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Covid-19: Public Inquiry

Volume 697: debated on Wednesday 23 June 2021

Whether he has had discussions with the Scottish Government on a public inquiry on the (a) Scottish and (b) UK Government’s response to the covid-19 outbreak. (901451)

Whether he has had discussions with the Scottish Government on a public inquiry on the (a) Scottish and (b) UK Government’s response to the covid-19 outbreak. (901468)

I draw the House’s attention to the words of the Prime Minister when he announced the Government’s plans for a public inquiry. He said that we should learn the lessons “as one Team UK” and that the Government

“will consult the devolved Administrations”—[Official Report, 12 May 2021; Vol. 695, c. 137.]

about the scope and remit of the public inquiry. The Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster has started the conversations with his devolved counterparts.

The Scottish Government revealed earlier this month that they underspent their budget last year by hundreds of millions of pounds. That is a slap in the face to businesses across Scotland that are struggling without the financial support they need. Does the Minister agree that any future covid inquiry must examine whether the financial support offered to businesses by both Governments was sufficient and whether it actually reached those who needed it?

The hon. Lady raises a very fair point. This Government have provided unprecedented levels of support to people and businesses in Scotland. Some of that comes through UK-wide schemes such as furlough, but other money goes as a fund to the Scottish Government for them to distribute, and there are serious questions about whether that money has been used in the most effective way and gone to the people for whom it was intended. I very much hope that will be part of the remit of this inquiry.

One of the greatest tragedies in the coronavirus crisis has been the scale of the outbreak in care homes. I know from personal experience that that has caused untold misery and robbed families across the UK of our loved ones. The brutal reality is that that loss was multiplied because of Scottish Government and UK Government decisions to discharge hundreds of patients into care homes even after they had tested positive for covid-19. Does the Minister agree that any future pandemic inquiry must investigate how the discharge of those patients was ever allowed to happen?

I recall that, in a previous exchange, the hon. Gentleman mentioned that he had suffered some personal family losses as a result of the pandemic, and I again extend my sympathy to him. He raises an important question. I am pretty certain that those matters will be covered by the inquiry. As I say, the discussions to establish its remit and processes are under way. The issue of care homes in Scotland is, of course, a devolved matter for the Scottish Government, but we want this inquiry to be as wide-ranging as possible so that we learn the lessons from the pandemic.

I join the Secretary of State in congratulating Stevie Clarke and the whole Scotland team on cheering up a nation over the past 10 days or so. As we said in the 1970s, we had a dream. That dream died, unfortunately, last night, and it will now have to wait until Qatar next year for the World cup.

In recent weeks we have heard scathing criticisms from the Prime Minister’s former chief adviser about the UK Government’s covid response, which has no doubt cost many lives. We have even learned that the PM described his Health Secretary as “hopeless”. Most recently, their dither and delay in securing the borders of the UK has resulted in restrictions continuing beyond the initial date. Sadly, the people of Scotland have also been failed by the choices of the Scottish Government. We know from a recent freedom of information reply that the Scottish chief medical officer advised the Scottish Government to say nothing at all in response to the Edinburgh Nike conference outbreak last March. The Scottish public were kept in the dark. These are just some of the major issues, which include the two we have heard about from my hon. Friends this morning. Will the Government agree with calls for an urgent separate Scottish judge-led public inquiry into both Governments’ management of covid-19 in Scotland so that we can learn the lessons of covid and the grieving families can get the answers they so deserve?

In response to the hon. Gentleman’s first point about the tartan army, my experience is that while the spirit is often tested it is never broken, and I am sure it will sustain.

I do not think that, at this stage certainly, there is a need for a separate inquiry. We are still at the very early stages of establishing the remit of the UK-wide inquiry, which will cover both reserved and devolved matters. It is important that that inquiry looks at all aspects of the situation. We should also remind ourselves that this is an unprecedented challenge that Governments right across the world have faced. Inevitably, with the benefit of hindsight, different decisions would have been made. We are learning all the time. I do not necessarily accept some of the charges that the hon. Gentleman has made—on borders, for example—but lessons are being learned all the time, and the right place for permanent lessons is from the wide-ranging inquiry that the Prime Minister has promised to set up.

I am tempted to ask the Minister if he has ever filled any of London’s fountains with Fairy liquid, but that can maybe be kept for private discussion. [Interruption.] Exactly—only for cleansing purposes.

One of the most frustrating elements for many people is the inconsistency of the decisions that have been made. Greater Manchester Mayor Andy Burnham has rightly criticised the First Minister both for mimicking the arrogance of the Prime Minister by failing to contact the Manchester authorities before announcing a travel ban and for its inconsistencies. Cases remain lower than they are in Dundee, yet Dundonians can travel all over Scotland while those living in Bolton, for example, are effectively banned from travelling to Scotland at all.

These varying decisions are having a devastating impact on key sectors. Take the wedding sector, for example. Yesterday I was contacted by a constituent whose wedding in Edinburgh is limited to 50 guests but will travel to London the following week to a wedding where guests are unlimited, and she was at the Glasgow fan zone last week with 3,000 other supporters. She is deeply frustrated, and I am sure the Minister can understand her anger. So does he agree that any covid inquiry should examine the consequences that have resulted from the refusal of both Governments to work together?

I am happy to confirm to the hon. Gentleman that to the best of my knowledge I have never filled any fountain anywhere with any domestic cleaning product.

Turning to the important points that the hon. Gentleman has raised, the issue between the Mayor of Greater Manchester and the First Minister is clearly not satisfactory, and I would urge them both to come to a very sensible arrangement to allow travel to resume between Scotland and Greater Manchester. The two Governments do work closely together. There are several meetings a week, whether between the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster and the First Minister or the Health Secretary and his counterparts, to discuss all these arrangements. At the end of the day, the Scottish Government have the ability to make their own decisions, but a lot of them are co-ordinated—particularly, at the moment, on the travel corridors. Of course we constantly look at all these decisions and have to make often snap judgments in the face of new evidence, but we do so in a way of co-operation as far as is possible.