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Covid-19: Removal of Restrictions

Volume 803: debated on Tuesday 21 April 2020


Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government when they expect to announce (1) the arrangements, and (2) a timetable, for the removal of restrictions in place to address the COVID-19 pandemic.

The Question was considered in a Virtual Proceeding via video call.

My Lords, our priorities are to save lives and protect the NHS. When the evidence demonstrates that it is safe to do so, we will adjust the lockdown arrangements. We have set out five clear conditions that need to be met. Adjusting the lockdown arrangements could involve relaxing measures in some areas, while strengthening measures in others. In formulating the right balance, we will be guided at all times by scientific advice and by the evidence.

I am grateful to the Minister, but why do he and other Ministers think that the British public are unable to deal with two messages simultaneously? Will the Government now set out a plan for lifting the lockdown in stages when it is safe to do so in each area, just as is being done in other countries and, indeed, is being looked at by the Scottish Government?

The noble Lord is right that the British public have been incredibly diligent, and I commend all those who have followed the guidelines to stay at home for the impact they have had on the infection rate and the mortality rate. However, we cannot fool ourselves into thinking that the epidemic is over. We have to be clear with, and level with, the public that any changes in the guidelines are some way off, and that they will be presented to the public when our understanding of the medium-term strategy is clear.

My Lords, I thank the noble Lord for the answer that he has just given, but it still begs the question of why the Government are treating the British public as if they were children. I am sure that it would be possible for them to share their thinking, even at this stage. My question concerns testing. Professor Paul Nurse, director of the Francis Crick Institute, said on 19 March about the way to deliver vital testing at scale:

“Institutes like ours are coming together with a Dunkirk spirit—small boats that collectively can have a huge impact on the national endeavour.”

Does the Minister agree with that approach? Can he tell the House when the Government will be able to utilise all the laboratory capacity, which will ensure mass testing and tracing, and will speed up the likelihood of an exit from the current lockdown?

The noble Baroness is entirely right. I have spoken to Paul Nurse and commend the Crick Institute on the work it has done to build up the remarkable capacity of 2,000 tests a day. However, there are practical issues with the “Dunkirk spirit”. There are enormous logistical challenges in getting swabs and serology to laboratories. There are logistical problems with them registering the correct patient details and then getting the responses back. We have made substantial advances—the Crick Institute has been a pioneer in this—in bringing industrial levels of organisation both to the very large number of tests done each day and to the logistical backbone necessary to process those results.

Yesterday, the World Health Organization said that Covid is not going to go away, there is not yet a treatment or vaccine and we have to be a Covid-ready society. It still says that any release from lockdown must involve testing, tracing and isolation. Can the Minister say whether there will be enough local sources for testing, comprehensive tracing and arrangements for isolation ready prior to any release from lockdown in the United Kingdom?

The noble Baroness is entirely right. Tracking and tracing will be absolutely essential for keeping down R0, the transmission rate, when it comes to the implementation of our medium-term strategy. We are working extremely hard to dramatically increase our testing capacity. I assure the House that that capacity is growing enormously, at scale and exponentially. It is our expectation that it will easily meet the requirements of tracking and tracing. That tracking and tracing will be implemented by several work streams. The app already unveiled will be an important part of that, as will the PHE manual contact-tracing resources and the use of any other technological advances and innovations developed as part of this response to the epidemic.

Noble Lords cannot see me, but I hope they can hear me. One of the five conditions the Government have set themselves before any changes will be made to the current lockdown is that they will have to be confident that there will not be a second wave of infection. What scientific evidence will the Government need in support of this decision, and what role will population-based serology testing play in this decision?

The noble Lord, Lord Patel, asks an incredibly perceptive question. The ultimate decisions will be made by the CMO, who, as noble Lords know, has enormous experience in this exact area. Serology tests play an extremely important role in this by giving an indication of the number of antibodies there are, whether people have a degree of immunity and therefore a sense of how far the virus has spread through the community. However, we are aware of reports that there are recurrences of the virus in people who have emerged and recovered. That creates a great sense of concern around our serology tests.

Will making face masks compulsory form part of the exit-from-lockdown strategy? Other countries have implemented it.

The noble Baroness is entirely right that the use of PPE—certainly in the workplace and, more commonly, in other parts of our life—is likely to be part of our lives in the forthcoming period. However, to date, the British Government have been sceptical about the efficacy of face masks. We do not want to be in a position of misleading or providing false reassurance for the public when there is not sufficient scientific evidence for the relevance of face masks. However, should that evidence emerge and should the guidance change, we will of course follow the science and make the recommendation if it is helpful.

My Lords, in response to the question from the noble Lord, Lord Patel, the Minister talked about the limitations of antibody testing. Antibody testing can provide crucial information on the penetration of the disease within the population, its lethality and how widespread asymptomatic cases are, complementing work being done in a number of other countries. Can the Minister provide an update on what is being done in the UK on antibody testing?

Forgive me, my Lords, the beeping of my computer distracted me during my answer to the previous question. I did not want to give the impression that I was sceptical of the use of serology tests; far from it. We are investing a huge amount in research into serology tests of various kinds, both lateral flow and ELISA tests. We have been in touch with more than 180 providers of these tests. The Government recently backed a British-based consortium developing a British lateral flow test of which we have very high hopes and expectations, with a view to potentially doing a large amount of mass testing in the months to come. As the noble Lord rightly implied, you need a level of antibody prevalence for the testing to be accurate and useful. This type of test will be important to us further down the road and I will update noble Lords on the progress of our research as it develops.

My Lords, does the Minister agree that the best outcome by far would be for the unlocking to be simultaneous in the four nations of these islands? Does he also accept that that can happen only by the unanimous agreement of the four Governments? Will he confirm that there can be no question of areas ahead of the curve of the pandemic unlocking prematurely and putting in jeopardy the lives of citizens in other areas which are behind the curve?

The noble Lord is entirely right. I commend the colleagues from all the nations with whom I have been working over the last month. One of the most singular and impressive aspects of the response to Covid-19 has been the way in which the four nations have worked together. I am enormously grateful to my colleagues for the consistent, collaborative and helpful approach that has characterised this response. Geographical difference is the kind of subject that the CMO will give us advice on. This is, naturally, a huge concern to those who feel that they might be left behind, but the CMO will provide the best advice and we will follow the science.

My Lords, I afraid that the time allowed for Questions has now elapsed. I thank all noble Lords who have contributed to the first Oral Questions session by way of a Virtual Proceeding. As the noble Lord, Lord Baker, said, it shows that we can hold the Government to account in different ways. We will, doubtless, get better at it as the weeks go by, but this was a very important beginning and the information that came out was valuable. I thank all noble Lords and apologise to those who did not get to speak. That brings the Virtual Proceeding to an end.

Virtual Proceeding suspended.