We take covid safety very seriously, and as I said earlier, we have invested £0.25 billion in making our courts covid-safe this year. That has involved the buildings and other measures that include plexiglass screens, nightingale courts, social distancing, and an enhanced cleaning regime. We work closely, of course, with Public Health England to ensure that our courts are covid-safe.
Solicitors in my constituency, particularly those who may be vulnerable, have contacted me to say that they are frightened to attend court due to the lack of safety provisions. That has led to some of them refusing to take on new cases, and resulted in defendants not having the levels of representation to which they are entitled, and further backlogs. Those solicitors have a simple request: that the Court Service resumes video remand hearings, such as those in place at the peak of the first lockdown, so that we can get through the backlog and they can conduct their work from home if possible, which is the Government’s national advice.
The Lord Chief Justice rightly gave a direction in January at the beginning of this lockdown that every case that can be heard remotely should be, for all the reasons mentioned by the hon. Gentleman. Video remand hearings have been recommenced as much as possible, and they are used a lot more now than they were in December, for example. I reassure the hon. Gentleman’s constituents that Public Health England says that our court estate is safe, and incidents of covid among Her Majesty’s Courts and Tribunal Service staff are no higher or lower than in the general population. I hope that gives his constituents confidence to continue their work in person where that is absolutely necessary.
Labour Members share the horror of the legal profession at the fact that the already huge court backlog has increased by 35% since the start of the pandemic, and now includes more than 53,000 Crown Court cases. Lawyers want to keep the justice system open and moving, but it is wrong to ask them to pay for years of Tory cuts by putting their health and safety at risk. Like everyone else they are anxious, and given the hundreds of covid cases across the court estate, as revealed in answers to my parliamentary questions, we should not be surprised. More than 100 new cases were reported in just eight days in January alone. Sadly, we hear that precautions vary considerably across the country, so what new measures will the Minister take in the estate to ensure that all courts operate best practice, and provide those who use them with a guarantee that they will be safe?
We have already invested, as I have said repeatedly this morning, a quarter of a billion pounds in total this financial year to make our court estate covid-safe. That is why we have managed to keep the court system operating in the month of January and beyond in a way that was very difficult back in March and April last year. Public Health English is regularly consulted.
On the covid cases the hon. Gentleman mentions, there are tens of thousands of people passing through our court system every day, and the number of covid cases reported among HMCTS staff is in line with what we would expect in the general population. Indeed, those cases are now going down. Best practice is being adopted. Our courts are safe. Of course, where hearings can be done remotely they should be, as we are doing here in Parliament, and that is why we had over 20,000 remote hearings across all jurisdictions last week, but where hearings have to be done in person courts are safe to hear them.