I beg to move,
That the Coronavirus Act 2020 (Delay in Expiry: Inquests, Courts and Tribunals, and Statutory Sick Pay) (England and Wales and Northern Ireland) Regulations 2022 (SI, 2022, No. 362), dated 23 March 2022, a copy of which was laid before this House on 23 March, be approved.
Throughout the pandemic, the Government have done everything in our power to protect the lives and livelihoods of people across the country .The Coronavirus Act has been a vital tool, allowing us to do that. Last week marks two years since the Act gained Royal Assent and the automatic expiry date for its temporary provisions. This is an opportunity to reflect on the progress we have made in our fight against covid-19 and on how the Act has supported us in that fight, as well as in encouraging important innovations in some of our public services, which we want to take forward.
First, I come to the support the Act has given us. It was an extraordinary piece of legislation for an extraordinary time in this country’s history, giving us the powers we needed to keep the country safe, and the economy and public services open at the time of need. It helped us to bolster the health and social care workforce by suspending rules in the NHS pension schemes for England and Wales, and allowing the creation of temporary registers enabling recently retired NHS and social care staff to return to the workforce and play their part. Almost 15,000 nurses, midwives and, in England, nursing associates joined these temporary registers to help deal with the impact of the pandemic, as well as more than 10,000 paramedics, operating department practitioners and other professionals, and about 6,500 social workers.
The Act also helped the Government to offer unprecedented economic support and to help people and businesses at a time when so many businesses faced disruption. That includes the coronavirus job retention scheme, also known as furlough, which has supported 11.7 million jobs.
Will the Minister comment on the figures released by the Office for National Statistics today, which state that men and women living in the most deprived parts of the country were five and six times more likely to die from covid than those in the least deprived areas? What can she say about the adequacy of the regulations for those people?
It has been clear throughout the pandemic that people living in areas of deprivation and different ethnic minorities have been impacted more than others. We are committed to addressing that, which is why we will launch a health disparities White Paper shortly that will look at all the different issues.
Following on from the point that was just made by my hon. Friend the Member for Oldham East and Saddleworth (Debbie Abrahams), the Minister must be aware of the massive effect of the whole coronavirus process on mental health, particularly among young people—even among children in primary school. Are the Government committed to putting the necessary resources into the hardest-hit communities where the mental health crisis is at its worst?
The right hon. Gentleman makes a very good point. We know that the pandemic has had a mental health impact not just on children and young people, but on people of all ages. That is why it is important that we are now living with covid and getting our lives back to normal, which is one way of helping restore that normality that we are so desperate to get back to.
The Government helped businesses at a time when many faced disruption, including through the coronavirus job retention scheme. We have also supported the self-employment income support scheme, which paid out more than £28 billion to nearly 3 million self-employed people and was one of the most generous schemes for the self-employed in the world.
The legislation covers England, Wales and Northern Ireland. Will the Minister reassure me that full consultation has taken place with the Health Minister and the Economy Minister in Northern Ireland to ensure that what she is mentioning is endorsed by the Northern Ireland Assembly?
I shall come shortly to the specific parts of the extension that are relevant to Northern Ireland. I am sure that the hon. Gentleman will appreciate that we have had ongoing conversations with the devolved Administrations throughout the whole two years.
The Coronavirus Act 2020 also helped to ease the burden on frontline staff in our critical public services. For example, provisions in the Act have helped the courts and tribunal system to keep functioning throughout the pandemic by allowing thousands of hearings to take place remotely.
The Minister has now turned to the subject I wanted to ask her about. She talks about our courts, but the reality is that they are in a terrible position. We are up to a record 708 days for the average time it takes to prosecute suspected criminals. The longer those delays go on, the more victims wait. No party can seriously claim to be tough on crime while allowing victims to be left waiting and allowing criminals to spend 708 days before they are prosecuted. Will the Minister apologise to those people who are waiting and tell us that the Government have some kind of strategy to address that appalling record backlog?
I was about to come on to why we have tabled this statutory instrument today, but I can reassure the hon. Gentleman that the backlog is now falling. The Ministry of Justice’s spending review settlement has put £500 million into addressing the issue.
Currently, more than 11,000 hearings take place each week using remote technology across 3,200 virtual courtrooms. The Act has allowed the courts to deal promptly and safely with proceedings, avoiding unnecessary social contact and travel and keeping justice going while upholding the principle of open justice. That shows how the Act has not just offered support at a time of emergency but has driven modernisation of important services that we want to take forward. We are looking to replicate several of those powers in other primary legislation.
We have always said that we would not keep these measures in place for a day longer than needed. When the Act was introduced, the temporary provisions within it were given a two-year lifespan so that we could make sure that those powers would be in force only for as long as they were necessary and proportionate to respond to the pandemic. Since the Act was first introduced, we have made huge progress in our fight against the virus thanks to a national vaccination programme that has now put more than 140 million doses in arms.
The scientific protection that we have built up, together with our greater understanding of the virus, has shifted the odds. Our fight against the virus is not over, but our living with covid plan showed how we can now take a different approach, protecting ourselves without restricting our freedoms. To do that, we are moving away from legal curbs towards an approach based on personal responsibility and public health guidance where we trust people to take the right decision for those around them. As we have built up greater defences against the virus, we have been able to suspend or expire early more and more temporary provisions from the Act and the vast majority of temporary non-devolved provisions are now expired. Only five temporary non-devolved provisions remain in force and they would be extended by the regulations.
I will now set out the detail of the regulations. Four of the provisions relate to taking forward innovations in the justice system until we make them permanent by other means. Section 30 of the Act removes the obligation for coroners to hold inquests with a jury when covid-19 is suspected to be the cause of death. Subject to parliamentary approval, that will be made permanent in the spring through the Judicial Review and Courts Bill.
Sections 53 to 55 enable participation in court and tribunal hearings to take place remotely by video or audio links, which will be made permanent this summer through the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill. Again, that will be subject to parliamentary approval.
Covid has meant that a backlog of cases has built up in our justice system. Those provisions are helping courts to work more quickly through that backlog. They are therefore crucial to court recovery and it is vital that the powers are not allowed to lapse. A maximum six-month extension to those provisions in the Act is important to enable a smooth transition and avoid disruption to service before the primary legislation comes into force. The provisions will be expired once the new primary legislation is in place.
The regulations also extend section 43 of the Act on statutory sick pay in Northern Ireland for a period of six months. That enables the continuation of statutory sick pay to be paid from day one for absences related to covid-19 in Northern Ireland. Although statutory sick pay is a transferred matter in Northern Ireland, section 43 confers on the Secretary of State the power to make regulations in respect of Northern Ireland. As a result, the UK Government are asking for section 43 to be extended on the formal request of the Department for Communities in Northern Ireland.
I take this opportunity to note an addendum in the 12th two-monthly report on the Act, which was published on 24 March. It is regrettable that there was an omission of status updates for two temporary provisions in previous reports on the Act. Those are sections 42 and 43, which relate to provision of statutory sick pay and extend to Northern Ireland only. My Department apologises for the omission and welcomes the opportunity to correct it. The addendum provides information about the status of those provisions over the course of the pandemic. I reassure the House that the reporting omission has not had an impact on the policy relating to those provisions.
I thank hon. Members from all parties for the valuable scrutiny they have provided as we have debated the Act over the past two years. I am pleased to come before the House today with the vast majority of the temporary provisions in the Act having expired. That shows our commitment to removing powers that are no longer necessary, but also shows how far we have come since the Act was introduced.
Let me finish by thanking the health and care staff and all key workers who have worked so tirelessly throughout the pandemic as well as the British people for the extraordinary efforts they have made. The pandemic is not over, but we have made huge strides in our fight against the virus, which is why we can take these steps. I commend the regulations to the House.
I start by echoing the Minister’s thanks to healthcare and frontline public service workers and, indeed, the public for all they have done to get us to this point after two years of the pandemic. I am grateful for the opportunity to respond to the two motions before the House today on behalf of Her Majesty’s loyal Opposition.
Clearly, as the shadow public health Minister, I will be focusing primarily on elements of the motions that relate to public health, but I will also touch on the extension of the justice provisions relating to coroners’ inquests and remote hearings. I know my colleagues on the Bill Committees for the Judicial Review and Courts Bill and the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill have already engaged constructively with the Government on those provisions and supported their being moved on to statute.
However, we have called for the Government to provide further evidence on the impact that those measures, particularly remote hearings, may have on people with disabilities and those who are digitally excluded. I would be grateful if the Minister reiterated those concerns to her colleagues in the Ministry of Justice—I notice the Under-Secretary of State for Justice, the hon. Member for South Suffolk (James Cartlidge) sitting alongside her—and urge them to put the appropriate safeguards in place. With a Crown court backlog already at 60,000—caused, I may add, by the Government’s short-sightedness and incompetence—we must ensure that inequality is not further entrenched in our justice system.
Moving on to public health, the Coronavirus Act 2020 was an unprecedented Act for unprecedented times. It enabled the Government to take rapid and wide-ranging steps to limit the spread of covid-19, and in turn to protect lives, livelihoods and our national health service. Correctly, it was never intended to last forever. Vaccination, as the Minister has said, has proved an invaluable tool in our fight against coronavirus, and it is thanks to our incredible scientists, our NHS staff and the British public that we are able to be here today to debate the end of many of the Act’s provisions.
It is important to note, however, that covid has not gone anywhere—it is still very much here. It has certainly not gone anywhere for the 1.5 million people who are living with the symptoms of long covid, or the 800,000 clinically vulnerable and immunosuppressed people who continue to call on the Government for better clarity and access to antiviral and retroviral treatment. I would be grateful if, in her closing remarks, the Minister outlined what steps the Government will be taking to better support those communities, and when full guidance will be given on free testing provision. In three days’ time, the general public will be unable to access free lateral flow tests, yet there is still no guidance on which groups will remain eligible for free testing.
On behalf of the numerous immuno-suppressed people in Chesterfield and their families who have contacted me, I thank my hon. Friend for what he has just said. He is absolutely right that many of them still feel prisoners in their own home and feel utterly ignored, and the Government’s failure on sick pay has only added to their sense of being forgotten. Will he reinforce the message to the Government that those people are not being properly catered for?
I thank my hon. Friend for his kind remarks. I have met numerous groups representing the clinically vulnerable, the clinically extremely vulnerable and the immunosuppressed communities, and the level of anxiety and worry in those communities is clear. While we have all, to some extent, been able to get back to as near a normal life as possible, those communities still feel isolated, under pressure and incredibly concerned about what mixing and social interaction would mean for them, were they to get coronavirus.
On top of those groups, which my hon. Friend is right to mention, there are also family carers, who are concerned that they may be prevented from having access to their family members in care homes without adequate testing, which they will be forced to pay for if it is not clear that they are included in the free testing.
My hon. Friend is absolutely right. Many of the people who are classed as clinically vulnerable, clinically extremely vulnerable or immunosuppressed are looked after by members of the family or friends who will come into the house to look after them, rather than by paid carers. Were free lateral flow testing to be extended at least to the CV, CEV and IS communities—not for those people themselves, but for the people coming in to communicate and interact with them—it would at least give them some degree of confidence that coronavirus is not being brought through the front door.
I reiterate what my hon. Friends the Members for Oldham East and Saddleworth (Debbie Abrahams) and for Chesterfield (Mr Perkins) have said about the immunosuppressed community and the most vulnerable. I too have had numerous emails from those who are very concerned about the direction of travel. The lack of access to lateral flow tests is particularly concerning, not only for those people, but for those they come into contact with. My general practitioner has spoken to me about his concerns about antivirals. Does my hon. Friend agree that the limited cohort to whom antivirals are available is very small? My GP and I are concerned that the Government are missing a trick on this one: allowing GPs to prescribe antivirals where they think it is essential might help massively to keep people out of hospital.
My hon. Friend hits on an important point for debate at some stage in the near future. There is a concern that the cohort that has been drawn up for access to antivirals is not as wide as it could be, and certainly not as wide as in other European countries. We must also think about how we provide the maximum level of confidence to those communities.
For me, an ideal package to protect the immunosuppressed and clinically vulnerable would be the availability of free lateral flow tests for people coming to visit those who are clinically vulnerable or immunosuppressed, a drug such as Evusheld that would give at least 70% confidence—similar to the efficacy of the vaccine—to those people who are not able to be protected by the vaccine, and then access to antivirals if they become symptomatic.
I have asked the Minister on a number of occasions when we can expect information on the eligibility for free testing and have not even received an approximate date for when it will be published. That is totally unacceptable. We urgently need that clarity, given that we are three days away.
I draw colleagues’ attention to the provisions in the motions relating to sick pay that are set to expire. Here in the United Kingdom, we have one of the worst levels of sick pay in the OECD. Statutory sick pay currently sits at just £96.35; that, I am afraid, is shameful. I could not live on that and feed my family, and I am not sure the Minister could either. The 2 million low-paid workers who earn less than the lower earnings limit of £120 receive nothing. That is before we consider self-employed people, who continue to remain ineligible for statutory sick pay. Self-employed people were badly let down over the course of the pandemic. A recent study by the Community trade union shows that a majority of self-employed people were rejected from vital covid isolation support payments. In suspending the temporary provision that allowed workers to receive statutory sick pay from the first day of their illness, the Government are stubbornly sticking to their regressive attitude to sick pay, which will continue to have a lasting negative impact on public health.
In recent remarks, the Prime Minister urged the public to exercise “restraint and responsibility” to avoid spreading the virus. This Government love to lecture us on personal responsibility while also pricing people out of making the right decisions. We should not be forcing people to choose between putting food on the table or infecting their colleagues. As well as being morally reprehensible, the sorry state of sick pay in this country will lead to more workers getting sick, leading to worse public health outcomes and, in the long term, costing the country far more in reduced productivity.
I absolutely agree with my hon. Friend about rates of sick pay. Is he aware that the levels of poverty since the end of the pandemic are increasing, that access to food banks is in greater demand than ever before, and that statutory sick pay often leads people to take serious risks because they have no alternative but to go out and try to work, even though they may well be displaying symptoms, in order to feed themselves and their families? That is a disgraceful situation in this country, and it can be dealt with by having a proper system of decent statutory sick pay as every other European country does.
My right hon. Friend is absolutely right. Of course, for too many people in this country, that is the reality of their day-to-day to living—and we know that it is going to get worse. I should remind the Government that we are in the middle of a cost of living crisis, although I appreciate that they may not have realised that given the Chancellor’s spring statement last week and his inexplicable decision to clobber working people with the highest tax burden in 70 years. Inflation is at a 30-year high, energy prices are sky-rocketing, and we are facing the biggest drop in living standards since the 1950s. I really do fear that, as my right hon. Friend said, more and more people will be drawn into levels of poverty that we have not seen in this country for a very long time.
This is completely the wrong time for the Government to remove provisions that give people the financial support to self-isolate while also ending free tests. Surely the Minister cannot continue to defend this patently self-defeating policy. If people cannot afford to test and they cannot afford to self-isolate, what does the Minister think will happen? Do the Government think that covid will magically vanish? Of course it will not. Living with covid does not mean ignoring the fact that it exists. It does not mean turning back the clock to 2019 and forgetting that the pandemic ever happened. The pandemic happened, covid is here, and for too many people covid will still be an issue going forward.
In terms of living with covid, only Labour has set out a proper plan that would prepare us for new variants while securing our lives, livelihoods, and liberties. We would prioritise testing and make it fit for the future, fix sick pay, and learn the lessons of the pandemic. The Conservatives’ plan is to repeat the phrase “personal responsibility” over and over again, and hope that no one notices that there actually is no plan. We cannot simply turn back the clock and pretend that covid never happened.
I entirely agree with my hon. Friend. Does he, like me, feel that the term “personal responsibility” would be slightly less nauseating if it did not come from a Prime Minister in Downing Street where 20 people are today receiving fines from the police for their failure to display any kind of personal responsibility while demanding it from some of the poorest people in the country?
It does stick in the throat a little hearing “personal responsibility” regurgitated time and again when we now know what happened in Downing Street, that the rules were broken and that the laws made in this House were broken. [Interruption.] The Minister says, “We don’t know that”, but we do, because 20 people have just received fines, and that means the law was broken.
We must not simply turn the clock back and pretend that covid never happened. Over the past two years we have seen the impact of painfully inadequate sick pay, and we have seen the benefits of access to free testing. We must learn from both those things. We have also lost more than 160,000 citizens in the course of this pandemic. I fear that, although the numbers are much smaller than they were, that toll will rise day on day, week on week, and year on year. We have real lessons to learn.
We would also make sure that we fulfilled our commitment to the international community on providing the vaccinations that it needs. There are still more than 2 billion people who are unvaccinated, and that will accelerate the risk of new variants that may be even more lethal.
My hon. Friend is absolutely right.
Although we will continue to hold this Government to account, we will not oppose these measures today. There are real questions about covid that have to be asked by us and answered by Ministers, because too many are still unanswered. We owe that to the families of those who did not survive the pandemic, and we owe it to the whole country that stood by the rules throughout thick and thin to get us to where we are today, even when some in Government were not doing that. It is time for the Government to get serious. It is time for the Government to treat the British public with the respect that they deserve. It is time for a proper plan to live with covid.
I rise briefly to speak on these measures with regard to the coroners process and particularly the registration of deaths.
In my local authority of Bradford, some of the measures over the past two years have seen a significant reduction in the bureaucratic hurdles and red tape that people face in registering deaths. That includes a significant decrease in the delay between the death of an individual and their burial. Some may see that as trivial, but for those of the Muslim faith it is particularly important, as it is a key requirement for the recently deceased to be buried as soon as possible. I strongly believe that it would also be a good thing for those of all faiths as well as of no faith, because it enhances the dignity that is afforded to an individual after their passing; the deceased can be put to rest as soon as their relatives wish.
However, what the Government propose in this statutory instrument does not include the measures that we have seen over the past two years that have helped such a rapid turnaround. The SI does not include measures that allowed for deaths to be registered over the phone rather than solely in person, which is incredibly useful for the bereaved at a difficult time; measures that allowed the medical certificate of cause of death to be issued if the patient had been seen by a doctor within 28 days of their death rather than the previous 14 days; or measures that allowed certificates to be issued on the same or next working day, overnight, at weekends, or on bank holidays. Following their expiry last week, these measures are no longer in force. As a result, families will begin to see longer wait times and greater difficulties in their relatives being released from mortuaries, which will understandably cause great distress.
The measures that the Government are extending today are essentially intended to clear a backlog in the legal system, but we must remember the backlogs elsewhere in the public sector, such as in GP surgeries and hospitals more broadly. That is a particular concern to bodies in Bradford such as the clinical commissioning groups, Bradford Council, NHS organisations and other partners, which all feel that the changes of the last two years have worked well to make the system more efficient and sympathetic, at a time of immense distress for families. While I fully understand the need for protections to be put in place, I implore the Minister to work with Health Ministers—I am also happy to work with the Minister to discuss this further—to see what can be done to ensure that the deceased can be released quickly.
I endorse what my hon. Friend says. Can he think of any reason why regulations cannot be introduced now to ensure that the speedy turnaround of death certificates that has been achieved, which has been of great comfort to the Muslim and Jewish communities in Britain, can be introduced urgently, so that this process can continue without causing stress to families who, by tradition, want if at all possible to undertake a burial within 24 hours of death?
My right hon. Friend makes an excellent point, which is the one I was coming to. I implore the Minister, because not only is this hugely important to our Muslim and Jewish communities; as I said earlier, dignity in death is important to those of all faiths and none. My right hon. Friend makes a valid point. This is an area where the Minister maybe has the power to work with us to bring something to the House that can secure cross-party support, in order to make a real difference and give people dignity in death. Again, I offer the Minister my support to work on this in all sincerity.
I, too, put on record my enormous thanks to all the health and social care workers as well as the many unpaid carers—who have demonstrated extraordinary public service over the last couple of years, and also on a daily basis, day in day out—for the instances of love, care and medical attention for the thousands of people who have recovered, but also the 165,000 who did not.
Two years ago, in March 2020, the Liberal Democrats recognised the seriousness of the emergency. We worked constructively with the Government, along with other Opposition parties, to introduce this emergency legislation. In the course of time it became clear that some of the provisions were indeed necessary to tackle the impact of the pandemic, such as enabling the emergency registration of nurses and other healthcare workers, and allowing people to receive statutory sick pay. However, many of the powers in the 2020 Act have serious implications for people’s wellbeing and for their rights and freedoms, such as the relaxation of duties on local authorities to assess and meet people’s care needs, the extra powers for police and immigration officers to detain people, and the powers to restrict or ban events and gatherings.
This is the third time that the Act has come up for renewal. We are glad that the Government have retired many of the most controversial provisions. However, I ask the Minister whether the Department of Health and Social Care will work with the Cabinet Office to review the use of emergency legislation over the last couple of years, because we must not end up in this situation again. It is vital that we as a House ensure that there are safeguards in place to guard against the assumption that this or any future Government may use emergency legislation outside of an emergency.
Although the emergency legislation is effectively being retired bit by bit—we have just six months left—I share the concerns of a number of colleagues about the creeping complacency that has shown its face in the Department of Health and Social Care, particularly towards some of our most vulnerable residents, the immunocompromised. Other colleagues have talked about the importance of free covid tests, clear guidance and sick pay. The Government have talked very much about taking a vaccine-led approach, yet they are falling down in that approach when it comes to the immunocompromised.
There is a life-saving drug, Evusheld, the trials for which have shown that it can reduce the chances of developing symptomatic covid-19 among immunocompromised patients by 77% after three months and 83% after six months. I ask every Member of the House to take a second to put themselves in the shoes of immuno-compromised people. Two years ago, the Prime Minister wrote to every person in this country and asked them to stay at home. Those who are immunocompromised or immunosuppressed have never left. Many of them are still in lockdown. They cannot benefit from the vaccines that the rest of us have enjoyed. For them, the decision of whether to go back to work or just to the shops is a life or death decision. It is a huge health inequality in our country that all of us can benefit from vaccines but those who cannot are not being given access to this life-saving drug.
I therefore ask the Minister not only to respond to the point about how we deal with emergency legislation in future, but to confirm on record today that the Government intend to place an order for this drug, and to do so within days not weeks, because, now that it has approval from the European Medicines Agency, the window within which there is still manufacturing capacity and the UK can place an order is shrinking fast. Although it is vital that the legislation that we have used during the pandemic comes to an end slowly—in six months hopefully it will all be retired—many people are still living in lockdown because of covid, so I would ask the Minister to respond to those points.
I want to speak briefly about the courts provisions. Like my hon. Friend the Member for Denton and Reddish (Andrew Gwynne), I do not have any particular issues—in fact, I welcome the recognition of the need to speed up the processes in court. However, we cannot discuss this issue without stopping for a moment to recognise the hugely damaging impact of the current court delays on victims of crime and the extent to which they continue to be doubly punished: punished initially because of the offence against them and punished again when they are forced to wait months or even years for justice.
I have never heard such a self-congratulatory response from the Government than that given by the Minister, especially when we consider that their record, on both the death rate in the country and the economic consequences, pales in comparison with the performance of many European nations. However, Ministers stand there and talk about how wonderfully we did. When it comes to the courts, the reality, as victims in my constituency and those across the country know, is that although things got much worse during the pandemic, they were disastrous before that. They were disastrous because of the scale of court closures between 2010 and 2019, and because legal aid cuts meant that many people ended up representing themselves, which causes court cases to take much longer because those people do not have access to proper judicial advice. The court delays are leaving victims in our constituencies simply waiting and waiting to a totally unreasonable degree. We hear from the police that when victims are left waiting, the stress of that, and of being unable to put an end to their ordeal, often leads them to withdraw permission to go ahead with the case, and criminals get away with what they have done. Not only are victims waiting 708 days—the average time it takes to go from offence to completion of a case—in torment, but criminals are out on the street when they should be banged up, because of the failure of this Government. I welcome these temporary provisions, but there needs to be real acceptance of what is actually happening to victims.
I support what my hon. Friend the Member for Denton and Reddish and the hon. Member for St Albans (Daisy Cooper) said about Evusheld—a drug for those who are immunosuppressed. The hon. Lady is absolutely right that for many of them the last years have been a prison sentence. Somebody who I know and have been to football with over many years has not been to a game for two and a half years. I never thought he would miss a game, but he has not been along since the start of the pandemic. He feels trapped, and absolutely unable to do the things that he would like to. There needs to be progress on that.
I also support what my hon. Friend the Member for Bradford East (Imran Hussain) said about the need to investigate putting on a longer-term basis the welcome provisions that speed up the issuing of death certificates.
We have had an interesting debate on these important measures. I am grateful to all colleagues who have contributed. Like the hon. Member for St Albans (Daisy Cooper), I thank all the workers in the NHS, and in social care, who put in such a shift over the pandemic. As a Justice Minister, I would say the same about all those working in the courts, particularly the clerks and others who had to go into work in the spring of 2020, when there was fear across society about the consequences of working face to face with others. They did that to keep justice going, and we owe them a great debt.
The hon. Lady asked about emergency legislation. Of course we want to learn lessons from covid-19, and we continue to review the effectiveness of our legal framework, and the lessons learned from our response to covid-19, as part of our preparedness for future pandemics and other health emergencies.
The hon. Member for Bradford East (Imran Hussain) movingly discussed an important subject that matters a great deal to him, and to his constituents, and I pay tribute to him for speaking up for his constituents. These are very important matters. I can confirm that the general register office measures on death registration have been replaced in permanent legislation, except for the provisions for telephone death registration. We are trying to identify a legislative vehicle through which to put those provisions in place.
There were a number of comments on the immunosuppressed. I understand the concerns on the subject; it is one that my colleagues in the Department of Health and Social Care take seriously. I remind colleagues that those who are immunosuppressed are eligible for three primary vaccine doses and a booster, and will be called forward for a spring booster when appropriate. We made 5 million doses of antivirals available for the immunosuppressed.
I am a Justice Minister, but I am happy to pass on from my health colleagues that they keep that issue under review. The hon. Lady raised a point about tests; from 1 April, free tests will be available for those in certain groups most at risk from the virus. More details will be set out shortly; I cannot say more than that at this stage, I am afraid.
The hon. Member for Denton and Reddish (Andrew Gwynne) is absolutely right—the hon. Member for Chesterfield (Mr Perkins) made a similar point—that we went through matters relating to remote hearings in detail when the Judicial Review and Courts Bill was in Committee. That was my first Bill as a Minister. We went through in great detail the support for vulnerable users, but let me restate this for the hon. Member for Denton and Reddish: remote technology has a huge role to play in our courts, and we should not underestimate the extent to which its use kept justice going, which was very positive for vulnerable users. He is right, however, that there must be measures in place, and we have set them out in detail. Only recently, we awarded a new contract that provides for a technical support line to assist remote hearing users, and to enable them to access their hearing in the most appropriate fashion. Of course, the type of hearing held is always up to judicial discretion, and dependent on the circumstances.
On the point about the backlog, the hon. Member for Denton and Reddish said—I address this to the hon. Member for Chesterfield, too—that we want to forget about the pandemic, but also that the backlog is entirely the result of Government incompetence. Let us be clear: before we went into lockdown, the backlog was smaller than when Labour was last in power. When we went into lockdown, the courts closed. The Crown Court’s output collapsed. That should not be a surprise; we did not have jury trials because of social distancing.
My right hon. and learned Friend the Member for South Swindon (Sir Robert Buckland), then Lord Chancellor, who has just emerged into the Chamber—he is probably out of sight to most Members—put in an extraordinary shift, together with the Lord Chief Justice and others in our courts, to get courts reopened, and to get jury trials going again in this country, but there was a consequence: a huge bottleneck of cases. That is why we had this record backlog. The good news is that the number of cases in the backlog is falling; it has gone from a peak of around 61,000 last June to around 59,000. However, we recognise that we have to go further, which is why court recovery is a priority for this Government.
The measures that we propose extending through the statutory instrument that is before us are helping to ensure that courts and tribunals have the resources necessary to deal with these outstanding cases. To be clear, sections 53 to 55 of the Coronavirus Act 2020 enable thousands of hearings to be conducted online—currently around 11,000 per week—so that courts and tribunals can be reserved for hearings, such as trials, that must be heard in court. Without section 30, the backlogs in our coroners courts would have been larger, which would have further increased the demand on local authority-funded coroner services. These temporary measures are in fact so important to court recovery that we intend to make them permanent, but we cannot afford any gap in provision while we wait for that legislation to complete its passage through Parliament. If courts were unable to continue to use these provisions, even for a few months, there would be a significant impact on our court recovery programme. That would mean defendants waiting longer than necessary for trial, more victims waiting longer than necessary for justice, and the bereaved waiting longer than necessary for inquests.
I express my thanks to all those who work in our courts for the sterling work that they did to keep the courts running during the pandemic. I hope that Members agree with me that, by extending the four provisions of the Coronavirus Act 2020 that are under consideration for a maximum of six months, we can continue to build on the progress that we have made in managing the virus, and in ensuring that our courts and tribunals can recover as quickly as possible from the effects of the pandemic. I reassure the House—this is crucial—that the four provisions will be expired under the Act once new legislation comes into force.
As was noted by the Under-Secretary of State for Health and Social Care, my hon. Friend the Member for Erewash (Maggie Throup), who has responsibility for vaccines, statutory sick pay is a transferred matter, and the Government are simply facilitating an extension of the provision relating to it, following a formal request by the Department for Communities in Northern Ireland.
Question put and agreed to.
That the Coronavirus Act 2020 (Delay in Expiry: Inquests, Courts and Tribunals, and Statutory Sick Pay) (England and Wales and Northern Ireland) Regulations 2022 (SI, 2022, No. 362), dated 23 March 2022, a copy of which was laid before this House on 23 March, be approved.
Coronavirus Act 2020 (Review of Temporary Provisions) (No. 4)
That the temporary provisions of the Coronavirus Act 2020 should not yet expire.—(James Cartlidge.)