The Prime Minister was asked—
Today, on Holocaust Memorial Day, I know that the whole House will want to join me in solemnly remembering the 6 million Jewish men, women and children murdered during the holocaust, and all other victims of Nazi persecution. Last week, I had the privilege of hearing from holocaust survivor Renee Salt and from Ian Forsyth, one of the last living British servicemen who liberated the camp at Bergen-Belsen. Their courage to share their testimonies must inspire us all never to forget the holocaust and the fight against all forms of hatred and prejudice, wherever they are found.
This morning I had meetings with ministerial colleagues and others. In addition to my duties in this House, I shall have further such meetings later today.
I associate myself entirely with all that the Prime Minister said.
I thank the Prime Minister and the Government for all their hard work in these difficult and challenging times with regard to the delivery of the covid-19 vaccination. However, my constituents in Gillingham and Rainham and the wider-Medway towns would like me, as their Member of Parliament, to raise their concerns with regard to the availability of the vaccine in our local towns. I have constituents who are in their 80s and 90s who have not yet had the vaccination. Medway was one of the hardest-hit areas in the country, the mutant variant was discovered in Kent, and North Kent has some of the highest health inequalities in the country. Will the Prime Minister please ensure that we have a mass vaccination centre in Medway?
I share my hon. Friend’s sense of frustration about the pace of the vaccine roll-out. In spite of the fact that we have the fastest roll-out anywhere in Europe, it is entirely right that a constituency MP should want to see more done as fast as possible. I can tell my hon. Friend that we have vaccinated more than 80% of those over 80 across the country, and we are certainly looking at establishing a large-scale vaccination centre near him. In his immediate vicinity, we have done 127,000 vaccines already, providing the hope of long-term immunity for the people of Medway and Gillingham and Rainham.
May I begin by joining the Prime Minister in his remarks about Holocaust Memorial Day? This evening, I will be joining the UK ceremony and lighting a candle to remember the 6 million Jews murdered in the holocaust, along with, of course, the other genocides and persecutions that have taken place around the world.
Yesterday, we passed the tragic milestone of 100,000 covid deaths in the United Kingdom. That is not just a statistic: behind every death is a grieving family—a mum, a dad, a sister, a brother, a friend, a colleague, a neighbour. The question on everyone’s lips this morning is: why? The Prime Minister must have thought about that question a lot, so will he tell us why he thinks that the United Kingdom has ended up with a death toll of 100,000—the highest number in Europe?
Like the right hon. and learned Gentleman, I mourn every death in this pandemic and we share the grief of all those who have been bereaved. Let him and the House be in no doubt that I and the Government take full responsibility for all the actions that we have taken during this pandemic to fight this disease. Yes, there will indeed be a time when we must learn the lessons of what has happened, reflect on them and prepare. I do not think that moment is now, when we are in the throes of fighting this wave of the new variant, when 37,000 people are struggling with covid in our hospitals. What the country wants is for us to come together as a Parliament and as politicians and to work to keep the virus under control, as we are, and to continue to roll out the fastest vaccination programme in Europe. That is where the minds of the public are fixed.
I am sure that the Prime Minister regrets the fact that 100,000 people have lost their lives. The question is: why—why has the United Kingdom the highest number of deaths in Europe? Why has the United Kingdom a death rate that is higher than almost anywhere in the world? The Prime Minister is going to have to answer that question one day and he should have the decency to answer it today. A few days ago, the chief scientific officer said, and this was his view: prepare to give it now. The lesson, he said, is:
“You’ve got to go hard, early and broader if you’re going to get on top of this. Waiting and watching simply doesn’t work.”
Does the Prime Minister agree with that?
Mr Speaker, when you have a new virus and, indeed, when you have a new variant of that virus of the kind that we have in this country, and when you have dilemmas as hard and as heavy as this Government have had to face over the last year, I must tell the right hon. and learned Gentleman that there are no easy answers. A perpetual lockdown is no answer, but we will continue to do, as I have said to the House and to you, Mr Speaker, everything we can to roll out our vaccine programme to give the public the protection that they want and deserve. As I speak to you today, Mr Speaker, 6.9 million people in our country have had the vaccine. We are on target, if we can get the supplies, to deliver the target of the Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation on groups 1 to 4, the most vulnerable groups, by 15 February. I hope very much to set out in the next few weeks in much more detail how this country can exit now from the pandemic.
The problem with the Prime Minister avoiding the question of why is that vital lessons will not be learned. The reality is this: the Prime Minister was slow into the first lockdown last March; slow in getting protective equipment to the frontline; slow to protect our care homes; slow on testing and tracing; slow into the second lockdown in the autumn; slow to change the Christmas-mixing rules; and slow again into this third lockdown, delaying 13 days from 22 December before implementing it. I fear that he still has not learned that lesson. The latest example is the continued delay in securing our borders. We have known about the variants to the virus since early December, when it was announced in the House of Commons. We know some of those variants are coming from abroad, but we do not know the route. Surely the Prime Minister can see that what is required now is that everybody coming into the country from anywhere in the world should be tested and subject to quarantine in a hotel. Why can that not be put in place today?
Throughout this pandemic, it has been the habit of the Opposition first to support one approach and then to attack it and to twist and to turn. It was only recently that the shadow Transport Secretary was saying that quarantine measures should be relaxed. We have one of the toughest regimes in the world. We ask people to test 72 hours before they fly. They have to produce a passenger locator form, otherwise they are kicked off the flight. They already have to quarantine for 10 days and my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary will be setting out later today, if the right hon. and learned Gentlemen cares to wait for that, even tougher measures for those red list countries where we are particularly concerned about new variants. Again, what the people of this country want us now to do is to come together as a Government, as a Parliament, and to get this thing done.
The Prime Minister complains about the Opposition, but the greatest criticism of the Prime Minister at the moment in relation to borders is coming from his own Home Secretary. She is busy telling anyone who will listen that the Prime Minister did not do enough in relation to the borders last year. I fear that the Prime Minister is repeating the same mistake in relation to the new variants of the virus.
Let me turn to schools. Everybody agrees that reopening our schools should be a national priority, but that requires a plan, and the Prime Minister has not got a plan. So as a first step—as a first step—does he agree with me that, once the first four categories of the most vulnerable have been vaccinated by mid-February, he should bring forward the vaccination of key workers and use the window of the February half-term to vaccinate all teachers and all school staff?
Of course it follows that all teachers in JCVI groups 1 to 9 will be vaccinated as a matter of priority. I pay tribute, by the way, to the huge efforts that parents are making across the country struggling to educate their kids. I know how deeply frustrating it is: the extra burden that we have placed on families by closing the schools. No one has worked harder than my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Education to keep schools open. We all want to open schools. I think what we want to hear from the Leader of the Opposition is that he will say loudly and clearly what he has refused to say so many times and what the public need to hear—that schools are safe. It is absolutly critical that he says that.
I am sorry, but I am none the wiser as to whether the Prime Minister agrees with me that school teachers and school staff should be vaccinated, taking advantage of the February half-term. That is two or three weeks away. It is a fantastic opportunity, and I am no wiser as to whether the Prime Minister thinks that is a good idea or a bad idea.
In the meantime, the Government have a duty to ensure that every single child can learn from home. Without access to a laptop, a computer or the internet, that cannot happen. The Government were challenged on this last summer; they were challenged on it last autumn; and here we are, nearly at the end of January—the best part of a year into this pandemic—and a third of families say they do not have enough laptops or home computers, and over 400,000 children still cannot get online at home. Does the Prime Minister realise how angry many families are that he still has not got to grips with this?
As I said just now, I do fully understand the frustration and impatience of families across the country who are educating their kids at home. I know how difficult it is. I know how frustrated teachers are with educating through remote learning as well. That is why we have provided 1.3 million laptops. That is why we have provided a £1 billion catch-up fund. I will be making a statement in the House in just a few minutes setting out what more we propose to do with the reopening of schools and the way forward with schools, and what more we propose to do by way of supporting pupils and teachers and parents, if the right hon. and learned Gentleman will just wait a few minutes. But he has missed his opportunity, once again, to say what I think people need to hear if we are to get schools to reopen, because that is the best thing for pupils and the best thing for families across the country. I would like to hear from the Leader of the Opposition, in defiance of his union paymasters, that schools are safe.
I just remind the Prime Minister: it is Prime Minister’s questions.
Every week the Prime Minister comes with his pre-prepared lines. I think when 100,000 people have died he should take the time to answer the question. When one in three families are saying that they do not have enough laptops or computers, his answers are simply not good enough. We are nearly a year into this pandemic—this has not happened in the last few weeks—and one and three families say they do not have the wherewithal to do home teaching. Those children are going without home schooling. That is the question that the Prime Minister should be answering. The UK is the first country in Europe to record 100,000 covid deaths. We also have the deepest recession of any major economy. Our schools are closed and our borders are open. My biggest concern is that the Prime Minister still has not learned the lessons of last year. I fear that as a result we will see more tragedy and more grim milestones.
This afternoon, I will be speaking to families who have lost loved ones to covid. The last time I did that, I asked the Prime Minister what he would like me to say to them on his behalf. He replied with a pre-prepared, childish gag. I can tell the Prime Minister just how badly that went down with those families when I spoke to them later that afternoon. I ask him again—I hope that this time he will have the decency to answer them properly—what would he like me to say to those bereaved families on his behalf this afternoon?
I am grateful to the right hon. and learned Gentleman for meeting the families of the bereaved, as I have done and I know Members of the House have done throughout the pandemic. It is important that we do that. The message that I would give those families is the same that I have given everybody I have met: I of course deeply personally regret the loss of life and the suffering of their families, but I think the best thing that we can do to honour the memory of those who have died and to honour those who are currently grieving is to work together to bring this virus down and to keep it under control in the way that we are. Throughout this pandemic, I am sad to say that the Leader of the Opposition has never failed in his efforts to try to score political points when he could be doing just that. He has twisted, and he has turned. One week, he calls for tougher border measures after the shadow Transport Secretary called for a looser quarantine. He calls for schools to go back, but he will not even say this morning that schools are safe. He tries to associate himself now with the vaccine programme, because he senses that that may be going well, but he stood on a manifesto to unbundle the pharmaceutical companies—the big pharma—that made those vaccines possible.
I know you want me to sit down, Mr Speaker, but I want to make this point, because I tried to make it last week. The right hon. and learned Gentleman even attacked the vaccine taskforce for spending £675,000 on an effort to discover whether hard-to-reach groups would take a vaccine. I really cannot think of a better investment right now of public funds, and I hope that later on this afternoon, he might think of apologising for what he did and for that attack on the vaccine taskforce. The Opposition and the right hon. and learned Gentleman can go on making their party political points. We will go on, with or without his help, in taking this country forward, fighting the pandemic and getting coronavirus down.
My hon. Friend is absolutely right, and she is right to be militating for the eastern leg of HS2. We will be publishing the integrated rail plan early this year, and I am delighted that the £161 million from the transforming cities fund for Nottingham and Derby includes £10 million for a new cycle route between Nottingham, Derby and East Midlands airport. I look forward to cycling it with my hon. Friend.
And the Chief Whip, I would expect.
May I associate myself with the Prime Minister’s remarks on the holocaust? We all remember the 6 million Jews who lost their lives and those terrible crimes against humanity. We should never forget that, nor, indeed, those who have sadly followed them in genocides around the world.
Last night, the Prime Minister claimed that
“we truly did everything we could”
to avoid the deaths of 100,000 people across the UK from covid-19, but we all know that that is simply not true. The UK Government response has been defined by a lack of leadership, last-minute U-turns, mixed messaging and devastating policies. All of this has had an effect on the scale of the pandemic. Professor Linda Bauld has said that nearly a quarter of all deaths we have seen have occurred in the last month. Since the start of the pandemic, the Prime Minister has promised to always follow the advice of scientists. This morning, scientists have said that this Government are responsible for a “legacy of poor decisions” during the pandemic. Does the Prime Minister still agree with the scientists?
We have throughout followed scientific advice and done everything we can to minimise disease and suffering throughout the country. The right hon. Gentleman will have heard my answer to the Leader of the Opposition: there are no easy solutions when we are facing dilemmas as tragic as the ones being confronted by countries around the world. But I think that everywhere in the UK can be proud of the efforts now being made by the NHS, by the Army, by volunteers and by pharmacists to roll out the fastest vaccination programme in Europe. That is something that the Government must do, can do, are doing and will do.
I must respectfully say that this is not about apportioning blame for honest mistakes; it is about learning lessons from a Prime Minister who has repeatedly ignored the scientific advice. When we called on the Prime Minister to introduce tough border controls last spring, he refused. When we told the Prime Minister it was a mistake to end lockdown prematurely and push millions of workers back to the office, he ignored us. When we said that tough restrictions and full furlough support were still needed, he dithered, delayed and left it too late. People have been asked to make huge sacrifices by his Government. They at least now deserve financial certainty. Tell people straight, Prime Minister: will this UK Government extend furlough, maintain the universal credit uplift and finally offer support to the 3 million excluded, or will he leave families struggling with the uncertainty while he dithers and delays?
On the subject of dithering and delaying, I am delighted that the British Army is helping the Scottish National party Government to roll out the vaccine faster. That is extremely important and one of the benefits of the Union of the UK.
On the right hon. Gentleman’s point about the support for people and families across this country, I do not think anybody could seriously deny that this Government have given absolutely unprecedented—and unequalled, by global standards—support throughout the pandemic. We will continue to put our arms around people across the whole UK throughout this crisis.
My hon. Friend is right to raise those concerns, because there are some people in the self-employed group whom it has been hard to reach and to support in the way that we want. They are fewer in number than is sometimes suggested in this House, and I can tell him that 2.7 million self-employed people have received support totalling over £18.5 billion. But the ideas that he suggests will, I know, be taken up by my right hon. Friend the Chancellor, and he can expect to hear more on 3 March.
First of all, I must absolutely contest and deny what the hon. Member has said about action. She talks about coalmines, and she may not know that in 1970—I was alive; she may not have been alive—this country got 90% of its energy from fossil fuels, from coal, and we now get 5%. That is thanks to the green, active, technologically optimistic policies driven by Conservative Governments, and I am very proud of it. I am also proud of what we are doing to ban plastic and ban the export of plastic waste around the world, which is in our Conservative party manifesto, which we will fulfil.
Yes, indeed. I thank my hon. Friend for what she is doing to campaign for such an excellent charity and, indeed, for her constituent David. I can tell her that the Department of Health is working with Tessa Jowell’s Brain Cancer Mission, announcing £40 million over five years on brain tumours of the type that she describes. I would encourage my hon. Friend to continue the excellent work that she is doing in this area.
I do not want to anticipate the Budget, but I know that my right hon. Friend the Chancellor habitually does things to support fantastic industries such as Scotch whisky. But one of the reasons for leaving the EU is that we will be able to do a free trade deal with the US and to obviate tariffs of the kind that the hon. Member describes, which would be there in perpetuity if the Scottish nationalist party were to get its way and to take Scotland back into the EU.
My hon. Friend makes a very important point, and I know that it is something that everybody wants to see across this House—the sharing of data at local levels. There are particular problems, obviously, with sharing medical records—detailed medical records—with local government, but what we are doing is giving public health officials at local level all the information we can give them, without breaching that confidentiality, to find those hard-to-reach groups, and to get them and encourage them to take vaccines. Wonderful work is being done to get people to take vaccines. I encourage all Members, in your constituencies, to get your constituents to take up this offer.
Of course we will, and my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Housing, Communities and Local Government will be bringing forward a plan very shortly. It is also important that mortgage companies do not unreasonably refuse mortgages on properties that are perfectly safe.
In a few moments, later this afternoon, I will set out in more detail what my hon. Friend would like to know about our approach to schools, and in the course of the next few weeks, assuming that the vaccine roll-out continues well, and assuming that we do not find new variants of concern or have to change our calculations, I will be setting out a broader roadmap for a way forward for the whole country, of a kind that I think my hon. Friend and his constituents would appreciate.
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for raising that issue. I have come across this problem before, but the case he describes is obviously acute and I will ensure that he gets the meeting he desires with the relevant Minister.
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for raising that, because in the last few weeks this has been an issue for many fishing businesses and communities. There has been too much red tape, and we are providing an immediate £23 million to help businesses with the problems they are encountering through no fault of their own. We are also investing £100 million in a long-term programme for the UK fishing industry, to help with equipment and processing, and to enable this country to be in a position to take advantage of the incredible access to our fisheries that we will have as the years go by.
I repeat what I have said before: we will continue to look after the people of this country throughout this pandemic, and it is a feature of the strength of the UK Treasury that we can continue to do this.
I thank my hon. Friend, who is a fantastic campaigner for his constituents. I can tell him that we are indeed looking at expanding the free school programme—wave 14 of free schools will be announced very shortly—and I hope that he will not have too long to wait.
I am conscious that, as the hon. Gentleman says, there have been difficult cases with self-employed people who have not qualified for some of the support that we have offered. I would invite him to send the details of Alison’s case to us and we will see what we can do, but I must remind the House that we have spent about £18 billion supporting self-employed people throughout this pandemic and, as I say, we will continue to put our arms around the British people for the duration of the crisis.
I know the stress that people are under—not just school pupils, whom my hon. Friend is right to raise, but particularly NHS workers—during this current wave of the pandemic. It has been really gruelling the last few weeks and months. We are investing hugely in mental health support; on top of the £13.3 billion in 2019-20, we will see a further £2.3 billion a year by 2023-24, and that will support 380,000 adults and 345,000 children.
Given that the Prime Minister has already said today that he will take full responsibility for all the actions his Government have taken during the pandemic, will he confirm that that will include the woeful and reckless management of the covid outbreak at the Driver and Vehicle Licensing Agency sites—Government sites—in my constituency? Will he also ensure that his Transport Secretary is held accountable for the inexcusable damage and devastation that that has caused?
I thank the hon. Lady for raising that question with me. May I offer her, by the way, my condolences on the death her father? I can tell her that we have been working flat out on the problem at the DVLA. All staff who can work from home are doing so, measures have been taken to minimise the number of people on the site at any one time, and more than 2,000 tests have been carried out by the DVLA in the last fortnight alone, with all the results so far coming back negative.
I am suspending the House to enable the necessary arrangements to be made for the next business.