school—but it is also incredibly important for parents and families, who often rely on those settings and schools to support them. When the advice came through—just to reiterate it—that the early evidence from the Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies showed that early years provision had a much smaller relative impact on transmission rates than primary schools, which, again, have a much lower relative transmission impact than secondary schools, we felt that that was the right thing to do. Yes, it is about supporting the children, but it is also about supporting the families.
We all want children back in school as soon as possible, so why do we not work together to make that happen? With that in mind, will the Secretary of State tell me when he last met teachers’ unions and what practical steps he agreed with them that the Department would take—for example, acquiring more space for schools, so that children and teachers can spread out? What steps did he agree that could make schools even safer so that we can get children back in school as quickly as possible?
The hon. Lady is absolutely right. Where there is a shared commitment to see schools open, it is important to work together. I meet lots of organisations, including trade unions, on a very regular basis. Nowadays, I am afraid, we do not get to meet physically, and it is all online, but we have regular meetings. Only in the past week, I have had the opportunity to speak with a number of union leaders.
Happy new year to you, Madam Deputy Speaker, and everyone else in the House. For those students due to have sat GCSEs, and AS and A-levels later this year, we have had to make the difficult decision to cancel the exams, which will without doubt cause a great deal of anxiety. Will my right hon. Friend assure me and the House that his Department will make every effort to provide those students with the vital clarity that they will need in the weeks ahead?
My hon. Friend has been a great champion, defending his schools and doing everything he can to ensure that parents in his constituency benefit from being able to have access to their schools, but he makes an important point about clarity. I hope that what we have set out today brings a lot of clarity. The further detailed consultation that Ofqual will roll out in the early part of next week will be the next stage of consulting schools on the next steps. We recognise that, when that is fully completed, it is really important that we support schools, the teaching profession, and colleges and lecturers in those next steps and the awarding of grades in the summer for A-levels, GCSEs, and other vocational and technical qualifications.
Despite serious safety concerns, we were told yesterday that BTECs were still going ahead, only to be told late last night that it was simply up to schools and colleges to decide whether it was safe. The Secretary of State ignored education unions and organisations when they repeatedly told him that it was not safe to reopen schools, colleges and nurseries on Monday, and nurseries are still open in full today, despite widespread anger and disbelief in the sector and without any robust scientific evidence from the Secretary of State that nurseries will not act as a vector for transmission of the virus.
Safety is the Secretary of State’s responsibility. Up to one in 50 people now have the virus, and the number continues to climb. Will he now listen to education unions and organisations, cancel BTEC exams, urgently take the same safety approach on nurseries as he has done with schools, and provide upgraded risk assessment guidance and vaccine access to all settings that are currently open to vulnerable and key worker children?
May I say what a delight it is to have the hon. Member for Stretford and Urmston (Kate Green) as shadow Secretary of State? At least she seems to be enthusiastic about having children in schools, colleges and other settings, unlike the previous shadow Secretary of State, the hon. Member for Salford and Eccles (Rebecca Long Bailey).
At every stage—I think the hon. Lady understands this—we have put the safety and security of children and the workforce at the very heart of what we do. As the chief medical officers not just of England, but of Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland have said, the best place for children is in school, but we have had to take unprecedented action as a result of the advice from the chief medical officer for England that the nation had to move to covid alert level 5. When the decision was taken on Monday to move to covid alert level 5, it was right that additional actions were taken, as reluctant as I was to see us in that position.
I think it is a little unfair of the hon. Lady to imply that the safety and security of staff and children are not at the heart of all our actions. They are at the heart of all our actions, but we know that children benefit from being in school and having the opportunity to sit in front of their teacher in the classroom. That is why Conservative Members have always been so enthusiastic for schools to have children in. I hope that she will eventually become a convert to that idea, as her successor has done.
My hon. Friend speaks not just for her constituents, but for many thousands of youngsters right across the country who are worried about this. I have asked Ofqual to take up this issue, to look at it directly and to make sure that there are measures in place so that those students will be in a position to get a grade. I have asked Ofqual to include that as part of the consultation that it will be doing next week. We have already discussed how this can be done, and we believe that it will be possible to do so.
The Secretary of State clearly prefers testing, rather than vaccination, as the means to make sure our teachers and learners will be safe when schools can reopen. The Prime Minister wants that to happen in six or seven weeks’ time. To have an adequate testing regime in every school by that period will require working around the clock in every minute available between now and then. Will the Secretary of State confirm that every school in my constituency has access to the support it needs to make sure that such a regime will be in place in time?
We have already seen the mass distribution of testing kits, and all the equipment that is required, in schools and colleges that take years 7 and above. We will be looking at how we can roll out testing beyond secondary schools into primary settings and earlier years to support staff.
I am as enthusiastic about vaccination as the hon. Gentleman is, but we are very much forward with our programme of mass testing for children, with all secondary schools receiving the initial deliveries. All schools will be getting that level of support in secondary settings, and we are looking at expanding that in primary settings as well. That would include all the schools in his constituency, as well as those in all our constituencies.
I appreciate that the Secretary of State is giving thorough and detailed answers to a great many questions, but we have already taken up considerably more than an hour on this statement. There are still 13 people to participate and I would like to give everyone the chance to ask their question, but I must ask them not to make speeches or statements. Just ask a ques