House of Commons
Wednesday 27 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.]
Oral Answers to Questions
The Secretary of State was asked—
Covid-19 Vaccine Roll-out
The Government are procuring vaccines on behalf of all parts of the United Kingdom and supplying them to the devolved Administrations. It is for the Scottish Government to manage the roll-out of the vaccines in Scotland. However, our British armed forces are supporting the NHS in Scotland in this vital task.
The vaccine roll-out has been excellent, with the United Kingdom again having among the strongest responses in the world. As there are varying degrees of success in the four different parts of the Union, will my right hon. Friend confirm what discussions he has had with the vaccines Minister—the Under-Secretary of State for Health and Social Care, my hon. Friend the Member for Stratford-on-Avon (Nadhim Zahawi)—in order to guarantee that the four constituent parts of the UK will receive sufficient vaccinations to hit their targets of the first four groups by the middle of February?
The devolved Administrations are receiving their shares of vaccine based on population, and the schedule of deliveries will fully support vaccinations of the first four priority cohorts by 15 February. All parts of the United Kingdom therefore have an equal chance of meeting that mid-February target.
Throughout this pandemic, we have seen the incredible work done by the armed forces to support us up and down the country, and in my constituency and across Lancashire, that has been help with testing. We know that in Scotland, the armed forces are now supporting vaccination centres, ensuring that life-saving treatment can get to those who need it. Does my right hon. Friend agree that this shows the strength of the United Kingdom family, with help and assistance ready to be sent to any corner of it?
I am absolutely delighted to echo my hon. Friend’s comments. Our British armed forces have played a number of essential roles in Scotland during the pandemic. They have airlifted patients to mainland hospitals from islands. They have delivered personal protective equipment. They have run mobile testing centres in rural areas and, at present, as he alluded to, the Royal Scots Dragoon Guards are setting up 80 vaccination centres across Scotland.
The most recent statistics for the number of covid-19 vaccination doses administered per 100 people stand at 11.4 for England, 9.8 for Northern Ireland, 9.2 for Wales and 8.1 for Scotland. Does my right hon. Friend agree that directly comparable statistics across the UK can be incredibly helpful to drive up performance in the NHS, and will he outline the plans that he has to pursue this agenda further?
Government Ministers in both the UK and the devolved Administrations are committed to transparency around the numbers of people who have been vaccinated. There are also a number of mechanisms for sharing best practice between Ministers and officials of all Administrations. The faster we can vaccinate, the more lives we can protect and the quicker we can return to normal.
May I start by thanking the GPs and other NHS staff across the Scottish borders, who have been working incredibly hard over the last few weeks to get vaccines into people’s arms? I have been speaking to GP practices across my constituency. One of them said:
“Our English counterparts over the border seem to have access to a lot more vaccines than us and that is causing a lot of unrest within the community.”
She went on to say that
“if we could have a guarantee of a definite amount of vaccines”
from the Scottish Government, it would make it a much easier job to plan and administer. What assistance can the UK Government provide to ensure that vaccines are delivered to GPs more quickly and efficiently across Scotland?
The UK Government are ensuring that NHS Scotland gets an equitable share of those vaccines. How it is distributed is a matter for NHS Scotland and, rightly, as health is devolved, that is a matter for the Scottish Government. If my hon. Friend’s constituents are concerned about any aspects of distribution, the best thing for them would be to take up their concerns with the Scottish Government.
Strength of the Union
Scotland benefits greatly from being part of a strong United Kingdom. The most obvious recent examples are the unprecedented economic support offered to people and businesses in Scotland and the rapid supply of vaccinations to all parts of the United Kingdom currently taking place. Neither of these would have been possible if Scotland was not part of the United Kingdom.
Finland, a small independent country in the EU with a population comparable to Scotland, right throughout the pandemic has been paying workers’ benefits equivalent to their full pay if they are required to self-isolate. If tiny little Finland can pay people their full wage, what does it say about the strength of the Union that we pay Scots a measly £95 a week?
There has been unprecedented support. The sort of support that the United Kingdom has delivered through the furlough scheme, the self-employment income support scheme, the coronavirus business interruption loan scheme, business grants and the £8.6 billion delivered to the Scottish Government to help with the pandemic has not been delivered anywhere else within the European Union.
Does my right hon. Friend share my concern that, at a time when my constituency has its highest ever level of coronavirus infections, rather than focusing solely on beating this pandemic and planning for a recovery, Nicola Sturgeon and the Scottish Government are prioritising another independence referendum and breaking up the United Kingdom?
I absolutely agree with my right hon. Friend. People in Scotland want to see politicians across the United Kingdom working in partnership to focus on defeating the coronavirus. That remains the top priority of the UK Government, who have supported jobs and businesses across the United Kingdom through the pandemic —as I say, there has been unprecedented support—and now more than ever, we should be pulling together to strengthen our country, instead of trying to separate it.
On this Holocaust Memorial Day, let us remember those who were persecuted and those who are persecuted now, and never forget the horrors that can happen when bigotry goes unchallenged.
I do not remember that same sense of responsibility when Brexit was being bulldozed through during the same pandemic that the Secretary of State has just mentioned. If he is so sure of the strength of the Union, why is he so afraid to test that strength in another independence referendum?
First, I align myself with the remarks that the hon. Lady made about the holocaust.
The referendum took place in 2014. We respect that; it was a democratic outcome. The hon. Lady mentioned Brexit: that referendum took place in 2016, and again, it was a democratic outcome. We are the party that respects democracy.
I know the Secretary of State is aware that a lot has changed since 2014. Scotland has been taken out of the EU against its will; we have had three Tory Prime Ministers we never voted for; and now, 20 consecutive polls have shown that a majority of people in Scotland now support independence. Given that he is the defender of democracy, I ask him how, with that in mind, can the people of Scotland secure that preferred choice of independence?
Scotland receives over £1,600 more in support per man, woman and child than the UK average—that is incredibly important. Added to that is the £8.6 billion of extra coronavirus support, and on top of that, the furlough support. An independent Scotland would have the largest deficit in the European Union, and it would break member state rules. I remind the hon. Lady of what the SNP’s own economic adviser, Andrew Wilson, said: that an independent Scotland would face austerity like it had never been seen before, with increases in taxation and cuts in public spending. I believe that as we focus on coming out of the pandemic, all being in the rowing boat together and pulling on the oars in these choppy waters is the best place for Scotland and for the United Kingdom.
Thank you very much, Mr Speaker; I will share it with you when we come back to Westminster.
As we have just heard from the SNP spokesperson, the hon. Member for Paisley and Renfrewshire South (Mhairi Black), the SNP would rather obsess over another independence referendum than focus on Scotland’s recovery from covid-19. Does the Secretary of State agree that this once again demonstrates that the nationalists’ priorities are all wrong, because right now, people want us to focus on vaccine roll-out, defeating covid-19 and rebuilding our economy?
I wish my hon. Friend many happy returns, and my birthday present to him is to say that I could not agree with him more. Rather than waste time on a divisive separatist agenda, the Scottish Government should be working with us to defeat the pandemic and to recover our economy.
I did not quite detect an answer to my hon. Friend the Member for Paisley and Renfrewshire South (Mhairi Black) when she asked how the Scottish people could now secure a referendum on independence. We can dispute the merits of that, and I am sure we will, but does the Secretary of State accept that this is now what the Scottish people want? Twenty opinion polls in a row indicate that, so how do the Scottish people democratically acquire the right to have what they want in a referendum?
I say again: now is not the time. Now is the time for us to focus on rebuilding our economy and protecting jobs. I see the hon. Gentleman up there with his gold disc behind him, and I have to say that, from Scottish questions to Scottish questions, he is beginning to sound like a broken record.
The UK now officially has the highest covid mortality rate anywhere in the world, and we know from the in-field accuracy of lateral flow tests that they have a 50% chance of being wrong. As the Prime Minister and his entourage are relying on such inaccurate test results, and given the PM’s disastrous handling of the pandemic, why is the Secretary of State risking lives by backing his futile Union-Jackery trip to Scotland against public health advice when he knows that the PM has the ability to insult our intelligence from London?
Seed Potato Industry
Ministers and officials from my Department are in regular contact with counterparts from the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs and the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office. The UK has applied for third country equivalency to overcome the ban on the export of seed potatoes to the European Union. We believe we have a strong case as British standards currently match the EU’s, and Scotland in particular has world-leading plant health provenance.
I thank the Secretary of State for that optimism. Even businesses in my constituency of North Norfolk are affected by the ban on exporting seed potatoes into the EU. It is wonderful to have a deal, but in my part of the world agriculture is an enormous way of life, so can he assure me that everything is being done to obtain an agreement on seed potatoes for Scotland and all of the UK, to give food security and flexibility to the sector and to protect our farmers and growers?
We regularly discuss opportunities for Scotland arising from the signing of trade deals. This Government have already struck deals worth £217 billion a year with more than 63 countries around the world, including Canada, Japan and Singapore, and with many more to come. This will create new markets for Scotland’s exporters.
For the first time in my life, we will be in control of our trade policy, which will allow us to strike ambitious trade deals, allowing us to level up all of our United Kingdom. Does the Minister agree that this will help to benefit exporters, particularly in the Scottish food and drink industries, who will be able to take advantage of new markets?
I fully agree with my hon. Friend. The new free trade agreements we strike, such as those we are currently negotiating with the US, Australia and New Zealand, on top of the ones we have already done, will grow our GDP, increase our trade with the rest of the world and create new opportunities for our exporters. This is particularly true for the Scottish food and drink sector.
Today is Holocaust Memorial Day, as we have heard, and we should use this day to remember the horrors of the holocaust by lighting a candle in our windows at 8 pm tonight, as the Holocaust Memorial Day Trust has asked us to do. I am sure that the Secretary of State will join us in that. Also, I wonder if I may just wish my fellow shadow Scotland Minister, my hon. Friend the Member for Ogmore (Chris Elmore), all the best, as his wife is due to have a baby in the next seven days.
One of the jewels in the crown of the Scottish economy is the Scotch whisky industry, and distillers are deeply angry that they continue to pay the price for a trade dispute with the United States that is not of their making. They are losing £30 million a month in trade with the imposition of tariffs, and that is on top of the collapse of their markets due to covid. No progress has been made, so can the Minister guarantee that the Government are fully singing from the same hymn sheet to end tariffs on Scotch whisky?
First, may I associate myself with the hon. Gentleman’s remarks on the holocaust?
On whisky, I absolutely agree with the hon. Gentleman that this is a vital industry for Scotland’s economy and the tariffs are hurting. Britain unilaterally made a bold and generous offer to the US to try to break its impasse with the EU. Unfortunately, we were not able to secure a deal with President Trump before he left office, but I spoke to my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for International Trade yesterday, and she reassured me that it will be her top priority in engaging with the new Biden Administration.
The UK has taken all the tariffs off US products but there are still tariffs on Scottish products, so I hope they are able to resolve this soon. Of course, trade deals with other countries will not make up for what we have lost by leaving the EU. Day after day, we see chaos at our ports, exporters being overwhelmed by paperwork and, as a result, Scottish businesses being damaged. This Government’s lack of planning and no provision for services, matched with growing bureaucracy at our borders, is severely hampering our industries. The Prime Minister said on Christmas eve that the EU Brexit deal would mean
“no non-tariff barriers to trade”.
That is demonstrably false. Will the Minister take this opportunity to apologise to Scottish exporters, who are completely hampered by the very non-tariff barriers to trade that the Prime Minister said would not exist? What are the Government doing to resolve these issues today?
First, on the US point, there was an impasse with the EU, and we decided it was the right move to make a unilateral offer to try to break that impasse. I hope the new Biden Administration will engage positively with us on that.
Secondly, I do not think it is fair to paint a picture of chaos and tailbacks at the ports. The traffic is flowing freely at most ports. There have been some short-term issues with paperwork, and any new system has some short-term bumps, but we are engaging directly with the exporters affected. We are providing compensation, where necessary, and what we need is some confidence across all sectors.
Covid-19 Vaccination Programme
I was sorry to hear that the hon. Gentleman had contracted coronavirus at Christmas, and I hope he is making a full and speedy recovery.
I and other UK Government Ministers are in frequent contact with Scottish Ministers on all aspects of the response to covid, including the vaccination programme. The virus will be combated most effectively by the UK Government and all the devolved Administrations working together as closely as possible.
I thank the Minister for his kind words, and I assure him that I am in rude health.
The Minister will be aware that Scotland’s over-80s population has been left more vulnerable than those in England due to far fewer being vaccinated. If the rate of over-80s vaccination in Scotland were equivalent to that in England, 28,875 of the most elderly people in Scotland would now have been vaccinated. What steps can the Minister take to ensure that the Scottish Government get on with protecting the most vulnerable?
I am delighted that the hon. Gentleman is very much on the path to recovery. As my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State said a few moments ago, the supply of vaccines is done equitably across all parts of the UK, but the administration is a matter for the Scottish Government. We have already provided many practical measures to help combat covid in Scotland, and we stand ready to supply any additional help that the Scottish Government may require.
UK-EU Agreement: Scottish Exports
We regularly speak to ministerial colleagues and industry leaders on this matter. We are beginning a new chapter in our national story, one of great opportunity. This is an unparalleled chance for us to do things differently and better, increasing businesses’ access to new markets and boosting our national prosperity.
Scottish exporters need clarity and certainty on how long it will take the UK Government to resolve the calamitous situation that has been created at the UK-EU border, so my question to the Minister is: has anyone in the Scotland Office worked out how long a piece of string is yet?
I repeat to the hon. Gentleman the reply I gave a few moments ago: we are engaging directly and providing very practical support to exporters who have encountered some short-term difficulties as they adjust to the new system. In the case of the fish and seafood sector, we have provided them with compensation for any losses that they encountered.
The Minister will be fully aware of the chaos that Scottish fishing exports have been thrown into over the past few weeks because of his Government’s broken promises on Brexit to the industry. I understand he has already said that the Department has announced an injection of funding for the hardest hit, but this is about timing and reputation as well, so how is he working with potential buyers of these world-class fishing exports to promote the sector? How is he ensuring that extra support reaches those hardest hit as quickly as possible, given the absolute devastation that these businesses have faced in this year so far?
First, may I wish the hon. Gentleman and his family every success and good fortune in the arrival of the new addition to their family?
As I have said, we are providing very practical support. This is not affecting the whole industry. The industry faces many challenges at the moment, not least the loss of some of its markets because top-end restaurants, at home and abroad, are having to close because of covid. In addition to that short-term compensation, we are providing a £100 million fund to grow and boost the capacity of our seafood sector. We have not broken promises to it. We were taking back control of our waters. We are out of the common fisheries policy and British fishermen will land more stocks year on year.
The EU is still our closest and most important trading partner, but Scottish businesses are suffering because of this disastrous Brexit we did not vote for, and the inability and unwillingness of the Minister’s Government to effectively use the transition period. Will he now push for the grace period that businesses are urgently calling for? If not, why not? What is his answer to them?
As I have said repeatedly, we are engaging with all sectors to help them prepare for this transition. I respectfully point out to the hon. Lady that she voted for a no-deal Brexit, and she and her fellow separatists want to impose additional trade barriers within Britain.
UK-EU Agreement: Scottish Economy
We have agreed a deal with the EU that fully delivers for Scotland and the rest of the UK. Our deal provides Scottish businesses with exceptional access to the EU’s market: it is the first time the EU has ever agreed a zero-tariffs, zero-quota deal. But of course we also now have the freedom to strike new deals with the fastest-growing parts of the global economy.
But almost one in six jobs in Scotland is based in the financial and business services sector, which is dependent on the UK Government negotiating a trade in services agreement with the EU, having failed to do so before the end of last year. What progress have the Secretary of State and his Cabinet colleagues made since leaving the transition arrangements in this area? What further steps is he taking to ensure that these jobs are secure for the future?
I have frequent discussions with colleagues about the opportunities that COP26 offers for Scotland and the whole of the UK. The Government are committed to delivering an all-UK COP26 event in Glasgow. This will bring significant economic benefits to the community in Glasgow and those across Britain.
My constituents in Guildford take a keen interest in environmental concerns and, along with me, are delighted that Glasgow is hosting COP26 this year. Does my hon. Friend agree that we are better placed to tackle climate change as a strong Union of nations?
My hon. Friend is absolutely right. I should also point out that it is disgraceful that, while we will be showcasing our global leadership on climate change and the world’s gaze will be on Glasgow, the SNP would rather be pitting community against community in another divisive referendum.
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.
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.
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 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 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.
Russian Federation: Human Rights
(Urgent Question): To ask the Secretary of State for Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Affairs if he will make a statement on what further sanctions he will impose upon the Russian Federation following the arrest, over the weekend, of Alexei Navalny, his wife and hundreds of his supporters in clear and gross breach of the European convention on human rights.
The G7 has condemned the imprisonment of Alexei Navalny, and reminded Mr Putin that he is bound by international obligations to respect human rights. One of those obligations is to the Council of Europe. Tomorrow, the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe will discuss the credentials of the Russian Federation. Does my hon. Friend agree that a nation that engages in state murder and that imprisons its political opponents and their supporters is in gross breach of the European convention on human rights and has forfeited its right to be a member of an Assembly that is founded on the very principles of democracy?
The UK is appalled by the politically motivated detention of Alexei Navalny on arbitrary charges. As the Foreign Secretary made clear, Mr Navalny is the victim of a despicable crime, and we call for his immediate and unconditional release.
The Foreign Secretary has also condemned the Russian authorities’ unacceptable use of violence against peaceful protesters and journalists last weekend, and we have called on the Russian Government to respect their international commitments and to release those detained during peaceful demonstrations.
The UK has galvanised the international community in condemnation of these deplorable detentions. As G7 president, the UK issued a G7 Foreign Ministers’ statement on 26 January, emphasising our deep concern at these developments and calling on Russia to adhere to its national and international obligations.
The UK has led international efforts in response to Mr Navalny’s poisoning in August. We have worked closely with our international partners at the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons, to urge Russia to uphold its obligations under the chemical weapons convention. Last December, the UK led a joint statement in the OPCW, supported by 58 states parties, calling for Russia to be held to account.
We have also taken robust, bilateral action. In October, the UK enforced asset freezes and travel bans on six individuals responsible for the poisoning of Alexei Navalny, as well on one Russian organisation. We keep further sanctions designations under constant review. However, it would not be appropriate to comment at this stage on possible future designations, as that could undermine their impact. We carefully consider all options under the relevant sanctions regimes.
The UK has been clear in condemning in the strongest possible terms the chemical weapons attack against Mr Navalny last year. He was the victim of a nerve agent attack, and the UK has called repeatedly for the Russian authorities to investigate and explain the use of a chemical weapon on Russian soil and to declare its Novichok programme to the OPCW.
The confirmed use of chemical weapons against opposition figures further undermines democracy and political plurality in Russia. More broadly, Mr Navalny’s detention is a further demonstration of the concerning deterioration in the human rights situation in Russia. We raise that regularly with the Russian Government, making it clear that Russia must uphold its international human rights responsibilities. I raised the issue myself during my visit to Moscow in November 2020, and our ambassador to Moscow raised Mr Navalny’s case immediately prior to his return to Russia, to underline that the UK was closely monitoring Russia’s actions.
We condemn the detention of thousands of peaceful protestors and journalists on 23 January and the Russian Government’s continued disregard for the fundamental rights of its people to freedom of expression, association and peaceful assembly. The UK has also urged Russia to fulfil its commitments under the international covenant on civil and political rights, the European convention on human rights and all the relevant instruments of the Council of Europe and the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe, and to guarantee those rights, including the right to freedom of expression, to its citizens.
The UK’s policy towards Russia is clear: we want a different relationship, but Russia must stop its destabilising behaviour towards the UK and its partners. Russia’s pattern of aggressive behaviour undermines its claim that it is a responsible international partner upholding the rules-based international system.
I am very grateful for that powerful statement. I am concerned because I spoke with the Russian ambassador, Andrei Kelin, who chose to call me this morning. He made it absolutely plain to me during that call that the Russians regarded Mr Navalny as a prisoner who had broken his bail conditions and therefore would not be released. Under those circumstances, I have to say that I still regard this as a gross breach of the European convention on human rights. I hope that my hon. Friend will do everything in her power to underscore that and make it plain that this conduct is completely unacceptable.
I would like to come back briefly on that point. We have been very clear. The Foreign Secretary has condemned the Russian authorities’ unacceptable use of violence against peaceful protestors. We really have been leading from the front when it comes to taking action against this situation. We are absolutely appalled by the politically motivated detention of Alexei Navalny on arbitrary charges.
Thank you, Mr Speaker. I thank the right hon. Member for North Thanet (Sir Roger Gale) for his urgent question. Labour colleagues and I condemn the shocking but sadly predictable arrest of Mr Navalny, his wife and the many thousands of brave Russians who took to the streets at the weekend to protest at the detention. We welcome the Government’s condemnation of Mr Navalny’s arrest and the condemnation by the new Administration in the United States. We also welcome the statement today from the Minister, and we want to emphasise the brutal nature of the police response last weekend. We understand that there will be similar protestations this weekend.
The House is united in condemnation of the attacks, but we would like to see action on the Russia report, which goes to the heart of the matter. In the end, warm words in the House will not assist Mr Navalny in his tireless campaign against corruption. Only the disruption of the corrupt financial networks and the flow of dirty money into the UK will put pressure on the Russian Government to change course. In 15 months, not a single one of the 21 recommendations in the Russian report has been fully implemented: no action on foreign agents; no action on golden visas; and the London laundromat is still very much open for business. The lack of urgency is truly staggering.
We cannot continue to turn a blind eye to this. I have four brief questions for the Minister. First, will the Government commit today to the review and expansion of Magnitsky sanctions to include the corruption heading? Secondly, will they commit to identifying and sanctioning those implicated in the attempted killing of Mr Navalny? Thirdly, will the Government commit to cleaning up the illicit money in UK jurisdictions, including London, identified both by the Russia report and the Panama papers? Finally, by what date can we as parliamentarians expect the Government to implement the 21 recommendations in the Russia report?
I am grateful to the hon. Lady for her support for the actions that we have taken in respect of the detention of Alexei Navalny. I set out the clear steps that the UK Government have taken. The Foreign Secretary has been leading from the front in that regard. The Government’s response to the Intelligence and Security Committee’s report on Russia was published on the same day as its release, on 21 July 2020.
Let me make it absolutely clear that Russia is a top national security priority for the Government. We will introduce new legislation to provide the security services and law enforcement agencies with the tools they need to tackle the evolving threat of hostile activity by foreign states. That Bill will modernise existing offences to deal more effectively with the espionage threat, and create new offences to criminalise other harmful activity conducted by and on behalf of states. We continue to step up our activity, both domestically and internationally, to tackle illicit finance entering our country. The National Crime Agency has increased the number of investigations into corrupt elites, and I hope that the hon. Lady welcomes that. We are also reviewing all tier-1 investor visas granted before 5 April 2015
It is welcome to hear the Minister’s condemnation of the attack on Alexei Navalny, whose crime, it appears, is to survive an assassination attempt by the state that now holds him prisoner.
This is not the first of these incidents. Litvinenko, Skripal and now Navalny are three names that speak of Russia’s brutality towards its own citizens. When will we see a proper list of the ill-gotten gains that President Putin has stolen from the Russian people over the past 20 years? When will we see a breakdown of his hidden wealth through UK jurisdictions or in areas where the UK has influence, so that the Russian people can know how much money has been stolen from them by this gangster elite, and when it will be held in trust, to be returned to them as soon as he is gone?
I think that I have set out very clearly the action that we are taking in response to the poisoning of Alexei Navalny. I have set out very clearly the sanctions that we have put in place against six individuals and one organisation. As for any future sanctions or measures that we may put in place, it would be wrong for me to speculate further at this stage.
I warmly congratulate the right hon. Member for North Thanet (Sir Roger Gale) on bringing this important issue forward. I welcome the Minister’s statement as far as it goes. I agree with it and support the measures she has outlined. I do not doubt her sincerity in tackling this matter and I think it is important to put that on the record.
I declare an interest as one of the co-litigants in the case that is taking the UK Government to court in the High Court over the non-implementation of the recommendations of the Intelligence and Security Committee’s report into Russian interference. It really does beggar belief that the UK Government can say they have been leading from the front on this. I really do not recognise that description. It staggers me that so few of the recommendations of that credible and serious report have not been implemented by the Government. I urge the Minister to commit to making a further statement to the House on the implementation of those recommendations.
I also ask the Minister for reassurance. I appreciate she will not indulge in speculation, but she needs to be aware that there is considerable support across the House for further Magnitsky sanctions against individuals. We all support Mr Navalny and the protestors across Russia. They need to be sure that there will be action, not just warm words.
When it comes to election interference, one of the issues raised by the hon. Gentleman, the Government concluded that
“it is almost certain that Russian actors sought to interfere in the 2019 General Election through the online amplification of illicitly acquired and leaked”
UK-US trade documents. As he rightly recognises, however, where a criminal investigation is ongoing it would be inappropriate of me to comment.
On the Russia report, I should perhaps just reiterate that we published our response on the same day as its release, 21 July. Russia is a top national security priority for the Government. We will freeze Russian state assets wherever we have the evidence that they may be used to threaten the life or property of UK nationals or residents.
Chemical weapons were used on British soil in Salisbury. Now, it appears they have been used on Russian soil. The Foreign Secretary tweeted on 18 January:
“Rather than persecute Mr Navalny, Russia should explain how a chemical weapon came to be used on Russian soil.”
Has the Minister’s Department received an answer to that? More broadly, what is her assessment of the worrying use of chemical weapons on British soil and abroad?
My hon. Friend raises a really important point. We have been very clear that the use of chemical weapons is an unacceptable breach of international norms. Russia absolutely must respond fully to the OPCW demand for a transparent investigation and, crucially, explain how a chemical weapon was used against a Russian citizen on Russian soil.
Chelsea football club has been in the news a lot this week, though largely not for this issue. However, Alexei Navalny and his team released a list of names, drawn up by Navalny just days before his return and arrest, which included Chelsea FC’s owner Roman Abramovich and Everton FC’s Alisher Usmanov among those whom they believe should be sanctioned. Both individuals were described as
“key enablers…with significant ties and assets in the West.”
Is the Minister taking those allegations seriously? Will she provide an assurance that anyone, no matter their wealth or position, would be considered for Magnitsky sanctions?
As I have made clear in relation to Alexei Navalny, we enforced asset freezes and travel bans against six individuals and an entity involved with the poisoning and attempted murder of Mr Navalny on 15 October 2020. We did that under the EU’s chemical weapons sanctions regime. As the hon. Lady will recognise, try as she might to press me to speculate on further listings, alas I am not going to do that as it would be inappropriate.
It is appalling that Alexei Navalny, the victim of a despicable crime, has been detained by the Russian authorities. His politically motivated arrest provokes further concerns about Russia’s respect for the rule of law and human rights. Will the Minister join me in calling for his immediate release?
We have been absolutely clear—the Foreign Secretary made it clear—that Mr Navalny is the victim of a despicable crime, and we call for his immediate and unconditional release. It is really important that Russia must account for itself and its activities.
I thank the Minister very much for the firm response and strong words in response to the urgent question. We stand alongside the protesters and, in particular, Alexei Navalny. We value democracy; Russia clearly does not. Further to the early-day motion that I tabled just yesterday on the treatment of protesters by the Russian police, will she outline whether any of those arrested are British citizens; what the status of any British citizens is in those areas; and further, what support is available for our people who are there?
I am aware that the hon. Gentleman takes a keen interest in human rights, as do so many on both sides of the Chamber. We are not aware of any British nationals requiring consular support as a result of detentions during the protest, but we always keep our travel advice under constant review.
My right hon. Friend the Member for North Thanet (Sir Roger Gale) is absolutely right to bring to the House this matter and that of the very brave Alexei Navalny, whose rights under the UN convention on human rights have been trampled underfoot and so grievously disrespected by a fellow member of the United Nations Security Council. Will the Minister confirm that she is co-ordinating collective action with our allies on this matter to hold the Russian leadership to account? Will she also confirm that, through the Magnitsky measures and other ways, not just Russia’s leaders but other officials who abuse Alexei Navalny’s human rights can be held to account in a similar way?
I know that my right hon. Friend has taken the issue of sanctions and Magnitsky seriously for some time and championed it. When it comes to the case of Alexei Navalny, we have been absolutely clear from the start in terms of mobilising the international community. We galvanised the international community in condemnation of these deplorable detentions with the statement on 26 January through our role as G7 president. In that statement, we emphasised our deep concern about these developments, but we were also very instrumental in leading international efforts in response to his poisoning in August last year, when we worked closely with our international partners at the OPCW to urge Russia to uphold its obligations under the chemical weapons convention.
The Minister’s angry condemnation of the Russian regime is unlikely to cause much lost sleep in Moscow while the British Government’s actions are so feeble. Last week, the Foreign Secretary was unable to name a single element of the Russia report that had been fully implemented. What we really need today, do we not, Minister, is not strong words, but the promise of actions to get the Russia report fully implemented?
I do not accept what the hon. Gentleman is saying. We have been very clear. We set out the six sanctions against individuals and then an entity involved in the poisoning and attempted murder of Mr Navalny. We have been very clear in our message to Russia that we want to see action, and we also want to see it respond to the OPCW demand for a transparent investigation. In addition, we have been very clear when it comes the ISC report of last year. On the day that it was published, the UK Government issued a response, and we have set out the actions that we will take in terms of introducing new legislation. We have increased the number of investigations through the National Crime Agency into corrupt elites and we are reviewing all tier 1 investor visas granted before 5 April 2015.
Thirty years after the fall of the Soviet Union, the Russian regime murders its opponents abroad. It poisons its challengers at home. It still has armed forces on the sovereign territory of the Ukraine and Georgia. It believes in the Soviet concept of a near abroad and presents a clear threat to continental Europe’s security. Does my hon. Friend have a message for those in Europe who still support the Nord Stream 2 pipeline, which will make Europe more dependent on Russian gas and give economic comfort to Putin’s gangster regime?
The UK remains concerned about the impact that Nord Stream 2 will have on European energy security, and particularly on the interests of Ukraine. Our focus continues to be supporting resilient European energy markets, including measures that strengthen and diversify gas supply and competition. Obviously, this is a matter for Germany, but I can assure my right hon. Friend that we remain concerned about the impacts of Nord Stream 2.
There are some hon. Members on the Tory Benches who are openly rejoicing at the prospect of Brexit allowing deregulation of financial and investment markets. Given the massive flows of capital between Russian oligarchs and the City of London, how will the Government ensure that Russian officials responsible for human rights abuses are not allowed to profit in this way, and that there will be no diluting of standards and regulations that would get in the way of applying Magnitsky-style scandals?
I assure the hon. Gentleman that we continue to step up our activity, both domestically and internationally, to tackle illicit finance and dirty money entering our country. The National Crime Agency has increased the number of investigations into corrupt elites, and under the Criminal Finances Act 2017, we introduced a number of instruments that are being used to tackle illicit finance, including unexplained wealth orders.
The Biden Administration have already made clear that they are going to take a more robust line with Russia, and the subjects of Russia’s treatment of Ukraine and Mr Navalny’s arrest were discussed by President Biden and President Putin during a call earlier this week. What joint steps does the Minister think the US and the UK can take, and has the Foreign Secretary yet had an opportunity to speak to Mr Blinken at the State Department?
We have already demonstrated the way in which the UK has been leading the international effort on the issue of Alexei Navalny, through the OPCW and also through the G7 statement of 26 January. Our Prime Minister spoke with President Biden on 23 January, and the Foreign Secretary spoke with the new US national security adviser on 22 January. During both calls, they agreed on the need to work together on shared foreign and security priorities, such as Russia.
Many people across Newport West and our country commend Mr Navalny and his supporters for their extraordinary bravery in standing up against this corrupt and repressive Government in Moscow. Will the Minister show the same bravery, and set out in clear terms what action this Government, with international partners, will take to demand their immediate release?
The Foreign Secretary has made it absolutely clear that Mr Navalny is the victim of a despicable crime, and we will continue to call for his immediate and unconditional release. The Foreign Secretary has also condemned the Russian authorities’ unacceptable use of violence against peaceful protesters and journalists, which I am sure many of the hon. Lady’s constituents, like mine, have seen in the media. We have called on the Russian Government to respect their international commitments and release those who have been detained during peaceful demonstrations.
The UK, supported by 58 countries, led the joint statement in December calling for Russia to be held to account for what it does. Will my hon. Friend join me in asking the whole House to support and commend the UK on the leading role it is taking in these efforts, sending a very clear message to the Russian Government?
My hon. Friend makes a very important point about the need for a joined-up approach, and in supporting an international effort to tackle this issue. He is right to recognise that the UK did indeed lead the effort with respect to the poisoning of Alexei Navalny, as well as that joint statement in the OPCW, which was supported by no fewer than 58 state parties all calling for Russia to be held to account.
Is not the reason that the Government have failed to implement a single recommendation of the now 15-month-old Russia report and have failed to apply Magnitsky sanctions to the eight individuals to whom Alexei Navalny himself had requested they be applied a simple one—that London is awash with dirty Russian money, as is the Conservative party?
I do not accept the assertion made by the right hon. Gentleman. The ISC Russia report, to which he refers, was released on 21 July, and the Government responded on the very same date. We have set out very clearly what our response is and that Russia remains a top national security priority for the Government. We have issued sanctions against six individuals and one organisation in relation to Alexei Navalny and, as I have made very clear, we will not speculate on who else we may or may not sanction.
I thank my hon. Friend for her statements. Is it not clear that the lesson of watching Russia for the past few years is that Russia—or China, for that matter—does not have any respect for an adversary unless it can show strength? What do all our words of condemnation mean without much more comprehensive action? When will the integrated defence and security review be published, and will it address the role of the City of London in looted Russian money? What will we do to strengthen all our alliances to bring the free world together against both Russia’s internal and external aggression?
We have been very clear on our policy towards Russia. It is that we want a very different relationship with Russia and that Russia must stop its destabilising behaviour towards the UK and its partners. While that continues, there can be no normalisation of our bilateral relationship. We will continue to support human rights in Russia and those who seek to defend them. My hon. Friend attempts to draw me on the integrated review, but I am sure he knows me better than to think that I would speculate on when that may be published.
As a long-standing Member of Parliament, I do not know what the Government’s policy is towards Russia. It is a corrupt regime that poisons people in our country and poisons its democratic citizens in other parts of the world. Is it not about time that we accepted that there is a Russian elite in London, in control of money in property, coming in on private jets with no hindrance, and that we took them on? Then the leaders, particularly Putin, would listen to what we say.
When it comes to the case of Alexei Navalny, we have been very clear about our action. We took the lead on the OPCW in signing up member states to demand that Russia follow up with a transparent investigation. We led the way with the G7 statement yesterday. In addition, we have put in place six sanctions against individuals and one organisation. We have been leading from the front when it comes to the case of Alexei Navalny, and when it comes to Russia, again, I have been very clear about our policy: we want a different relationship with Russia and there can be no normalisation in our bilateral relationship until its passive-aggressive behaviour changes.
Again, we have been very clear what our expectations are when it comes to Russia and Russian behaviour. When it comes to the case of Alexei Navalny, Russia must fully respond to the OPCW demands for a transparent investigation and explain how a chemical weapon came to be used against a Russian citizen on Russian soil. Russia must start to account for itself.
The best way in which we can show our support for Alexei Navalny is not by words but by actions, and not by investigations but by convictions. Navalny himself has said that he wants the international community to use sanctions against complicit Russian kleptocrats who live outside Russia. He has named Abramovich and Usmanov, both of whom have considerable wealth, property and links to English football clubs. On Facebook, Navalny has said that the sanctions have not worked because
“the West has refrained from sanctioning the people with the money” .
Is that true?
Sanctions send a clear message to those responsible that the use of chemical weapons is an egregious violation of the international obligations that we must all uphold to keep societies safe. We continue to work to protect human rights and civil society in Russia. We are considering all options for further action, but as I have said, and as I am sure the right hon. Lady is aware, it would be inappropriate for me to speculate on any future listings.
The arrest of Mr Navalny is a disgraceful act by a Putin regime that is clearly terrified of being held to account by the Russian people. Last year, when Mr Navalny was poisoned, the Government took steps to freeze assets of senior figures in the Russian Government. Can the Minister confirm whether further asset freezes of both individuals and organisations are an option that the UK is prepared to consider this time?
The Minister said that she is “appalled” by what has happened to Mr Navalny and described the event as “despicable”. She went on to pray in aid the United Kingdom’s current G7 presidency as “leading from the front” on Russia and said that the UK has “galvanised the international community”. We only have to listen to what Members have said so far to know that it is not the international community that the Government need to galvanise—they need to galvanise themselves. They will not be trembling in Moscow at anything the Minister, who I like, has had to say this afternoon, and there certainly will not be any winds of relief in Mr Navalny’s prison cell from what she has said. I do not want her to speculate; I want her to do something. I want her to implement the full recommendations of the ISC report. She owes this House and those protesting in Russia at the weekend an explanation as to why the Government flatly refuse to do so.
The hon. Gentleman quotes my words, so I will re-quote them: the UK has galvanised the international community in condemnation of these deplorable detentions. As the G7 president, we issued a G7 Foreign Ministers’ statement on 26 January. When it comes to the issue of the Russia report, as I have set out very clearly, Russia is a top national security priority for the Government. We will be introducing new legislation; I have made that very clear. The National Crime Agency has increased the number of investigations into corrupt elites, and we are also reviewing all tier 1 investor visas granted before 5 April 2015.
I agree with the Minister that Russia is a destabilising force with little regard for human rights and international law. Of course, that affects us, especially as Russia continues to use its veto to stall the United Nations in investigating genocide. Does the Minister agree with the Government’s position that the determination of genocide falls to international courts, but when they are in paralysis, with countries such as Russia having a hold over them, the obligation to investigate and prevent a genocide falls to domestic courts?
This particular urgent question in respect of Russia is very much about the issue of Navalny and the action that the UK has been taking. I have been clear about the way we approach this issue and have set out that we absolutely condemn the action and call for Navalny’s immediate release.
I support everything that the Minister has said in her condemnation of the Putin regime in relation to Mr Navalny, and commend her balanced approach.
Ever since I married my Russian Orthodox wife, I have tried to understand Russia and the sensitivities of the Russian people. Will the Minister make it clear that, while we condemn the Putin regime, there will be nothing Russophobe about our attitude? That means we need to understand Russian cultural and historical sensitivities. On the Council of Europe, engagement with Russian parliamentarians may sometimes be useful—as Winston Churchill said, “Jaw-jaw is better than war-war.”
My right hon. Friend makes an important point. I have set out today the fact that we want a different relationship with Russia, but I absolutely accept that there are often people-to-people links, which are something entirely different, and when it comes to culture there are many links between our two countries. But let me be absolutely clear that Russia’s pattern of aggressive behaviour undermines its claim that it is a responsible international partner that upholds the rules-based international system. We in the UK will continue to support human rights in Russia and those who seek to defend them.
With permission, Mr Speaker, I will make a statement on the Government’s measures to safeguard our United Kingdom against the new variants of covid until we have administered enough vaccinations to free ourselves from the virus.
I am acutely conscious that at this moment parents are balancing the demands of working from home with supporting the education of their children, businesspeople are enduring the sight of their shops or restaurants or other enterprises standing empty and idle, and, sadly, too many are coping with the anxiety of illness or the tragedy of bereavement.
I am deeply sorry to say that the number of people that have been taken from us has surpassed 100,000, as the House was discussing only an hour or so ago. I know that the House will join me in offering condolences to all those who have lost loved ones. The most important thing we can do to honour their memory is to persevere against this virus with ever greater resolve.
That is why we have launched the biggest vaccination programme in British history. Three weeks ago, I reported that the UK had immunised 1.3 million people; now that figure has multiplied more than fivefold to exceed 6.8 million people—more than any other country in Europe and over 13% of the entire adult population. In England we have now delivered first doses to over four fifths of those aged 80 or over, over half of those aged between 75 and 79, and three quarters of elderly care home residents. Though it remains an exacting target, we are on track to achieve our goal of offering a first dose to everyone in the top four priority groups by the middle of February.
I can also reassure the House that all current evidence shows that both the vaccines we are administering remain effective against the new variant that was first identified in London and the south-east, by means of our world-leading capability in genomic sequencing. The UK has now sequenced over half of all covid-19 viral genomes that have been submitted to the global database—10 times more than any other country. Yesterday, my right hon. Friend the Health Secretary announced our new variant assessment platform, through which we will work with the World Health Organisation to offer our expertise to help other countries, because a new variant anywhere poses a potential threat everywhere.
To guard against this danger, we must also take additional steps to strengthen our borders to stop those strains from entering the UK. We have already temporarily closed all travel corridors, and we are already requiring anyone coming to this country to have proof of a negative covid test taken in the 72 hours before leaving. They must also complete a passenger locator form which must be checked before they board, and then quarantine on arrival for 10 days. I want to make it clear that under the stay-at-home regulations, it is illegal to leave home to travel abroad for leisure purposes. We will enforce this at ports and airports by asking people why they are leaving and instructing them to return home if they do not have a valid reason to travel.
We have also banned all travel from 22 countries where there is a risk of known variants, including South Africa, Portugal and South American nations. In order to reduce the risk posed by UK nationals and residents returning home from these countries, I can announce that we will require all such arrivals who cannot be refused entry to isolate in Government-provided accommodation such as hotels for 10 days, without exception. They will be met at the airport and transported directly into quarantine. The Department of Health and Social Care is working to establish these facilities as quickly as possible. My right hon. Friend the Home Secretary will set out the details of our plans in her statement shortly. My right hon. Friend the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster has this morning spoken to the First Ministers of Scotland and Wales and the First Minister and Deputy First Minister of Northern Ireland and, as we have throughout this pandemic, we will be working closely with the devolved Administrations to implement these new measures so that, where possible, we continue with a UK-wide approach.
It was the emergence of a new variant that is up to 70% more transmissible that forced England back into lockdown, and I know that everyone yearns to know how much longer they must endure these restrictions, with all their consequences for jobs and livelihoods and, most tragically of all, for the life chances of our children. We will not persist for a day longer than is necessary, but nor can we relax too soon, because if we do, we run the risk of our NHS coming under still greater pressure, compelling us to reimpose every restriction and sustain those restrictions for longer.
So far, our efforts do appear to have reduced the R rate, but we do not yet have enough data to know exactly how soon it will be safe to reopen our society and economy. At this point, we do not have enough data to judge the full effect of vaccines in blocking transmission, nor the extent and speed with which the vaccines will reduce hospitalisations and deaths, nor how quickly the combination of vaccinations and the lockdown can be expected to ease the pressure on the NHS.
What we do know is that we remain in a perilous situation, with more than 37,000 patients now in hospital with covid, almost double the peak of the first wave, but the overall picture should be clearer by mid-February. By then, we will know much more about the effect of vaccines in preventing hospitalisations and deaths, using data from the UK but also other nations such as Israel. We will know how successful the current restrictions have been in driving down infections. We will also know how many people are still in hospital with covid, which we simply cannot predict with certainty today. We will then be in a better position to chart a course out of lockdown without risking a further surge that would overwhelm the NHS.
When I announced the lockdown, I said that we would review its measures in mid-February, once the most vulnerable had been offered the first dose of the vaccine, so I can tell the House that when Parliament returns from recess in the week commencing 22 February, subject to the full agreement of the House, we intend to set out the results of that review and publish our plan for taking the country out of lockdown. That plan will, of course, depend on the continued success of our vaccination programme, on the capacity of the NHS and on deaths falling at the pace we would expect as more people are inoculated.
Our aim will be to set out a gradual and phased approach towards easing the restrictions in a sustainable way, guided by the principles we have observed throughout the pandemic and beginning with the most important principle of all: that reopening schools must be our national priority. The first sign of normality beginning to return should be pupils going back to their classrooms. I know how parents and teachers need as much certainty as possible, including two weeks’ notice of the return of face-to-face teaching. I must inform the House that, for the reasons I have outlined, it will not be possible to reopen schools immediately after the February half-term. I know how frustrating that will be for pupils and teachers, who want nothing more than to get back to the classroom, and for parents and carers who have spent so many months juggling their day jobs not only with home schooling but with meeting the myriad other demands of their children from breakfast until bedtime.
I know, too, the worries we all share about the mental health of our young people during this prolonged period of being stuck at home, so our plan for leaving the lockdown will set out our approach towards re-opening schools. If we achieve our target of vaccinating everyone in the four most vulnerable groups with their first dose by 15 February—and every passing day sees more progress towards that goal—those groups will have developed immunity from the virus by about three weeks later, that is by 8 March. We hope it will therefore be safe to begin the reopening of schools from Monday 8 March, with other economic and social restrictions being removed then or thereafter, as and when the data permits.
As we are extending the period of remote learning beyond the middle of February, I can confirm that the Government will prolong arrangements for providing free school meals for those eligible children not in school, including food parcels and the national voucher scheme, until they have returned to the classroom. We can also commit now that, as we did this financial year, we will provide a programme of catch-up over the next financial year. This will involve a further £300 million of new money to schools for tutoring, and we will work in collaboration with the education sector to develop, as appropriate, specific initiatives for summer schools and a covid premium to support catch-up. But we recognise that these extended school closures have had a huge impact on children’s learning, which will take more than a year to make up, so we will work with parents, teachers and schools to develop a long-term plan to make sure pupils have the chance to make up their learning over the course of this Parliament.
I know that the measures I am setting out today will be deeply frustrating to many hon. Friends and colleagues, and disappointing for all of us. But the way forward has been clear ever since the vaccines arrived, and as we inoculate more people hour by hour, this is the time to hold our nerve in the end game of the battle against the virus. Our goal now must be to buy the extra weeks we need to immunise the most vulnerable and get this virus under control, so that together we can defeat this most wretched disease and reclaim our lives, once and for all. I commend this statement to the House.
I thank the Prime Minister for advance sight of his statement. To lose 100,000 people to this virus is nothing short of a national tragedy. It is a stark number: an empty chair at the kitchen table; a person obviously taken before their time. Today, we should remember that, and we should mark the moment by learning the lessons of the last year to make sure that the same mistakes are not made again.
Of course, any Government would have struggled with this pandemic—I get that and the British people get that—but the reality is that Britain is the first country in Europe to suffer 100,000 deaths, and we have one of the highest death rates in the world. The Prime Minister often says that he has been balancing the health restrictions against economic risks, but that simply does not wash, because alongside that high death toll we also have the deepest recession of any major economy and the lowest growth of any major economy, and we are on course to have one of the slowest recoveries of any major economy.
So for all the contrition and sympathy that the Prime Minister expresses, and I recognise how heartfelt that is, the truth is that this was not inevitable—it was not just bad luck. It is the result of a huge number of mistakes by the Prime Minister during the course of this pandemic. We were too slow into lockdown last March, too slow to get protective equipment to the front line and, of course, too slow to protect our care homes—20% of deaths in this pandemic have come from care home residents. I really do not think that the Prime Minister and the Health Secretary understand just how offensive it was to pretend that there was a protective ring around our care homes.
The Government had the chance over the summer to learn from those mistakes in the first wave and prepare for a second wave and a challenging winter. I put that challenge to the Prime Minister in June, but that chance was wasted. The Government then went on to fail to deliver an effective test, trace and isolate system, despite all the warnings. They failed to deliver clear and reliable public messaging, crucial in a pandemic—one minute telling people to go to work, then to do the complete opposite.
The Prime Minister has failed on a number of occasions to follow the scientific advice that the virus was getting out of control. First, in September, when that advice was given, they failed to implement a circuit break or lockdown over half-term as we suggested. Then in December, we had the fiasco over Christmas mixing. Once again, we had the 13-day delay from 22 December, when that further medical advice was given, to when the third national lockdown was finally introduced. As a result, we have seen a third wave more deadly than the first and second waves. Fifty thousand people have died since 11 November. That is 50,000 deaths in 77 days. That is a scarcely believable toll on the British people.
In isolation, any of these mistakes are perhaps understandable. Taken together, it is a damning indictment of how the Government have handled this pandemic. The Prime Minister says, “Well, now is not the time to answer the question why.” That is the answer he gave back in the summer after the first wave. He said the same after the second wave, and he says it again now, each time repeating the mistakes over and over again. That is why now is the time to ask and answer the question why.
The way out of this nightmare has now been provided by our amazing scientists, our NHS, our armed forces and hundreds of thousands of volunteers. The vaccine programme is making incredible progress. The British people have come together to deliver what is the largest peacetime effort in our history. Despite the Prime Minister’s constant complaining, all of us—all of us—are doing whatever we can to help the vaccine roll out as swiftly and as safely as possible.
On schools, first I have to say that even for this Prime Minister it is quite something to open schools one day and close them the next, to call them vectors of transmission and then to challenge me to say that the schools he has closed are safe, only now to give a statement where he says that schools cannot open until 8 March at the earliest because it is not safe to do so. That is his analysis. It is the sort of nonsense that has led us to the highest death toll in Europe and the worst recession.
We of course welcome any steps forward in reopening schools, and we will look at the detail of how the Education Secretary plans to deliver that and the plans to deliver online learning. I also hope that the Prime Minister will take seriously our proposal—echoed, incidentally, by the Children’s Commissioner and the Conservative Chair of the Education Committee, the right hon. Member for Harlow (Robert Halfon)—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 that window of the February half-term to vaccinate all school staff, including every teacher and teaching assistant. There is a clear week there when that could be done, and it should be done.
On borders, we will look at the detail—
On borders, we will look at the Prime Minister’s statement in detail, and obviously hear what the Home Secretary has to say, but in due course there will be a public inquiry. The Prime Minister will have to answer the question. I hope that he can finally answer this very simple and direct question, because yesterday he was maintaining that the Government had done
“everything we could to save lives.”
Is he really saying to those grieving families that their loss was just inevitable and that none of the 100,000 deaths could have been avoided?
The right hon. and learned Gentleman asks about mistakes, and I have said that there will be a time to reflect, to analyse, to learn lessons and to prepare. However, I say to him that I think the biggest mistake he has made is in seeking continually to attack what the Government have been trying to do at every opportunity, supporting one week and then attacking the very same policy the next week. He complains about confusion of messages. How much has he actually done, as Leader of the Opposition, to reassure the public, for example, about NHS Test and Trace, which has done a very good job, I notice, of confining him for the third time? What has he done to reassure people about messaging, rather than attacking, causing confusion and trying to sow doubt about what the Government are doing? There was a very different path open to him at the beginning of this pandemic and it is a great pity he has not taken it.
The right hon. and learned Gentleman knows perfectly well that the problem is not that schools are unsafe. They are not unsafe. Schools are safe—he should say it, and his union paymasters should hear him say it loud and clear. The problem is that schools bring communities together, obviously, and large numbers of kids are a considerable vector of transmission. It is not that there is any particular extra risk to those involved in education.
I heard with interest what the right hon. and learned Gentleman had to say about his proposal for changing the Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation priority list, and I really think he should reflect on what he is saying. The JCVI priority list, one to nine, is designed by experts and clinicians to prioritise those groups who are most likely to die or suffer from coronavirus. By trying to change that, and saying that he now wants to bring in other groups of public sector workers, to be decided by politicians, rather than the JCVI, he has to explain which vaccines he would take from which vulnerable groups, to make sense of his policy. That is what he is doing and that is what the Labour proposal would involve.
Indeed, by making it more difficult for us to vaccinate all those vulnerable groups in the fastest possible way, that Labour policy would delay our route out of lockdown and delay our ability to get kids back into school in the way they want. I urge the right hon. and learned Gentleman to think again, or at least to explain which members of those vulnerable groups would be deprived of vaccines in order to follow the Labour policy.
All I can say, having listened carefully to what the right hon. and learned Gentleman had to say, is that everybody will have to answer questions at the end of this and—let me put it this way—all politicians will be asked what they did, and what we did collaboratively, working together for the people of our country, to beat this virus. I am not sure that, on reflection, his choice was the right one for either his party or the country.
On Monday, Baroness Harding said that 40% of the people asked to self-isolate by NHS Test and Trace were not fully doing so. That works out at a worrying 30,000 people every day who are potentially still spreading the virus, many of them still going to work. Because that is such a big threat to our containment strategy for the virus, could the Prime Minister say what he thinks we need to do to deal with that issue? In particular, is it now time to consider making a blanket offer to those asked to self-isolate, that we will make good any salary they lose? In the end, that may be cheaper than having to extend furlough if the case rate remains high.
I very much respect my right hon. Friend’s suggestion and I understand the logic of what he is saying, but I believe that the people of this country should be self-isolating, in the way that the right hon. and learned Gentleman the Leader of the Opposition is rightly doing, on the basis that it is the right thing for themselves, for their families and for the country. They do get support, where needed, of £500, and there are very considerable fines for failing to do it. I think that is the right way forward and I hope he will join me in commending prompt action by everybody who is asked to self-isolate. It is the right thing to do for you, for your family and for the country.
Let me thank the Prime Minister for an advance copy of his statement.
As we know, yesterday the UK reached yet another terrible milestone—100,000 covid-related deaths. Today, it is only right that we reflect on all those who have lost their lives during this pandemic. Our thoughts and prayers are most especially with their families and those who are left with the heaviest burden of grief. In time, there will be a reckoning on the UK Government’s response to this virus and it is clear that that verdict may well be damning. In the here and now, though, it remains our job to focus on how we can support and save as many people as possible in the weeks and months ahead. That means a renewed commitment to maintaining public health, but it also must mean a renewed package of financial support for all those—all those, Prime Minister—who have been left behind by this Tory Government.
Right now, covid is the immediate threat to life, but poverty remains a killer, too. In 2019, the Institute for Public Policy Research revealed that Tory austerity cuts over the previous decade had resulted in as many as 130,000 preventable deaths. The Prime Minister promised not to repeat Tory austerity. If people are to believe him, he should start by making three important announcements today: extend the furlough scheme for the full duration of the pandemic; maintain the uplift to universal credit and apply it to legacy benefits; and put in place a package of support for the 3 million excluded.
Prime Minister, eleventh-hour announcements have to stop. These decisions cannot wait until the Budget in March. People need certainty now. I asked the Prime Minister these same questions at Prime Minister’s questions, but I failed to get a straight answer, so please try again, Prime Minister. Will his Government extend furlough, maintain the universal credit uplift and offer support for the 3 million excluded? Finally, on international travel, both the Scottish and Welsh Governments want to go further on quarantining measures than what his UK Government are proposing. Will the Prime Minister stop his half measures and join the Governments in Scotland and Wales in stricter enforcements on international travel? That, Prime Minister, would be leadership.
I look forward to what the devolved Administrations do later, but I can tell the House that we are putting in the toughest measures virtually anywhere in the world, and my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary will be setting out the detail in due course.
I can tell the right hon. Gentleman that this country, through the might of the UK Treasury, as my right hon. Friend the Chancellor has said many times, has been able to look after people across the UK. It is thanks to the UK Government that we have the furlough scheme, the bounce back loans and the many other forms of support. It is thanks to the UK that we have, for instance, the Army able to move people in distress with covid in remote parts of Scotland to the hospitals where they need to get to, and indeed the British Army helping across Scotland, I am proud to say, to distribute the vaccines that are so essential for our fight back from this virus. So I hope that the right hon. Gentleman will abandon his narrow nationalist position and look at the achievements of the UK overall, and I think it is a fine, fine thing. It would be a wonderful thing, by the way, if the Scottish nationalist party for a moment stopped talking about its desire for a referendum while we are trying to deal with a pandemic.
The Prime Minister is very properly concerned to protect our national health service, and particularly to prevent hospitals and intensive care units from being overwhelmed this winter. My question is about the scope to enhance primary care to reduce the need for covid patients to go to hospital in the first place. New Canadian studies of 4,500 people published this week show that the use of colchicine has cut hospital admissions by 25% and death rates by almost half. Similarly, some ivermectin studies have shown 75% reductions in death rates. What scope is there to act quickly this winter—this winter, not next winter—to enhance our primary care level to protect populations and hospitals?
As of 6.30 pm yesterday, the UK has the worst recorded death rate by head of population in the world. This is a grave moment for our country. I am sure all our hearts go out to the families who have lost loved ones. Last week, the Prime Minister told me he was still not prepared to launch the inquiry into the covid crisis that he promised six months ago. Instead, will he at least tell the country today that he will launch that inquiry sometime this year, so that we can find out why our country has seen the worst death rate from covid in the world, learn the lessons, and give bereaved families the answers and the justice that he owes them?
Once again, the right hon. Gentleman has the answer contained in his question. This country is going through a grievous bout of a deadly pandemic. He rightly draws attention to the death toll of 100,000 and, as he knows, there are currently 37,000 people in hospital. The entire British state is working flat out to bring the virus under control, and to get us through this pandemic and out the other side. As I have told him before, now is not the right time to consecrate the energies and efforts of officialdom, which would be huge, to an inquiry, though as I have said before—I said it last night and I will reassure him again today—of course there will be a time to learn lessons, to reflect, to understand and to prepare.
I welcome and thank my right hon. Friend for his upbeat statement, which offers much-needed hope to a beleaguered nation, rather contrary to Captain Hindsight’s contribution. With a successful inoculation programme in full swing, my right hon. Friend’s plan to break free from lockdowns and restrictions is critical. Variants or no variants, does he agree that the lives and livelihoods of millions of our citizens now depend on a more proportionate response to this pandemic, which will require political courage to initiate?
I very much respect the point of view of my hon. Friend, who has long been a keen and justified campaigner for liberty. I share his instincts very strongly, but I must tell him that we will continue to be cautious in our approach because we do not wish to see more lives lost than we can possibly avoid. That is why we will continue with the roll-out of the vaccine programme —the fastest in Europe currently—and on 15 February, as I have just said to the House, we will look at where we are. We will be setting out a road map, which I hope will be useful to him and to all colleagues throughout the House, on 22 February.
I thank the Prime Minister for his statement. Would he confirm what discussions have taken place with his counterparts in education to give ample time for teachers to plan their online teaching, with special reference to children who cannot or will not be able to access their online classes? I agree with him that it is better that the children are back in their classrooms, but can he ensure that all the teaching staff, especially the special needs teachers, will be a priority for the vaccine roll-out? Can he also confirm that there will be no shortage of vaccine, as was indicated in the press today?
We are rolling out 1.3 million laptops, and we are making sure that kids—pupils—have access to online learning wherever possible. The most important thing, as the hon. Gentleman has rightly said, is to get kids back into school as soon as we sensibly can. That is what the Government are determined to do.
I want to reassure the hon. Gentleman about the vaccination programme. He mentioned anxieties about supply. As I stand before you today, Madam Deputy Speaker, I am confident that we will deliver on the 15 February pledge, and that we will continue to be able to drive up—[Interruption.] I see that the Under-Secretary of State for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy, my hon. Friend the Member for Stratford-on-Avon (Nadhim Zahawi), who is responsible for the vaccine roll-out, is confirming that we will be able to continue that accelerating curve of supply as well.
I join Members across the House in sending my deepest condolences to the families and friends of each and every individual who had tragically passed away as a result of covid. However, during this extremely difficult time I have nothing but admiration for the army of volunteers working tirelessly in my constituency and across the country. Will the Prime Minister join me in thanking organisations such as The Fed, the Jewish Volunteering Network, Headsup and Porch Boxes, along with all those who have done so much to protect the vulnerable and needy in Prestwich, Radcliffe and Whitefield?
I will indeed join my hon. Friend in paying tribute to those volunteers in his constituency. They join a huge constellation of shining points of light across our country. It has been one of the most extraordinary things; one of the few consolations of this crisis is the upsurge in volunteering.
May I associate my remarks with others that have been made, and express my sincerest condolences to everyone who has lost a loved one, particularly the constituents to whom I spoke last night?
Professor Sir Michael Marmot’s recent report pointed to four drivers that have contributed to the high and unequal death toll in the UK. He identified the governance and political culture that have damaged social cohesion and inclusivity; the widening inequalities in power, money and resources; the regressive austerity policies over the past 10 years; and the declining life expectancy—and of the healthy life expectancy—of the poorest, particularly women, which is among the worst in all comparable economies. Professor Marmot has called for the Government to address those issues and to build back fairer, so will the Prime Minister and his Cabinet listen to him?
I have a very high regard for Michael Marmot, and worked closely with him for many years. I believe that his advice is invaluable, and we will indeed make sure that as we come through the pandemic we look at the way in which it has impacted on the poorest and most vulnerable. We will indeed build back fairer.
The vaccine roll-out now offers hope and relief to vulnerable people who have spent months living in fear and isolation. We hear that 6.8 million vaccines have been delivered, which is an amazing achievement, and I thank everyone involved in the roll-out. The mass vaccination hubs are an important part of the scheme, but many of my constituents with mobility issues are worried that they are going to miss out on their vaccine, as they cannot make the journey to one of those larger hubs. Can the Prime Minister give them reassurance that they will be offered a vaccine locally—even in their own home—and that anyone unable to travel will be fully supported?
My hon. Friend makes a very important point, and I hope that she will give reassurance to her constituents that they need have no anxieties about that. They do not have to go to the vaccination centres. They can either go to their GP surgery or, indeed, they will be visited in their own home.
May I add my condolences to those already expressed to the victims, and their families and friends, of this awful illness? One of the challenges for children and adults working from home—the time now for children extended today by the Prime Minister—is, in addition to devices and connectivity, a lack of digital skills. This week I was made aware of an online scam asking people to put their financial information into a very plausible fake NHS website to get the vaccine. What is the Prime Minister doing to tackle this criminal activity, preying on often vulnerable people waiting for the vaccine? What is the Prime Minister doing to ensure that individuals, young and old, have the digital skills they need to protect themselves, learn from home and work from home?
The hon. Lady is absolutely right about the importance of digital skills and connectivity. That is why we are, for instance, massively increasing superfast gigabit broadband across the country and making sure that people have the technology they need. She raises a particularly important point about online scams. These are a problem. I can tell her that we are working across Government, led by the Cabinet Office, to beat the fraudsters and root them out. If she would be kind enough to send me details of the case she mentions, we will feed it into our system immediately.
Do we have the sound working for Mr Clark? [Interruption.] I apologise to the right hon. Gentleman. We appear to be hearing the sound engineers. Perhaps we will leave that for a moment and come back to the right hon. Gentleman. Meanwhile, we will go to York, hopefully, to Rachael Maskell.
The evidence shows that the Government’s approach to easing the lockdown before Christmas meant that crowds of people came to York despite my warnings, spreading infection in the retail, hospitality and transport sectors because they could travel to a lower tier and were off guard in my community. The result has been devastating. It was completely unsafe and completely avoidable. Will the Prime Minister commit not to return to a tiered system where people can freely move the infection from one place to another? What steps will he take to avoid this catastrophe from happening again? Can I meet one of his Ministers to discuss York’s tragic experience over Christmas?
As soon as we were informed of the extra transmissibility—50% to 70% faster—of the new variant, we took all the action we could. I would just remind the hon. Lady that the best thing we can do for the people of York now is to ensure we keep the virus under control with the tough measures we have and ensure we all come forward for the vaccine. I urge her to get her constituents to come forward and take that vaccine. They are going great guns in Yorkshire. My memory is that in Yorkshire I think they have taken more vaccine than virtually anywhere else in the country. I congratulate the people of Yorkshire on what they are doing. We are now coming into the last furlong of the JCVI one to four and it would be great to get 100% of the people of Yorkshire in the course of the next few days.
Thank you, Madam Deputy Speaker. In all the gloom of the tragedy of covid, will my right hon. Friend pay tribute to the staff and volunteers who are working so hard to scale up the programme of vaccinations in Harlow and delivering the life-saving vaccines to thousands of residents in our new mass vaccination centre? I know he wants schools and colleges to open sooner rather than later. I really welcome what he has said today about catch-up, the extra funding, free school meals and, above all, the education plan for a covid recovery. Will he ensure the catch-up fund also helps children with mental health problems? Will he work with a coalition of the willing, such as the Children’s Commissioner and other educationalists, to get all our children back in the classroom?
Yes, indeed, I join my right hon. Friend in congratulating not just the NHS, the Army and the pharmacies but the volunteers who are making the vaccine roll-out possible. We are putting extra funding into tackling mental health problems, particularly for children and young people, and the funding that we have announced of over £3 billion extra every year will go to help 345,000 children as well.
Office for National Statistics data shows that key workers and those in manual and public-facing jobs are at the highest risk of dying from coronavirus. Bradford is a key worker city, and tragically, more than 1,000 Bradfordians have now died from the virus. When the most vulnerable groups have been vaccinated, will the Prime Minister ensure that priority is given to frontline workers who have played such a key role in keeping the country going during the pandemic, often with a high risk to their personal safety, including police officers, teachers, shop workers, bus and taxi drivers and many others who are unable to work from home? When will he publish his plan for the next stage of the vaccine roll-out?
I congratulate the hon. Lady on being so much more sensible than her party leader, who is saying that he wants to interrupt the vaccine roll-out for the vulnerable groups and decide politically who should get the vaccine. I think we should leave it to the Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation to decide the most vulnerable groups. That is what we are going to do. That is the fastest way to deal with those who are most likely to die. I saw that she was shaking her head; she perhaps disagrees with the suggestion that she has just made, but I think that it is an excellent suggestion, and she should stick to it.
I thank the Prime Minister for his commitment to reopen schools as soon as possible and for the vaccine roll-out. I am asking this question on behalf of children everywhere. As the mother of a nine-year-old, I can see that young children are struggling. Their cognitive development is determined at this age. We are storing up a lifetime of problems—anxiety, mental health issues and obesity—by having all our primary-age children at home. May I urge the Prime Minister to have courage in these final months and bring children—particularly primary-age children—back to school as quickly as possible?
My hon. Friend is completely right, and I know that she speaks for millions of mothers and millions of parents across the country who want our kids to be back in school and who are anxious about the gaps in their learning that may be arising as a result of this pandemic. We are going to do everything we can to plug those gaps. She has heard what I have said about catch-up funds and the investments we are making in one-to-one tutorials, and that will go on not just this year but next year and throughout this Parliament, until we have made up the ground for those kids, because they deserve it. We will, of course, work as fast as possible to get schools open, but we must do it in a way that is cautious and proportionate.