House of Commons
Tuesday 9 February 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
Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy
The Secretary of State was asked—
UK Research and Development
Thank you very much, Mr Speaker.
We announced at the spending review an investment of £14.6 billion in R&D for 2021-22. This will no doubt cement our status as a science superpower here in the UK. We are taking forward the ambitious commitments in the R&D road map, which was published only last year, and we are of course continuing co-operation with the EU through association with the Horizon Europe programme.
Apprentices have played a key role throughout this pandemic, including working on the Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccine, which is helping the country overcome this virus. Can my right hon. Friend confirm that, in National Apprenticeship Week, he will be working with and encouraging more R&D-based businesses to provide apprenticeship opportunities so that more young people can gain the skills they need to progress in this field?
Absolutely. I thank my hon. Friend for the great work he is doing as co-chair of the all-party parliamentary group on apprenticeships. He will know that apprenticeships are a key part of this Government’s plan for jobs as we build back better from the pandemic, and that is why we are offering employers cash payments of up to £2,000 when they hire a new apprentice, until 31 March this year.
We are all grateful to Britain’s world-leading scientists for blazing a trail of hope in this terrible pandemic, but how are Government protecting science’s future? Medical charity research is predicted to fall by over £4 billion after Government refused support. University research has only been offered loans to cover losses from international students, while 90% of UK researchers are excluded from support, even though the virus prevents them from finishing their research. Postgraduate research students from the nine doctoral training programmes have written to demand action, given the escalating scale of the crisis, and there is a massive reduction in funding for early career researchers. Why are Government not protecting the future of the science that is protecting us?
The hon. Lady seems to be living in a parallel universe. If we look at the vaccine roll-out—we have seen 12.3 million, or nearly 12.3 million, people vaccinated as of this morning—we can see that the strength of the UK science base is really impressive. It is looked on throughout the world as something to aspire to. We are a world-leading science power—a science superpower. I have already mentioned the £14.6 billion that we have committed to R&D, and this is an area where we are confident and world-beating.
Post Office Closures: Scotland
Post offices and postmasters have played an absolutely key role in our communities, especially at this particular time, and I am pleased to report that, of the 25 CJ Lang branches due to close—while discussions continue—CJ Lang has agreed to keep 18 open. Post Office Ltd is actively working on alternative arrangements to ensure continuity of services for affected locations.
My constituents in Eastriggs, Thornhill, Gretna and the Georgetown area of Dumfries will be pleased to hear that their local post offices are not to close at this time, particularly during a pandemic. Can the Minister reassure me, however, that in the negotiations or discussions that are to take place between the Post Office and CJ Lang—or SPAR, as it is known locally—the Post Office will have the flexibility to look at new models of operation of a post office in such a retailer so that that model can meet the needs of the retailer, the needs of the Post Office and, most importantly, the needs of the post office customer?
My right hon. Friend has been a big champion for post offices in his constituency and across Scotland, including the world’s oldest post office in Sanquhar. I am glad to report that, yes, the Post Office does want to be flexible in delivering postal services across the country, including different models, according to demand.
Dismiss and Re-engage Tactics
Using threats of firing and rehiring as a negotiating tactic is completely unacceptable. That is why this Government have asked ACAS to look into this matter. It is talking to businesses and employee representatives to gather evidence of how fire and rehire has been used in practice.
I refer the House to my entry in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests.
GoNorthWest bus workers, many of them my constituents, are balloting for industrial action against shameful fire and rehire tactics that would see 10% cuts to wages and jobs and sickness protection policies shredded, all in the middle of a pandemic. With British Airways recently forced to back down from similar threats against cargo staff after targeted strikes by Unite the union, does the Minister agree that Government inaction against this exploitative legal loophole has meant that industrial action and trade union organising are working people’s only defence against disreputable employers?
Covid-19: Support for Businesses
It is well known that we spent over £280 billion on an unprecedented package of support for businesses, including the job retention scheme, support grants and Government-backed loans. I speak regularly with my right hon. Friend the Chancellor of the Exchequer on all the support measures available for businesses, including in the next stage when we try to lead and help them through the pandemic and towards recovery.
Hundreds of my local hospitality businesses are extremely grateful for the Government support grants they have received. As the success of the vaccine roll-out allows those businesses to start planning reopening, will my right hon. Friend continue to speak with the Chancellor about helping hospitality businesses, including the wedding industry, as they get back on their feet, perhaps by extending help with VAT and business rates?
As my hon. Friend knows, we speak all the time not only to my right hon. Friend the Chancellor of the Exchequer but to the sector; indeed, ministerial colleagues spoke to the sector just yesterday and I have dipped in on roundtables as well. We are very concerned about this; we fully recognise the great efforts my hon. Friend is making on behalf of his constituents, but we are in regular contact with our colleagues in the Treasury.
Almost 24,000 retail, hospitality and leisure businesses in Scotland are currently supported by 100% rates relief. That support has been extended until the end of July, but the Scottish Government want to go further and Scottish businesses need us to go further. However, due to borrowing constraints placed on Scotland’s Parliament, the funding necessary to extend further can only come from the UK Government, so does the Secretary of State agree that his Government should step up and fund this relief for another year?
What I do agree with is the fact that we have extended an unprecedented range of support and measures. I am in regular contact with my right hon. Friend the Chancellor; he has taken a nimble approach, and I look forward to engaging with him on what further support we can supply.
The hospitality supply chain has remained open despite a significant loss of earnings to continue supplying the NHS and schools that have to be open. Here in North Devon, Philip Dennis and Savona delivered to people’s homes and operated pop-up click and collect venues when many vulnerable households struggled for supermarkets slots. However, these companies are not eligible for the same support as the hospitality businesses they normally service; will my right hon. Friend ensure that they have the support they need so they are still trading when our hospitality sector reopens?
As my hon. Friend knows, in January the Chancellor announced an additional £500 million in grant funding to local authorities for the additional restrictions; this discretionary funding enables local authorities to support businesses, including, as she pointed out, those in supply chains that have been adversely impacted by restrictions but are ineligible for other measures. This funding comes on top of the £1.1 billion allocated in November 2020.
If the furlough scheme is not extended beyond April, Scotland, like the rest of the UK, will face mass unemployment, with the consequent damage to businesses, communities, families and the mental health of hundreds of thousands of people. Will the Secretary of State therefore urge the Chancellor to take urgent action to ensure that this is avoided by extending furlough?
I am absolutely mindful of the immense pressures our businesses right across the UK are suffering under at the moment. I am in regular contact with my right hon. Friend the Chancellor, who has acted in an unprecedented way; as I have said, he has put £280 billion into the economy to help our struggling businesses. But of course we are looking at the situation as it evolves, and we are very keen to help our economy through this.
May I congratulate my right hon. Friend again on his new position and on behalf of the 3,700 businesses across Beaconsfield that have benefited from the £200 million-worth of Government-backed loans since the start of the pandemic? Will he join me in paying tribute to Buckinghamshire Council for its excellent work in ensuring that businesses are supported during the pandemic, and confirm that he will continue to offer all the support he can to protect jobs and keep businesses afloat so that we can look to not only restart our economy but build back better from the pandemic?
Throughout this crisis, as I am sure my hon. Friend is aware, the Government have stood by businesses, as she mentioned, and worked tirelessly to protect people’s jobs and livelihoods across the entirety of our country. As we emerge from the pandemic, we will ensure that we seize the initiative, as she put it, to build back better, greener and faster from this pandemic.
Does the Secretary of State not accept that, if people who are excluded from support packages are forced to wind up their businesses and move to universal credit or social security, that is more costly to the Government and damaging to the economy in the long run? Surely it is better to bring the excluded in from the cold now than to pay the long-term costs of exclusion in the future.
I fully appreciate—this is our key message as a Government—that jobs and employment are a No. 1 priority. That is exactly why my right hon. Friend the Chancellor extended the furlough scheme. I am in constant conversation with him about how better to provide support for our economy under this distress.
Businesses are facing a £50 billion bombshell in less than two months as Government support packages are due to end, and there is still no clarity about the future. The Secretary of State must realise that the Budget is too late. Businesses are making decisions now about their future and that of their workers. The CBI director general said a week ago:
“Businesses are currently completely in the dark when planning for the weeks and months ahead and this is hindering investment.”
The Secretary of State’s job is to stand up for our businesses, so can he explain to them why, yet again, they are being left completely in the dark?
What I will explain is the fact that, in four weeks in the job, I have seen 200 business leaders. I meet the BROs—the business representative organisations —constantly, and I am in constant dialogue with them to ensure that the Government provide the support. We have provided £280 billion so far, which is beyond any precedent that we have seen. We are in constant conversation not only with our stakeholders but with the Chancellor of the Exchequer.
Excuses are no substitute for a plan. Businesses need clarity and certainty, and they are not getting it from the Government. Let me turn to another critical issue facing them. We want them to succeed in our new trading relationship with the EU, but according to Make UK, 60% of manufacturers are experiencing disruption, the fashion industry says it faces “decimation”, and hauliers are warning of a permanent reduction in trade. What personal, tangible action is the Business Secretary taking to get a grip and deal with the mountains of red tape now facing our businesses?
Of course, Mr Speaker, you will remember that, ahead of the Brexit deal, we were told that there was never going to be a deal and that we were going to crash out with no deal. We were told all sorts of scare stories about what would happen with Brexit. I fully accept that there are issues on the border, and I fully accept that many of the business leaders I have spoken to have raised issues, but I think the situation is far better with a deal—ask Nissan in Sunderland—than was the case, certainly, only three months ago.
I have been listening closely, and so far the Secretary of State has failed to give a long-term commitment to the furlough scheme, he has failed to provide any certainty whatsoever on business rates, and he has failed to back support for the excluded. As was just referred to, businesses are not just dealing with the damage caused by the pandemic; they are also facing the chaos of Brexit. Exports from the UK to the EU are reportedly down by 68%, and just 10,000 out of 50,000 customs agents are in place. Can the Secretary of State confirm just how bad things need to be before his Government set aside their dogma and instead ask the EU for a grace period in order to protect Scottish businesses?
I remind the hon. Gentleman that the Brexit debate is over; he, for his own purposes, wants to rekindle this. The business leaders I have spoken to have been extremely grateful for the fact that we got a deal, which he and others opposed—they also predicted that we would not get one. We are moving forward with an active plan and active engagement with the economy. Some £280 billion has been proffered so far. That is a picture that he fails to recognise.
It is probably helpful to advise the Secretary of State that in Scotland the Brexit debate is far from over—in fact, we are just getting started. But I will take it from his answer that there will not be any grace period for Scottish businesses. However, there is one area where I hope he can provide some positive news: in relation to the North sea transition deal. The perfect storm of the pandemic and price crashes has seen 12,000 jobs associated with the North sea go already—and sadly, more are expected to follow. Can the Secretary of State confirm that he still expects the deal to be signed by the end of March, as his predecessor stated in the House? Will he agree to meet me and my colleagues in the city to discuss this hugely important matter?
The hon. Gentleman is quite right. He will be courteous enough to acknowledge that, as Energy Minister, I was directly involved in the conversations ahead of the North sea transition deal. I was very much in favour of bringing forward the completion of the deal. I am hopeful that we can manage to reach a really good deal, in which the sector accepts the need for decarbonisation very quickly.
The UK is a key player in supporting the research happening in developing countries that will be essential to putting an end to the pandemic and allowing our businesses to recover. Is the Secretary of State aware of the devastating blow that overseas development aid cuts will be to businesses and could be to our position as a global science leader, sending a message that the UK is not a reliable partner in long-term science advancement and business across the world?
I do not accept that any change in overseas development aid money will undermine our position as a global science superpower. As I said earlier, the science community around the world has been extremely impressed with how we are proceeding with the vaccine roll-out and the great innovation that takes place in this country.
Covid-19: Support for Hospitality
As part of the Government’s unprecedented package of business support, worth £285 billion, hospitality businesses have access to the coronavirus job support scheme, grants, loans, reduced VAT, a business rates holiday and a moratorium on commercial evictions. We keep those and all support under review.
I draw the House’s attention to my entry in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests.
It is Heart Unions Week, and I am pleased that Unite the union has published a hospitality and tourism recovery plan that outlines how the Government could safeguard jobs, protect working standards and rescue the sector. Does the Minister agree that it is important that the Government should work closely with trade unions and hospitality businesses to create a sector recovery strategy and that extending the job retention scheme, introducing rapid testing for hospitality staff and creating a hospitality commission to retrain workers would provide the sector with certainty to help bounce back better?
I thank the hon. Lady. We work with the sector and also with trade unions; I am in constant discussions with them about their various sectors. Yes, it is important that we work together with the hospitality sector on reopening it, allowing it to recover and growing its resilience. I am talking not just about the support; given the 12.3 million vaccinations that have gone out to date, we will soon be able to reopen the hospitality sector and allow it to bounce back.
Covid-19: Support for Luxury Textile Sector
My hon. Friend will be aware of the great support that the Government have already given. The Government continue to offer unprecedented support through packages for businesses worth more than £280 billion. That includes loan schemes, grant funding, tax deferrals, the self-employment income scheme and, of course, the coronavirus job retention scheme. All have been designed to be accessible to businesses in most sectors and across the UK.
I am grateful for that response. As the Minister will know, the damaging tariffs from the US-EU trade dispute are punishing textile mills in my borders constituency. Textile bosses tell me in no uncertain terms that these tariffs are going to cost us jobs and investment. Will the Minister agree to meet me and representatives from the textile sector in my constituency to discuss opportunities to support them during this difficult time?
My hon. Friend has been a huge champion for Scottish textiles, and we are working hard to de-escalate the dispute and get punitive tariffs removed. Either I or the Secretary of State would be very happy to meet him and representatives from the textile sector in his constituency. I know that the Under-Secretary of State for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy, my hon. Friend the Member for Sutton and Cheam (Paul Scully)—the Minister for small business—continues to engage with stakeholders from across the retail and consumer goods sector.
We keep the safer workplaces guidance under continuous review. Public Health England and the Health and Safety Executive advise that the guidance remains robust on the basis of current scientific advice.
The answer that the Minister has given does not reflect the situation facing a lot of my constituents who work at the Driver and Vehicle Licensing Agency in Swansea. If the Government themselves cannot put in place suitable infrastructure to protect employees and substantially change their practices at the DVLA, how can they expect other companies to do so? Will he commit to speaking to his Secretary of State about the issue?
I regularly speak to the Secretary of State about such issues. In the event of a workplace outbreak, businesses should follow the advice outlined in their action card guidance, and that includes departments such as the DVLA. The guidance is designed by the Department of Health and Social Care for specific out- break situations, and businesses should contact their local PHE health protection team if necessary.
“The effects are non-permanent or reversible, non-progressive and disability is temporary”.
Those are the words of the Minister for Employment in justifying why covid-19 has not been categorised as a “serious” workplace risk. Some 112,000 British citizens are dead, tens of thousands are experiencing long covid, and many more have permanent damage to vital organs, but only 0.1% of complaints result in an enforcement notice. This is serious, and re-categorisation is urgently needed. The UK continues to suffer the highest covid death toll in the world, but with such a disregard for workplace safety, is it any wonder?
We work with Public Health England and with the Health and Safety Executive to ensure that we have the best safer workplace guidance, and if there are specific examples where that is not working, I would be happy to take that on board, but with 12.3 million first-dose vaccinations undertaken to date, hopefully we can get through this period and have even safer workplaces as the economy comes back to normal.
Net Zero by 2050
We are matching the UK’s world-leading net zero ambition with world-leading action. The Prime Minister’s 10-point plan for a green industrial revolution will accelerate our path to net zero with £12 billion of Government investment, including a commitment to power every home in the UK with offshore wind by 2030. In December, we published the energy White Paper and we will publish our net zero strategy ahead of COP26.
I thank the Minister for her statement. Could she expand on some of the points she makes, particularly the support that small businesses in towns such as Warrington might expect to receive to reduce their carbon emissions and contribute to net zero targets at a time when many are concerned about the costs of day-to-day business in the light of covid?
We recognise the challenges that SMEs are facing and we want to work with businesses to build that green recovery, so we are offering up to £6 million with a boost in SMEs’ access to energy efficiency competitions to develop green solutions. Through the SME net zero working group, we are hearing from businesses how we can go even further to support them. Financial savings are available to businesses taking steps to achieve net zero, and I would encourage SMEs to sign up to the Race to Zero campaign.
The Government are backing the airline sector to achieve net zero, committing £3.9 billion, with industry, to fund aerospace research and development from 2013 to 2026. This includes the FlyZero project, to study in depth the potential for zero emission aircraft. We are also investing £125 million in the future flight challenge, to enable the use of new forms of green and autonomous aircraft.
Old Mine Workings: Safety
First, I wish to offer my sympathies to all the families affected in the Skewen floods. My officials have been updated by the Coal Authority on the flooding in Skewen on a regular basis and on the work that it and local partners are doing to support the community, remediate the site and allow people to return safely to their homes. I will be meeting people from the Coal Authority shortly to discuss its work and the investments it is making to reduce the risk of this ever happening again.
My constituents in Skewen have been devastated and traumatised by the flooding that ripped through their homes on 21 January. The disused mine workings that caused this incident are the responsibility of the Coal Authority and, ultimately, of the UK Government. Will the right hon. Lady therefore ensure that the Government fill the gaps not covered by insurance and provide financial support to those who are not insured? Does she agree that not a single Skewen resident should be left out of pocket by this terrible flooding?
The hon. Gentleman is a wonderful advocate for his constituents, and I hope very much to be able to visit Skewen with him and talk personally to those affected. The Coal Authority does not have liability for flooding; flooding, whether from a river, stream or groundwater, is mainly dealt with through insurance, and I know that the Welsh Government emergency grant equivalent of the Bellwin scheme for those affected by flooding in England provides a higher sum. So I look forward to working with him and to hearing directly from his constituents as soon as we can arrange this.
The UK has expertise and assets to support both green and blue hydrogen. Our twin-track approach to enable both routes, in line with our 2030 5 GW ambition, will drive cost-effective supply volumes in the 2020s, while scaling up green hydrogen.
My right hon. Friend is right to talk about both forms of hydrogen. Ideally, of course, we would all be using entirely green hydrogen—as she knows, there are problems with the renewable transport fuel obligation, which I hope she will be able to sort out—but blue hydrogen is going to be part of what we need in the coming decades. What steps is she taking to ensure that we provide the right support for the carbon capture that must, by definition, go alongside the production of blue hydrogen so that it is genuinely a net zero fuel?
We are committed to making the UK a global leader in developing carbon capture and hydrogen production, so we are supporting both through new commercial frameworks and financial support, via our £1 billion for a carbon capture and storage infrastructure fund and £240 million for our net zero hydrogen fund.
I welcome the Prime Minister’s 10-point plan announcement of the proposal to develop 5 GW of low-carbon hydrogen production capacity by 2030 and, as the Minister has mentioned, the £240 million net zero hydrogen fund to support that. Is it her intention to deploy that fund to support the production of green hydrogen and not to use any part of it to support production capacity consisting of grey or blue hydrogen?
I thank the hon. Gentleman for his support for the 10-point plan, which I think the whole House believes is the right way forward. The £240 million net zero hydrogen fund is, of course, only one element of this, and we are supporting innovation, heat trials, standards, business models and a revenue mechanism to stimulate that private sector investment which is so important. This is going to put the UK firmly at the front of the pack. We will be setting out much more detailed work later in the year when I publish the hydrogen strategy.
Dismiss and Re-engage Tactics
As I made clear to the hon. Member for Stockport (Navendu Mishra), the use of threats of firing and rehiring as a negotiation tactic is completely unacceptable. We expect all employers to treat employees fairly and in the spirit of partnership. Laws are in place to ensure fair treatment in respect of employment contracts and redundancy matters.
Heathrow firefighters, engineers, campus security, baggage handlers, terminal operators and more are taking strike action today against disgraceful fire and rehire abuses by management that have resulted in pay cuts of up to 25% for thousands. Ministers may call these tactics unacceptable, but with greedy bosses and shareholders using covid as a cover for long-held plans to slash wages, what steps are they actually taking to stop Heathrow exploiting its workers in this way?
Warm words from the Minister, but fire and rehire is an outrageous tactic that is sadly growing in popularity. The latest large company to jump on the bandwagon is Tesco, where staff at the Livingston depot are facing pay cuts of between £4,000 and £13,000 a year—this while profits are soaring thanks to these same essential workers who have worked tirelessly throughout the pandemic to keep families fed. When will the Government do what it takes to stop Tesco and other rogue bosses ripping off their workers? Or will they just wring their hands and wait for a report that they will simply ignore? We want action, Minister.
Having worked for a retailer—Sainsbury’s—for 13 years, I would like to acknowledge the hard work that we know all the people in retail do. However, I reiterate that the Department engaged ACAS to hold discussions in order to generate valuable evidence on the use of fire and rehire.
Automotive Sector: Fiscal Support
Since becoming Secretary of State, I have met a number of representatives of our highly successful automotive sector to discuss future opportunities for the UK and to emphasise our Government’s commitment to the continued growth of the sector.
As the Secretary of State will know, a decision is due soon on whether a new vehicle will be built at Vauxhall Motors in Ellesmere Port. Does he agree that if the Government are truly ambitious about investment in the post-Brexit world, securing green growth and the levelling-up agenda, they will do everything in their power to make sure that we get the right decision for the Ellesmere Port plant?
I recognise the importance of the Ellesmere Port plant locally and fully appreciate the work that the hon. Gentleman has done to keep it open. I want to see its future secured. We are committed to ensuring that the UK continues to be one of the best global locations for automotive manufacturing. I am happy to meet the hon. Gentleman, should he wish, and I have met representatives from Vauxhall as well.
Support for Victims of Domestic Abuse
Our recent report on workplace support is clear that employers’ policies can play a significant role in helping victims of domestic abuse. We will work with employers to support that role and encourage good practice, which includes employers signing up to the Employers’ Initiative on Domestic Abuse and managers downloading the Bright Sky app by Hestia.
Domestic abuse is a heinous crime that destroys lives and families, and it is vital that every part of society works together to prevent it from happening. Will my hon. Friend confirm that his Department is working with businesses to help to build their awareness of domestic abuse and ensure that they notice the warning signs and help workers to access the support that they may need?
My hon. Friend has been a huge champion of tackling abuse, both here in this country and internationally. As set out in our recent report on workplace support, we will work across Government to raise awareness with businesses and victims’ representatives. From a business point of view, it tackles the £1.9 billion productivity stretch, and employers have a duty of care, just as with bullying, stress and mental health. Clearly, wider awareness can save lives.
Several organisations in Wakefield, including Penny Appeal, have joined the Employers’ Initiative on Domestic Abuse, which empowers businesses to take positive action for their employees affected by domestic abuse. This is a crucial step in providing support at a time when the levels of domestic abuse have sadly risen. Will my hon. Friend kindly outline what additional steps his Department is taking to help businesses supporting victims of domestic abuse?
The Employers’ Initiative on Domestic Abuse has 500 members so far signed up to it, covering 6 million employees. What we can do is work with other colleagues across the House to make sure that we get more signatories to the initiative and more support for employers, as well as employees, and that we can signpost the support where appropriate.
Covid-19: Safety of Meter Readers
We have introduced safer working guidance so that workers, including gas and electricity meter readers, can continue to work safely during national restrictions. This guidance is kept under constant review and updated in line with the latest scientific evidence.
Meter readers can visit between 50 and 200 properties a day, sometimes more in large cities. A large majority of these meter readers and their unions, such as the GMB, do not believe that it is right to enter those properties and put themselves and others at risk for the sake of someone getting an accurate gas or electric meter bill. Will the Minister listen to meter readers up and down the country and call for an end to internal meter readings during lockdown, to protect both meter readers and householders?
There was an extensive series of engagements to support the drafting process for the safer working guidance, with more than 1,000 users responding. The safer working guidance has had 3.3 million views, and the evidence shows that it is working well and supporting those who are doing the incredibly important work of keeping utility services going. My door is always open, and I would be very happy to discuss any concerns with the hon. Gentleman and his constituents.
The UK is a major global market for renewables, and we have world-leading ambitions for deployment. We aim to deliver up to double the renewable capacity at the next contracts for difference round at the end of this year, compared with the last round. We are spending £160 million to support new port and manufacturing infrastructure needed to achieve our 40 GW offshore wind ambition, which will secure local jobs and benefits.
We all know how essential it is to provide our industries with renewable energy at an affordable cost, but it is also essential for the transportation of energy through the national grid so that firms in my area such as CF Fertilisers do not face even greater costs. What will the Minister do to ensure that there is a first-class regulatory environment for all energy transportation, including a fair system for shorthaul gas still being considered by Ofgem?
We have ambitious targets for future decarbonisation and the systems that will go with it. We will be publishing an industrial decarbonisation strategy in the very near future, which will help to support businesses as we look at all the issues that the hon. Gentleman raises.
I declare an interest. I have been listening to too many Elon Musk conversations on what is now all the rage, which is the Clubhouse app. What support can be provided to help Bolton to explore green technology opportunities, especially electric vehicles, boosting our local job market and future growth?
I am delighted to see my hon. Friend championing the north-west and the opportunities that our green industrial revolution will bring to his area. The north-west is incredibly well placed to benefit from our £1 billion commitment to become a world-leading sector in technology to capture and store harmful emissions away from the atmosphere. We have also launched the green jobs taskforce, which will help us to develop plans for green jobs, including in the new green automotive sector across all regions, and we advise on what support will be needed for people who are in those transitioning industries.
Wales’s promising clean tech entrepreneurs are urged to bid for the latest £11 million of Government funding, which is going to support between 15 and 20 projects, with successful bidders receiving up to £1 million each. The funding available through the energy entrepreneurs fund is open to all eligible companies across England, Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland, and I look forward to seeing their submissions.
Workplace Health and Safety Laws
The Government have invested an additional £14 million to support the Health and Safety Executive’s enforcement of health and safety laws. My Department has provided guidance on safer working in response to covid-19 that helps to inform the HSE’s monitoring and enforcement activities. This guidance is kept under continuous review.
Given the emergence of new, more transmissible strains of covid-19, why has the Minister not updated his Department’s workplace guidance with stronger recommendations on ventilation, personal protective equipment and the increasing requirement for effective surface disinfectants to be used, so that everyone can be kept safe at work?
In my first four weeks as Secretary of State, I have met with more than 100 businesses —virtually, of course—up and down the country. I have been hugely impressed by the positivity, determination and sheer grit that our businesses have shown in spite of the immense challenges they are facing. I am pleased that we can now offer lateral flow testing to businesses with 50 or more employees, providing new support to small and medium-sized enterprises across the UK. As we have seen with the vaccine roll-out, it is thanks to our brilliant scientists and our brilliant science base that more than 12 million people have now received their first dose of a covid vaccine.
In recent years, the Greater Birmingham and Solihull area has seen the setting up of the highest number of start-ups in the country outside London. Will my right hon. Friend set out his plans to support start-ups in my constituency of Meriden, so that they can continue to set up, thrive and survive after covid?
My hon. Friend is utterly committed to supporting growth and entrepreneurship in his area. I am fully aware that he was a director of business support for four years for the Greater Birmingham and Solihull local enterprise partnership. He will know that our Government continue to back growth and recovery across the UK. I think, in his own constituency of Meriden, we have done this through £90.9 million of covid loan scheme support.
Well, I have listened to the Secretary of State’s answers so far, and I am afraid that he is all mouth and no trousers. Let’s try again, shall we? Businesses face a £50 billion bombshell in April, yet many in hospitality, retail and services will not even be open by then. Councils are sending out business rates bills as we speak and difficult decisions are being made now. Does the Minister agree personally with Labour’s plan to extend the business rates holiday for at least six months as well as the furlough while public health measures remain, in order to deal with this bombshell before it blows a big hole in our economy?
I am glad that the hon. Lady has been listening to the same businesses that I have been listening to for the last year, as they have talked about the cliff edge that they face and their big fixed costs, whether those are business rates, VAT or the rent moratorium, all of which we are recognising. We are continuing our conversations with the Treasury, because it is so important that as we reopen the economy, and look to get customers back to a safe and warm welcome to retail and hospitality, we also have a flexible approach to our financial support in order to tackle this difficult period.
Local authorities, as my hon. Friend knows, receive funding to support closed businesses through grants of up to £3,000 for each four-week period of closure. In addition, closed businesses can receive up to an extra £9,000 as a one-off payment for the current period of national lockdown. Local authorities, as I am sure he is aware, are also in receipt of discretionary funding, sharing £1.6 billion of the additional restrictions grant.
I am very pleased to announce that I and my ministerial colleagues have stated again and again that fire and rehire is completely unacceptable. I was in regular contact with British Gas—Centrica, as it is now called—as Energy Minister, and I have impressed upon it the need to engage with its workforce and treat them with utter integrity and fairness.
I am very pleased to be responding to my right hon. Friend. I very much enjoyed working with her in the Department and I am pleased that she is taking such an interest in our activities. In answer to her question, I would suggest that this is about policy, not regulation. The Government expect lenders to be constructive in their dealings with businesses in difficulty. I am glad to hear that in this instance her constituents are getting the support that they need from the bank, but bank regulations on forbearance are a matter for the independent Financial Conduct Authority.
As the right hon. Gentleman well knows, my door is always open, and I am very happy to meet him to discuss this issue. I recall that when my right hon. Friend the Member for Tunbridge Wells (Greg Clark) was in my place, it was a very delicate situation, but I am happy to discuss with the right hon. Gentleman ideas on how we can ameliorate it.
I have been continuing to have conversations with landlords and tenants to encourage constructive conversations to see what happens after the moratorium. Those tenants who can pay should pay, while landlords should show forbearance for the medium to long term, and that includes local authorities. In government, whether central or local, we should be setting that example.
The hon. Lady is absolutely right: we have to look after the interests of our whisky exporters. It is a key interest. I have spoken to Karen Betts I think twice in my first month precisely on that issue, and I am very hopeful that we can get it resolved.
Dare I say it, that was an excellent question, which goes to the heart of what this whole period has taught us. The fact that we managed to procure, develop and distribute so many vaccines has been a great story for not only our science base, but UK innovation. I am sure that it will be studied in years, even decades, to come. Finally, my hon. Friend is absolutely right to say that the surest way of helping our businesses is to ensure that we can reopen our economy in a safe way.
My hon. Friend is right, and I fully appreciate how key the hospitality sector is to her constituency of Eastbourne, which I have visited many times, even before I was elected to this place. The Government have introduced pay as you go measures, as I am sure she is aware, which give borrowers flexibility when repaying their bounce-back loans. In terms of the other measures that she mentions, I am in constant dialogue with the Chancellor. We are looking at the economy and the situation as it evolves daily—minute by minute, almost—and we hope that we can provide the flexible support that we have in the last year.
I am absolutely open and prepared to work with the hon. Member. I have visited him in my capacity as Under-Secretary of State in the Department for Exiting the European Union. I think we also met when I was Minister of State. I am very happy to work with him and discuss his ideas about regeneration and growth.
I am absolutely aware of that issue. It is almost inevitable that we will be asked by the CCC to include those contributions in our budgets. As COP26 hosts, we will obviously want to hold ourselves to the highest standards, in terms of carbon emissions.
With permission, I would like to make a statement on new measures to keep this country safe from coronavirus. Thanks to our collective efforts, we are turning a corner. Cases of coronavirus have fallen 47% in the last two weeks, and they are falling in all parts of the UK, but we are not there yet. Hospitalisations are falling, but there are still many more people in hospital than at the April or November peaks, and the number of deaths, while falling, is still far too high.
Our vaccination programme is growing every day. We have now vaccinated over 12.2 million people—almost one in four adults in the United Kingdom—including 91.4% of people aged 80 and above, 95.9% of those aged between 75 and 79, and 77.2% of those aged between 70 and 74, who were the most recent groups to have been invited. We have also vaccinated 93.5% of eligible care home residents. We have made such progress in protecting the most vulnerable that we are now asking people who live in England who are aged 70 and over and have not yet had an appointment, to come forward and contact the NHS. You can do that by going online to nhs.uk, or dialling 119, or contacting your local GP practice, so that we can make sure that we reach the remaining people in those groups, even as we expand the offer of a vaccine to younger ages.
These are huge steps forward for us all, and we must protect this hard-fought-for progress by making sure we stay vigilant and secure the nation against new variants of coronavirus that put at risk the great advances that we have made. Coronavirus, just like flu and all other viruses, mutates over time, so responding to new variants as soon as they arise is mission critical to protect ourselves for the long term. We have already built firm foundations, like our genomic sequencing, which allows us to identify new variants, our testing capacity, which allows us to bring in enhanced testing wherever and whenever we find a new variant of concern, and our work to secure vaccines that can be quickly adapted as new strains are identified.
Our strategy to tackle new variants has four parts. First, the lower the case numbers here, the fewer new variants we get, so the work to lower case numbers domestically is crucial. Secondly, as I set out to the House last week, there is enhanced contact tracing, surge testing and genomic sequencing. We are putting that in place wherever a new variant of concern is found in the community, like in Bristol, Liverpool and, as of today, Manchester. Thirdly, there is the work on vaccines to tackle variants, as set out yesterday by Professor Van-Tam. Fourthly, there is health protection at the border, to increase our security against new variants of concern arriving from abroad.
I should like to set out to the House the new system of health measures at the border that will come into force on Monday. The new measures build on the tough action that we have already taken. It is of course illegal to travel abroad without a legally permitted reason to do so, so it is illegal to travel abroad for holidays and other leisure purposes. The minority who are travelling for exceptional purposes will be subject to a specific compliance regime and end-to-end checks throughout the journey here. Every passenger must demonstrate a negative test result 72 hours before they travel to the UK, and every passenger must quarantine for 10 days. Arriving in this country involves a two-week process for all. We have already banned travellers altogether from the 33 most concerning countries on our red list, where the risk of a new variant is greatest, unless they are resident here. But even with those tough measures in place, we must strengthen our defences yet further.
I appreciate what a significant challenge this is. We have been working to get this right across Government and with airport operators, passenger carriers and operational partners, including Border Force and the police—I thank them all for their work so far—and we have been taking advice from our Australian colleagues, both at ministerial level and from their leading authorities on quarantine. The message is, “Everyone has a part to play in making our borders safe.” I know this is a very difficult time for both airlines and ports, and I am grateful to them for working so closely with us. They have such an important role to play in protecting this country and putting in place a system so that we can securely restart travel when the time is right—the whole team at the borders working together.
Let me set out the three elements of the strengthened end-to-end system for international arrivals coming into force on 15 February. This new system is for England. We are working on similarly tough schemes with the devolved Administrations, and we are working with the Irish Government to put in place a system that works across the common travel area. The three parts are as follows: hotel quarantine, testing and enforcement.
First, we are setting up a new system of hotel quarantine for UK and Irish residents who have been in red list countries in the last 10 days. In short, this means that any returning residents from those countries will have to quarantine in an assigned hotel room for 10 days from the time of arrival. Before they travel, they will have to book through an online platform and pay for a quarantine package, costing £1,750 for an individual travelling alone, which includes the hotel, transport and testing. That booking system will go live on Thursday, when we will also publish the full detailed guidance.
Passengers will only be able to enter the UK through a small number of ports that currently account for the vast majority of passenger arrivals. When they arrive, they will be escorted to a designated hotel, which will be closed to guests who are not quarantining, for 10 days or longer if they test positive for covid-19 during their stay. We have contracted 16 hotels for an initial 4,600 rooms, and we will secure more as they are needed. People will need to remain in their rooms and, of course, will not be allowed to mix with other guests. There will be visible security in place to ensure compliance, alongside necessary support, so that even as we protect public health, we can look after the people in our care.
Secondly, we are strengthening testing. All passengers are already required to take a pre-departure test and cannot travel to this country if it is positive. From Monday, all international arrivals, whether under home quarantine or hotel quarantine, will be required by law to take further PCR tests on day two and day eight of that quarantine. Passengers will have to book those tests through our online portal before they travel. Anyone planning to travel to the UK from Monday needs to book these tests, and the online portal will go live on Thursday. If either of these post-arrival tests comes back positive, they will have to quarantine for a further 10 days from the date of the test and will, of course, be offered any NHS treatment that is necessary.
Any positive result will automatically undergo genomic sequencing to confirm whether they have a variant of concern. Under home quarantining, the existing test to release scheme, which my right hon. Friend the Transport Secretary has built so effectively, can still be used from day five, but that would be in addition to the two mandatory tests. The combination of enhanced testing and sequencing has been a powerful weapon throughout this pandemic, and we will be bringing it to bear so that we can find positive cases, break the chains of transmission and prevent new cases and new variants from putting us at risk.
Thirdly, we will be backing this new system with strong enforcement of both home quarantine and hotel quarantine. People who flout these rules are putting us all at risk. Passenger carriers will have a duty in law to make sure that passengers have signed up for these new arrangements before they travel and will be fined if they do not. We will be putting in place tough fines for people who do not comply. That includes a £1,000 penalty for any international arrival who fails to take a mandatory test; a £2,000 penalty for any international arrival who fails to take the second mandatory test, as well as automatically extending their quarantine period to 14 days; and a £5,000 fixed penalty notice, rising to £10,000, for arrivals who fail to quarantine in a designated hotel. We are also coming down hard on people who provide false information on the passenger locator form. Anyone who lies on a passenger locator form and tries to conceal that they have been in a country on the red list in the 10 days before arrival here will face a prison sentence of up to 10 years.
These measures will be put into law this week, and I have been working with the Home Secretary, Border Force and the police to make sure that more resources are being put into enforcing these measures. I make no apologies for the strength of these measures, because we are dealing with one of the strongest threats to our public health that we have faced as a nation. I know that most people have been doing their bit, making huge sacrifices as part of the national effort, and these new enforcement powers will make sure that their hard work and sacrifice is not undermined by a small minority who do not want to follow the rules.
In short, we are strengthening the health protection at the border in three crucial ways: hotel quarantine for UK and Irish residents who have visited a red list country in the past 10 days and home quarantine for all passengers from any other country; a three-test regime for all arrivals; and firm enforcement of pre-departure tests and the passenger locator form. Our fight against this virus has many fronts, and just as we are attacking this virus through our vaccination programme, which protects more people each day, we are buttressing our defences with these vital measures, to protect the progress that together we have worked so hard to accomplish. I commend this statement to the House.
I thank the Secretary State for advance sight of his statement. I again start by congratulating all involved in the vaccination roll-out. Vaccination needs to reach everyone, and we need to drive up vaccination rates among the over-70s. There have been reports today that over-70s have been ringing up to get an appointment but NHS computer systems are not yet ready to accept appointments over the phone. Will he look into that for us?
What is the plan to drive up vaccination levels in minority ethnic communities? I am sure the Secretary of State is as worried as I am about vaccination rates among diverse communities. I know the Government announced some funding for local authorities to tackle vaccine hesitancy in minority ethnic communities, but a city such as Leicester—my city, and one of the most diverse in the country—was not on the list. Will he rectify that?
At last night’s press conference, the Secretary of State said that the way we deal with new variants is to respond to them as they arise, and that the first line of defence is to identify them and stop spread. However, our first line of defence is surely to do everything we can to stop new variants arising in the first place. That means securing our borders, to isolate new variants as they come in. He announced a detailed package today, but he has not announced comprehensive quarantine controls at the borders. Why are more than half of the countries where the South African variant has been identified not on the so-called red list? According to newspaper reports, he wanted to go further, with more extensive quarantine arrangements. I want that as well, and the British public want that as well, so I will work with him to make that happen, so that we can strengthen our borders and fix any holes in this nation’s defences.
The Secretary of State knows that mutations occur so long as the virus can replicate and transmit, and the greater the spread, the greater the opportunity. We have the South African variant and the so-called Eek—the E484K mutation—and the B.1.1.7 strain has been identified as well. Is it not the cold reality that the virus is now here for some time, and therefore that, for vaccines to succeed in protecting us, we need to do more to protect those vaccines by cutting transmission chains and spread, especially when lockdown eases? Last year the Secretary of State said, in launching Test and Trace, that it would
“help us keep this virus under control while carefully and safely lifting the lockdown nationally.”
But it did not keep the virus under control, did it? How will it be different this time? Will retrospective testing and tracing—the enhanced tracing he outlined for areas where there are variants—be routine everywhere?
Extra testing where there are new variants is of course welcome, but for many who cannot work from home on Zoom calls and laptops, who are poor or low paid, who live in overcrowded housing or who are perhaps care workers currently using up their holiday entitlement when sick so as not to lose wages, a positive test is not only a medical blow but a financial one. Last Tuesday, the Secretary of State boasted of the £500 payment, yet more than 70% of applications for financial support are rejected. By Wednesday, his own head of Test and Trace was pointing out that 20,000 sick people a day do not isolate. Indeed, two months earlier, Dido Harding had already said that people are not self-isolating because they find it very difficult, and that the need to keep earning and feed a family is fundamental, so is it any wonder that infections are falling at a slower rate in the most deprived communities? We need that financial support that his own scientific advisers have called for and that has been shown to work internationally. If he thinks I am wrong, will he tell us why he thinks Dido Harding is wrong?
We know that this virus can be transmitted through aerosols. Has the Secretary of State looked at installing air filtration systems in public buildings such as schools? Given concerns that the new Kent variant may shed more viral load through coughing and sneezing, will he update the guidance on face masks, as Germany has done, with FFP2 masks required on public transport and in shops? Will he ensure that higher-grade PPE for frontline NHS staff becomes the requirement, as the British Medical Association, the Royal College of Nursing and unions have called for?
Finally, next week is Children of Alcoholics Week, a cause very close to my heart. Indeed, I will be running the London marathon again to raise money for an alcoholics charity—[Interruption.] If it is on. I am looking forward to the Secretary of State assuring me that it is going to be on, and perhaps he can run it with me. The number of excess deaths from liver disease is up 11% in the pandemic—a huge increase—and many children are in lockdown in homes under the shadow of alcohol abuse. Will he look at providing more support for those organisations that are helping children through this difficult time of lockdown when dealing with parents with substance misuse problems?
I was listening very carefully to the hon. Gentleman, and I think I take that as support for the measures we are bringing in.
On the specific points the hon. Gentleman raises, he is absolutely right that further driving up vaccination rates is critical. I am delighted by the vaccination rates and the uptake of over 90% in all of the groups over the age of 75, and rapidly rising now—above 75% and rising fast—in the 70 to 74s. I agree with him very strongly on the need to keep driving up the uptake of the vaccine. The Minister for Covid Vaccine Deployment, my hon. Friend the Member for Stratford-on-Avon (Nadhim Zahawi), is leading the efforts across the NHS and local authorities to try to make sure that we can increase vaccination rates further. Nevertheless, the take-up has been absolutely superb so far, and there is still more to do.
I will absolutely look into the points the hon. Gentleman made about Leicester. I know that it is close to his heart and a very important matter.
I will commit to the hon. Gentleman to keep the red list up to date. It is important that we take the measures that are necessary to protect this country. There are countries around the world on a so-called green list that have very low rates of infection and no known variants of concern. I am absolutely in favour of keeping the red list up to date, but I also think it is important that we are proportionate when there are countries that do not have a record of variants of concern. However, we will use the fact that we will sequence every positive test from somebody who comes through the border as a global system of vigilance to make sure that we are always looking for those variants of concern.
The hon. Gentleman raised the issue of financial support. I reiterate that the £500 support is available for anybody on low incomes, so people should come forward for testing in all circumstances. I am absolutely delighted at the level of testing as well. There is now an average of over 650,000 tests a day done in this country, which is obviously a very substantial number.
The hon. Gentleman raised the point about air filtration systems, which are important. I will point him to guidance from the Business Department on air filtration systems and on PPE—we have taken clinical advice and follow the clinical advice on the correct levels of PPE.
Finally, I know that the issue of children of alcoholics is very close to the hon. Gentleman’s heart and to those of many colleagues across the House, so I will absolutely look at how we can ensure that the extra funding we have provided in this space continues to support the vital work not just of those in the NHS, but especially of charities that do so much in this space. The invitation to run the marathon with him is a very interesting one. I am not sure I have enough time for training this year, but it is certainly something I would like to do at some point in the future.
I strongly support the new measures. The higher the number of new daily cases, the more opportunities for variants and mutations to emerge, including ultimately some that may be immune to the vaccine. So does the Health Secretary agree that the central priority now must be to bring down the number of new daily cases, and as we do that, is he planning to introduce enhanced contact tracing for all new cases, including Japanese-style backward contact tracing and genomic sequencing of every new case?
We have the biggest genomic capacity in the world by some margin, and when the number of cases comes down, as our genomic capacity continues to expand—we plan to more than double it in the coming months—I hope to get to the position where we can genomically sequence every positive case, yes, but we are not there yet.
The strategy that I outlined to tackle new variants, of which the border measures are an important part, is itself one part of the four conditions that the Prime Minister set out for when we can lift measures. The other three are the successful roll-out of the vaccine, which is going very well, and the fall in the number of hospitalisations and the fall in the number of deaths, both of which, as I said, are moving in the right direction but are still too high. Therefore, this strategy to tackle new variants is crucial. The number of cases is a factor, because that itself determines the number of new variants. The conclusion of all that is that we must all stick to the rules now, and the more we stick to the rules now, the sooner we can get out of this.
The South African variant is a sure warning sign of the risk from other mutant strains that may be out there; combined with the question mark over vaccine efficacy with this variant, it is clear why we need effective border restrictions. Can the Secretary of State tell me why there are 35 countries where the South African and Brazilian variants are present that are not on the quarantine red list? Do the Government have a plan to redress that gap? From a Government obsessed with taking back control over their borders, that omission is surprising.
The Prime Minister has previously said that the UK cannot emulate other island countries, such as New Zealand and Australia, in preventing all unnecessary travel into the country due to the amount of food and medicine that it imports. Today’s change of heart is welcome. Can the Secretary of State confirm how these measures will keep the flow of goods and those transporting them open, while restricting travel not related to the import and export of goods?
The measures I have outlined today relate to passenger travel. There is, of course, a testing regime already in place for accompanied freight. There is a difference between this country and Australia and New Zealand, and that is that accompanied freight is a significant proportion of our daily imports, including just-in-time delivery, for instance, of food, whereas for islands that are further away from a continent, unaccompanied freight is a much more significant proportion of their international imports. We have to take these practical considerations into account. As I said, we keep the red list of countries under review, and the extra testing measures that I have outlined today will help us with that vigilance so that we can see where variants of concern are and to what degree they are present in other countries around the world.
I thank my right hon. Friend for his announcement today. The people of Darlington and people right across the north- east have made incredible sacrifices to tackle this virus, and I know that they will welcome the tough measures that he has announced for those who seek to avoid quarantine. Does he agree that it is mass testing, vaccinations, following the rules and tough sanctions for those who break the rules that will help us to tackle this virus?
I agree with my hon. Friend that a combination of mass testing, vaccinations and tough enforcement is not only right to deal with this virus but, as he says, fair for people who are doing the right thing. This virus attacks us all as humans. It does not treat people differently just because they are better off and might be able to fly to Dubai for the weekend; it treats us all the same, so we should treat people the same. That is one of the reasons why it is important to bring these measures in with strong enforcement, so that they are both tough and fair on people who are working so hard and sacrificing so much to follow the rules.
I simply do not understand the logic being used for the red list. Countries where dangerous variants are present are not included, and multiple back doors are left open. Over the past few days, I have watched passenger flights, including a flight from Peru—on the red list—that is currently en route to the Netherlands, which is not on the red list but has substantial connections to the UK, and flights from southern African red-list countries en route to hubs in Addis Ababa, Nairobi and so on, which again have substantial onward connections to the UK but are not on the red list. We have even heard about UK troops in Kenya testing positive for covid today. Will the Secretary of State publish the epidemiological data that is being used to take decisions about which countries are included, and urgently review some of the very serious inconsistencies?
The hon. Gentleman raises important points, which are addressed in what I just announced in two ways. First, anybody who has been in a red-list country in the past 10 days must declare it on a passenger locator form. To fail to do so will be an imprisonable offence. Of course, nobody can come directly from a red-list country anyway because those flights have been stopped. That is a critical part of the enforcement of this system.
In addition, the second point that the hon. Gentleman raises is important. There are some countries where a variant of concern is the dominant variant, including in southern Africa and parts of Brazil. There are other countries where there are very small numbers of variants of concern, in the same way as in this country there are thankfully very small numbers of variants of concern. Absolutely, we publish information on a very broad scale. We have to make judgments about what is on the red list, and we will keep it under review.
Different countries have very different levels of genomic sequencing. There are some countries—even developed countries—that have very low levels of genomic sequencing. We have offered to support all countries around the world, so if they want a sample sequenced, we will do it for them to help with this vigilance. The mandated testing arrangements that we have introduced today will help ensure that we can strengthen the epidemiological data on which the judgments about the red list are taken.
Cases here in North Devon are now down to just 25 per 100,000. What reassurance can my right hon. Friend give me that when the time comes to unlock, the hard work of the people of North Devon will not be undone by an influx of visitors from either home or abroad with new variants? Are options being looked at for local unlocking to enable schools to reopen and some local businesses to restart, given the very low level of community transmission here?
I am delighted to see that there are some parts of the country where the case rate really has come down a long way—down to 25. It is important for us to make sure we get the levels down across the country. We have seen before that when there are areas that are low, there is spread from elsewhere in the country. The experience of last summer was that tourists travelling to go on holiday within the UK did not contribute to an increase in levels. It was when levels elsewhere got much higher that we saw the transmission to other parts of the country. It is those judgments that will inform the road map proposals that the Prime Minister will set out on 22 February. I wish I could say more in more detail to my hon. Friend, but it is for the Prime Minister to set that out later this month.
The news of the new mutation is obviously of great concern to the people of Bristol, but local public health officials have rapidly set up new testing centres, including five new collect and drop testing centres today. It is a massive effort locally, and hundreds of people have come forward voluntarily since Sunday to be tested. Will the Secretary of State join me in thanking those local public health officials in Bristol and the people who have come forward? Will he join me in encouraging more people in those postcode areas that have been identified to come forward for surge testing to help us understand this virus better?
I agree with every word the hon. Lady has said. This is an incredibly important effort by the people of Bristol, especially those in the postcodes that were identified. I want to thank all the public health officials, at Bristol City Council and more broadly, including those in South Gloucestershire, for the work they are doing to tackle the variant of concern, where it is found. Even though the numbers are small, we want to tackle every case we find and really get this under control. As you can see from this exchange, Mr Speaker, and as everybody in Bristol can see, this is a cross-party, cross-community effort in which everybody has a part to play, and I thank the hon. Lady for her leadership.
I welcome today’s statement and I am very proud of all my constituents across Stourbridge, Cradley and Lye for the way in which they have fully understood and taken on board the fact that we all have our role to play in defeating this virus. Does my right hon. Friend agree that the constant flip-flopping and reliance on hindsight by the Labour party is nothing more than its seeking only to score political points, rather than reinforcing the Government’s message that we all have a part to play to defeat this virus? Those on the Opposition Benches would be well served by following the fine example set by my constituents.
What the public want to see, in Stourbridge and across the whole UK, is people working together to defeat this virus. Some of the measures have to be tough, and some are difficult, but it is all done with the goal of getting this country through this as well as we possibly can, so that we can lift as many of these measures as soon as we safely can. That balance between pace and safety is central to the judgments ahead. I want to thank everybody in Stourbridge and say to them that there is no politics in this; the only thing that is important is the safety of the people of Stourbridge.
I am grateful to all those working together—the GPs, Queen Mary University of London, the Royal London Hospital, Tower Hamlets Council, the London Muslim Centre and others—in my constituency to make sure that people get vaccinated. As Members have heard, vaccine take-up is lower among minority communities and some other vulnerable groups. Some 77% of white residents are getting vaccinated, which is great, whereas only just over half of Asian residents and under 46% of black residents in our borough are getting vaccinated. Will the Secretary of State commit to increasing the supply of vaccines to our GP surgeries, as they are saying that this is where they can make a big difference with vaccine take-up? This would make a big difference to the death rates and the dangers that these minority communities face, in my constituency and elsewhere in the country.
I want to praise the hon. Lady for the leadership she is showing locally in driving up those vaccination rates. The fewer people who are left unprotected by the jab, the safer we will all be, both individually and in communities in London and across the country. My hon. Friend the Minister for Covid Vaccine Deployment is leading the efforts in this space, and I will make sure he gets in contact so that we can work together to reassure everybody that the vaccine is the right thing for you and the right thing for your community.
I welcome the roll-out of the vaccine programme, which has been a great success, and I congratulate the Secretary of State. May I ask for a bit of clarity on the statement? He states:
“Under home quarantining, the existing test to release scheme…can still be used from day five”.
Does that mean that somebody can successfully test negative on day five and is then free to interact in the community for three days, but will still have to take another test at day eight and if they fail that test they will have to quarantine again? Secondly, how long is this likely to last for? Obviously, summer travel is very important for the aviation industry. Is this just to last until we have vaccinated 99% of the mortality risk, which should be done by May? Or is it until we tweak the vaccination, in which case this could really have an impact on the aviation industry?
On the first point—the point of clarity—my hon. Friend has stated the position exactly correctly. On the second, we want of course to be able to exit from these arrangements into a system of safe international travel as soon as practicable and as soon as is safe, and Professor Van-Tam last night set out some of the details that we need to see in the effectiveness of the current vaccines on the variants of concern in order to have that assurance. If that is not forthcoming, we will need to vaccinate with a further booster jab in the autumn, on which we are working with the vaccine industry.
These are the uncertainties within which we are operating. Hence, for now, my judgment is that the package that we have announced today is the right one.
Many of us have been urging the Government for about 12 months now to take stronger action at our borders, so the measures announced today are very welcome, but Ministers have been consistently slow on this issue. With the ONS estimating today that, tragically, covid deaths in the UK have now surpassed 125,000, how many of those deaths does the Secretary of State believe could have been prevented by imposing much stricter public health measures at our borders since last March?
We have had significant measures at the border throughout. The new, stronger measures are necessary because of the arrival around the world of new variants of concern at the same time as the vaccine roll-out is progressing successfully. We do not want the very successful vaccine roll-out to be undermined, so it is reasonable to take a precautionary approach to international travel now, while we assess the effectiveness of the vaccines. We are clear that they have some effectiveness; the question is to what degree. That is being tested right now.
Given the incredible success of the UK vaccination programme, it would be terrible to put at risk our opening up by importing new variants like those seen in Brazil. Will my right hon. Friend stand ready to further tighten the measures at the border and the enforcement of quarantine, and does he agree that if we want to see rapid opening up, as we all do, we should be supporting strong measures at the border?
My hon. Friend is right, first, that we must keep the red list under review; and secondly, crucially, that strong protections at the border are part of defending and safely allowing the domestic opening up. For those of us who want to see that domestic opening up, ensuring that we have protection from variants that might arise from overseas is an important part, until we can get to a position where we can be confident in vaccine efficacy against all variants, not just against the current variants that are here in large numbers in the UK.
May I put on record my thanks to the Secretary of State for all that he and his team are doing on this issue? Northern Ireland is the only part of the United Kingdom with a land border. As the Secretary of State is aware, the Republic of Ireland is enforcing the very apparent border in Northern Ireland, for its safety, on its side. It seems, as I said, that there can be a border when it suits. However, I am eager to understand what steps are being taken to ensure, as I highlighted last week, that officials and Government have access to pertinent travel information for those coming to Dublin, to ensure that the United Kingdom, on the Northern Ireland side, is also safe.
I spoke to my Irish opposite number, Minister Donnelly, this morning and he has assured me that that data will be provided appropriately and securely; we have been working together to ensure that that happens for some time.
As I said in my statement, we have been working with the Irish Government to ensure that there are appropriate measures, both in the Republic of Ireland and in the United Kingdom, to ensure that the border on the island of Ireland can be kept completely open, as it must, yet we have adequate protection against arrivals of variants of concern internationally. It is the two countries working together, putting in place similar arrangements both in the Republic and in the United Kingdom, that will allow us to deliver that goal, which I am sure we all share.
I am increasingly concerned about the effect of lockdown on the mental health of children; I am receiving so many emails from adolescents and teenagers. Will my right hon. Friend assure me that when he feeds into the 22 February road map, the mental health of children, and indeed their parents, is taken into account?
Yesterday, the number of deaths from covid in Wales passed the grim total of 5,000. Our public health leaders say that the Welsh Government’s £500 self-isolation payment is not enough and is indeed an economic driver for people to go to work. Sick pay, on the other hand, is the responsibility of this Government, so will the Secretary of State now commit the Government to increasing the paltry level of sick pay, as suggested, from £96 per week, to enable working people to self-isolate safely?
I commend my right hon. Friend on his statement. The Norfolk and Waveney clinical commissioning group, local NHS staff and volunteers are to be commended on rising to a challenge which on Sunday resulted in 1,000 people being vaccinated at Kirkley Mill in Lowestoft in very difficult weather conditions. There is a plan to significantly increase the number of daily vaccinations for more sites; so that this can be delivered can my right hon. Friend confirm that there will be a consistent and increased supply of vaccines and that the initial difficulties some have experienced with the national online booking system will be ironed out?
Yes, absolutely. I want to thank everybody across Norfolk and Waveney for the work they have been doing to roll out this vaccine. It is a critical part of the country in terms of the covid response, and the work done locally has been absolutely exemplary. I commend my hon. Friend on the part that he has played and the leadership he has shown in Lowestoft in making that happen; the uptake has been superb. I have seen some of the reports locally, and the emotional impact on people of getting vaccinated is absolutely fantastic. I will absolutely take away the points my hon. Friend has made.
Despite assurances from the Secretary of State and Ministers, it is now clear that the newly imposed NHS dentistry targets are in fact actively undermining patient access to urgent treatment during the pandemic, as I warned they would. Last week, a whistleblower at the UK’s largest dental chain with over 600 practices, mydentist, sent me an internal memo that advised them to prioritise routine check-ups over treatments in order to meet the new targets. Will the Secretary of State look at this urgently and agree to revise these targets to ensure that they do not undermine patient care, as the system as it stands incentivises routine check-ups above those in severe pain?
I want to thank our nation’s dentists, who have worked incredibly hard to get dentistry services going again. It is very important that we support them and that the financial incentives underpin the need to restart as much as is possible.
It is of course challenging to deliver services given that there are so many aerosol-generating procedures, and I will ask the dentistry Minister, my hon. Friend the Member for Bury St Edmunds (Jo Churchill), to speak to the hon. Lady and perhaps meet her to discuss these ongoing challenges.
I support the introduction of targeted quarantine for passengers coming from high-risk covid-19 variant countries. Will my right hon. Friend also commit to regular reviews and even a sunset clause on these regulations, as we seek later in the year to get our economy restarted and support our aviation sector?
I do not underestimate the impact that all these measures have had on Gatwick. My hon. Friend represents so many of those who work at Gatwick, and I understand the impact. I was at Gatwick airport on Friday, and the empty departure hall was really quite a sad sight. These measures are necessary, in my view, and I am glad that he supports them, difficult as they are. We are also acutely cognisant of the economic impact on airports and those who work in them, and I would be happy to keep talking to him about how quickly we can remove these measures safely.
The whole House has welcomed what the Secretary of State has had to say about the progress in fighting coronavirus, but he will be aware that there is a very real danger that one cohort will be left behind: black and ethnic minority communities. We already know that black people are four times more likely to die from coronavirus, and currently the statistics show that black over-80s are half as likely to be vaccinated as white people. I am conscious that the Minister for Covid Vaccine Deployment is aware of this issue, but will the Secretary of State give the House an undertaking that he will drive forward a whole series of measures to increase vaccine take-up among black and minority ethnic persons? When black and minority ethnic people are on the frontline of the fight against coronavirus as health and social care workers, it would be a tragedy if there was an increased death toll because enough was not being done to encourage take-up of the vaccine.
I do not say this lightly, but I agree with every single word that the right hon. Lady said. I want to pay tribute to her, because I have not had the chance in the House to thank all the black MPs who took part in the incredibly moving video to persuade people, who may have understandable concerns, that taking the jab is the right thing to do. She played a pivotal role in that short video, and it is just one small part of the huge effort we need to make, because the fewer people who do not have the protection, the safer we will all be. I am very grateful for her work and her support, and I hope that we can continue to work together to drive uptake among black communities right across this country.
Policies are often easy to announce and difficult to end. The chief scientific adviser says that covid is with us forever, and it will presumably continue to mutate into new variants forever. I listened carefully to the answer that the Secretary of State gave to my hon. Friend the Member for Bexhill and Battle (Huw Merriman), but I did not hear an answer to this: when is this policy going to end, if ever, because if the virus continues to mutate, surely the risk will be there forever?
The risk of mutations absolutely can and will be managed through the evolution of vaccines, in the way that the annual flu jab changes each year and allows us to protect ourselves. While necessary now, these are not measures that can be in place permanently. We need to replace them over time with a system of safe and free international travel; that is where we need to get to. The first task is to vaccinate the population. If we get good news on the impact of vaccination on hospitalisations and deaths for new mutations, we will be in a better place. If we do not get such good news, we will need to use the updated vaccines to protect against the variants of concern.
The scientists inform and advise me that there are, repeatedly and independently around the world, mutations of the same type in the E484K area of the virus, as mentioned by the hon. Member for Leicester South (Jonathan Ashworth). That gives the scientists a good start in where to target the new updated vaccine—if we have to wait until then—but it may be that we get from the existing vaccines enough efficacy against hospitalisation and death that they work perfectly well to hold this virus down. We just do not know that yet; hence, the precautionary principle applies.
It is hugely important that we keep making progress in tackling the virus and in vaccinations. However, last week I heard from the Catch Up With Cancer campaign, the research of which indicates that we would need cancer services to work at 120% capacity for two years to catch up with the existing backlog. I am concerned that the cancer recovery taskforce lacks sufficient resources and scope to achieve the restoration of services and tackle the backlog. Will the Government, in the March Budget, increase the resources available to the taskforce, to expand the overall capabilities of the UK’s cancer services to tackle the backlog?
We announced in the spending review significant extra funding to tackle the backlog. I am very proud of cancer services throughout the country, which have kept up the work during this second wave in a quite remarkable way, owing to tenacity, working together, flexibility and, of course, very strong infection prevention and control.
Last week I was at the Royal Marsden Hospital, where they are doing 100% of their normal-time operations. That is not true everywhere—the Royal Marsden has the advantage of being, in essence, a cancer-only site, which makes things easier. The thrust of the hon. Lady’s question is right—we absolutely must catch up on the cancer backlog—but I am optimistic because people have worked so hard in oncology to keep cancer services going. As the number of covid patients comes down, so we must ensure that the backlog is worked through.
I pay tribute to everybody in Stockport who is part of the massive vaccination effort that is going so well, as it is throughout the rest of country. The original purpose of lockdown was to reduce hospitalisations and keep hospitals from falling over; if that is achieved through a vaccination programme, is it now the Government’s intention to use the level of virus in circulation—the number of cases in the population—to determine when to ease lockdown?
I add my congratulations to all those involved in the roll-out of the vaccine, particularly those in my local area who have been working non-stop. Will the Secretary of State say something about international co-operation, particularly in respect of identifying new variants and assisting other countries to stop their transmission? What discussions are taking place with the World Health Organisation and others to ensure that we are keeping track of new variants as much as is practicably possible?
That is a critical question, on which I point to three things. First, we have put in place the new variant assessment platform, which uses our genomic capability to be of service to countries that do not have the capability to identify variants and sequence samples, if that is needed.
Secondly, we are working with the World Health Organisation to ensure that its library of variants is as up-to-date as possible. Of course, it is that work from which must flow the assessment of what appropriate updates to any vaccine are necessary, which is how it works with flu. The system is nascent but incredibly important, and I am grateful to the World Health Organisation for its work on that so far. We need to go further.
Thirdly, on the measures put in place today, by testing every international rival—given the nature of the UK, even in these tough times, as an international hub—we will, where we spot positives, be able to sequence them and therefore gather the sequences of coronavirus from around the world. The announcements made today will directly help us to address the question of where variants of concern are arising and therefore help the international efforts to tackle them.
I thank the Secretary of State for his statement and join him in praising everyone involved in the vaccine roll-out. It is going incredibly well in Newcastle-under-Lyme; in Staffordshire, we have just passed 200,000 vaccinations given.
Brilliant scientists in the UK and around the world have delivered us these vaccines at an unprecedented pace, and I welcome the news that they are now working on new versions of them to fight variants. However, if we were to embrace even faster methods for evaluating the efficacy of vaccines, such as challenge trials, we could speed up the process even further.
Given the enormous economic cost of lockdowns, every month counts. That should prompt the whole world to re- evaluate our standard methodology for approving vaccines. Could my right hon. Friend set out what steps he is taking to allow new varieties of vaccines to be developed as quickly as possible, if they prove to be required?
Yes, we do not rule out challenge studies at all. We are working with Oxford University on such an approach. More broadly, I am up for considering anything that can ensure that a vaccine can safely be brought to bear and support this effort as fast as possible.
I would, though, caution against undue pessimism in this space because the Medicines and Healthcare products Regulatory Agency has done an amazing job of maintaining very strong safety and efficacy requirements while speeding up every process, constantly challenging the critical path to vaccine approval and asking how it can be sped up while maintaining the very high standards that it should expect. It is continuing that work with potential iterations of the vaccine to ensure that the level of assuredness is appropriate and the degree of checks that an iteration needs to go through is appropriate to the degree of difference from the original vaccine.
For instance, for flu, we do not need to go through the full clinical trials process because the underlying platform is known to be safe—we need to demonstrate clinical efficacy. It is that sort of flexible yet rigorous thinking that the MHRA should be very proud of.
People are at home with the windows closed and the heating on: those are potential conditions for carbon monoxide poisoning, whose symptoms are very similar to those of covid-19. What are the Government doing to enforce legislation on that issue and make the public aware of that silent killer?
I start by thanking the hard-working Secretary of State for yet again coming to the House and updating us on the covid situation.
In north Northamptonshire, we have a particular problem with covid infections—we just cannot get them down. In Wellingborough, we are 25% above the national average, in Kettering 50% above it and, in Corby, more than double the national average, with the highest infection rate in the country. Has the Secretary of State given any consideration to the mass testing of north Northamptonshire so that we can get infections down, rather as happened in Liverpool?
I am aware of and also worried about the continued high rates of infections in north Northants, which has not had a particularly bad pandemic thus far but now, at this point, seems to have a stubbornly high infection rate. I am absolutely up for all measures that might help to get it down, including mass testing. I will take that idea away, work on it with colleagues and return to my hon. Friend and his north Northants colleagues with a proposal.
The pandemic has been particularly difficult for those with a weak immune system; I therefore welcome the fact that UK Research and Innovation has provided funding to support research on vaccine responses in groups of immunosuppressed individuals, such as high-risk cancer patients. When does the Secretary of State expect the Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation to have enough data to develop a vaccine-protective strategy for immunosuppressed individuals that details whether any specific vaccine is preferred for this cohort?
This is a very important consideration. For those for whom the vaccine is clinically inappropriate, clearly the single most important thing is that everybody else gets the vaccine because that is what can best keep them safe. When we say that the vaccine is “good for you and good for others”, that includes those who are clinically unable to take the vaccine to protect themselves, so everybody around them needs to take the vaccine in order to protect them. More broadly, that work is under way. I will ask the deputy chief medical officer to write to the hon. Gentleman to set out the precise clinical details.
I thank my right hon. Friend for his statement. As I have so many constituents who work in the aviation industry, this is important information. I am thankful for the now ramped up provision of vaccine centres in South Derbyshire, but how will he ensure that housebound residents receive their jab? There seem to be gaps in communications between primary care networks, district health services and GP surgeries, leaving my constituents unsure.
I will look into the specifics of the situation in South Derbyshire and ask the Minister for Vaccine Deployment, the Under-Secretary of State for Health and Social Care, my hon. Friend the Member for Stratford-on-Avon (Nadhim Zahawi), to call my hon. Friend to try to understand precisely the situation in her area. It is absolutely the responsibility of PCNs to deliver vaccines to the housebound. That is working in most parts of the country. I had not heard of any concerns in South Derbyshire, but this is obviously incredibly important because we are talking about some of the most vulnerable people to covid in the country. We must make sure that everybody, including those who are housebound, has the offer of a jab, and that people can get out and make that happen.
New border restrictions to safeguard us from covid will mean a reduction in the amount of travel into the UK, which will of course cause further harm to aviation and travel firms. Will the Secretary of State update us on progress and give us more details about the ongoing Cabinet discussions regarding specific support for aviation and travel firms in the light of these additional measures?
Yes; we do not underestimate the impact of these measures on the travel and aviation industries. My right hon. Friend the Transport Secretary is leading the discussions, as he has done throughout, because it is incredibly important that people get the right level of support. It goes to the point made by my right hon. Friend the Member for Forest of Dean (Mr Harper), which is that we need to ensure that we go into these measures with a plan for how we come out of them into a set of secure international travel arrangements, so that people can get moving again.
In Stoke-on-Trent, Kidsgrove and Talke I have seen at first hand, while volunteering at the mass vaccination centre in Tunstall, the incredible effort of our local NHS heroes in getting jabs into the arms of up to 1,000 people each day. This is important, as the Royal Stoke University Hospital has been under tremendous pressure in critical care, dealing with capacity 220% above its usual averages. Will my right hon. Friend thank the local health and care heroes across Stoke-on-Trent, Kidsgrove and Talke, and assure us that we will get increased vaccine doses as the supply increases?
Yes, absolutely. The effort in Stoke has been absolutely magnificent. I follow it particularly closely because every time I come to this Chamber—it is normally at least once a week—I am grilled by a colleague from Stoke about performance in Stoke. I have been looking at it recently; across Stoke, the hospital, the GPs and the pharmacies have been doing a magnificent job in the vaccination effort. I am grateful to my hon. Friend for his leadership locally in promoting uptake of the vaccine.
Given the evidence that some of the new variants of covid are much more transmissible, the Royal College of Nursing and the British Medical Association have raised concerns about whether current PPE guidance is adequate. It has been reported that some hospitals are offering staff high-grade PPE, for example FFP3 masks, while others are not, which means unequal levels of protection depending on where staff work. Can the Secretary of State tell us whether the NHS has reviewed the guidance about the standard of PPE to be provided to all staff when treating covid-19 pathway medium and high-risk patients?
Yes, I asked for specific advice on this when we saw the increased transmissibility of the B117 strain—the so-called Kent variant. Exactly this question was reviewed. As the right hon. Gentleman would expect of me, I follow clinical advice on PPE guidance and the clinical advice remains unchanged.
I thank my right hon. Friend for coming to the House with his statement today. Will he join me in congratulating the Henfield heroes at Henfield Medical Centre? They have already vaccinated more than 1,000 patients, who very much appreciated not having to travel 40 miles to the previous clinic in Storrington. I am grateful that artificial limits on the number of centres per primary care network have been relaxed in rural areas.
I pay tribute to everybody at the Henfield Medical Centre doing this incredible work. It is really uplifting being in a health centre. If Members have not been to a vaccination centre as a Member of this House, I would highly recommend it because it is such an uplifting experience. I am really glad that it is being carried out ever closer to home for people as we expand the number of vaccination sites, of which there are now more than 1,400 across England.
The maximum sentence for a person lying on their locator form will be 10 years in prison. What will the minimum sanction be for that offence? The cost of the hotel, including testing and transport, will be £750 for 10 days. Can the Secretary of State give the House an absolute assurance that that represents good value for money to passengers and that there is no undue profiteering?
Yes, absolutely. One of the things that we have been doing in our discussions with hotel groups and others is ensuring value for money as much as possible for passengers. Hence we have managed to get the costs down to £1,750 for an individual traveller in a room alone.
Will the Secretary of State maintain his war aim of protecting the NHS and eschew those siren voices calling for a desired level of infection in the community? If we depart from a level of hospitalisation with which the NHS can cope effectively, we will lose the proper sense of urgency to lift restrictions that are so devastating and costly to us all.
My right hon. Friend is right to raise the issue of the level of hospitalisations as one of the key factors and conditions for exit, as set out by the Prime Minister. The good news is that the number of people in hospital with covid is now falling. It is still higher than either at the April peak or at the November peak. The challenge in terms of the number of cases is that, when cases are very high, you are more likely to get a new variant, but, thankfully, cases are coming down very sharply, too.