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Commons Chamber

Volume 689: debated on Monday 22 February 2021

House of Commons

Monday 22 February 2021

The House met at half-past Two o’clock


[Mr Speaker in the Chair]

Virtual participation in proceedings commenced (Orders, 4 June and 30 December 2020). [NB: [V] denotes a Member participating virtually.]

Before we come to questions, I would like to pay tribute to our friend and colleague from Catering Services, Julia Clifford, who passed away last week having contracted covid just after bravely fighting cancer.

Julia joined the House of Commons on 28 October 1985, having worked first in the old Westminster Cafeteria off Westminster Hall and then in the Members’ Tea Room. She was a very hard-working and popular member of our parliamentary family who always had a smile and time for everybody. I will personally remember her for her sense of humour and in particular her love of animals —we often talked about her family and her pets. She will be greatly missed. I have asked the House authorities to consider renaming the Members’ Tea Room to Julia’s Tea Room.

Our condolences go to her husband John, to her sons Ben and Jack, and to the rest of the family. In time, when we are able, we will hold a service to commemorate the lives of colleagues who have sadly passed away from covid. As I say, the Tea Room will never be the same: that smiling face, somebody who was happy, somebody who used to speak to us, somebody who was always there. No matter how down this House was, Julia was always there for all of us. She is sadly missed by us and by her colleagues in the Tea Room, but she will never ever be forgotten. [Hon. Members: “Hear, hear.”]

Oral Answers to Questions

Housing, Communities and Local Government

The Secretary of State was asked—

High Streets

May I associate myself and all on the Government Benches with the remarks you have just made with respect to Julia, Mr Speaker? We are all very saddened to hear of her death. As you said, service to this House comes in many forms and few have served it as well as she has. We all pass on our deepest condolences to her husband, family and friends.

The Government’s response to the pandemic has seen billions of pounds of support flowing to our high streets through business grants, the furlough scheme and tax deferrals. We look to the future with renewed optimism through the progress of our world-beating vaccination programme, but we know the pandemic has magnified and accelerated market forces and will have a lasting impact on the hight street. The role of high streets has always evolved. I am confident that it will do so again, provided there is the right leadership from local councils to make that happen. We are supporting councils and the pace of change through planning and licensing reform, preserving what is best about the high street at the heart of our local communities but enabling it to move forward with renewed confidence.

I, too, pass on my great sympathies to the family of Julia Clifford. She was indeed a great person and always cheerful.

High streets need to adapt to the changing nature of retail and become places that offer a chance for everyone to work, rest and play as well as shop. Does my right hon. Friend agree that planning policy must adapt, so that councils and businesses can make the changes they need to remain competitive and broaden their appeal to the public?

I fully agree with my hon. Friend. We are seeing profound changes to the high street. As it begins to reopen later this year, we will need an extremely flexible planning system so that we can ensure that small businesses and entrepreneurs can adapt and evolve. We will need a mixed economy, ensuring that there are housing, leisure, shops and restaurants in town and city centres. That is what we are seeking to achieve. We have already put in place, at great speed, a number of significant planning reforms: for example, our reform of use class orders; the ability of local councils to hold markets and of pubs to have marquees in their gardens for longer than they would have done in the past; and permitted development rights to enable businesses that are no longer viable to be turned into high-quality homes so that people of all ages can live in the towns in which they work.

The past year has been incredibly difficult for businesses on the high streets across Sevenoaks and Swanley, but while some landlords have shared that burden others have not. What more can the Government do to encourage landlords to adjust rents where businesses have lost significant trade, or indeed have been unable to trade?

My hon. Friend raises an important question. We are experiencing probably the most significant adjustment in commercial property in our lifetimes and the Government are doing a number of things to assist that process. First, we have helped businesses with their cash flow during the pandemic through the business rates holiday and the business grants that my right hon. Friend the Chancellor has made available. Secondly, we have given businesses peace of mind during the most difficult months by introducing legislation to protect them from eviction, and from forms of insolvency and debt collection if they cannot pay their rent during this period. Finally, we have worked with the sector to publish a code of practice to help to support rent negotiations.

What is required now, if it has not happened already, are very urgent conversations or mediation, if that is necessary, between landlords and their tenants to ensure that where they can pay, they do so—we expect that to happen—and where they cannot pay, sensible, pragmatic arrangements are put in place. It is not in the interests of good landlords to lose viable businesses at this moment and we strongly encourage landlords, if they have not already, to have those productive conversations as quickly as they can.

The town deal funding combined with levelling-up funds and others are potentially transformational for our high street and local economy in Mansfield, but we need some support. It seems likely that we may have to re-submit our bid this spring to try to get the maximum funding, so will the Secretary of State assure me that he will be able to get proper feedback and support for our new bid, and will he look at whether he might be able to give us some security by ensuring that we cannot get a lower amount if we try again?

My hon. Friend has been a doughty champion for Mansfield. I was very pleased that, in the summer of last year, we were able to provide Mansfield District Council with £1 million of accelerated funding to make immediate improvements to the town. He is right to say that, in some places, our experience is—both through the towns fund and the high streets fund—that local proposals have required further support and guidance to ensure that they meet the perfectly understandable value-for-money requirements put in place by my Department and the Treasury. We are going to help Mansfield to prepare its proposals. We have put in place consultancy arrangements to do that and I look forward to working with him.

Does my right hon. Friend agree that a significant part of regenerating our high streets needs to be bringing back into use old, historic buildings that have been out of use for far too long? That underlines why the Ipswich town deal bid is such a good bid, because at the heart of it, and the two most popular projects in the consultation, are plans to breathe new life into the Paul’s silo building—£4 million on the waterfront—and the old Post Office building: two iconic buildings for Ipswich that need a breath of new life.

My hon. Friend and I share a personal interest in historic buildings and the culture and heritage of our towns and cities. Ipswich, as the county town of Suffolk, has a particularly rich heritage. We want to see historic buildings restored and regenerated, and that is a significant part of all the funds that we have made available to date and will be of their successors—the levelling-up fund and the UK shared prosperity fund. I very much look forward to working with him as he finalises his proposals and ensures that Ipswich gets the regeneration funding that it needs.

I offer my condolences on behalf of the Opposition to the family of Julia Clifford on their very, very sad loss.

High streets need support to help them to recover, so will the Secretary of State guarantee that the funding that all areas receive under the levelling-up fund will be at least as much as they received under their local growth deal?

I am delighted to hear the hon. Gentleman’s and the Opposition’s new-found enthusiasm for business and supporting the wealth creators in this country. Of course, it was just over a year ago that they were supporting the overthrow of capitalism. The Leader of the Opposition’s relaunch last week was not quite the Beveridge moment that it was billed as, but we will keep on supporting small businesses on the high street. The Chancellor has done that very successfully over the course of this year in difficult circumstances, with the business rates holiday, the cut in VAT and the support for business grants. We are going to be doing more, as the hon. Gentleman said, with the £4 billion levelling-up fund, which builds on the success of the £3.6 billion towns fund. That will ensure that communities across the country—but particularly those that are furthest away from the labour market, have the highest levels of deprivation and have not seen the levels of Government investment that we would wish hitherto—get the funding that they need to move forward into the year.

New Homes

The first word in “Build back better” is, of course, “build”, and one of the key priorities for my Department throughout the pandemic has been to ensure that house building continues and the housing market stays open. This Government have gone to great lengths to keep the housing industry open, in turn sustaining hundreds of thousands of people’s jobs and livelihoods. House building and the whole ecosystem that it supports, from show homes to home maintenance, have been able to continue during the pandemic and to do so safely. This was shown in the third quarter statistics last year, where housing starts were up 111% on the first quarter and completions were up 185%. At the same time, we are seeing the biggest investment in affordable homes for a decade, delivering much needed new homes on brownfield land through our £7.1 billion national home building fund.

I wonder whether the Secretary of State has seen the reports in The Times today showing high levels of interest in new houses with open space. That is certainly the case at Houlton in my constituency, where the master developer of a 6,000-home site, Urban&Civic, has put green space and a sense of community at its heart, and surpassed its target with 513 occupations in the last three months and a further 310 homes currently under construction. Does he agree that the provision of high-quality open space should be a key part of all housing developments, and will he come to Houlton to see the great work that is being done there, as soon as he is able to do so?

I would be delighted to visit my hon. Friend in Houlton, and I pay tribute to Urban&Civic, which I know well. It is a developer that has carefully masterplanned large sites and tried, where it can, to weave in trees, public realm and public spaces, which is exactly the right way forward. I was pleased to see that it has now been taken over by the Wellcome Trust, which says something about the sort of projects that it will take forward in the future: high-quality, sustainable communities. I have made it a personal priority to ensure that new developments are well-planned. That is why we brought forward the national model design code, and we are also changing the law so that all new streets that are built in this country will be tree lined.

Covid-19: Local Authority Support

The Government have allocated more than £8 billion directly to councils since the start of the pandemic. In addition, councils will receive more than £3 billion of support in 2021-22 for both additional expenditure and loss of income. That takes the total support committed to councils in England to tackle the impacts of covid-19 to more than £11 billion.

I sincerely thank Ministers for the substantial financial support they have given to local government at this difficult time. May I appeal to them to continue that, not least to enable local authorities to play their part in supporting people to live healthier lives with more exercise and recreation, so that we can generate the broader health recovery that this outbreak tells us we need?

I thank my right hon. Friend for that question. She is absolutely right. This is why it is so vital that we have provided a 4.6% cash-terms increase to local government next year—a real-terms increase. I am delighted that in Barnet that means a 5% increase in core spending power—another £14 million next year to spend on local priorities, just as she mentions. Funding and supporting local government, which has been the backbone of our response to covid-19, remain an absolute priority for this Department.

Building Better, Building Beautiful Commission

What response his Department has made to the Building Better, Building Beautiful Commission’s final report. (912373)

People want to live in strong communities where they can see their unique character, heritage and culture reflected and respected in the buildings they pass in their daily lives, so the Government have established the Building Better, Building Beautiful Commission to do just that, by championing beauty in the built environment. We have recently published a comprehensive response to the report, and will be implementing the vast majority of its recommendations. That includes embedding the principle of beauty in the planning system for the first time since it was created in the post-war years; publishing a new national model design code so that communities can demand well-designed local buildings; and establishing a fast track for beauty, where individuals and good-quality builders can see high-quality developments proceed at pace.

I am delighted by my right hon. Friend’s response. This is a vital report and it will make a huge difference to future developments in communities such as mine when these proposals are taken forward. We have a number of exciting developments across Furness, from Hartley’s Brewery in Ulverston to Salthouse sands in Barrow, which are actively seeking to celebrate local history. How best can those developers engage with my right hon. Friend’s Department to ensure that they meet the proposed standards?

My hon. Friend represents one of the most beautiful constituencies in the country, one with a very rich heritage, and I understand why he would want to see that preserved and enhanced, as do we. The developer community should now be engaging with our national model design code and his own local councils should now bring forward their own version of that. My Department stands ready, with our new place unit, to support local councils to produce high-quality, compelling and locally popular design codes. We will be piloting that over the course of the year—perhaps his local council might like to be one of the pilot areas.

Regional Inequality: Local Authority Funding

What steps he is taking to help ensure that local authority funding is used to tackle regional inequality. [R] (912375)

What steps he is taking with Cabinet colleagues to ensure that local authority funding is used to tackle regional inequality. (912385)

This month, the local government finance settlement passed through this House, delivering a 4.6% rise in core spending power to councils across the country. For England, we are committed to putting funding where there is relative need, irrespective of the location, which is why councils in the most deprived areas of the country receive 16% more in grant funding than the least deprived areas.

Here in South Yorkshire, we used European Union and local growth funds to support our economy, attract investment and create good jobs. Now that they have come to an end, can the Minister guarantee that their replacements—the shared prosperity and levelling-up funds—will give local leaders the flexibility and capacity to invest that money to rebuild our communities?

I thank the hon. Gentleman for his question and for the constructive way in which he continues to work with the Government. The levelling-up fund is worth £4 billion. It will be invested in local infrastructure that will have a real and visible impact on our communities, whether that be a new bypass, an upgraded railway station, museums, more libraries, or better high streets and town centres. The fund will be allocated competitively and we will be publishing a prospectus for it soon. We are also providing £220 million of additional UK funding next year to support communities to pilot programmes and new approaches in preparation for the UK shared prosperity fund. We will publish the prospectus for this funding soon. I assure him that this funding will be at the heart of the levelling-up agenda, benefiting communities across the country. As always, I will be happy to discuss the detail with him when those prospectuses are published.

Powys County Council has historically received one of the lowest local government allocations across Wales from the Welsh Government. As a consequence, the local authority is considering closing four rural schools in Brecon and Radnorshire, deepening rural inequality even further. Will the Minister confirm that the Welsh Government have the funding to prevent that and that they could even use the extra funding given to them by the UK Government as a result of the coronavirus pandemic, which they have yet to spend?

I thank my hon. Friend for her question. She is right to say that we have given Wales £5.2 billion of guaranteed up-front funding this year, and we have now confirmed an additional £650 million for the Welsh Government to support public services affected by covid-19. Of course, local government is a devolved responsibility, and it is for the Welsh Government to decide how to use the substantial funds the UK Government are providing them with. I encourage them to meet my hon. Friend to discuss how best to protect the vital public services that she has rightly highlighted on behalf of her community.

Few details of the shared prosperity fund have been published. Will the Minister guarantee that the fund will be used to tackle regional inequality, as intended, that no region will lose out and that the Government will not force councils to compete against one another, wasting time and resources when they could be getting on with providing services that local people depend on?

I can certainly assure the hon. Lady that the UK shared prosperity fund will help level up and create opportunity right across our country in the places that need it the most, be they ex-industrial areas, deprived towns or rural communities, and for people who face labour market barriers. It is going to operate UK-wide, using the new financial assistance powers in the United Kingdom Internal Market Act 2020. We will ramp up funding so that total domestic UK-wide funding will at least match receipts, reaching about £1.5 billion a year.

Shared Prosperity Fund

We will work both with the devolved Administrations and local communities to ensure that the UK shared prosperity fund supports citizens right across the country. We have demonstrated that commitment by confirming that the devolved Administrations will have a place within the governance structures for the fund.

Mr Speaker, that was a wonderful tribute to Julia and I really appreciate your making it. I associate myself with it and pass on my deepest condolences to her family. She will be sadly missed by the Scottish National party group at Westminster.

Will the Minister please explain when exactly we will learn what the mechanism will be for involving the Scottish Government in decisions about which people, communities and local businesses will receive the funding necessary to enable them to level up? Who will be the final arbiter? How much money will be available? When will the process begin?

The money is well known about, and we published the heads of terms document last year. Investment to replace EU structural funds will increase in each of England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland next year, compared with this financial year, thanks to the funds that the Chancellor is putting in. We will ramp up total domestic UK-wide funding so that it will at least match EU receipts, reaching around £1.5 billion a year. Further details of the operation of the additional funding will be published soon, but in the meantime we will continue to engage with the devolved Administrations on the important additional funds.

I am pleased to hear that the Minister apparently just confirmed that Scotland will not receive a single penny less under the UK shared prosperity funding scheme. I am sure that that news will be welcomed in Scotland. Will he confirm that the priorities for Scotland will continue to be set in Scotland, by the people of Scotland and the democratically elected Government of Scotland?

Of course, the first part of the hon. Lady’s question was confirmed in a manifesto commitment from this Government. I assure her that we have been having engagement events right across the United Kingdom, with 16 such events in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. We have confirmed that the devolved Administrations will have a place in the oversight of the fund; we have been working closely with them, and I will reach out to them soon to organise discussions about the delivery of the fund directly into Scotland.

Covid-19: Support for Schools

What discussions he has had with the Secretary of State for Education on the provision of financial support by local authorities for schools during the covid-19 outbreak. (912378)

We regularly engage with the Department for Education on matters relating to local authorities’ finances. We have provided £4.6 billion of un-ringfenced funds to councils to manage a range of covid-19-related pressures. The DFE has already distributed £102 million for exceptional covid-related costs incurred by schools and will shortly process claims made in December.

Many primary schools in Twickenham are struggling with the double whammy of the costs of making their sites covid secure and the lost income from lettings and fundraising, and the Department for Education has not reimbursed a lot of those costs. The Minister for School Standards has repeatedly told me that schools that have low reserves and face severe financial difficulties should seek support from their local authority, so will the Minister be making funds available to local authorities specifically to support schools in need? If not, will he issue guidance on the use of existing covid funding to local authorities, which is already insufficient to meet their covid costs?

I completely reject the last part of the hon. Lady’s question, in which she said that funding is insufficient. Local authorities are projected to spend £6.9 billion on covid-related pressures this year. We have already provided them with £8 billion of support and we have confirmed a total of £11 billion of support. We have allocated directly to councils £4.6 billion of un-ringfenced funds, of which Richmond has received £12.5 million. That means that Richmond can allocate funding according to local priorities—it is for the council to make decisions on how the funds are best used, including in schools. We recognise that councils are best placed to understand the needs of their populations. I know how important this issue is to the hon. Lady so am always happy to meet her to discuss it in greater depth.

Local Authority Funding: Cumbria

Core spending power in England will rise from £49 billion in this financial year to £51.3 billion in 2021-22, which is a 4.6% cash-terms increase—a real-terms rise. Councils in Cumbria will see their core spending power rise to more than £483 million—a 4.5% increase in cash terms—and they will also receive more than £30 million in un-ringfenced covid support to help them to build back better in the next financial year.

Rural bus services are a lifeline for people in Penrith and The Border. In 2014, Cumbria County Council decided to stop using central Government funds to subsidise commercial bus services, which has had a negative impact on provision, meaning that some communities in Cumbria are no longer served by regular bus routes. Does my hon. Friend agree that the council should change its position and use the available funds to support rural bus routes to allow people to go about their lives, reconnect and help to address the issue of rural isolation?

I thank my hon. Friend for his question. He is a champion for the community that he represents. He is certainly right that Cumbria County Council has the flexibility to invest in these bus services, perhaps even using some of the £20 million increase that it will receive through the local government finance settlement. Through the Department for Transport, we are also providing an additional £20 million rural mobility fund to support services in rural and suburban areas, and Cumbria has been successful at phase 1 and has recently submitted a business case for review at phase 2, but he is absolutely right to raise this matter. The council does have the flexibility to make these decisions, which I know is of huge importance to him and to his constituents.

Cladding Removal

What progress he has made on the design of the loan scheme to fund the removal of cladding on buildings under 18 metres in height. (912381)

Hundreds of thousands of leaseholders will be protected from the cost of replacing unsafe cladding. Funding will be targeted at the highest-risk buildings in line with long-standing independent expert advice and evidence, while lower-rise buildings with a lower risk profile will gain new protection from the costs of cladding removal through the long-term, low-interest, Government-backed finance scheme through which leaseholders will pay no more than £50 per month. We will publish more details on how the scheme will work as soon as we are in a position to do so.

I thank the Minister for his answer; I look forward to more details. In the meantime, will he confirm that the loan will be a charge on the freeholder, that there will be no addition to the debt of any individual leaseholder, and that it will not affect the valuation of leasehold properties? On the money that is to be raised from the levy and financial contributions, will that be in addition to the £3.5 billion that the Government have announced, or will it go to offset the amount of the £3.5 billion that the Government will have to find?

I am obliged to the Chairman of the Housing, Communities and Local Government Committee for his question. We certainly do not wish for any costs to follow the leaseholder through their life, so he is certainly right to assume that the charge will be applied to the building and not to the leaseholder and that, therefore, their credit rating will not be affected by it. He also asked about how the funding mechanism will work. The Chancellor will say more about that at the Budget, so I do not think I should say any more at this point, but we certainly want to ensure that leaseholders are appropriately and properly protected from unforeseen and unfair costs.

I remind the Minister that, 17 times from the Dispatch Box, the Government have made a commitment to leaseholders that they will not pay. The Secretary of State for Housing, Communities and Local Government announced last week that funding for cladding removal would not include buildings under 18 metres and that those in homes below 18 metres would be forced into life-changing debts to pay for a problem that they did not cause. But 18 metres is a “crude” height limit that

“does not reflect the complexity of the challenge at hand.”—[Official Report, 20 January 2020; Vol. 670, c. 24.]

Those are not my words, Mr Speaker, but the words of the Secretary of State last year, so what has changed?

The 18-metre threshold is well established as a reasonable threshold for assessing risk. It has featured in statutory guidance since at least the 1970s. It is used by the National Fire Chiefs Council in its operational guidance; it is used by the Building Research Establishment; it was used by the independent expert panel; and it was used by Dame Judith Hackitt, who, I remind the hon. Lady, said only yesterday in The Sunday Telegraph that our proposals are “sensible”. I hope that, with this advantage, she will read what Dame Judith has said and perhaps reflect on the question that she has asked.

Frankly, I do not think that will be of any comfort to the leaseholders, who were told that they would not be asked to pay and are still living in buildings with flammable cladding and other fire risks. The Housing Minister says that he is taking a risk-based approach, but in the papers today it is alleged that a senior civil servant said in 2018 that the real reason for 18 metres was

“because we haven’t got time to come up with a better number.”

That was two years ago. Whatever the reason, why have the Government not used the time for a proper system of risk prioritisation or even responded to their own call for evidence, which closed a year ago this week?

I am obliged to the hon. Lady. We have looked very closely at the evidence, and have always been guided by safety. Safety is our paramount concern. As I say, the Building Research Establishment, the National Fire Chiefs Council, the independent expert panel and Dame Judith herself all say that 18 metres is an appropriate trigger properly to assess the highest risk. Such buildings are four times more likely to result in injury or fatality if they suffer a fire than lower-rise buildings. We have also introduced—as the Chair of the Select Committee, the hon. Member for Sheffield South East (Mr Betts), has rightly identified—a mechanism to ensure that people living in lower-rise buildings are able to take advantage of finance to ensure that their homes are remediated, so that the value is properly reascribed to them and those people can get on with living their lives.

Planning Reform

We are transforming the planning system through recently announced changes and ambitious long-term reports. Our White Paper, published in August last year, proposes a comprehensive reform of the old planning system. We have also recently published changes to the calculation of local housing need, to enable more homes to come forward where we need them most, and the new national model design code, which will help to drive up the quality of new development.

Labour-run Kirklees Council’s local plan keeps seeing unsustainable housing developments being approved on greenfield sites, with shoddy build quality, flooding issues, and the allocated section 106 funding—supposedly for community infrastructure—just not coming through for those communities. What would the Minister say to my constituents, who are totally fed up with the shambolic planning situation under Kirklees Council?

I would simply say this: if my hon. Friend’s constituents are totally fed up with their shambolic council, they should totally get rid of their shambolic council at the local elections. If they want a party and a Government who will ensure that we have the best planning system that the hon. Gentleman wants—one that will ensure we introduce a raft of measures to drive better design and better quality, to minimise flood risk and to provide the real infrastructure that local communities want—they should vote accordingly at the local elections, and I suggest that they vote Conservative.

Thank goodness we are not having a political broadcast, as we now move to the shadow Minister in Yorkshire, Naz Shah.

Cumbria County Council has been hemmed in by the planning system over the application for the west Cumbria coalmine, which it will likely be forced to pass to avoid the threat of legal costs. This is despite the environmental damage and the small number of unsustainable jobs that the mine will create. Leaving aside fixing the flaws in a system that allows for the opening of a polluting coalmine in the year that the UK hosts COP26, will the Secretary of State now do the right thing on this issue of national—if not global—importance, block this application and work with his colleagues in the Cabinet to provide the long-term, secure and green jobs that west Cumbrians deserve instead?

The hon. Lady and the House know full well that our green credentials are second to none. The hon. Lady also knows that I will not and cannot comment on an individual planning application. What I can say is that there is a high bar to be passed for a local decision to be assessed by the Secretary of State. We believe—the law believes—that it is always best to leave local communities to make decisions for themselves, and that is what we have done in this case.

Home Ownership

Central to this Government’s mission is the promise of helping more people to achieve the dream of home ownership. That is why we have introduced a new shared ownership model cutting the minimum stake that someone needs to buy a home of their own to 10% and allowing them to increase in 1% steps. Thousands more people will benefit, as up to 50% of the homes delivered through our new affordable homes programme will be shared ownership, with those in rented homes being given the right to shared ownership. This all comes on top of our new Help to Buy scheme, which specifically targets first-time buyers, our First Homes policy, which discounts new homes by at least 30%, and our landmark leasehold reforms announced earlier in the year.

City of York Council is already the subject of written warnings by the Secretary of State’s Department for its failure to produce its first local plan since the 1950s, and has now again been reprimanded by inspectors for delays and errors in the production of that plan. Will he now step in and have this plan drafted for the council to send a clear message to it, and to any other council, that we will not tolerate those who seek to prevent the delivery of homes for rental and ownership?

My hon. Friend will appreciate that in my quasi-judicial role I cannot comment on York’s plan, other than to say that it is long overdue, as he says. York is one of those communities that have failed to produce a plan for a very long time. We have a plan-based system in this country, and the planning reforms that I am bringing forward place greater emphasis than ever on these local plans. One has to have a local plan in order to make the system succeed. It is not optional. Local areas that take too long or do not produce those plans, including York, will need to face the consequences, and we will have to consider how we need to proceed if they do not bring one forward quickly.

First-time Home Buyers

This Government are making the dream of home ownership a reality, with the number of first-time buyers now at its highest level for 12 years. Over the past decade, our schemes like Help to Buy and Right to Buy have helped nearly 700,000 families to buy a home of their own. Applications for the Help to Buy affordable new-build scheme in Scotland have now been closed and the Scottish first home fund is currently paused, but the people of Scotland need not worry: we are working very closely with the Chancellor on how to increase the options for first-time buyers looking to access mortgages across the United Kingdom, which will, in turn, help more people in Scotland to become homeowners, from Glasgow to Inverness.

It is a fact that second home buyers often price out young first-time buyers in the highlands, and this of course takes me to that dread old spectre of highland depopulation. So on a personal level I would be extremely grateful if the Secretary of State could share his thinking and his methodology with the Scottish Government, and make every encouraging noise that he can to the Scottish Government, to make sure that young local people can buy homes in the highlands and live and work there in the years to come.

The hon. Gentleman and I share the same view that young people in this country should have every right to get on the housing ladder that those of us who were fortunate to do so in previous years had. It is a shame that the Scottish Government have chosen to close the Help to Buy scheme and to pause the first home fund without bringing forward any credible alternatives. Of course many of these issues are devolved, but where the Chancellor and I can take action in Scotland, we certainly will. As I said earlier, we are working very closely with the big banks on a UK-wide basis to see what more we can do to help first-time buyers access high loan to value mortgages and get on the ladder.

Energy-efficient Housebuilding

I thank my hon. Friend for his question, not least because as a proud member of the Chartered Institute of Building I take a keen interest in all things related to energy-efficient house building, so I am personally delighted that from 2025 the future homes standard will ensure that new homes produce at least 75% less carbon dioxide emissions than those built to current standards. These homes will be future-proofed, with low-carbon heating, high levels of energy efficiency, and no further refit work needed to enable them to become zero-carbon over time, alongside the electric energy grid.

British architects such as Bill Dunster are building not only energy-efficient homes but zero bills homes, which are brilliant for the planet as well as helping us relieve poverty. Will the Government commit that we will aim for the very highest standards, not least so that we do not have to retrofit later?

We are indeed aiming for the very highest standards; I do not think anybody could accuse us of being anything other than very ambitious. While some of the sector is already leading the way by building highly efficient, low-carbon buildings, it is important that all parts of the industry are ready to build homes that are fit for a zero-carbon future. The timeline we have set out delivers on our net zero commitments while providing industry with the time it needs to develop the supply chains and skills that will be necessary. I am hoping that I will get to join my right hon. Friend the Minister for Housing on his visit to the ZEDfactory in due course.

Topical Questions

On Saturday, I was delighted to announce that the Ministry for Housing, Communities and Local Government will be opening a new dual headquarters in the great city of Wolverhampton, taking Ministers, senior civil servants and decision makers to the west midlands. We are leading efforts to level up all parts of the country, so it is only right that MHCLG brings decision makers to the communities that we seek to serve. This is about more than just the hundreds of jobs that we will bring to the region, with 800 MHCLG staff outside London by 2030—it is about pride, prestige, proximity to power, ensuring that more local voices are reflected in the creation of Government policy and playing our part in raising the stature of smaller cities such as Wolverhampton, which have been undervalued by Governments hitherto.

Earlier today, I was pleased to meet representatives from Wolverhampton, who included—you will be pleased to know, Mr Speaker, as a supporter of Chorley FC— the mighty Wolverhampton Wanderers football club. All at the Ministry look forward to being an integral part of the great city of Wolverhampton and the wider west midlands.

Can the Secretary of State tell me what projections have been made of the impact on homelessness of the ending of the protection for renters at the end of next month? What provision will be made to assist local authorities in supporting those who find themselves evicted?

My right hon Friend the Lord Chancellor and I are working to consider what further steps are necessary. We will hear in a few moments’ time the Prime Minister’s statement, which will set out the road map for the reopening of our economy, but it is important that we keep in place measures that protect the most vulnerable in society, including those who are renting. That is exactly what we have done since the beginning of the pandemic, and I intend to keep doing so for as long as is necessary.

The hon. Lady will also be aware that we have spent more than £700 million protecting rough sleepers in her part of the country and across the whole of England. We have helped more than 34,000 of the most vulnerable people in society into safe and secure accommodation, and we intend to build on that over the course of the year as we move forward with our pledge to end rough sleeping.

With Prestatyn facing the imminent closure of TSB, Barclays and HSBC, and following on from the loss of NatWest and the Royal Bank of Scotland in recent years, the town’s high street will be left without a single bank or cash machine, despite being a major regional shopping centre. Can my right hon. Friend outline what conversations he is holding with major banks to ensure an adequate and fair distribution of banking facilities in high streets across the UK? (912325)

My hon. Friend raises an important point. We went into the pandemic as one of the leading countries in the world in terms of having a cashless society. The chief executive of the Royal Mint, based in Llantrisant in Wales, has suggested recently that coin use may have dropped by as much as a fifth over the course of the pandemic, and much of that will not be restored afterwards, so it is important that we protect access to cash for the most vulnerable in society, including those in smaller towns, villages and rural areas. My right hon Friend the Chancellor has committed to doing just that and ensuring that the infrastructure that supports cash is sustainable in the long term, including proposals that would see cashback offered at shops without consumers having to make a purchase.

The Resolution Foundation has found that 450,000 households have fallen into rent arrears since last January due to the covid pandemic. Does the Secretary of State think the Government’s decision to freeze local housing allowance will improve that situation or make it worse, and what objections has he raised in Cabinet about this freeze?

I am proud of the response that this Government have made to the pandemic. At every turn, we have tried to protect the most vulnerable people in society. My Department has protected renters through bringing forward the moratorium on evictions. We raised the local housing allowance to the 30th percentile, ensuring that there is more support for those people who need it. In England, we have supported rough sleepers, those shielding and many of the most vulnerable people; that is absolutely right. Our record stands up very well compared with that of the Scottish Government. In fact, the courts in Scotland opened long before those in England, ensuring that people in England were protected from eviction while those in Scotland were being evicted.

Hull and East Riding of Yorkshire Council submitted their bid for East Yorkshire devolution some months ago. That included a request for full allocation for the Goole town deal bid, but I digress. Can the Minister tell me where we are with regard to opening up negotiations with Hull and East Riding of Yorkshire Council, to get East Yorkshire devolution moving forwards? (912326)

We have a clear commitment to give more power to local communities, providing opportunity across the country. We want to build on the more than 50% of the north now covered by our devolution deals, with a new deal in West Yorkshire signed in Parliament just last month. We welcomed the devolution proposal from Hull and East Yorkshire, and my Department will respond shortly, with a view to further formal engagement with councils following the local government elections. I am always happy to meet my hon. Friend to talk about this in greater depth.

Last week, The Sunday Times revealed that property developers who have built flats covered in dangerous cladding have donated £2.5 million to the Conservative party since 2017. This comes after the 10 biggest house builders have made £15 billion in profit since the Grenfell Tower disaster, and of course, they have made a tidy sum during the covid-19 pandemic from a market boom fuelled by the stamp duty holiday. The Housing Secretary said he believes in the polluter pays principle. Why, then, are leaseholders still footing the bill for the building safety crisis?

The hon. Gentleman may have missed my statement to the House the other day in which I announced on behalf of the Chancellor that we will be bringing forward levies and taxes on the property development industry. [Interruption.] He suggests that they are too low, but he does not know what the scale of them is, and he will have to wait until my right hon. Friend the Chancellor announces them in due course. We will ensure that those who created this situation pay for it. I would add that many of these buildings—in fact, the lion’s share of them—were built under the last Labour Government, who did nothing to tackle this issue. We are clearing up the mess. We are bringing forward an entirely new building safety regime, which will be world class and ensure that people can always be safe and feel safe in their homes.

Time and again, constituents raise with me their worries about the state of the town centre. The UK Government’s £3.6 billion towns fund in England is a fantastic initiative. Could my right hon. Friend confirm that the full Barnett consequential from that has been passed to the Welsh Government, so that my constituents can benefit, should Cardiff bay choose to make towns a priority, as this Government are doing? (912327)

As my hon. Friend notes, the £3.6 billion towns fund is being delivered in England with great success. There is, however, nothing to prevent the Welsh Government from investing in the same way in towns such as the one that he represents across Wales. At the latest spending review, the Welsh Government received an additional £1.3 billion for the next financial year through the Barnett formula and £12 million through changes in my Department’s overall settlement. I strongly encourage him to hold the Welsh Government to account and ensure that they invest more in communities such as the one that he serves.

The strong message I have received from businesses in Ilford town centre and on high streets across my constituency is that action on business rates is needed to help high street businesses. Can the Secretary of State have a word with the Chancellor to make sure that that support is in place, so that when people return to their high streets, there are still some shops there to serve them? (912332)

I do not think my right hon. Friend needs any reminding; he of course was the Chancellor who gave us the business rates holiday that has supported hundreds of thousands of businesses on every high street across the country. The hon. Gentleman will have to wait till the Budget next week, where the Chancellor will be setting out how he intends to continue supporting businesses and jobs in all parts of the United Kingdom over the course of the year.

Will the Secretary of State condemn the astonishing decision by the Mayor of London to spend thousands of pounds on a committee to take down statues and rename streets? Is this not a good reason to vote for Shaun Bailey as the new Conservative Mayor of London? (912328)

I agree wholeheartedly with my right hon. Friend. It does speak to the priorities of the current Mayor of London that he would devote so much time to statues and street names, rather than to the things that really matter to people in London, which are tackling crime, ensuring they do not have to pay his 10% mayoral precept on their council tax and ensuring that good-quality affordable homes are built in the places people want to see them.

We all know that, despite the Prime Minister’s experience as a Mayor, he has called the devolution settlement a “disaster” and a “mistake”. Is that loathing of Scotland’s Parliament perhaps the real reason why the Government are ripping up the devolution settlement, grabbing back our powers and imposing a shared prosperity fund that bypasses the democratically elected Members of the Scottish Parliament and bears very little resemblance to the needs or wants of the Scottish electorate? (912335)

This Government were elected on a clear manifesto pledge to ensure that we level up all parts of this United Kingdom, including the communities that the hon. Member serves in Scotland, and that is exactly what we intend to do. The UK shared prosperity fund will ensure that at least as much, if not more, funding goes to communities in Scotland than would have been received if we had stayed within the European Union. He seems to have a strange aversion to localism and to ensuring that local authorities in Scotland—democratically elected councillors in his constituency and others—have a say over the future of their areas.

Since I was elected, I have been speaking up for Exmouth and East Devon in Parliament, and working hard to secure support for our hospitality industry, Exeter airport and the mighty Exeter Chiefs. Exmouth continues to grow, and I want to work with East Devon District Council to help the town stay a great place to live and work. Could the Secretary of State provide an update on when the next round of funding to improve towns, transport and high streets will be made available? (912329)

I very much enjoyed visiting East Devon during the general election campaign, and I look forward to seeing Exmouth’s application in due course. As I said then, Exmouth is exactly the sort of town that we want to benefit from the town regeneration funds that we have made available. I am pleased to tell my hon. Friend that we are driving forward our plans to boost town centre regeneration in every corner of the country. The levelling-up fund and the UK shared prosperity fund will build on the work of the future high streets fund and the towns fund, and the prospectuses for those will be published very soon. I hope East Devon District Council will work with him to grasp this opportunity and put in good proposals that we can consider carefully.

Census 2021 is due in just a few weeks’ time, at a time when cities such as Cambridge would normally be packed with students, researchers and visitors. In the middle of a pandemic, does the Secretary of State really think we will get accurate figures? Remember that these figures are going to be used for the next 10 years. (912342)

Of course, we are working closely with the Cabinet Office on the delivery of the elections and the census. We have provided extra funds to make sure they can be delivered safely, and we have published guidance alongside that as well. We have also committed, for the coming year, £11 billion directly to councils since the start of the pandemic, of which Cambridge City Council has so far received more than £5.4 million. On top of that, it will have the additional funding to help it deliver elections, and its share of the £1.55 billion that we have announced to help with covid-related pressures next year, including election pressures.

I welcome the upcoming leasehold reform legislation, but I do worry that the provisions may not apply for the benefit of my constituents in Delyn and across Wales. Will my right hon. Friend tell us what discussions he has had with the Welsh Government to assist them in ensuring that my constituents are not left behind by Labour once again? (912330)

My hon. Friend is right to welcome the landmark reforms that we announced earlier in the year, which will be the biggest changes to English property law for over 40 years. Of course, I would like to see them apply in Wales as well, and we have had conversations with colleagues in the Welsh Government. I strongly encourage them to take the same approach as us, which is to ensure there is always fairness for leaseholders, and that those reforms come into place across the whole of England and Wales.

Given the scale of need for help with home adaptations for the rising number of older people with disabilities, dementia and now the impacts of long covid, will the Secretary of State commit to increasing disabled facilities grant funding so that local authorities like Bedford Borough Council can stand a chance of meeting local need? (912345)

The hon. Gentleman raises an important point, and we are actively considering it. We have responded to a consultation on how we can improve access to public buildings and to homes for disabled people, and if there is more we can do, we should do it.

I thank my right hon. Friend for the support given to councils over the past 12 months, but as we move into what will hopefully be a busy summer for tourism in areas such as North Devon, based on the experience of last summer, some smaller district and parish councils that operate car parks, toilets, and waste and dog bin collections struggle to finance and maintain them effectively to the understandably higher standards that are needed, so can he advise what support is being given to ensure that councils with tourism hotspots are prepared for the likely influx of visitors this summer? (912331)

I thank my hon. Friend for her question. We are hugely grateful to parish and town councils, which have been on the frontline in responding to this pandemic. That is why the Secretary of State wrote to them earlier this year to encourage principal councils to work with them to discuss funding. Councils in Devon will receive a further £31 million in un-ringfenced covid funding next year, which will help to ensure that their facilities are maintained and ready for the summer. Finally, I am delighted that my hon. Friend’s constituency has received an offer of £6.5 million from our future high streets fund, which I understand will go towards refurbishment of the historic market quarter.

Considering local government reform, the five boroughs and districts of Warwickshire have spent over £100,000 on a report by Deloitte, and I understand that Warwickshire County Council has spent over £50,000 with PricewaterhouseCoopers. Deloitte found that it would be favourable for one sort of authority, while PricewaterhouseCoopers decided that county councils should remain as is. Is that a good use of public money? (912352)

Those individual decisions are decisions for local authorities. I can certainly inform the hon. Gentleman that Warwick has received over £3.7 million this year in covid funding, and is receiving a 4.8% real-terms rise in core spending power this current financial year, but the individual decision to which he has referred is for the council to make.

The Minister will be aware of plans by Lib Dem Eastleigh Borough Council to build and develop 2,500 houses in the village of Horton Heath. I know that the Minister cannot comment on specific planning applications, but what general advice can he give my constituents, who are concerned about the council acting as both the developer and the planning authority while seemingly ignoring statutory bodies such as the Environment Agency? (912333)

I am aware of my hon. Friend’s concerns regarding the new development at Horton Heath. As he says, I cannot comment on individual planning cases, but he is right that where a local council acts as the developer and master planner of a particular site it is incumbent upon it to ensure that it takes account of the views of statutory consultees such as the Environment Agency, of the local community and, indeed, of strong local Members of Parliament like him.

I am suspending the House for three minutes to enable the necessary arrangements for the next business to be made.

Sitting suspended.

Covid-19: Road Map

Order. Before I call the Prime Minister, I would like to point out that a British Sign Language interpretation of the statement is available to watch on I now call the Prime Minister to make his statement.

With your permission, Mr Speaker, I will make a statement on the road map that will guide us cautiously but irreversibly towards reclaiming our freedoms, while doing all we can to protect our people against covid. Today’s measures will apply in England, but we are working closely with the devolved Administrations, who are setting out similar plans.

The threat remains substantial, with the numbers in hospital only now beginning to fall below the peak of the first wave last April, but we are able to take these steps because of the resolve of the British public and the extraordinary success of our NHS in vaccinating over 17.5 million people across the UK. The data so far suggest both vaccines are effective against the dominant strains of covid. Public Health England has found that one dose of the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine reduces hospitalisations and deaths by at least 75%, and early data suggest that the Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccine provides a good level of protection, although since we only started deploying this vaccine last month, at this stage the size of the effect is less certain. But no vaccine can ever be 100% effective, nor will everyone take them up, and like all viruses, covid-19 will mutate.

As the modelling released today by the Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies shows, we cannot escape the fact that lifting lockdown will result in more cases, more hospitalisations, and sadly more deaths. This will happen whenever lockdown is lifted, whether now or in six or nine months, because there will always be some vulnerable people who are not protected by the vaccines. There is therefore no credible route to a zero-covid Britain or indeed a zero-covid world, and we cannot persist indefinitely with restrictions that debilitate our economy, our physical and mental wellbeing, and the life chances of our children That is why it is so crucial that this road map should be cautious but also irreversible.

We are now setting out on what I hope and believe is a one-way road to freedom, and this journey is made possible by the pace of the vaccination programme. In England, everyone in the top four priority groups was successfully offered a vaccine by the middle of February. We now aim to offer a first dose to all those in groups five to nine by 15 April, and I am setting another stretching target: to offer a first dose to every adult by the end of July. As more of us are inoculated, so the protection afforded by the vaccines will gradually replace the restrictions, and today’s road map sets out the principles of that transition.

The level of infection is broadly similar across England, so we will ease restrictions in all areas at the same time. The sequence will be driven by the evidence, so outdoor activity will be prioritised as the best way to restore freedoms while minimising the risk. At every stage, our decisions will be led by data not dates, and subjected to four tests: first, that the vaccine deployment programme continues successfully; second, that evidence shows vaccines are sufficiently effective in reducing hospitalisations and deaths; third, that infection rates do not risk a surge in hospitalisations, which would put unsustainable pressure on the NHS; and, fourth, that our assessment of the risks is not fundamentally changed by new variants of covid that cause concern.

Before taking each step, we will review the data against these tests. Because it takes at least four weeks for the data to reflect the impact of relaxations in restrictions, and because we want to give the country a week’s notice before each change, there will be at least five weeks between each step. The chief medical officer is clear that moving any faster would mean acting before we know the impact of each step, which would increase the risk of us having to reverse course and reimposerestrictions. I will not take that risk.

Step one will happen from 8 March, by which time those in the top four priority groups will be benefiting from the increased protection they receive from their first dose of the vaccine. All the evidence shows that classrooms are the best places for our young people to be. That is why I have always said that schools would be the last to close and the first to reopen. Based on our assessment of the current data against the four tests, I can tell the House that, two weeks from today, pupils and students in all schools and further education settings can safely return to face-to-face teaching, supported by twice-weekly testing of secondary school and college pupils. Families and childcare bubbles will also be encouraged to get tested regularly. Breakfast and after-school clubs can also reopen, and other children’s activities, including sport, can restart where necessary to help parents to work. Students on university courses requiring practical teaching, specialist facilities or onsite assessments will also return, but all others will need to continue learning online, and we will review the options for when they can return by the end of the Easter holidays.

From 8 March, people will also be able to meet one person from outside their household for outdoor recreation, such as a coffee on a bench or a picnic in a park, in addition to exercise, but we are advising the clinically extremely vulnerable to shield at least until the end of March. Every care-home resident will be able to nominate a named visitor, able to see them regularly, provided they are tested and wear personal protective equipment. Finally we will amend regulations to enable a broader range of covid-secure campaign activities for local elections on 6 May.

As part of step one, we will go further and make limited changes on 29 March, when schools go on Easter holidays. It will become possible to meet in limited numbers outdoors, where the risk is lower. So the rule of six will return outdoors, including in private gardens, and outdoor meetings of two households will also be permitted on the same basis, so that families in different circumstances can meet. Outdoor sports facilities, such as tennis and basketball courts and open-air swimming pools, will be able to reopen, and formally organised outdoor sports will resume, subject to guidance. From this point, 29 March, people will no longer be legally required to stay at home, but many lockdown restrictions will remain. People should continue to work from home where they can and minimise all travel wherever possible.

Step two will begin at least five weeks after the beginning of step one and no earlier than 12 April, with an announcement at least seven days in advance. If analysis of the latest data against the four tests requires a delay, then this and subsequent steps will also be delayed, to maintain the five-week gap.

In step two, non-essential retail will reopen, as will personal care, including hairdressers, I am glad to say, and nail salons. Indoor leisure facilities such as gyms will reopen, as will holiday lets, but only for use by individuals or household groups. We will begin to reopen our pubs and restaurants outdoors; hon. Members will be relieved that there will be no curfew, and the Scotch egg debate will be over because there will be no requirement for alcohol to be accompanied by a substantial meal. Zoos, theme parks and drive-in cinemas will reopen, as will public libraries and community centres.

Step three will begin no earlier than 17 May. Provided that the data satisfies the four tests, most restrictions on meetings outdoors will be lifted, subject to a limit of 30, and this is the point when you will be able to see your friends and family indoors, subject to the rule of six or the meeting of two households. We will also reopen pubs and restaurants indoors, along with cinemas and children’s play areas, hotels, hostels, and bed and breakfasts. Theatres and concert halls will reopen their doors, and the turnstiles of our sports stadiums will once again rotate, subject in all cases to capacity limits depending on the size of the venue. We will pilot larger events using enhanced testing, with the ambition of further easing restrictions in the next step.

Step four will begin no earlier than 21 June. With appropriate mitigations, we will aim to remove all legal limits on social contact and on weddings and other life events. We will reopen everything up to and including nightclubs, and enable large events such as theatre performances above the limits of step three, potentially using testing to reduce the risk of infection.

Our journey back towards normality will be subject to resolving a number of key questions, and to do this we will conduct four reviews. One will assess how long we need to maintain social distancing and face masks. This will also inform guidance on working from home, which should continue wherever possible until this review is complete, and it will be critical in determining how Parliament can safely return in a way that I know hon. Members would wish.

A second review will consider the resumption of international travel, which is vital for many businesses that have been hardest hit, including retail, hospitality, tourism and aviation. A successor to the global travel taskforce will report by 12 April so that people can plan for the summer. The third review will consider the potential role of covid status certification in helping venues to open safely, but be mindful of the many concerns surrounding exclusion, discrimination and privacy. The fourth review will look at the safe return of major events.

As we proceed through these steps, we will benefit from the combined protection of our vaccines and the continued expansion of rapid testing. We will extend the provision of free test kits for workplaces until the end of June, and families, small businesses and the self-employed can collect those tests from local testing sites.

In view of these cautious but, I hope, irreversible changes, people may be concerned about what they mean for the various support packages for livelihoods, for people and for the economy, so I want to assure the House that we will not pull the rug out. For the duration of the pandemic, the Government will continue to do whatever it takes to protect jobs and livelihoods across the UK, and my right hon. Friend the Chancellor will set out further details in the Budget next Wednesday.

Finally, we must remain alert to the constant mutations of the virus. Next month we will publish an updated plan for responding to local outbreaks with a range of measures to address variants of concern, including surge PCR testing and enhanced contact tracing. We cannot, I am afraid, rule out reimposing restrictions at local or regional level if evidence suggests that they are necessary to contain or suppress a new variant which escapes the vaccines.

I know there will be many people who will be worried that we are being too ambitious and that it is arrogant to impose any kind of plan upon a virus. I agree that we must always be humble in the face of nature and we must be cautious, but I also believe that the vaccination programme has dramatically changed the odds in our favour, and it is on that basis that we can now proceed.

Of course, there will be others who believe that we could go faster on the basis of the vaccination programme. I understand their feelings, and I sympathise very much with the exhaustion and the stress that people and businesses are experiencing after so long in lockdown. But to them all, I say that today the end really is in sight and a wretched year will give way to a spring and a summer that will be very different and incomparably better than the picture we see around us today. In that spirit, I commend this statement to the House.

I thank the Prime Minister for advance sight of his statement and for the telephone call between us earlier today. This is the third time that the Prime Minister has announced a plan to come out of national lockdown. In the past, we have emerged without sufficient caution, without a clear plan and without listening to the science. We cannot afford to make those mistakes again. This has to be the last lockdown. The vaccine roll-out, as the Prime Minister said, has been remarkable, and I pay tribute to everybody involved. It is the light at the end of the tunnel, but if we are going to get there, we have to tread very carefully. I am glad that the Prime Minister spoke today of caution, of this being irreversible, of assessing the data and following the evidence. Those are the right guiding principles—and, I have to say, it is a welcome change from some of the language the Prime Minister used in the past. I urge him now to stick to that.

I turn to the substance of the matter. First, on schools, we all agree that the priority must be for all children to be back in school as quickly as possible and to stay in school. We want that to happen on 8 March, as the Government have promised. The confidence of parents, teachers and school staff will be critical, so will the Prime Minister please confirm that the chief medical officer and the chief scientific adviser support the full reopening of all schools on 8 March? Will he commit to publishing all the relevant medical evidence on this issue?

Will the Prime Minister also indicate what the Government are doing to overcome the huge logistical challenges this presents? He touched on mass testing in his statement, but there was nothing on Nightingale classrooms and extra capacity, which is a huge problem, particularly for schools with smaller buildings. Will the Prime Minister update the House on how he will deal with that in just over two weeks’ time?

Let me turn to a linked issue. Within weeks of schools returning last autumn, thousands of teachers and school staff were self-isolating, causing huge disruption to the running of schools and children’s learning. We do not want that again. That is why Labour called for the early vaccination of all teachers and school staff. In my own constituency, the fantastic Crick Institute, which has been doing amazing work, has been vaccinating hundreds of people a day. The institute has been very clear to me—and publicly—that it could be doing more, and it is obvious to me that over one weekend it could have vaccinated all teachers and school staff in Camden if it had been allowed to do so, without bumping anyone else from the priority list. There are similar examples across the country. Will the Prime Minister see what more can be done to speed up the vaccination of teachers and school staff to ensure that children and young people not only return to school on 8 March, but stay in school having returned?

Let me turn to isolation support. As we release health measures, however gradually, there is a risk that infection rates will go up; the Prime Minister made that clear in his statement. It is therefore more important than ever that test, trace and isolate is working and working well. One of the most concerning figures in a recent SAGE report is that only three in 10 people who should be self-isolating are actually doing so. It is obvious that one of the main drivers of this is insecurity at work. As the chair of Test and Trace has said, people are “scared” to take the test because they cannot afford to self-isolate. That not only harms our health response, but it costs the economy too—and it has to be fixed. We have proposed that the £500 isolation payment, which is currently only available to one in eight workers, be made available to everyone who needs it. Will the Prime Minister consider that? If we do not shift the three in 10 figure, there will be a huge hole in our defences.

I turn to economic support. The Prime Minister announced a road map today, but it will not have escaped businesses that many of them will not be able to open until mid-April at the earliest, and many not until mid-June. I am not questioning the health basis for that decision, which I support, but I am reiterating what we have always said—that health restrictions must be accompanied by proper economic support. It makes no sense to announce today that businesses will be closed for many more weeks or months without announcing new economic support at the same time. The Prime Minister says, “Well, the Budget will be next week”, but there is nothing stopping him saying today that business rates relief will be extended, that furlough will be extended, or that the VAT cut for hospitality and leisure will be extended. Businesses are crying out for that certainty and the Prime Minister should give it to them today.

The Prime Minister should also announce proper support for the 3 million self-employed who have been left out of all support for the last year. I was asked about this issue again on LBC this morning, by a self-employed business women who is at her wits’ end at the lack of Government support. This road map means that she may not be able to get her business up and running again until mid-June. Surely the Prime Minister needs to act now to close the gap for those 3 million people.

We support the twin principles that the Prime Minister has set out today—that the lifting of restrictions must be both cautious and irreversible. But I know that the Prime Minister will come under pressure from those on his own Benches to go faster and throw caution to the wind. Last week, it was reported that around 60 of his own Members of Parliament called for the end of all restrictions by the end of April, and I am sure that there are going to be similar calls this afternoon. I hope that the Prime Minister takes the opportunity to face this down because if the road map is to work, he needs to listen to the chief scientific adviser and the chief medical officer, not to the hon. Member for Wycombe (Mr Baker) or the right hon. Member for Forest of Dean (Mr Harper). If the Prime Minister does, he will have our support and will secure a majority in the House. If he does not, we will waste all the sacrifices of the last 12 months.

I am very grateful to the right hon. and learned Gentleman for his overall support for the road map. Indeed, I also welcome his support for the vaccine roll-out. I am sure that many people will be glad to hear what he says. I cannot help but remind you, Mr Speaker, that he did vote to stay in the European Medicines Agency, which would have made a vaccine roll-out of this speed impossible.

The right hon. and learned Gentleman is right to say that it is a priority to get schools back safely. I am delighted that he agrees with that. I can certainly say that that plan for all schools to go back on 8 March is supported by the chief medical officer and the chief scientific adviser. It would be a good thing if he could perhaps persuade some of his friends in the unions to say so as well and to say that schools are safe

The right hon. and learned Gentleman mentioned the importance of self-isolation. We will continue to support those who are asked to self-isolate and, indeed, increase our package of support for them. As for the support for business and for the self-employed, which he rightly raised, we will continue to put our arms around businesses and livelihoods around the country, as we have done throughout the pandemic, and the Chancellor, who has been extremely creative in this respect, will be setting out the details in the Budget next week, as the right hon. and learned Gentleman would expect. Overall, I think we can safely say that we have had cautious support from the Leader of the Opposition today, but bitter experience has taught me that his support is very far from irreversible. Who knows what he will be saying next week, but I am glad of it today.

I refer the House to my entry in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests. May I welcome my right hon. Friend’s statement today? I particularly welcome the return to school on 8 March, but there is another sector that is important for jobs in my constituency, fundamental to our economy and critical to global Britain—the aviation sector. He says that there will be a taskforce report by 12 April so that people can plan for the summer, but that will not allow people to plan. At every stage, the Government have taken weeks, following these reports, to provide certainty to the industry. The industry needs three months’ preparation from the point of certainty, so I ask him to look again at the timetable for the taskforce report and to bring it forward so that we can open up our international air travel and ensure that Britain is open for business.

I am grateful to my right hon. Friend. She is quite rightly a doughty campaigner for the aviation industry and all that it brings to our country. I can tell her that we will continue to support that industry throughout these difficult times, but I believe that setting a deadline of 12 April for the report of the newly formed, reconstituted travel taskforce will give people time to make their plans for the summer. If things go well, and if we can meet these “not before” dates, I believe there is every chance of an aviation recovery later this year.

The success of the vaccine roll-out, led by our incredible NHS staff, is something to behold and something that we are all thankful for. For the first time in many months, people across these islands are genuinely hopeful that an end to the current lockdown is finally in sight, but people also know that one major threat could undo much of that hope. The spread of new international variants of the virus now poses the single biggest threat to finally getting out of the pandemic. That is why quarantine measures for international arrivals are so important. We simply cannot afford to get this wrong. That is why the Scottish Government have taken tough but absolutely necessary action. Those arriving in Scotland on an international flight have to quarantine in a hotel for 10 days. In England, though, the policy applies only to people travelling from red list countries.

The evidence shows that people across the United Kingdom are demanding stronger measures to prevent the spread of any new variant. YouGov polling last week showed that only 18% support the UK Government’s rules on quarantine, while a massive 72% of people across the United Kingdom prefer the Scottish Government’s comprehensive approach. Prime Minister, your plan to end lockdown will be worthless if your insufficient quarantine measures allow a new variant in through the back door. People right across the United Kingdom are continuing to make huge sacrifices: children are not yet physically at school, families are isolated and there is a loneliness epidemic. People are really struggling, and all this cannot be for nothing. Do not leave the back door open. Do not risk all the hard work and all the sacrifices that have been made.

Given all that is at stake, can the Prime Minister explain why the UK Government are failing to introduce the strong quarantine measures that the public across the United Kingdom are demanding? Will he think again and introduce the Scottish Government’s comprehensive approach for international travellers? Let us all do what we need to do to drive down the spread of the virus and get us all into a position where we can reverse lockdown and begin to restore social interaction for all our wellbeing.

We have among the toughest quarantine measures anywhere in the world, as the right hon. Gentleman well knows, including the mandatory incarceration in hotels appointed by the Government if people return from one of the 33 red list countries. We will continue to impose very, very tough controls on people coming into this country. He should also know that we are confident that all our vaccines are effective in reducing death and serious disease, and we have no reason to doubt that they are effective in reducing death and serious disease from the new variants as well. He should also know that over the course of the next few months we will see new vaccines to defeat these vaccine-escaping variants and that is evolving the whole time. Other than that, I was delighted by the unaccustomed note of optimism with which he began. He is not often notable for his optimism in this House. He is rolling his eyes, but I rather liked it when he began with optimism. I think he should stick to it; I think it suits him. More optimism from him would be nice to hear.

Talking of optimism, the Prime Minister’s approach feels similar to that of Harold Wilson, who said he was an optimist but one who always carried a raincoat. The Prime Minister’s caution is absolutely right in the face of these new variants, when we are potentially so close to the finishing line. But as we get there, will he recognise the brilliant work of our health and care staff by building back better for them, potentially in next week’s Budget, by announcing that we will finally make sure we are training enough doctors and nurses with a long-term workforce plan and by giving the social care sector a 10-year plan, just as we gave the NHS 10 years ago?

Yes, indeed. I pay tribute again, as I have many times before, to the incredible work of not just our NHS staff, but our social care staff, who have really borne the brunt of the pandemic and have done fantastically well. We will certainly be bringing forward reforms of social care, in addition to the massive investments we have already made.

The road map to recovery must put people hit hardest by this pandemic first, not least people with learning disabilities. They have died at rates that are more than three and half times those for the rest of the population, yet many are still not being prioritised for vaccination. Jo Whiley has spoken powerfully about how “hideously unfair” it was to be offered the vaccine before her sister Frances, who is now in hospital with covid after an outbreak in her care home. I know that many other carers across the country feel the same while our loved ones remain so vulnerable to this virus. So will the Prime Minister tell us when, on his road map, everyone with a learning disability will have been offered their first jab?

The right hon. Gentleman is entirely right to draw attention to the particular suffering endured by vulnerable groups throughout this pandemic. That is why those with learning difficulties, those with particular vulnerabilities, do appear high up in the Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation priority list, which I am sure is exactly what he would expect.

First, can I congratulate the Prime Minister on his incredibly bold decision last year? It is due to that and getting the vaccines roll-out going that we are now looking at the eventual end to this covid nightmare, so he deserves all the plaudits he gets for that and more. I agree with his caution in this roll-out and going back to being unlocked, but I just say to him that the hospitality sector is a very big employer of the poorest in society and it is they who have suffered the most in terms of incomes. Nearly half of those businesses are talking about closing, so I wonder whether he would feel it possible to review again the nature of opening up inside those restaurants and pubs, to check that there is no real risk beyond that for any of the other elements he is opening up and, if that is the case, to take that bold decision as and when the data dictates it?

I thank my right hon. Friend for what he said just now. I totally understand where he is coming from and the urgency of those in the hospitality sector who want to open up as soon as possible, as indeed we all do. Everybody in this House wants that to happen, but we also understand the risk of another surge and the consequent risk of a fourth lockdown, which I do not think anybody wants to see, least of all the businesses concerned. What we have in this road map are dates—admittedly, they are “not before” dates—to which businesses can now work: 12 April for outdoor hospitality, 17 May for indoor hospitality. That gives at least some certainty. I think, in this very, very difficult time, with these difficult trade-offs, people would be prepared to trade some urgency and some haste for more certainty and more reliability, and that is what we aim to give.

Diolch yn fawr, Mr Lefarydd. Workers across the UK still face a hopeless choice: self-isolating and suffering a loss of earnings, or going to work, where they risk spreading the virus. Eight months ago, I raised the very problem of the UK’s unfit sick pay system with the Prime Minister, but there are still people in work who cannot afford to self-isolate. Ahead of the Budget, will the Prime Minister commit to raising and expanding statutory sick pay once and for all as a key long-term lesson to be learned from this pandemic, or is he content for our poorest communities to be blighted by ill health now and quite possibly again in future?

I thank the right hon. Lady and repeat the point that I have made to her many times before, although I am grateful to her for raising this again: we will continue to look after people throughout the pandemic. We have increased benefits. There is the payment of £500 and other payments that we will make available. Our undertaking is to make sure that we protect people, whether they are self-isolating or are forced not to be able to work throughout the duration of the pandemic, and she will be hearing more about that from the Chancellor on 3 March.

Thankfully, my right hon. Friend has clearly stated today that an extreme zero-covid approach is impracticable. Can he confirm that most, if not all, of his key scientific advisers now accept that our strategic goal must be and is a practical, vaccine-based method of controlling covid like any other serious respiratory virus, such as influenza?

My right hon. Friend is completely right in the analogy he draws. The only reason I am able to say to the country that we must learn to live with covid as we live with flu in the long term is, of course, because we have this vaccination programme and the capability to evolve our vaccines.

As well as welcoming the success of the vaccination programme, I want to emphasise that there is a lack of sufficient financial support for self-isolation. There is, in the words of one of the Government’s own advisers, a “huge gaping hole” in the Prime Minister’s covid strategy. The payments are not enough and they are not reaching the right people. So as well as fixing that once and for all, will he also take this opportunity to respond, with the seriousness it deserves, to the High Court’s ruling on Friday that the Secretary of State acted unlawfully by failing to publish covid contracts? No one has ever suggested that Ministers did not need to act fast to procure PPE and other covid-related contracts, but transparency matters, even in a crisis, so if the Government have nothing to hide, will the Prime Minister now publish details of who benefited from the VIP lane, who lifted the velvet ropes for those favoured companies, what price they were paid and why they were chosen? Parliament and the country have a right to know.

Of course, we will continue to look after those who are self-isolating and improve their support where we can, as I have said. As for the contracts that the hon. Lady just mentioned, all the details are on the record, and of course it was right to work as fast as we possibly could to get the PPE that this country so desperately needed.

I thank the medics and the volunteers who have worked so hard in providing covid-19 vaccines across the kingdom. In the Wakefield clinical commissioning group area alone, more than 87,000 vaccines have been administered. The vaccine roll-out is the fundamental route out for us, ensuring that we are able to return to our much lamented normality and properly follow the pathway that has just been outlined by the Prime Minister. I am concerned that vaccine disinformation has specifically targeted ethnic minority groups, leading to some refusing the vaccine when they are offered it. Can my right hon. Friend outline what steps the Government are taking to encourage black, Asian and minority ethnic groups to receive the vaccine when they are offered it?

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for his question and congratulate him on the spectacular throne on which he appears to be sitting. Not so long ago, he and I were together in the Al-Hikmah community centre in Batley. I thank all those involved in this roll-out, including the community groups up and down the land that are doing an outstanding job in promulgating vaccinations. He raises a very important point, and I thank him for what he is doing to promote vaccinations for everybody.

My constituents are seeking explanations. Most of them have lost income, many have lost their jobs and all are facing varying degrees of stress, ranging from the very severe to concern about their lives. Many local small businesses have closed for good because they see no future and they are not getting the support that they need. Yet, Mr Speaker, answers are required from the Prime Minister: how £10.5 billion of NHS contracts were awarded without tender; how a further 99% of all NHS contracts were awarded, again, without tender; and how, last week, the High Court found that the Secretary of State for Health and Social Care had not acted legally in the awarding of those contracts. I ask the Prime Minister to do two things: will he end this scandalous privatisation of our NHS, which is happening before our very eyes; and will he replace the Health Secretary with somebody who will stand by and obey the law and publish in advance all contracts that are due to be let, so that the public can see how their money is being spent.

To the best of my memory, the Labour Opposition were advocating during the early stages of the crisis that we should secure PPE from, I think, a theatrical impresario who specialised in capes and gowns and a football agent who claimed to be able to get hold of masks. We went as fast as we possibly could to get PPE and those who are now denouncing us for going too fast were those who were complaining back them that we were not going fast enough.

My right hon. Friend and the Government have rightly been unapologetic throughout this pandemic in their determination to safeguard children’s educational opportunities and wellbeing. Can the Prime Minister confirm that, once all schools reopen on 8 March, the Government will be putting in place all the measures necessary to keep them open, working with academy trusts and, crucially, local authorities to avoid any further disruption to our children’s education?

Yes, indeed. I am grateful to my hon. Friend because that is exactly why we wish to take this cautious but irreversible approach to make sure that we do not have to go back into measures that would keep kids out of school again. He is quite right in what he says.

I welcome the progressive road map of the Prime Minister and the Government, which, of course, is underpinned by the incredibly successful roll-out of the vaccine. Can the Prime Minister confirm that we have no supply issues and are on target to give the second dose to all of those on the NHS frontline who are due them in the next few weeks? Can he also assure us that this will not adversely affect the continuous supply and availability of first vaccines for the informal carers of those who are shielding?

The hon. Gentleman is completely right to raise this and to care deeply about supply. We have no supply issues at the moment, and we are confident that we can meet our targets.

I congratulate the Prime Minister on the fact that sunlit uplands now beckon us. He is right to say that the threat remains substantial, because while we are unlocking, at this stage only a third of the adult population has been vaccinated. What will the Government do to minimise the threat of another lockdown—for example, by strengthening the track, trace and isolate operation, particularly at a local level; providing covid-safe spaces, so that it is easier for people who are infected to self-isolate; and deploying testing capacity more effectively, such as testing schoolchildren twice a week in schools, as we will already be testing teachers?

My hon. Friend is absolutely right in the ideas that he puts forward. Test, track and trace has been improving the whole time over the period of the pandemic. He is right to draw attention to the potential of lateral flow testing, not just in schools—as he says, we will be doing it twice a week for secondary school pupils after the first couple of weeks—but rolling it out for companies and local communities to take up as an additional support and an additional way of fighting the disease.

I know that the Prime Minister was in the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Torfaen (Nick Thomas-Symonds) last week to see the vaccine programme being rolled out by the Aneurin Bevan University Health Board at Cwmbran Stadium. I join him in thanking all the Welsh NHS staff and volunteers who are working so hard to save lives by rolling out the vaccine programme. However, does he agree with me and many people across Newport West that every single penny of public money must be accounted for? If so, what is he going to say to his Health Secretary, who, according to the Court, breached his legal obligation by not publishing details within 30 days of contracts being signed? We have had two attempts at getting the Prime Minister to answer, so I am hoping it is third time lucky.

I am going to ruthlessly repeat what I said before, which is that I believe that it was absolutely right for this country to secure PPE as fast as we possibly could, just as it has been right to roll out a vaccine programme as fast as we possibly can. It was great to be in Cwmbran and see what they are doing there. That is thanks to the dynamic work of the NHS and everybody in the Department of Health and Social Care, including the Health Secretary.

Today I hosted a Zoom meeting between Bolton North East’s pubs and restaurants and the Minister for Small Business, my hon. Friend the Member for Sutton and Cheam (Paul Scully). Can the Prime Minister ensure that we allow businesses enough time to improve our hospitality’s operating data and make the dates in 2021 utterly delectable?

I thank my hon. Friend for what he is doing to help local businesses and rally them. If we can stick to this road map—and I believe that we can—there is not long to go now for those businesses. For hospitality in Bolton, there are two dates: there is outdoor hospitality on 12 April and then indoor, with all its potential, on 17 May. That gives some dates for us all to think about and for business to work towards, and I hope that it will be of some reassurance to them.

Some eminent members of SAGE have indicated that they are concerned about a resurgence with the return of children to schools. Can the Prime Minister say whether the chief medical officer and the chief scientific adviser support reopening schools in their entirety on 8 March? During the last term, many schools suffered an enormous amount of disruption because staff were off isolating. Is not the best way to prevent that from happening in the future to ensure that all school staff are vaccinated?

I have a deal of respect for the hon. Gentleman as he and I have clashed many times over issues in London, but I think he uncommonly showed a failure to follow what I already said in my answer to the right hon. and learned Member for Holborn and St Pancras (Keir Starmer): the CMO and the CSA both approve of reopening in full.

More than anything, the nation’s businesses need certainty in order to plan. Today’s road map provides that certainty, and the reopening of schools is a welcome and critical element of it. Does the Prime Minister agree that it is important that, like navigating lock gates on a canal, we now proceed sequentially, as fast as possible, but always in a forward direction?

As anybody who has steered a narrowboat or barge on a canal will know, the important thing is not to oversteer and then be forced to correct and bump the sides of the canal. That is what we are trying to avoid, which is why we are embarking on a cautious but irreversible approach.

I will leave it to another time to ask the Prime Minister why we did not have adequate PPE stocks given the fact that Exercise Cygnus in 2016 stipulated that we needed to increase our PPE stockpiles.

I was really concerned about the tone of the Secretary of State for Health and Social Care when he did the media round yesterday: he seemed to imply that he had done nothing wrong and that the judge was the one making a mistake. This is not how a healthy democracy works, so I repeat the questions asked by the hon. Member for Brighton, Pavilion (Caroline Lucas): will the Prime Minister publish all outstanding contracts, because there are outstanding contracts that have not been published; bring an end to the emergency procurement powers; and reintroduce a tendering process?

I can see that there is a concerted attempt to make a point about this issue today, but I must say that the Government made every effort to secure PPE as fast as we possibly could, and I think that is what the people of this country wanted. We ended up with 32 billion items of PPE and, thanks to Lord Deighton, the PPE taskforce and others, we now have the capability, which I think will reassure the hon. Lady’s constituents more than anything else, to make 70% of our PPE needs in this country.

It is brilliant news that we have now vaccinated one in three adults in the UK—it is a huge testament to British science; to the NHS; to the Secretary of State for Health and Social Care, my right hon. Friend the Member for West Suffolk (Matt Hancock) and his whole team; and to everybody involved in the vaccination programme, not least my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister. Does the Prime Minister agree that because of his swift roll-out of the vaccine programme, we are now in a much stronger position to start to ease restrictions and put ourselves back on the path to some form of normality much sooner than we would have been able to without a vaccination roll-out programme?

Yes, of course. My hon. Friend is completely right and I thank him very much for what he just said. The only reason why this road map is possible—we are one of a tiny number of countries around the world that have been able to set out a road map with dates and milestones this far ahead—is the vaccination roll-out programme.

The people of this country have endured so much in the past year, including personal tragedies among the highest excess death toll and job losses under the worst damage to any major economy. But they have also seen the Prime Minister’s closest adviser, Dominic Cummings, break the covid regulations, the Home Secretary break the ministerial code and now the Secretary of State for Health and Social Care break the law to hide crony contracts—all without consequences. Will the Prime Minister end this system of one rule for his Tory pals and another for the rest of us?

Contained within that question was possibly another suggestion that we could have done things differently with the procurement of PPE. All I will say is that the contracts are there on the record for everybody to see. I think most people in this country will understand that in very difficult if not desperate times last spring, we had to work as fast as we possibly could.

I welcome the Prime Minister’s statement, especially the announcement on schools. He is right to be driven by the evidence. Last week, Professor Mark Woolhouse told the Science and Technology Committee that during the whole year

“there has been very, very little evidence of any transmission outdoors happening in the UK.”

Will my right hon. Friend continue to look at the evidence and see whether it is possible to bring back outdoor activities such as sports during the weeks ahead? With the spring weather coming, that would be a great boon to millions of people throughout the country.

Of course my right hon. Friend is right to raise the point about outdoor transmission. That is why, on 8 March, with the return of schools, we are also going to be seeing school sport, which is great, plus outdoor recreation one on one in the way that I described earlier on, and then on 29 March it is the rule of six plus two households together, plus more sport outdoors of all kinds, up to and including, I think, rugby with tackling but without the scrums, as I understand the guidance.

Analysis by the Royal College of General Practitioners of NHS England’s covid-19 vaccination figures shows that people of black ethnicity are half as likely as people of white ethnicity to get vaccinated and people of Asian ethnicity are under two thirds as likely as their white counterparts to accept vaccination. What additional specific steps will the Prime Minister take to encourage greater uptake of the vaccine in those communities?

The number of people receiving the vaccine is actually increasing in all communities on roughly the same gradient, but the hon. Gentleman is quite right to raise the concern that I think everybody has about uptake in some communities. It is now going faster. We have rolled out a network of community champions. I think we have put about £23 million into supporting community champions for hard-to-reach, vaccine-resistant communities. The most important thing is for everybody to get across the message that the vaccine is a wonderful thing and everybody should get it: “Get your vaccine when you get your message from the NHS.”

I welcome very strongly the reopening of schools. After what we have put them through over the past year, it is time we prioritised the interests of our children and young people. The Prime Minister sets out a programme based on data, not dates, and that must be right, but will he please publish the precise criteria for each of those stages to be met? Finally, when the renewal of emergency powers is due, will he undertake to bring that vote to the House before the Easter recess and not after?

Yes indeed: there is going to be a massive data dump—I think that is the word I have been quoted today. Some colleagues may already have seen some of the data that is available, underpinning the road map that we have set out. There will of course be another vote in this House about these measures before Easter, and then those measures, in turn, elapse on 21 June in the way that I have described.

Local council public health teams will continue to be pivotal in controlling the virus, but the Government’s decade of austerity and cuts has damaged their capacity, and the public health grant last year—2020-21—was 22% lower per head in real terms compared with 2015-16. Will the Prime Minister tell the House when the public health grant allocation for this year will be announced and whether it will include a significant real-terms increase to ensure that councils can continue to keep our communities safe?

I am very grateful to councils, and particularly public health officials, for the incredible work that they have done in the past year—the absolutely amazing work that they have done. We are supporting them with another £4.7 billion, as the hon. Lady knows, to support local councils in everything they do, and we will continue to offer support throughout the pandemic.

I thank the Prime Minister for his statement and for the precautionary approach that he is pursuing to lifting the lockdown. It is clear that the impact of covid will be with us for some time, and I would thus be most grateful if he could confirm that this plan is co-ordinated and synchronised with the measures that the Chancellor will announce in the Budget, and that there will be ongoing support both for badly affected businesses in sectors such as hospitality and for those people who are relying on the £20 uplift to universal credit.

Yes, of course we will make sure that we continue to look after people throughout the pandemic, as we have done since the beginning. The Chancellor will be setting out next week exactly what we are doing.

Greater Manchester has been under local restrictions since the end of July, and it has been a long few months, so I welcome the road map out of lockdown and also the success of the vaccine. As somebody who has just about shaken off long covid symptoms 11 months after contracting covid, can I urge the Prime Minister not to forget those still struggling and the many more who will develop long covid as a consequence of the latest wave of the virus? As the economy switches back on and as lives return to normal, will he also commit to doing more for those who still do not have access to long covid clinics and who still do not have access to support or help, so that nobody is left behind?

I am delighted to see the hon. Gentleman back on fighting form. Having enjoyed lively on-screen debates with him in the past, it is good to see him back in shape. He is right to draw attention to the long-term consequences of the disease, and we will do everything we can to alleviate suffering and to continue to invest in support for those who need it.

First, I thank the Prime Minister for the measures to get our children back to school on 8 March, which is very welcome—it is something we have called for, and I think he should be congratulated on that—and also for the speed of the vaccine roll-out. Could I just press him a little on the thoughts behind vaccinating groups 1 to 9, which is everyone over 50 and those aged 16 to 64 with a health condition that makes them vulnerable to covid? Those groups account for 99% of deaths and around 80% of hospitalisations, so for what reason, once they have been vaccinated and protected from covid by the end of April at the latest, is there any need for restrictions to continue?

My right hon. Friend makes an excellent point. The difficulty is that, of course, there will be at least a significant minority who either have not taken up the vaccine in those vulnerable groups for the reasons that the House has been discussing or who, having had the vaccine, are not given sufficient protection. We believe that the protection is very substantial, but there will be a large minority who will not have sufficient protection. The risk is that letting the brakes off could see the disease surge up in such a way as again to rip through a large number or rip through those groups in a way that I do not think anybody in this country would want. I am afraid it is pure mathematics; there is still a substantial body of risk. We also need to wait and see exactly what the effects of the vaccine are. There is some promising data, but I think what the country would want at this stage is caution and certainty and irreversibility, and that is what we aim to provide.

Throughout this crisis, the Government have been slow to offer the financial support that people need. From 3 million people excluded from any support, to thousands of people failing to self-isolate because they cannot afford to miss work, it is clear that we need to do more. Will the Prime Minister confirm that, to get through the next few months, the Budget will bring forward adequate financial support for everyone who cannot work due to the pandemic, including those who are self-isolating, rather than the current system, which sees too many people fall through the cracks?

Yes, I certainly can confirm that, and the hon. Member should wait to see what the Chancellor has to say next week. I think colleagues on all sides of the House would concede that the programmes of support that my right hon. Friend the Chancellor has brought forward have been extremely effective and generous by virtually all international comparisons.

I welcome the Prime Minister’s statement. Those of us who represent constituencies where retail, hospitality and tourism are an absolute lifeblood will welcome the dates and the fact that domestic holidays in England are open as normal for the summer, but may I ask the Prime Minister to give a little more detail on the global travel taskforce, which reports by 12 April? Will it set out the requirements regarding testing, vaccination certificates, social distancing and face masks and, I hope, measures towards an end to quarantine?

Yes, indeed. The travel taskforce will be looking at all those things—quarantine, destinations and so on and so forth. I think at the moment one consideration is that we need to make sure that there are countries that will be willing to accept British tourists in the way that we would like to see. Some of them have stepped forward and said that they will, but they are currently not very numerous.

Lateral flow testing is central to the Prime Minister’s educational reopening plans, so can he explain why our only real-world published figures—from the student asymptomatic testing programme in Scotland before Christmas—showed that almost 30% of positive tests turned out to be false when subject to a confirmatory polymerase chain reaction test? Considering the financial, educational and mental health impact of self-isolation, does the Prime Minister share my concerns that a lot of students will be told to self-isolate for no reason?

I do not recognise that figure. Lateral flow tests are extremely valuable in isolating asymptomatic positive tests and in helping schools to restart. That is why we are pursuing them.

I welcome the statement today and the prudent and cautious measures to reducing lockdown restrictions. We have all had our role to play in combating the virus, and it is a role that will continue for some time, so will the Prime Minister join me in saying thank you to all my constituents in Stourbridge for their continued patience and resilience, whether that is the fabulous Dudley NHS, my care homes, Mary Stevens Hospice, all those unsung heroes, my teaching fraternity, the army of vaccinators, all key workers and those essential workers who have kept us fed and watered—truly heroic efforts by one and all?

I congratulate my hon. Friend on her brilliant question. I plant my flag firmly on everything she has just said and echo it sincerely. I add my thanks not just to the people of Stourbridge for their patience and resilience, but to the people of the entire country.

Too often, children and young people have been an afterthought during this pandemic. Aside from lost learning, many children are feeling anxious and lonely due to not seeing their friends and missing out on play and other activities. We know that one in four has self-harmed in the past year, that eating disorder rates are soaring and that demand for acute beds is reaching crisis point, so will the Prime Minister please commit to providing a ring-fenced resilience fund for schools, as proposed by YoungMinds, to ensure that young people are given the mental health support they so desperately need?

The hon. Lady is absolutely right to draw attention to endurance and the things we have asked young people to put up with this year and over the past 12 months. There cannot be a generation like it, who have experienced so much disruption to their education. She is right to call attention to the pressures and stress that that has caused. We have invested massively in mental health provision, particularly for young people’s mental health. One of the things we have done is appoint a young people’s mental health ambassador in the form of Alex George, but the top priority for the Government is now not just to get kids back in school on 8 March, but to make sure that we remediate their education with a programme of much more than £1 billion. The Secretary of State for Education will be setting out more about our plans to help those pupils later this week.

The people of this country are desperate to be set free as soon as possible. As my right hon. Friend knows, many of the tourism and hospitality businesses in Derbyshire Dales have been hit heavily by this pandemic, so please will he encourage the country to book self-catered, self-contained accommodation for staycation holidays in places like Derbyshire Dales this summer, where families are able to minimise mixing with other people but have some fun?

My hon. Friend is completely right, and, as she will have heard just now, the option to book a staycation is, all being well, now there for 12 April, and I cannot imagine there are many lovelier destinations around then than the Derbyshire dales.

Following the High Court ruling that the Secretary of State for Health and Social Care acted unlawfully by failing to comply with the transparency rules, will the Prime Minister now publish the names of the companies awarded contracts that were introduced to high-priority lanes by Ministers, hon. Members, peers and officials, and set out any material, financial or fiduciary responsibility or relationship between each company and the persons responsible for that introduction to the priority lane?

I repeat the answer I have given several times: all these contracts are published in the normal way.

I welcome the Prime Minister’s statement, and we all recognise the huge work that has been done to make the vaccine roll-out a success, but may I press him on why some of the dates are set as “no earlier than”? If we believe in the vaccine, the programme and the data, is not the logic that if the data shows we can move to free up sectors of the economy sooner, we should not artificially hold them back? Surely that is following the data. Should there not be a little more flexibility there?

We need to see the data and the effect of each successive relaxation. As I explained to the House, we need four weeks to assess whether the relaxation has caused a surge in the virus, because that is the time it takes—so, from the opening of schools until 12 April. We will need to assess that, and then we will need a further week to give people due notice, and the same onwards through 17 May to 21 June and so on. The reason for that cautious but irreversible approach is that I think people would rather have certainty than urgency. We are going as fast as we reasonably and responsibly can, but if there is a trade-off between haste and certainty, I think people would prefer certainty.

The Prime Minister will appreciate that parts of my constituency and others in West Yorkshire have been in heightened restrictions and higher tiers since last summer when others had many more freedoms. Our people and businesses have paid a disproportionately high price in the national effort to tackle covid, and because of this many areas are building back from a more challenging position. Can the Prime Minister confirm today that funding packages will address this specific inequality and that there will be no return to regional tiers, ensuring that our recovery from covid is truly a national recovery?

Yes, the hon. Lady should wait to hear what the Chancellor says next week, and we will make sure we go forward as one nation together.

May I congratulate all the staff and volunteers, particularly at the Bosden Moor surgery in Offerton in my constituency, where I had the privilege of joining them as a marshal for the car park on Friday afternoon as they administered over 500 vaccines? My right hon. Friend says he is led by the data, not the dates, yet his statement outlines many dates, so will he commit to publishing the thresholds of data that will determine the easing of lockdown measures?

Yes indeed, my hon. Friend can examine all the data that we have published today. I have set out the criteria by which we will proceed, and I thank him for what he is doing to marshal people in the car parks.

On 18 February, the UK Government announced £18.5 million for four research projects to better understand the causes, symptoms and treatment of long covid. However, the linkage between sepsis and covid, and between long sepsis and long covid, as evidenced by the UK Sepsis Trust, was not mentioned. Will the Prime Minister please outline his plans to make sure that this very important linkage is included in those research projects?

Of course we will look at sepsis, which is a deeply distressing condition, and at whether it has any association with covid.

I thank the Prime Minister for setting out these measures today. I know that everyone is keen to start socialising in a safe way as soon as possible, so will the Prime Minister allow pubs to reopen their gardens as quickly as possible? If six people can buy alcoholic drinks from a shop and meet in a park, I hope that pubs will be given a chance to provide a takeaway service to allow consumption in their gardens as soon as possible.

Last month was the worst on record for new aircraft orders, and the aerospace sector, which is so important to my constituency, will suffer a long time after these restrictions are lifted, along with tourism, travel and aviation, as we have heard. Will the Prime Minister therefore commit to continuing support for those areas of the economy, which drive so much of the value of the economy, but which will suffer from a much longer lag before they are able to pick up again?

The hon. Gentleman is quite right. That is why we have done everything we can through Time to Pay and other means to try to look after the aviation sector, although it has been incredibly hard for that sector, which matters a great deal to our country. The best way forward for it is to get people flying again. As I said, it is a bit of a time to wait, but the travel taskforce will be reporting on 12 April, and I am hopeful that we will be able to make progress this summer, but we will have to wait and see.

As an animal welfare champion, I was delighted to hear the Prime Minister mention zoos, but in terms of being able to get out there and visit these places and go to pubs, he described certainty as more important than urgency, and mentioned his concern for the unprotected, unvaccinated element of the population, who could be holding the rest of us back. What more can we do to encourage people who might not have taken up the vaccine to make sure that they get jabbed and let the rest of us out?

Of course, we must encourage everybody to take the vaccine, which is a wonderful thing. One of the problems is that, at the moment, we are not, as my hon. Friend knows, vaccinating children—children are not approved for the vaccine, although they are possible vectors of the disease. As he knows, there are also people who are vulnerable to the disease, even though they may have been vaccinated—there will be at least a percentage—so we have to make sure we proceed with caution and in a way that means we do not have to go back.

Do the Prime Minister and his Government intend to do anything at all for the 3 million or so people who have been excluded from financial support since the start of this pandemic?

We have provided about £15 billion for the self-employed and will continue to look after them in any way we can.

I welcome the Prime Minister setting out the road map as promised, and it is great that schools will be returning, including, importantly, with their sporting activities. However, with that in mind, 8 March would also have been the optimal time to reintroduce for every one non-contact sports such as golf, which it is scientifically proven can to participated in safely during the pandemic. Will the Prime Minister set out why it has not been possible to reintroduce those sports at this stage, given that that will leave millions of people having to wait for another five weeks before they can return to their favourite form of exercise?

My hon. Friend is quite right to vent his frustration. I share his frustration; as somebody who yearns to go out and play sport myself, I understand completely how he feels. We must face the fact that, by comparison with any period last year, the virus remains very prevalent in our country, and we have to continue to keep it under control. What we are trying to do is a cautious but irreversible approach, and he only has to wait for another three weeks beyond 8 March to be able to hit a golf ball with a friend.

The Prime Minister’s handling of this pandemic has been marked by false promises and inconsistent messaging. Hospitality was covid-secure, yet it had an arbitrary curfew imposed on it and it was then closed down. Today, that industry, which is the lifeblood of coastal tourist towns such as mine, has heard that people can meet outside in a park, yet outdoor areas of safe, regulated pubs, bars and restaurants cannot open until April. It simply cannot see the logic behind that. Can the Prime Minister explain where he found it?