House of Commons
Tuesday 6 July 2021
The House met at half-past Eleven o’clock
[Mr Speaker in the Chair]
Virtual participation in proceedings commenced (Orders, 4 June and 30 December 2020).
[NB: [V] denotes a Member participating virtually.]
Oral Answers to Questions
Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy
The Secretary of State was asked—
Having worked in the retail sector for a number of years, I sympathise with consumers who have been targeted by these dreadful scams. Guidance for businesses on how to spot and avoid getting caught out by scams is available on Business Companion and the Businesses Against Scams website; consumer advice is available on the Citizens Advice website. All of these are funded by Government.
The reported rise in remote banking fraud poses considerable concern to small and medium-sized enterprises, which are increasingly accessing online business banking services owing to the closure of high street banks in many of our communities. What steps is the Minister taking to ensure that SMEs are well equipped to navigate online banking and, by extension, recognise fraudulent activity?
Businesses and consumers all fall victim to these scams, so it is important that they have an awareness of all online scams. They can report matters to Action Fraud; consumers can also go to the Citizens Advice scams action helpline.
GKN Automotive: Birmingham Plant
My noble Friend the Minister for Investment met representatives of GKN Automotive on 21 May. GKN committed to considering all the viable alternatives to closure, including repurposing the Birmingham plant to produce parts for electrical vehicles, but it concluded that that was not commercially viable. The Government stand ready to assist the workers at this difficult time. I add that Nissan’s recent announcement shows that we are actively supporting UK electric vehicle production and supply chain growth.
In April, in a Westminster Hall debate, the Minister said:
“The Government are committed to doing what we can to save those…jobs”
of the 519 GKN workers, including through
“investments in capital equipment or in the skills needed to secure future vehicle technology.”—[Official Report, 28 April 2021; Vol. 693, c. 128-129WH.]
Those commitments were warmly welcomed. Does she understand that if the site on Chester Road closes with 519 job losses, it will be a hammer blow to the families of those workers, but also to the UK automotive sector at a time when we need to be powering ahead with electric vehicle technology?
The hon. Member makes a really important point. He will know that I have every sympathy with GKN; he will also know that we have been having ongoing conversations recently. However, it is really a difficult situation. The Department for Work and Pensions and Jobcentre Plus work coaches will provide bespoke advice and guidance. In addition, the West Midlands Combined Authority and the Greater Birmingham and Solihull local enterprise partnership have several programmes that can support GKN employees to reskill for a new job or help them to start their own business.
Marine Renewables Sector
Since 2003, various bodies across Government have provided innovation funding of £175 million to the wave and tidal sectors. Projects remain eligible to compete in contract for difference auctions. We have also set a target of 1 GW by 2030 for floating offshore wind to stimulate investment. We are currently assessing the contribution of tidal stream, wave power and tidal range generation, following the call for evidence last September.
As my right hon. Friend knows, and as I hope she will see if she visits Pembrokeshire, my constituency is emerging as an important hub for marine energy, but technologies such as tidal stream need the same revenue support that we gave to solar and wind to unlock private investment and reduce costs over time. To that end, will she assure us that the parameters of the CfD auction round later this year will be set to ensure that new tidal stream and other marine renewable projects can be developed?
I agree that there is significant potential for these new marine technologies. Recent market engagement carried out by the Crown Estate showed a high level of market appetite to develop more projects in the area, which is very encouraging. We will set out the details of the new technology as part of CfD round 4 in the autumn, so I hope that my right hon. Friend can wait that long. In the meantime, I look forward to being able to visit Pembrokeshire to meet him with businesses and those in the community who are keen to progress these projects.
Energy Production and Efficiency
In December, the Government aim to deliver our biggest auction yet for new renewables, through the contracts for difference scheme. We aim to launch the green heat network fund in April next year. The Government are also committed to investing £9 billion in improving the energy efficiency of our buildings while creating thousands of green skilled jobs.
With some 30 major wind turbines and several solar farms, the Kettering constituency is doing its bit for renewable energy. Last year, how much renewable electricity was produced in Kettering? How many homes would it power?
As at the end of December 2019, the east midlands region produced more than 5,500 GW of electricity from renewable resources, including nearly 1,600 GW from offshore wind. To break that down, 1,534 of the 88,000 renewable electricity installations were in the Kettering constituency, including photovoltaic, onshore wind, anaerobic digestion, landfill gas and plant biomass. This is generating 173 GW, or enough power to power 45,000 homes.
Minimum Wage Non-compliance
The Government are absolutely committed to ensuring that anyone entitled to be paid the minimum wage receives it. Since 2015, we have more than doubled the enforcement budget to almost £30 million and ordered employers to repay £100 million to 1 million workers.
The Low Pay Commission has called on the Government to recruit a new director of labour market enforcement as an urgent priority, but the Government have dragged their feet for almost a half the year while claims are falling and waiting times are rising. Can the Minister inform the House when that vital post will be filled? And “in due course” simply does not cut it.
Cracking down on non-compliance in the labour market is a priority for the Government, and the new director of labour market enforcement will be appointed as soon as possible, but the temporary vacancy has no impact on workers’ rights. The three enforcement bodies themselves are responsible for overall work and enforcement responsibilities, and they will continue to work hard to protect workers and bring enforcement actions against employers who break the rules.
We have made a commitment to level up all areas of the country. The plan for growth is a critical part of this and we will go further with the publication of a levelling-up White Paper later this year.
I wrote to the Minister outlining Bolton’s bid to be the home of the Advanced Research and Invention Agency, featuring the full support of the vice- chancellors of the University of Bolton and the University of Manchester, along with Innovation GM and a wider coalition. I am sure that even my neighbour but one, the Speaker, would find it difficult to resist Bolton’s attraction. We have kindly received a response from the Minister, and now that the advert for the ARIA chair has gone live, will she tell us when she would like to visit Bolton to support us in our ambition to reinvent Britain’s biggest town in line with the Government’s levelling-up agenda?
My hon. Friend paints a fantastic picture of Bolton North East. He really is a wonderful advocate for his constituency, and he has a keen interest in ARIA, which I am delighted by. No decision has yet been taken on ARIA’s location, and I do not expect one to be reached until the chief executive officer and the chair are in post, but my hon. Friend will be delighted to hear that the open recruitment process for a visionary chair began yesterday, and I would encourage him and other hon. Members to share this exciting opportunity widely to reach as diverse a pool of candidates as we possibly can.
Whether it involves investing £105 million in Bank Top station, investing £23.3 million through the towns fund or establishing a new Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy presence in Darlington, this Conservative Government are delivering on their manifesto commitment to level up. Does my hon. Friend agree that it is therefore short-sighted of LNER to propose to cut services to Darlington?
I am glad that my hon. Friend recognises the work that the Government have done to support investment in the town, and I know that the Department for Transport and LNER appreciate his desire to ensure that his community continues to be well served by rail services across the north. His comments and those of his colleagues are exactly the level of detail that the consultation is looking to elicit, and it is important that the industry understands the strength of the business case, so I would urge him to continue to engage with the consultation process.
We now go to Alexander Stafford. Not here. Let’s go to Mark Eastwood, who is here.
I am pleased that my hon. Friend the Member for Penistone and Stocksbridge (Miriam Cates) and I have put forward a £48 million joint levelling-up fund bid to support improvements to the Penistone line, which runs through our constituencies. Will the Minister agree to work with the Department for Transport and the Treasury in supporting this bid, which, if successful, would help to boost local businesses and bring much-needed jobs to my constituency, especially in Kirkburton and Denby Dale?
My hon. Friend has been a tireless advocate for his constituency, most notably in his advocacy of the Dewsbury town deal. As he will know, the support of MPs is important for bids to the levelling-up fund, but he will understand that I cannot go further than that while the bids are being evaluated.
Today marks 33 years since the Piper Alpha disaster, when 167 lives were lost and many more oil workers were injured. The trauma reverberates right across Aberdeen to this day, and I would like to pass on my thoughts to the friends and families of all those involved in that awful, awful tragedy.
We have heard three questions from Conservative Members and had three answers from the Minister, but we have not had a single mention of the fact that rather than being a Government who are levelling up, they are cutting back. Just last week we have seen furlough support sliced away from businesses, many of which have been unable to open or operate since the start of this pandemic. Many of them will also now be paying back covid loans, despite of course never being able to bounce back. So may I ask the Minister: how does pulling funding away from businesses help communities to level up?
I would like to add my thoughts to those expressed by the hon. Gentleman about the Piper Alpha disaster. Across government, we are investing in Scotland through a number of routes, including the United Kingdom community renewal fund, the levelling-up fund and the future UK shared prosperity fund, to name but a few. For example, at the Budget we confirmed £27 million for the Aberdeen energy transition zone, in the hon. Gentleman’s constituency, which is helping to support north-east Scotland to play a leading role in meeting our net zero ambitions.
I do not think the Minister actually answered my question, but let us look at another aspect of the levelling-up prospectus: freeports. The Scottish Government have been clear that they want freeports to have a green agenda and to have fair work and net zero at their core, but just last week the UK Government told us that they will ignore that green port prospectus and will instead seek to enforce their will on the Scottish Parliament and the Scottish people. So may I ask the Minister: when did levelling up become less about empowerment and more about dragging powers from Scotland back to London?
I thank the hon. Gentleman for the question. This Government are committed to the levelling-up process, and we have made it incredibly clear that that is what we are going to do. We will have a levelling-up White Paper, which is to be issued in the autumn. We are ensuring that we are levelling up throughout the whole of the United Kingdom.
The UK Government talk about levelling up former coalfield communities such as those in my constituency, yet at the same time they have profited by billions of pounds from the mineworkers’ pension scheme since its privatisation in 1994. That money could be going to miners and their families, many of whom are experiencing hardship and are struggling to make ends meet. The Government’s announcement yesterday not to implement the recommendations of the cross-party Select Committee on Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy to redress this injustice was met with dismay and was described as a “slap in the face”. Will the Minister agree to review that decision and implement the BEIS Committee recommendations in full?
The hon. Lady will know that I have sent my reply in to the BEIS Committee, but I also had a very constructive meeting with a number of the trustees just a few weeks ago and we have agreed to continue. I have left them with some questions that they must go to talk to the rest of the trustees about, and my door continues to be open for them to bring back propositions if they want to continue to discuss this.
Net Zero Strategy: Publication
We will publish our comprehensive net zero strategy ahead of COP26. It will set out the Government’s vision and how we will meet our ambitious goals as we transition to net zero emissions by 2050.
I thank my right hon. Friend for her response. She will know that many infrastructure institutions, including the Institution of Civil Engineers, have called on the Government to deliver a system-wide plan for transitioning the UK infrastructure. Will she confirm that when she publishes the strategy in the autumn—I take that from her response—it will provide the policy certainty for infrastructure and the supply chain so that there is investment and we can ensure that the necessary initiatives are put in place to enable the Government’s aim of net zero to be achieved?
The net zero strategy will include a focus on how better to embed net zero as a key consideration across all Government activity. Furthermore, infrastructure will play a crucial role in the transition to net zero, and our policies and approach will reflect that. The net zero strategy will continue to build on policies that we have already announced, such as the £1 billion carbon capture and storage infrastructure fund and the £240 million net zero hydrogen fund. We are also supporting underlying investment decisions to mobilise private finance. The national infrastructure bank announced in the Budget will have £12 billion of capital and be able to deploy £10 billion of Government guarantees.
The 2021 progress report published by the Climate Change Committee last month stated:
“A pattern has emerged of Government strategies that are later than planned and, when they do emerge, short of the required policy ambition.”
Despite the committee’s characteristic politeness, that is a damning critique from the Government’s own climate advisers. I take it from the Minister’s previous answer that the House has this morning been given a cast-iron guarantee that a net zero strategy will be published well in advance of COP26; will she confirm that that is the case? Does she recognise that the credibility of such a strategy is predicated on a substantive Treasury net zero review that sets out precisely how the benefits and burdens of the transition will be shared fairly?
Of the 92 recommendations made by the Climate Change Committee in its 2020 progress report, 40 have been achieved or partly achieved and another 32 are under way, meaning that progress has been made against more than 75% of the recommendations. Our forthcoming strategies—including on hydrogen and transport and our comprehensive net zero strategy—will set out more of the policies that the committee calls for in its recommendations. I clearly cannot speak for the Treasury, which will publish its own review, but I know that that is also very well advanced.
Nuclear Sector: Skills
The Government confirmed our commitment in the energy White Paper to more nuclear power after Hinkley Point C, and we are currently negotiating for Sizewell C. That is a great example of the bright future ahead for our skilled nuclear workforce.
Gathering the skills and expertise for building new nuclear power stations in the UK has been a mammoth task and a considerable expense to many companies because no nuclear has been built in the UK for many decades. Can my right hon. Friend give some assurance to the tens of thousands of employees who are worried about their jobs as contracts on Hinkley Point come to an end and there is potentially a lengthy gap before the funding model for Sizewell C is agreed?
My hon. Friend is right that there was a long gap in respect of investment in UK, but I am pleased that the Prime Minister’s leadership has reset that. We are working closely with industry and the skills bodies to make sure that as we grow our nuclear industry again, we better understand the skills requirements and challenges faced by the industry. EDF’s latest estimate suggests that the number of people working on the Hinkley project will peak at around 8,500. That is a fantastic local employment story and, given EDF’s plans to replicate HPC at its next project, Sizewell C in Suffolk, we expect to see employment benefits transfer to that project, creating thousands of jobs in that local area.
AQUIND Energy Interconnector
The Secretary of State for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy has until 8 September 2021 to take his decision on whether or not to grant development consent for the proposal.
I have long represented Portsmouth’s opposition to AQUIND, which would cause untold disruption to our communities and no clear benefits to my city. There are serious concerns about the company, its murky financing and the influence that its leaders have over Ministers who are responsible for giving the project the go-ahead. Last weekend, I launched a petition to give a real voice to local people who are opposed to the development. With no Secretary of State present today, will the Minister listen to the weight of concerns from my constituents and reject the damaging and suspicious proposals?
Local communities have had the opportunity to raise concerns during the examination undertaken by the Planning Inspectorate. The Secretary of State will consider all relevant matters—I will ensure that I pass on the hon. Gentleman’s message—when he takes a decision, but as it is a live planning application I cannot comment further.
Is the Minister aware that we are talking about a company that, as its sole activity, is proposing to build an interconnector with France, that has attempted to get itself exempted from all the rules governing interconnectors, and that is now extraordinarily seeking Government backing to trash parts of Portsmouth to land its cable? Throughout all of this, it has never traded and is completely reliant for its existence on loans from unnamed overseas companies. But it has been active as a company in one other area: giving huge donations to the Conservative party and a number of its MPs to the tune of £1.1 million, either from the company itself or through the good offices of its part-owner. Now, perhaps in return, it wants the Government to support its rackety scheme through the Secretary of State’s personally approving its planning application. This whole thing stinks. I ask Ministers to call a halt to this seedy enterprise and certainly not endorse its wild and inappropriate planning proposals.
As previously stated, the Secretary of State for BEIS will have until 8 September 2021 to take his decision on whether to grant development consent on this proposal.
I thank the hon. Member for raising this important topic again after engaging in a recent Westminster Hall debate, and I know how passionately he cares about this subject. I know, too, that he will have welcomed the Government’s action on trade safeguards to protect our steel sector and jobs. We are also working closely with the Steel Council, reformed by the Secretary of State, on important matters such as decarbonisation, a sustainable future and procurement.
For as long as anyone can remember, steel MPs, trade unions and employers have been urging the Government to do something about industrial energy costs, and yet our steelworkers still face prices that are 86% higher than their French competitors, and that is after the Government’s compensation scheme has been factored in. With Ofgem planning to hike network charges even higher, what action is the Minister taking to block this potential hammer blow and to enable our steelworkers to compete on a level playing field?
Since 2013, we have provided more than £500 million in relief to the steel sector. On 14 June, we published a consultation on the future of the compensation schemes, which will close on 9 August. Network charging, however, is a matter for Ofgem as the independent regulator, and decisions on its targeted charging review are for it to make. Government continue to engage with Ofgem to inform our understanding of the reform’s policy implications.
Gig Economy Workers
The recent Uber Supreme Court judgment upheld the law that those who qualify as workers in the gig economy are entitled to the same employment rights and protections as workers in other parts of the economy. The Government have one of the best records on employment rights in the world, and we have just increased wages again for the UK’s lowest paid workers.
According to the McKinsey Global Institute, 5 million people in the UK work in the gig economy, which is around 15.6% of the UK’s total full and part-time workforce. That is 5 million people without legal rights to statutory sick pay, holiday pay, redundancy pay, maternity leave or minimum wage. February’s Supreme Court ruling in favour of Uber drivers was a momentous step forward for gig economy workers. In the same month, however, the Minister for Small Business, Labour Markets and Consumers refused to back Labour’s call to enshrine this in law, so I ask the Minister again for the sake of the millions of gig economy workers, will the Government finally step up and enshrine the rights of gig economy workers in law ?
Employment law is clear that an individual’s employment rights are determined by their employment status, which in turn is determined by the detail of their working arrangement. Government actively encourage businesses to ensure that they are adhering to their legal obligations and that individuals are treated fairly and in accordance with the law.
High Street Businesses
Our comprehensive economic response to business is worth more than £352 billion, including grants, the furlough scheme, tax deferrals, and business rates relief. We have extended the protection of commercial tenants from eviction and debt enforcement due to non-payment of rent until 25 March 2022.
Businesses in Luton South, whether they are in the town centre, Bury Park or High Town, have told me that additional support is required to safeguard their future and local jobs. Small businesses need Government to bring forward a plan to support them as we recover, particularly those that have had to take out loans to pay their rent. Does the Minister recognise that a proper debt restructuring plan will be vital in alleviating the burden of debt and in helping small businesses get back on their feet?
It is important, yes, that first we reopen. I am glad that the Prime Minister is making encouraging signs regarding 19 July, so that small businesses in particular can welcome back customers and start to recover; that helps get into the recovery. We will continue to flex and extend our support for those businesses. Much of that support extends to September and beyond.
Businesses in Ilford represented by Ilford business improvement district have been damaged so severely by the pandemic, often closing or finding their revenues down to about 30% of what they were pre pandemic. Many of those businesses now have significant debts and rent arrears. I would like to know, as would businesses in Ilford, what plans the Minister has to support the thousands of businesses struggling to pay their rent.
I have talked about reopening and recovery. We need to build back better and build resilience into our high streets and the ecosystems that make our communities. We have extended the moratorium on rents until next year so that we can legislate to encourage proper conversations between landlords and tenants. We are also reviewing the Landlord and Tenant Act 1954.
Many businesses on our high streets face financing their reopening in July while dealing with quarterly rents, emergency loan repayments, business rates and VAT deferrals, all while furlough support is being withdrawn. UKHospitality has now warned that the sector faces coming out of lockdown with more than £6 billion of Government debt. Not all sectors are going to bounce back overnight; they need a Government who are on their side at this crucial time. Does the Minister think it is fair for hospitality businesses to pay a £100 million business rates bill from 1 July? Why do the Government not extend the relief period, as the Labour-led Welsh Government have done, and what discussions is he now having on the root-and-branch reform of business rates to allow the reintegration of the high street that was promised in the Conservatives’ 2015 manifesto but has still not been delivered?
Different businesses and sectors have different views on furlough. UKHospitality is explaining that furlough is starting to become a problem, while other sectors want it extended further. On business rates and other support, the Chancellor deliberately went long in his Budget; he erred on the side of generosity. It was always about data, not dates, so that was always going to be flexible. The fundamental business rates review that we are conducting will report back this autumn.
UK Research and Development
The Prime Minister has reasserted our commitment to restoring the UK as a science superpower and to increasing Government investment in R&D to £22 billion. We continue to make progress on the R&D road map and are planning to publish the R&D people and culture strategy alongside the innovation strategy in the coming weeks.
The life sciences ecosystem is incredibly interdependent and clinical trials are a key part of it. Will my hon. Friend join me in meeting key stakeholders to discuss how we can maintain our position as a world leader?
Our ambition for clinical research is for a world-leading clinical research environment that capitalises on innovation, is resilient in the face of future healthcare challenges and improves the life of patients UK-wide. I would be happy to meet my hon. Friend to discuss that ambition.
At North East Technology Park in Sedgefield, we have a hub of innovation-led businesses from space to defence, including companies such as Filtronic and Kromek, which are already established; many smaller ones such as Evince and PragmatIC, which are redefining the semiconductor space; and the North East Satellite Applications Centre of Excellence, which is operated by Business Durham. Does the Minister agree that places such as NETPark, with embryonic ecosystems already in place, can be the foundation stones of building back better and levelling up, and will she come and see for herself this amazing asset of the north-east?
NETPark is an excellent example of how science parks bring together talented communities to turn ideas into global successes. As home to the two of the UK’s Catapult centres, NETPark is playing a vital role in helping us to build back better across the United Kingdom. I would be delighted to visit not just NETPark but the wider north-east, to see how the region is capitalising on its innovation and technology strengths in order to support its local economy and communities. I know that my hon. Friend enjoyed his visit there so much that he went back week after week.
On Friday I visited Newcastle University’s dementia research centre and spoke to the wonderful scientists striving to cure this terrible affliction. But I also heard of the desperate conditions that early career researchers face, with Government funding commitments abandoned; grants ending as covid devastates medical research charities excluded from Government support; institutes closed as the Government’s international development funding is slashed; and post-docs eking out funding from project to project with no job security, working two jobs at once or working for free, and unable to apply for funding in their own name—and the most disadvantaged are hardest hit. How can the Minister say that she is supporting science when she is throwing the next generation of scientists to the wolves?
I always appreciate the hon. Member’s candid questions. She will know that we have been working on the people and culture strategy, which very much takes into account early career research, career progression and all the important things that we need to consider to ensure that our R&D system is really allowed to thrive and flourish. In May we announced funding of £15 million from BEIS, together with a £5 million fund from the Department of Health and Social Care, to support early career researchers, supported by charities, helping to protect the pipeline of research superstars who will have a fantastic impact in improving patients’ lives in future.
Oil and Gas: Net Zero by 2050
The independent Climate Change Committee agrees that the UK will need oil and gas as we deliver net zero by 2050. No other significant oil and gas producing nation matches the UK’s action on hydrocarbons in the economy, while our withdrawal of support for international fossil fuels, our North sea transition deal and our new checkpoint for licensing provide a global exemplar. Our climate compatibility checkpoint will also operate from 2022. Any reduction in domestic production would be replaced by increased imports.
The International Energy Agency’s report is clear that there can be no new investment in fossil fuel projects if the world is to meet its climate targets, yet the Government are set to approve the Cambo oilfield, which, thanks to a loophole, will not even be subject to its derisory climate checkpoint because the original licence was granted over a decade ago. Is it really the Minister’s understanding that this new North sea oil project will not add to global heating because of the date on the original licence? Will the Government think again about approving this oil project when they are meant to be showing local leadership ahead of COP26, or, as with the Cumbria coalmine, are they waiting for the US climate envoy to intervene instead?
The checkpoint will apply to all future licence rounds. Those projects already licensed are already accounted for in our projections for future oil and gas production. Projects such as Cambo are already licensed and are going through normal regulatory processes. Estimated emissions from all the existing licences are already accounted for in our forward projections.
Solar is key to the Government’s strategy for low-cost decarbonisation of the energy sector, and we will need sustained growth in capacity over the next decade as we move to net zero. It already accounts for 28% of installed renewable capacity in the UK. Large-scale solar photovoltaic projects are eligible to compete in the next contracts for difference allocation round in December this year. The Government also support rooftop solar through the smart export guarantee and energy efficiency schemes.
Community energy is vitally important in delivering renewable energy and engaging communities in contributing to net zero, but the sector has suffered since the Government cancelled the urban community energy fund in 2016 and excluded it from the social investment tax relief in 2017. This evening I am meeting Sustainable Energy 24 in my constituency, which is working hard to deliver new solar installations and engage our local communities, despite the Government’s lack of support. Will the Minister commit to meaningful support for community energy?
We are absolutely supportive of community energy. The £10 million rural community energy fund provides grant funding to help communities with the up-front costs of project development. We have also funded dedicated officers at five local energy hubs to provide one-to-one support. We intend to set out our future plans for community energy in the forthcoming net zero strategy.
Ministers in this Department have regular and productive discussions with the automotive sector on opportunities in the UK. Through our efforts, just last week—five years after the EU referendum—a new electric vehicle hub in Sunderland was announced, which will benefit the whole sector. Nissan still remains in the UK. Nissan is investing in the UK.
The automotive sector has been through a hugely difficult time, impacting on the industry and the supply chain right across the UK, including in my constituency of Merthyr Tydfil and Rhymney. I very much support the recent announcements of new opportunities, supporting jobs and job opportunities in England. What recent discussions has the Minister had with the Welsh Government on this issue to ensure that support and opportunities for the automotive sector reach all parts of the United Kingdom?
My colleagues across the Department speak with the Welsh Government regularly, and I have quad meetings with my counterparts in Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland. We absolutely recognise the importance of the automotive sector to the UK’s economy, and indeed to the Welsh economy, and are continuing to invest in it. By supporting innovation in the sector’s transition to zero-emission technologies, we are securing existing jobs and creating jobs for the future.
I call Richard Holden—not here. This is not very good. I call Bob Seely—not here. This is the worst school register anybody could have.
Net Zero Emissions Target
I will pass on your displeasure, Mr Speaker. I had some very interesting answers to share with my hon. Friends, so I am as disappointed as you. Our 10-point plan lays the foundation for the transition to net zero, with key commitments and action including in offshore wind, zero-emission vehicles and building our green economy. Ahead of COP26, we will also publish a comprehensive net zero strategy. It will set out the Government’s vision for transitioning to a net zero economy, making the most of new growth and employment opportunities across the UK.
May I press the Minister on the Aquind scheme, in which I believe she may have an interest that she needs to declare? It was raised by my hon. Friend the Member for Southampton, Test (Dr Whitehead). How many green jobs will be provided by the proposed scheme and what national security assessment has been carried out, given that the project is sponsored by an oligarch who has donated £1 million to the Conservative party?
I am unable to answer any of the hon. Lady’s questions, because I have recused myself from all matters to do with the Aquind interconnector, because Northumberland Conservatives received some funds from one of the owners of the company.
The retrofitting of existing housing stock has to be a key component of our net zero drive. We have had the green deal and we have had the green homes grant. I think the most diplomatic way of putting it is that neither has realised their potential. Can I ask the Minister what comes next and when we might have sight of that?
The Government are continuing to fund a number of schemes as part of our commitment to retrofit homes in order to cut energy bills for the poorest households and make them greener on that path to net zero. The green homes grant local authority delivery scheme, which is supporting projects to install energy efficiency measures for low-income households, has already provided £500 million to local authorities and low-income households across England. That is being delivered up to the end of this year. In June this year, we launched the sustainable warmth competition, enabling local authorities to apply for further funding under the £200 million local authority delivery phase 3 scheme.
I and my officials have regular conversations with the Competition and Markets Authority on a wide range of issues, although open banking is normally handled by the Exchequer Secretary to the Treasury, my hon. Friend the Member for Saffron Walden (Kemi Badenoch). We support independence as a key criterion for the future open banking governance model.[Official Report, 20 July 2021, Vol. 699, c. 6MC.]
I am delighted to hear that the independence of open banking is a core principle. Would my hon. Friend agree that open banking potentially creates a much wider idea or direction of travel for open everything? All sorts of other sectors could benefit from this approach to allow switching to be done much more easily and much more quickly. We could open up to competition many more sectors of our economy.
I totally agree with my hon. Friend. He is absolutely right, because we want to continue the UK’s lead in open banking, but there is so much more to do with smart data. We will learn the lessons that allow us to lead in open banking and apply them to all those other areas that he mentions.
Final question—Dr Julian Lewis.
Much to my surprise, Mr Speaker—Question 35.
Investment Security Unit: Parliamentary Scrutiny
The National Security and Investment Act 2021 delivers important reforms of UK investment-screening powers, helping to keep this country safe. The Government look forward to working with the BEIS Committee to enable it to provide the same effective scrutiny of the Investment Security Unit as it does of the rest of the Department’s work. We are in the process of developing a memorandum of understanding to allow it to do just that.
Will my hon. Friend the Minister kindly explain the practical arrangements that will be made to ensure that the BEIS Committee can scrutinise the top secret documents involved in the work of the Investment Security Unit? Specifically, will the Committee’s members and staff be cleared to see and handle such documents, and will they be given access to secure premises in which to read and discuss such highly classified papers? And I think the answer is “fat chance”.
It’s already answered then.
No, we will make sure that the BEIS Committee has the information it needs to fulfil its remit and scrutinise the work of the Investment Security Unit. As my right hon. Friend will be aware, the Osmotherly rules set out how secret and top secret material should be handled with respect to Committees other than the Intelligence and Security Committee. I can assure the House that we will have regard to those principles as we develop the memorandum of understanding with the BEIS Committee.
After a very long and difficult year, things are looking up. Our economy is in better health than many had predicted, and the vaccine roll- out continues apace. While some are keen to talk down Britain, across the economy optimism is returning. Last week, Nissan and Envision announced a £1 billion investment to create the UK’s largest gigafactory, creating 1,600 new jobs in Sunderland and 4,500 more in the supply chain. Today, Stellantis has announced over £100 million of investment at its Vauxhall plant in Ellesmere Port, which is to become the first mass-volume, fully battery-electric vehicle plant in Europe. This will safeguard the future of the site and its supply chain for the next decade. These are both huge votes of confidence in the UK post Brexit, and show our green industrial revolution in action. With COP26 fast approaching, the Secretary of State and I will continue to drive forward the Prime Minister’s 10-point plan—growing our economy, levelling up the country and, of course, tackling emissions.
I welcome the Secretary of State’s announcement last week that he is bringing forward the date to remove unabated coal from the UK’s energy mix by a whole year to 2024. Does my right hon. Friend agree that this shows how the UK is leading the world in consigning coal power to the history books, and showing that we are serious about decarbonising our power system so that we can meet our ambitious, world-leading climate targets?
I fully agree with my hon. Friend. Closing Britain’s remaining coal units by 2024 will mean that we have reduced coal’s share of our electricity supply from a third to zero in only 10 years. This is a huge achievement that reinforces our record on climate action.
As my hon. Friend the Member for Greenwich and Woolwich (Matthew Pennycook) said earlier, the Climate Change Committee’s report card on the Government two weeks ago was devastating:
“This defining year for the UK’s climate credentials has been marred by uncertainty and delay”.
The Climate Change Committee says that
“the policy is just not there”,
“We continue to blunder into high-carbon choices.”
The chair, Lord Deben, when asked to give the Government marks out of 10 for policy, said “somewhere below four”. On any measure, these are failing grades. Who does the Minister hold responsible?
As we are world-leading—and, like a number of world leaders, I think Mark Carney stated at a Select Committee yesterday that we are doing as well as anybody else across the planet—I must respectfully disagree with the right hon. Gentleman, because I think we really are making huge progress. The policy that is rolling out is rolling out at incredible pace. Businesses—and I am hugely impressed—are leaning in so hard to help as their contribution to the decarbonisation challenges we face. As we move towards the net zero strategy, he will be able to see the holistic approach we are taking, which will ensure that all of us who are going to help to solve that will meet the challenge.
I think that is what we call the “dog ate my homework” excuse, and this is where the problem lies. When it comes to investment in a green recovery, the UK Government’s plans per head of population are less than a third of Germany, a quarter of France and just 6% of the US. That is why the Climate Change Committee says that we are just one fifth of the way to meeting our targets in terms of policy. Is it not the truth that, because the Government are not matching their grand rhetoric with public investment at scale, they are failing to tackle the biggest long-term threat our country faces?
We are one fifth of the way. If this is a journey to net zero in 2050, we have put into law—in fact, I did so just two weeks ago—carbon budget 6, which has brought forward the challenge we face to decarbonise our power industry by 15 years. We are literally world-leading in doing this, and other countries are talking to me day by day in an effort to help them follow the path we are taking and to make sure that we all do our part to meet net zero. This is not only about the UK; this is of course a global challenge, and the work my right hon. Friend the COP President-Designate is doing to help drive that across the world is critically important to its success.
My hon. Friend is a doughty champion of small and independent businesses in her constituency, as well as of those big businesses that everybody knows around the world, not just the country. She is right to say that if people come to the centre of London, which has been remarkably quiet and slow to recover, they will see the benefits of those independent shops, as well as being able to enjoy everything that the most fantastic global city, represented by my hon. Friend, has to offer.
As the hon. Gentleman will know, the process is in full swing and we will make an announcement before too long about those first clusters, and who will be able to lead in the carbon capture, utilisation and storage programme. The sixth carbon budget means that we have brought in the challenge of getting to grips with aviation and shipping fuels, and the Department for Transport is focusing on how that will be part of the net zero strategy.
The Government are committed to new nuclear power, as we set out in the Energy White Paper last year. We have entered into negotiations with the developers of Sizewell C to consider the financing, and to set to building that as the next one after Hinkley Point C. We have committed £385 million for developing advanced nuclear jobs, including small modular reactors, for deployment in the 2030s.
As I mentioned in an earlier answer, I met a number of trustees a few weeks ago and we discussed a number of issues in detail. I left them with a number of issues to go away and consider. The proposition as it currently stands is one that the Government do not wish to take forward, but I have asked the trustees to come back to me once they have considered the questions we discussed.
What a fantastic story. In just 18 months, my hon. Friend has shown the impact of his work across his home town. He is absolutely right. Dewsbury’s transformative £24.8 million investment will make it a more attractive place to live, work and invest by supporting projects that deliver that enhanced business environment, such as the arcade to be reopened to small independent businesses and Dewsbury market to be transformed into a modern-day market, with fibre network improvements and repurposing underused sites. This is really going to boost Dewsbury’s reputation as a place for starting and growing a business.
I thank my hon. Friend for his interest in a really important area of supporting pubs. We will shortly publish a consultation to seek views on detailed options to improve the practical operation of the pubs code. It is important that all interested parties are able to comment, given the code’s complexity and potential impact on property rights. It covers just under 8,700 tied pub tenants in England and Wales, so it is only a small proportion of businesses in the hospitality sector, but a very important proportion. Next year, we will launch a second statutory review to seek stakeholders’ views on the effectiveness of the pubs code.
I thank the right hon. Lady for her continued interest in this important area. I have said time and time again that it is not acceptable for employers to use such bully-boy negotiating tactics. ACAS has done the quantitative work on fire and rehire. We are asking it to write guidance, but also to do some more detailed work. If we need to act, we certainly will act.
Travel has an impact beyond the sector itself and the impact of reopening our cities. We will continue to work with the sector to offer it support and to flex our support. My hon. Friend mentioned weddings. On 21 June, the restrictions on weddings were eased, which I was pleased to see. The number is now determined by how many a venue can safely accommodate with social distancing measures in place. I am looking forward to the day when those final social distancing measures can melt away.
I have continued to converse, whether in person or on social media, with some of the people leading the campaign in this area. As I have said before, a lot of the schemes we put in place have been reverse engineered so we can deliver them quickly, at pace and at scale. We have not been able to save every business and every job, but clearly, we will look to not only reopen and recover, so that we can bounce back better and protect as many jobs as we can, but create new jobs as well.
There is a shortage of building materials due to global demand outstripping supply. We are working with the Construction Leadership Council’s product availability group to identify and resolve these challenges.
That fund—one might describe it as a backstop—is there for support if there is a need to increase pensions. I am pleased to continue discussions with the trustees to look at potential solutions for the years ahead as the number of miners reduces and the investment pot needs to be looked at differently.
I agree with my hon. Friend about Nissan’s investment and the confidence it has shown in this country, which is a ringing endorsement. Indeed, the Secretary of State is up in Ellesmere Port talking to Stellantis about its investment in this country as well.
As I said earlier, we already have a number of funds working in community energy. I am happy to meet the hon. Lady at any point to discuss her perspective.
Yet again, we have heard about the need for a nuclear baseload. The reality is that Dungeness nuclear power station shut down seven years early and 75% of the existing nuclear fleet will be offline before Hinkley Point C can be up and running. Will the Minister tell me whether the nuclear baseload is a myth or when the lights will be getting turned out?
We continue to invest in new nuclear, as I set out earlier, and we are working to grow our renewable energies at an extraordinary pace. We are world leading, with our offshore wind capacity already at 29% of the total, and we will continue to grow that from 10 GW to 40 GW by 2030.
On a point of order, Mr Speaker.
Is the point of order relevant to these questions?
It is. In Question 31, I asked about green jobs and a scheme called Aquind, sponsored by Mr Temerko, who is a funder of the Tory party to the tune of £1 million. The Minister for Business, Energy and Clean Growth quite rightly recused herself from answering the question because she has an interest, but can anyone else on the Front Bench answer my question about green jobs? Has a national security assessment been done of the Aquind project for an interconnector between France and the UK and its data implications?
Further to that point of order, Mr Speaker. My right hon. Friend the Minister for Business, Energy and Clean Growth was right to recuse herself from the decision to ensure probity. We will find an answer for the hon. Member for Hornsey and Wood Green (Catherine West) from the Secretary of State.
Right, thank you.
I am now suspending the House for three minutes for the necessary arrangements for the next business to be made.
With permission, I would like to make a statement on the pandemic and the road map to freedom.
Freedom is in our sights once again, thanks to the protective wall of this country’s vaccination programme and the huge advances we have made in getting this virus under control. Yesterday, I stood at this Dispatch Box and set out the details of what step 4 in our road map will mean for this nation. After the arduous 18 months that we have all endured, it was so wonderful to describe a world where we no longer have to count the number of people that we are meeting; where theatres and stadiums are bustling with people once again; and where care home residents are able to see their loved ones without restrictions.
Of course I understand that some people are cautious about the idea of easing restrictions, but we must balance the risks—the risks of a virus that has diminished, but is not defeated, against the risks of keeping these restrictions, and the health, social and economic hardship that we know they bring. This pandemic is far from over, and we will continue to proceed with caution. But we are increasingly confident that our plan is working, and that we can soon begin a new chapter, based on the foundations of personal responsibility and common sense rather than the blunt instrument of rules and regulations.
Today, I should like to provide an update on another area where we will be able to ease restrictions: the rules on self-isolation. Self-isolation has played a critical role in helping us to get this virus under control, by denying the virus the human contact that it needs to spread. And I am so grateful to the many, many people right across the UK who have selflessly done their duty, making sacrifices so they can help keep the virus at bay. Even though we have done everything in our power to support the people who have had to self-isolate—and yesterday we announced that we will be extending financial support until September—I am fully aware of how difficult it has been. But we can take hope from the fact that science has shown us a solution, just as it has done so many times in our fight against this virus. That solution is our vaccine, which we know offers huge protection.
The latest data from Public Health England shows that our vaccination programme has saved over 27,000 lives and has prevented over 7 million people from getting covid-19, and it shows that both doses of covid-19 vaccine can reduce symptomatic infection by almost 80%. That protective wall—because that is what it is —means that the odds have shifted in our favour, and we can look afresh at many of the measures that we have had to put in place. That is especially important when almost two thirds of adults—64%—have had both doses of a vaccine, and so have the maximum protection that the vaccine can offer. As a result, we will soon be able to take a risk-based approach that recognises the huge benefits that vaccines provide both to the people who get the jab and to their loved ones.
From 16 August, when even more people will have the protection of both doses and when modelling suggests the risk from the virus will be even lower, anyone who is a close contact of a positive case will no longer have to self-isolate if they have been fully vaccinated. If someone gets their second dose just before or just after 16 August they will need to wait two weeks, after which their second jab will have taken effect, to get these new freedoms. Those two weeks will allow the vaccine time to build up the maximum possible protection.
As we make this change, we will draw on the huge capacity we have built for testing and sequencing and will advise close contacts who are fully vaccinated to take a PCR test as soon as possible, so that they can have certainty about their condition. Of course, anyone who tests positive will have to self-isolate, whether they have had the jab or not. This new approach means we can manage the virus in a way that is proportionate to the pandemic, while maintaining the freedoms that are so important to us all.
As hon. Members will be aware, we are not currently offering vaccines to most people under the age of 18. We have thought carefully about how we can ensure that young people get the life experiences that are so important to their development, while at the same time keeping them safe from this deadly virus. In line with the approach for adults, anyone under the age of 18 who is a close contact of a positive case will no longer need to self-isolate. Instead, they will be given advice about whether to get tested, dependent on their age, and will need to self-isolate only if they test positive. These measures will also come into force on 16 August, ahead of the autumn school term.
I know that hon. Members will have questions about the changes and about step 4 of our road map and the impact on schools and colleges; my right hon. Friend the Education Secretary will update the House immediately after my statement. We are looking at the self-isolation rules for international travel, to remove the need for fully vaccinated arrivals to isolate when they return from an amber list country. The Transport Secretary will provide an update to the House later this week.
Step by step, jab by jab, we are replacing the temporary protection of the restrictions with the long-term protection of a vaccine, so that we can restore the freedoms that we cherish and the experiences that mean so much to us all. Let us all play our part to protect ourselves and to protect others as we enter these crucial few weeks, so that in this battle between the vaccine and the virus, the vaccine will prevail. I commend this statement to the House.
I thank the Secretary of State for advance sight of his statement. This morning, he warned that he expected infections to hit 100,000 a day. Will he confirm that he is saying that will be the peak? By his expectation, when will we hit it? Infections at 100,000 a day will translate to around 5,000 people a day developing long-term chronic illness—long covid. What will the long covid waiting list look like by the end of the summer?
The Secretary of State justifies allowing infections to climb by pointing to the weakened link between hospitalisation and deaths, and saying that we are building a protective wall. But the wall is only half built. We know from outbreaks in Israel and research that the delta variant can be transmitted through fully vaccinated people, even if they do not get sick.
Indeed, data in the last 24 hours or so from Israel’s Ministry of Health points to the Pfizer vaccine being just 64% effective at stopping symptomatic and asymptomatic transmission of the delta variant. Sadly, being double jabbed means a person is still a risk to others, yet the Secretary of State is releasing controls on transmission at a time when infections are rising. Hospitalisations will rise, too, given what we know he is doing.
Can the Secretary of State tell us the percentage of intensive care beds, and general and acute beds, that need to be occupied before, in his view, wider NHS care is compromised? We have heard him in the last week or so tell us that he wants to unlock because he rightly wants to focus on the monumental NHS backlog, but the rising hospital admissions that are baked into the plan, into the path he has chosen, will mean operations cancelled, treatments delayed and waiting times increased. Will he now be clear with patients, who are waiting longer and at risk of permanent disability, that the increase in hospital admissions will mean they have to wait longer? What is his assessment of the waiting list, and what will it hit by the end of the summer?
I understand the rationale for the Secretary of State’s announcement today, but I have to tell him again that the biggest barrier to an effective isolation policy has been not the inconvenience but the lack of financial incentive to stay at home. If we are to live with this virus, the days of people soldiering on when unwell are over. Sick pay is vital to infection control. Will he please now fix it?
Getting back to normal, which we all want to do, depends on people feeling safe. Does the Secretary of State appreciate that those who are immunocompromised, or for whom the vaccination is less effective, will have their freedoms curtailed by ditching masks on public transport? Blood Cancer UK warned yesterday that people with blood cancer will feel like their freedoms have been taken away when mask wearing lifts. What is his message to those with blood cancer? It is not good enough simply to say that people should travel or go to the shops at less busy times.
Of course, the Secretary of State understands the importance of masks. I have now read his Harvard pandemic paper, to which he likes to refer. He praises the use of masks in this paper, but he also warns:
“Changing course in policy making…is an essential feature of good policy making. Yet, politicians find it hard”—
“the tendency for decisions to become psychologically and emotionally anchored.”
Well, I agree with him, and I hope he still agrees with himself. Let us have a U-turn on mask wearing. Yes, let us have freedom, but not a high-risk free for all. Keep masks for now, fix sick pay and let us unlock in a safe and sustainable way.
Let me turn to the right hon. Gentleman’s questions. First, he asked about infections. As I said yesterday from this Dispatch Box, we expect infections to continue to rise for the time being, for the reasons I set out yesterday. By 19 July, when we enter step 4, the advice we have received and the modelling suggests infections could be as high as 50,000 a day, double what they are now. Beyond that, as he says, we believe infections will continue to rise. As the modelling goes out further, it is less certain, but infections could go as high as 100,000 a day. I have been very up front about that.
What I have also been very clear about is that the reason we can make the decisions that we have made, as set out yesterday and today, with the decision just announced on self-isolation rules for those who are double vaccinated if they come into contact with someone who is infected, is because of the vaccine. The vaccine has been our wall of defence. Jab by jab, brick by brick, we have been building a defence against this virus.
Although no one can say at this point that the link between cases and hospitalisations has been definitively broken—there is not enough evidence for that—there is enough evidence to show us that the link between cases, hospitalisations and deaths has been severely weakened.
The right hon. Gentleman asked how many hospitalisations there have been or there may be. What I can tell him will help to demonstrate how this link has been severely weakened. In the last 24 hours, there have been approximately 27,000 reported new infections, and the total number of people in hospital in England with covid-19 is just under 2,000. The last time we had infections at that level, we were certainly above 20,000. That is a demonstration of how much the link has been weakened. In making sure that it stays that way, we of course want to see more and more people getting vaccinated. We have announced a booster programme that will start in September, to make sure that the immunity that comes from the vaccine remains.
The right hon. Gentleman also rightly talked about non-covid health problems, which a number of hon. Members have raised. I would like him to try to understand that one reason why so many people who wanted to go to the NHS with non-covid health problems such as cancer, heart disease and mental health problems but were prevented from doing so, is the restrictions that we had in place. The restrictions caused many of those problems—for example, the right hon. Gentleman should think about the mental health problems that have been caused by the restrictions. If we want to start dealing with non-covid health problems, we must start easing and moving away from the restrictions because of the protection that the vaccine has provided us. As the shadow Health Secretary, the right hon. Gentleman should be just as concerned about non-covid health problems, as I am, as he is about covid health problems.
The right hon. Gentleman also asked me about the immuno-suppressed. Again, he and other colleagues are absolutely right to raise this issue. The vaccines are there to protect everyone, including many people who are immuno-suppressed but who can take vaccines. For those people who cannot take vaccines, the fact that the rest of us do helps to protect them. We would them to take the same precautions that they would usually take in winter—for example, trying to protecting themselves against colds, flus and other viruses. I also encourage people to ensure that they are in contact with their GP to see what other measures or precautions they might be able to take.
Lastly, the right hon. Gentleman asked me about masks. He referred to a paper that I authored before I took this position, but he should understand that it is a strange question for him to ask. There is a role for masks in dealing with a pandemic, particularly when we have no wall of defence against it. When we have a vaccine, when that vaccine works and when we have the best vaccine roll-out programme in the world, we need to start moving away from restrictions, including on masks.
One of those other illnesses, apart from covid, that has been very badly affected by the pandemic is cancer. My right hon. Friend will know that, last year, 40,000 fewer people started cancer treatment, which will sadly lead to a number of preventable deaths. Will he be looking at the workforce required to deal with the cancer backlog? Will he also look at the capital requirements of many hospitals, including in my area? The Royal Surrey County Hospital is trying to build a cancer institute, but many hon. Members will have similar stories. May I make him a bold and generous offer to come in front of the Select Committee in September to talk about those plans? He can come for a couple of hours, but we do up to seven hours, should he so wish.
My right hon. Friend is absolutely right to raise the issue of cancer, and of course it is a huge priority for the Government. I mentioned earlier how, sadly, because of the rules that we have had in place for well over a year, there are many people who would have come forward to the NHS with cancer or suspected cancer, and they have not been seen. That has really built up a terrible problem, and it is an absolute priority for me to tackle with the workforce and with capital. Of course, I look forward to coming and sitting in front of my right hon. Friend’s Select Committee. I am not sure about the seven hours—I hope he will be a bit more lenient with me than that—but I do look forward to it.
Given that the UK Government have repeatedly got things wrong on covid—the timing of lockdowns, which allowed the Kent variant to spread; the lack of border controls, which allowed the delta variant into the UK; the delay in red-listing India; and now the surge in cases of the delta variant while millions of people are still to be fully vaccinated and more than 1 million are already living with long covid—many people will be concerned that they are actively trying to snatch defeat from the jaws of a vaccine victory. What confidence can the public have that the latest round of measures abandoning all restrictions is not another reckless gamble in the face of increasing transmission?
In a poll by New Scientist, a majority of disease experts said that some form of mask-wearing would be required until 2022. Others thought that 2023 or later was the correct time to lift mask requirements—more than agreed with the Government’s position of ending the requirements this year. For the sake of clarity and honesty, can the Secretary of State confirm that the UK Government have stopped listening to the science on their covid policy? Tragically, we have 150,000 people dead already, and the Prime Minister has said that we must reconcile ourselves, sadly, to more deaths from covid, so perhaps the Secretary of State can enlighten us as to how many more deaths the UK Government think acceptable.
The hon. Gentleman refers to the announcement on masks that we made yesterday, about moving away from rules and regulations to guidance and personal responsibility. He asks how we can make such a decision; the answer is the vaccine. The vaccine is working. We have more people vaccinated than any other large country in the world, thanks to the work of the NHS, the volunteers and everyone else involved—including, of course, in Scotland. That has weakened the link between cases, hospitalisations and deaths. Contrary to what the hon. Gentleman says, these decisions have been informed by the science. The science is working.
The Secretary of State said in his statement that he was
“grateful to the many, many people right across the UK who have selflessly done their duty”.
We all are.
Last week, a friend of an NHS intensive care doctor emailed me in despair. The doctor contracted covid-19 on Christmas eve while doing her duty in hospital and has been unable to work since, as covid then developed into long covid. Now HR has issued her with papers to file for statutory sick pay at the jobcentre and she stands to lose her salary entirely. Surely that is completely unacceptable and an insult to NHS workers’ sacrifices during the pandemic. Does the Secretary of State believe that it is fair? I hope not. If not, will he look into this case and similar cases urgently, so that the frontline staff—the heroes of this pandemic—receive the proper financial support that they need while they recover?
I am pleased that the hon. Lady has raised this issue. First, I give my personal thanks to the doctor in her constituency to whom she refers and to the many other doctors and clinicians for everything that they have done for the country and continue to do throughout this pandemic. I am not aware of the details of the case that she refers to, but if the hon. Lady writes to me I will certainly respond to her and look at it carefully.
We all recognise that the tremendous success of the vaccine programme has changed everything—my right hon. Friend has made that point eloquently again this afternoon—but it is also clear from recent daily figures that take-up appears to be falling. Can he explain why that is happening? What is he doing to make sure that as many people get vaccinated fully as fast as possible?
I can tell my right hon. Friend that our take-up, compared with that of any other large country, is the best in the world. That said, of course we would like to see even better take-up. At the moment, four fifths of adults have had at least one jab, and three fifths have had two jabs. We are seeing many vaccine centres moving to walk-in; I visited the one at St Thomas’ Hospital just last week. That has certainly encouraged more people. As I announced yesterday, we are also shortening the gap between the first and second dose to eight weeks for all under-40s, which I think will help as well. We continue to push take-up, but every time the matter is raised in Parliament it is a good thing: it is an opportunity for us all, as parliamentarians, to ask our constituents to come forward, take the vaccine and help to build that wall of defence.
I thank the Secretary of State for his statement today and for all that he and the staff of the NHS have done on behalf of us all. I recognise that there must be a risk-free approach in place, as he has said, and I welcome that, but what steps will his Department be taking to meet the psychological needs of young people with cancer to ensure that they can access timely, high-quality support regardless of the covid statistics and variants, which have seen their treatment delayed, causing them additional mental health strain?
The hon. Gentleman is right to point out that there is no risk-free way forward. For the whole world, this pandemic is unprecedented, and leaders across the world are having to balance risks and take the approach that they think is right. He is also right to raise the challenges created by the pandemic and our response to it that are not directly linked to covid itself, such as the increase in mental health issues we have seen across the nation, including in Northern Ireland. We have provided much more funding for mental health, but we need a long-term, sustainable plan to deal with mental health challenges, which have, sadly, increased.
I very much welcome the statement and I welcome my right hon. Friend to his place. It emerges that the AstraZeneca vaccine made in India—particularly batches 4120Z001, 4120Z002 and 4120Z003—may not be recognised by the European Medicines Agency, despite being recognised by the Medicines and Healthcare Products Regulatory Agency. This has implications for the digital covid certificate that will enable many constituents to travel to Europe this summer. Can the Secretary of State clarify the negotiations with Europe on this, and say whether regulatory bodies in other jurisdictions, notably the Food and Drug Administration, are taking a similar line to that of the EMA?
I can tell my right hon. Friend that the AstraZeneca-type vaccine being used in India is, I think, referred to as Covishield. We have not used Covishield in the UK, and we are in intensive discussions with our European friends to ensure that they have the facts to hand and that they can respond accordingly.
Today’s Health Foundation covid report adds to evidence from Professor Sir Michael Marmot on the UK’s high and unequal covid death toll. It shows not only that the UK has suffered high levels of mortality with the second highest level of excess deaths for working-age people in Europe, but that people of colour and disabled people were five and six times respectively more likely to die than their white counterparts and their non-disabled counterparts. On top of that, those in poverty were nearly four times more likely to die from covid than those in more affluent groups.
Following my question to the Health Secretary yesterday, when I asked whether the Government were committed to levelling up, I am now asking when they will implement the recommendation from Sir Michael Marmot and the Health Foundation to address these inequalities and build back fairer.
I am looking closely at those recommendations. I want to look at the expert advice of everyone out there who is providing good, sensible advice about how we can come together to tackle this pandemic. The hon. Lady is right to point out that the pandemic has, sadly, been disproportionate in certain communities and in its impact, including, sadly, on disabled people and people from ethnic minorities. That is true not just in the UK; it is true across the world, and we need to work out a plan to deal with that, and also, if there is ever a future pandemic, to ensure that we have learned the lessons.
Clearly, our protection against further waves of the virus depends on the uptake of vaccines. Will my right hon. Friend look at how the daily infection, hospital admission and death statistics can be broken down by age group and by vaccination status, so that everybody can see the benefits of vaccination for themselves and for others?
The vaccines are our wall of protection. That is what is allowing us to make the decisions that we have made to restore our freedoms and continue down that road, and I think providing more information and detail on the take-up, especially by age group and locality, can be helpful.
The flu season that we have just been through was the mildest on record, thanks in no small part to the fact that we have all been wearing masks to protect against coronavirus. Public Health England has warned that we could see a flu surge in winter, as we have not had much recent exposure to and therefore immunity from other respiratory viruses. What is the Secretary of State doing to prepare for this? Does he agree that we should keep the wearing of masks compulsory on public transport to keep covid cases down and prepare for the flu season?
The right policy on masks is the one we set out yesterday, but the hon. Lady is right to raise the concerns about flu this coming winter, for the reasons she mentioned. She asked what we are doing about it; one of the things we are doing—this is by no means everything—is this: we recently announced that we plan to have a covid vaccine booster programme in September, starting with the more vulnerable cohorts, and our plan, based on the advice of the Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation, is simultaneously to offer the flu vaccine, which will mean that the take-up of the flu vaccine should be at record highs.
I welcome my right hon. Friend’s statement. An increasing number of constituents contact me about access to GP appointments, with many still struggling to see their GP face to face. We know how that will impact on early diagnosis and the treatment of other illnesses. What steps is the Department taking to encourage and support GPs to see patient patients face to face, which will help to address many of the other challenges?
As my hon. Friend says, it is essential that we get GP access back to normal. We can all understand why, during this pandemic, GPs have had to do other jobs such as help us to get the vaccines out, and have not been available in the normal way because of social distancing rules and for other reasons, but I think we are gradually starting to see things going back towards normal. The changes announced yesterday will help with that. As the vaccine programme—which will continue for a while, as we have set out—settles down and we get more people dedicated to it, we can release GPs from some of those duties. All that put together will help.
The Secretary of State has already acknowledged the importance of dealing with the mental health problems we have seen arise in this pandemic, and it is now urgent that the issue is addressed, so when will the Government publish a clear statement on where Public Health England’s vital public mental health and suicide prevention work will sit in the new arrangements for our national public health system?
The hon. Lady is absolutely right to draw attention to this issue. One of the worst outcomes of all the restrictions we have necessarily had to have during the pandemic is the significant rise in depression and many other public health problems. We need to start to make tackling that much more of a priority now that we can move past what I hope is the worst of this pandemic. I want to come forward as quickly as I can with a new plan on mental health, to set out what more we can do not only to clear the backlog of cases, as it were—we need to put more effort and resources into that—but to look at what more we can do through investment in both skills and capital.
I thank my right hon. Friend for his statement. Many constituents are asking me about the role that booster vaccines will have in ensuring that we do not have to go back into lockdown. Does he agree that providing additional booster jabs to the most vulnerable and all those over 50 will strengthen the protection and gains delivered by our current vaccine programme?
Yes, I do agree. The vaccine programme is our wall of protection, and every jab builds that wall higher. As immunity wears off, we need to make sure that people get a booster with a third jab. As we have announced, the boosting programme will begin with the most vulnerable cohorts in September.
I thank you, Mr Speaker, for your indulgence in allowing me to acknowledge the passing from covid last night of Father Stan Swamy, a humanitarian Jesuit priest who had been held in custody in India since October last year. I hope the House will join me in expressing our condolences to all who knew him.
On today’s statement, there is a fundamental weakness in the Secretary of State’s comments. The covid virus did not get the memo and has not read his statement. Vaccines are really important, but if he wants to build a ring of defence around the continued spread of the virus, he will find that surveillance is absolutely key. Last week, I was promised evidence from Porton Down supporting the continued use of Innova lateral flow devices across the country, but that information has not been passed to me. I also asked for the MHRA’s letter recommending the extension of the exceptional usage authorisation, but, again, that has not been forthcoming. When can I expect to receive this important information?
First, may I associate myself with the hon. Gentleman’s expression of condolences? On his substantive question, I am not fully aware of the information he has requested, but I have noted it and will look into it and write to him.
I welcome the statement from the Secretary of State and welcome him to his place. Does he agree that the UK’s portfolio of 517 million vaccine doses is evidence of the world-leading effort of this Conservative Government in securing our route out of this pandemic, allowing the restrictions to be lifted?
I agree absolutely with my hon. Friend on that. It is fair to say that our effort on vaccines, as a country, has been world-leading. It is certainly the best in Europe in terms of the number of people who have received the vaccine—ours is the largest of any of the large countries. That is down to the efforts of so many people, especially the scientists, the vaccine taskforce and all the NHS workers—the doctors, nurses and volunteers. It is a group effort, and when we look back at this pandemic it will be one of the things we will know has saved so many lives.
Some experts are warning that easing covid restrictions too quickly could contribute to the emergence of new, more dangerous variants, which may well be resistant to the vaccine. Will the Secretary of State inform the House of any contingency planning by his Department or the UK Government as to how they will cope in the event of such an alarming eventuality?
The hon. Lady is right to highlight the risk that absolutely exists—this pandemic is not over—of new variants. We have seen the impact of variants already, and no one knows what is going to happen. Of course, reasonable experts will have different views on this.
As for the measures we are taking, I will point to a couple. We are keeping border controls in place. Yes, we are making some proportionate and balanced changes, but border controls are staying in place. We are keeping the test, track and isolate policy in place; again, some sensible changes are being made, but through that policy and the huge amount of testing that will still be done, with our genome sequencing programme being the best and largest in the world, we will be able to detect any changes in the virus sooner than perhaps other countries. Lastly, the team in my Department and in Public Health England, and the chief medical officer, are very much aware of this issue of new variants. It is not only an issue for us; it is an issue around the world, and we will continue to work with our international partners.
The UK’s world-leading covid-19 vaccination programme has been phenomenal, but, unfortunately there are some immunosuppressed and immunocompromised people, such as those with blood cancer, for whom the vaccine is not nearly as effective. May I have a commitment from my right hon. Friend the Health Secretary that those who fall into that category will be properly informed and advised by the NHS as to how to protect themselves better?
Yes, I can give my hon. Friend that assurance. He is absolutely right to raise this issue. As we develop our plans, we are absolutely thinking about all those more vulnerable cohorts and the impact that there may be on them. That is why when we set out the details of step 4 regarding those who are immunosuppressed there will be new guidance, and GPs will be able to use it in working with those patients.
It is clear from comments made by the chief medical officer, the Prime Minister and the Secretary of State over the past 24 hours that, in their view, it is better to have a third wave of covid now than it is in the winter when the NHS is struggling. Will the Secretary of State please confirm explicitly whether that is the policy aim of the Government and, if so, will he confirm the estimate of his officials of how many excess deaths and additional cases of long covid that that third wave will result in?
No one wants another wave of covid cases. As the hon. Lady will have heard, what is different this time, as we sadly see cases rise, is the vaccine. The link between case numbers and hospitalisations has been severely weakened, as I have set out to the House in quite some detail, and that is what matters.
I welcome my right hon. Friend’s appointment as Health Secretary and his sensible statement today further easing restrictions. Following on from what other colleagues have said, will he confirm to Southend residents that the booster vaccine will be available this winter and that enough centres will remain open to administer it efficiently?
I am very happy to confirm to my hon. Friend that the booster programme will start in September. We still have to get the final advice from the JCVI on exactly how it will work, but it will be administered throughout the United Kingdom and that, of course, includes to his constituents in Southend.
Parents in my constituency have been in touch regarding ventilation in their children’s schools. What advice will health officials give to the Department for Education about putting ventilation in schools and paying for extra measures, which might mean that children can stay in school longer without the fear of covid transmission and that staff will be protected as well?
That is another very good question. The Education Secretary will be speaking right after me about some of the changes that we are making and how they will affect schools. When it comes to ventilation, there has been, during the course of this pandemic, more funding to schools to make certain adjustments. Not only will that kind of support continue, but some of the measures that we are announcing today will help schools and schoolchildren.
I welcome my right hon. Friend’s statement. Earlier today, I spoke with Tracy Bullock, the fantastic chief executive of one of our local NHS trusts in Stoke-on-Trent, who oversees the Royal Stoke University Hospital. Tracy has told me that there has been a significant increase in emergency department attendances, above those usually seen in winter. Can he outline what additional resources can be given to help our NHS get on top of that, because winter is coming?
My hon. Friend will know that the reason we have seen an increase in demand for A&E across the country is that many people have not been able to go to their GP in the usual way. Quite understandably, when their problem gets to a point that, in normal circumstances, it would not have reached, they go to A&E. That is what I meant when I talked earlier about the backlog of cases. Yesterday, I said that there are some 7 million people who, in normal circumstances would have come forward to the NHS either through their GP or in another way, but have not done so because of the rules and restrictions around the pandemic. Easing those restrictions will make a big difference.
More than a quarter of my Vauxhall constituents are aged between 20 and 29 and many of them have not had the chance to come forward for their second vaccine. Obviously, the lockdown restrictions that we are under will ease in two weeks’ time. This morning, the Secretary of State has confirmed that numbers are expected to rise after 19 July. He will be aware that a number of young people—one in eight—are still vaccine-hesitant. We know about the link between cases and hospitalisation and that the link is not broken. Young people are fearful of getting long covid, so can the Minister inform the House what specific resources are being made available through the NHS for those suffering with long covid?
The Government have made more than £90 billion of additional funding available to deal with the consequences of the pandemic. Much of that has gone to the NHS and other parts of the healthcare system, and it is helping in every aspect, including with those sadly suffering with long covid. Younger people are, of course, affected by the virus—no one could pretend otherwise—but the hon. Lady will know that they are less affected and impacted than older people in their communities. That is why older people have been the priority in the vaccination programme. One of the reasons that the date of 19 July was set was to allow every adult to get their first jab. Yesterday I announced the decision to shorten the time period between jabs from 12 weeks to eight weeks, so that some more people, including all the younger people to whom the hon. Lady referred, can get the full protection of a double dose by September.
May I thank my right hon. Friend for his statement today? He will know that the normal winter preparedness programme is just about to start. Will he confirm whether he will examine the medical evidence for vaccinating people under the age of 18 as part of this year’s programme? What extra measures might he also put in place regarding social care and discharge, to ensure that the pressure on beds, which normally increases, is taken care of this winter?
My hon. Friend is absolutely right to raise the issue of the normal winter pressures. The measures that we had for the pandemic mean that this winter there will be less immunity from flu and other viruses that tend to come around in winter, so we are actively making plans in that regard. There were already plans in the Department when I arrived. I am reviewing those plans and this matter will be a priority.
The Secretary of State stated quite rightly last week that he was looking at the numbers very carefully immediately after being appointed. No doubt he will have looked at Japan and Korea, where the death rates are something like 2% or 5% of the UK’s death rate. Case rates are currently eight or nine per 100,000 in Korea and Japan, yet those countries—certainly Korea—are still mandating the wearing of masks. In the light of that, what does the Secretary of State think we should be doing, because those places are clearly having success?
We all know that the impact of this terrible virus has been very different across the world. The hon. Gentleman has talked about countries in the far east. The impact in South America, India and Europe has been very different. I do not think we can simply draw a conclusion that the reason for that difference is the policy on masks. The primary reason that we were able to announce the step 4 measures yesterday was the vaccine. If the hon. Gentleman looks at the countries he mentioned, particularly Japan, he will see that their vaccination rates are a lot lower than ours. That will partly explain why they may be taking a different approach to tackling the pandemic at this point.
I congratulate my right hon. Friend on his new role and warmly welcome his statement about the importance of addressing non-covid health issues. Sadly, for the last 17 months our children have been not seen and not heard. I know from my own children and those of my constituents the devastating impact that lockdowns have had on the wellbeing of our children and young people. Will my right hon. Friend set out what measures he is taking, as we return to normal, to focus on the physical and mental health of our young people, and ensure that the anxiety and physical inactivity of the pandemic is not leaving permanent scars?
My hon. Friend is absolutely right to raise this issue. Sadly, because of the necessary measures that we have had to take, the impact on children has been immense in the negative ways that she set out. She will know—as I know just from my own research that I did before coming back into Government—that we have seen a huge rise in reports of child abuse. For example, reporting to the NSPCC’s Childline has rocketed during the course of the pandemic. That is a direct result of children not being in school and not having enough people to report that kind of activity to. We need to respond to that. The Education Secretary will have more to say about the measures in a moment, but I hope and know that the measures that we announced yesterday and today will make a dramatic difference to children’s wellbeing.
The pandemic is not over, and learning to live with the virus means putting in place measures to reduce risk. Flamefast, based in Woolston Grange in Warrington North, manufactures CO2 monitors that alongside measures such as air filtration and improved ventilation can help dramatically to reduce the risk of indoor transmission of the virus. Why has the Secretary of State ignored calls from the Labour party to put in place measures such as air filtration, improved ventilation and CO2 monitoring to reduce the risk in indoor confined spaces, particularly in hospitals and care homes, for the most vulnerable in our communities, which could help to save lives and to give a vital boost to our manufacturing sectors?
I think it is not right for the hon. Lady to suggest that the Government have ignored the need to combat the virus with better air filtration and better ventilation. A lot of the funding that the Government have provided during the course of the pandemic—for example, extra funding to care home providers—has been there precisely to introduce and help to fund some of these measures.
I welcome my right hon. Friend to his new post. I know that he will share the view of many of my constituents in west Berkshire that we must do all we can to avoid another national lockdown. In the event that vaccine efficacy should falter as we head into the winter months because of, say, a new variant, what extra steps is his Department taking to ensure that this winter will not be a repeat of the last?
I can tell my hon. Friend about just one of the measures that we are taking. A huge number of tests are carried out—over half a million a day—and that gives us a certain insight into how the virus is changing, if it is. The genome sequencing resources that we have are the best in the world; we do almost half of the genome sequencing in the world. That is fed directly to our scientists and our world-leading vaccine programme and taken into account as we develop new vaccines. My hon. Friend knows about the booster programme, which will continue into next year—and for who knows how long? Every time we have a booster we will be doing everything we can to take into account changes in the virus.
The Health Secretary has referred to the pressures on our GPs and our hospitals from non-covid patients, and that is of course real. Most health professionals—doctors, nurses and others—have been double-jabbed and regularly use at least the lateral flow test to ensure that they are not infected with covid. However, one of the local hospitals in my constituency, Fairfield General Hospital, tells me that some 30% of doctors were not available recently because they had been pinged as they had, not surprisingly, come into contact with somebody with covid. This happened not because they found they were infected but because they had to go into quarantine for the 10-day period. We risk a build-up of cases when we increase the number of times that our medical professionals are likely to find themselves pinged. Will he see whether there is some way, at least for medical staff, of bringing forward the August date?
The hon. Gentleman raises the issue of people who are pinged, so to speak, for coming into contact with an infected person and who have to self-isolate. The announcement that I have made today will clearly make a huge difference to everyone that is pinged in such a way, including all the fantastic people that work in our health service—the doctors, the nurses and others. As I said, it will come into force from 16 August. We thought carefully about whether we could do that earlier, and it is a fair question, but we decided not to do so, based on the best public health advice, because by 16 August many more people—even more than now—will be double-jabbed, and that extra layer of protection made us more comfortable in sticking with that date.
I welcome the Secretary of State’s statement. Primary care has shouldered the brunt of the vaccine deployment, and many GP surgeries in Stoke-on-Trent South are not yet back to full capacity with general appointments. A number of my constituents have raised the difficulties of getting to see their GP. Will my right hon. Friend do all he can to ensure that primary care services are able to recover fully?