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Covid-19: Government Response

Volume 803: debated on Wednesday 6 May 2020


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

Good evening, my Lords. The Virtual Proceeding on the repeat of the Urgent Question will now commence. I will call the Minister, who will repeat the Statement in the usual way. There will then be 10 minutes for questions, led by the Opposition Front Bench. The Minister will respond to each question in turn. I will call each Back-Bench Member on the speakers’ list to ask a supplementary question and the Minister will answer. I ask noble Lords to ask brief questions and give brief answers. Each speaker’s microphone will be unmuted prior to them asking a supplementary question and returned to mute once their question has finished.

My Lords, with leave I shall repeat the Answer given to an Urgent Question asked in the other place yesterday. In the repeat, I will use the most up-to-date figures, which have changed since yesterday. The Answer is as follows:

“Mr Speaker, we have flattened the curve of this epidemic, ensured that the NHS is not overwhelmed and expanded testing capacity to over 100,000 tests a day. As a Government, we are working resolutely to defeat the coronavirus. There are two important areas where I want to update the House today.

First, on the expansion of our work to test, track and trace, we have now built a national testing infrastructure of scale. Because we have this extra capacity, we will be delivering up to 30,000 tests a day to residents and staff in elderly care homes, making sure that symptomatic and asymptomatic staff and residents can all be tested. Our care system represents the best of us, supporting our loved ones with tenderness and dedication at their time of greatest need. Through this unprecedented expansion of testing capacity, we can give them the certainty and confidence that high-quality testing can provide.

Secondly, we are working to strengthen the resilience of the NHS. We currently have 3,382 spare critical care beds in the NHS, and that does not include the capacity provided by our Nightingale hospitals, including the 460-bed Sunderland Nightingale, which opened earlier today. We should all be very proud that we have built up the NHS so fast and that our collective national effort has helped to protect the NHS and flatten the curve. As a result, not only have we been able to restore some NHS services; we are in a position to be able to place the London Nightingale on standby. This is good news, because our NHS has not been overwhelmed by this crisis and remains open to those who need care, which means that this nation’s shared sacrifice is having an impact.

Throughout its time, this Chamber has borne witness to so much, and it has borne witness to the nation’s resolve once more. I am delighted that the British people are well and truly rising to this incredibly difficult challenge.”

My Lords, that concludes the Statement.

My Lords, I thank the Minister for repeating this Statement. I point out that the Commons took an hour to receive and discuss this update; we are getting 10 minutes. It is almost two weeks since I saw the Minister across this virtual Dispatch Box, which seems a long time in a pandemic. When we went into lockdown in March, he seemed to indicate his enthusiasm for being accountable to the House in lockdown. I regret to say that I do not believe that he or his colleagues have matched that aspiration. I place on record that it is shocking that noble Lords across the House are reduced to submitting vital questions about Covid to a lottery—a ballot of topical questions. That is not serious accountability. Unprecedented times need unprecedented procedures.

I have two questions. First, will the Minister support a proposal that he and his colleagues should come to the House every day and have a Covid-related Question Time, morning or evening, which would discuss the contents of the daily press conference and other urgent matters? Secondly, how does the Minister intend to fulfil his promise to the House that there would be an eight-week review of the Covid emergency legislation? By my reckoning, those eight weeks will be up in two weeks’ time.

I welcome the noble Baroness’s questions on accountability. However, I remind her that not all Covid-related matters are covered by the department of health; Ministers have been in front of the House every day it has been open, answering questions on Covid, and they have given fulsome and thoughtful answers to questions and scrutiny. I welcome also her question on the eight-week review, which, as she says, is coming up in a fortnight. I will find out how the usual channels wish to mark that occasion in the House, and I would welcome the chance to submit the Government to scrutiny on the matter.

From these Liberal Democrat Benches we echo the points made by the noble Baroness, Lady Thornton. We believe that lockdown should be lifted only using the WHO advice for “test, trace and isolate” to keep people safe. On 23 April, I asked the noble Lord, Lord Bethell, why “isolate” had been dropped from the Government’s slogan. He told your Lordships’ House:

“Turning to track and trace, I confirm that isolation is an absolutely intrinsic part of the track and trace regime: it just does not rhyme so well, so you never put it at the end, but ‘track, trace and isolate’ is the programme.”—[Official Report, 23/4/20; col. 166.]

Today, the Department of Health and Social Care’s Dear Colleague newsletter does not mention “isolate” in the context of lifting lockdown. Can the Minister say what evidence there is of a government plan for isolation, and how will we know that people are isolating, which is absolutely vital if we are to succeed in stopping transmission and keeping people safe? Although testing has increased it has not yet reached a consistent number of 100,000 per day, so what evidence is there for the Prime Minister’s new target of 200,000 per day by the end of May being delivered?

The Government’s commitment to isolation is spelled out clearly in guidelines published by Public Health England, and it is promoted every day with the Government’s “stay at home” slogan. On the 200,000-test aspiration, we have put in place a remarkable platform for testing. We have strong partnerships with important companies, we have sourced new supply chains of critical reagent swabs and other supplies that are in short measure, and we are making the logistical arrangements necessary for a massive expansion of testing. I believe that those will take us to whatever is necessary to meet the testing needs of the country.

My noble friend has described a situation that is still worrying. The rate of deaths and of new infections is still much higher than we wish, and we may soon be faced with a situation where the rules in different geographical locations or in different institutions vary, so we need more information. To enable us to seek optimum changes, could he please publish more information—for example, on how many cases came from hospitals and where, how many involve hospital or care workers, and how many involve other key workers, overseas visitors, self-isolators and the like?

The Government have gone about the Covid crisis with a great amount of transparency; a very large number of figures are published every single day. I am afraid that some of the questions my noble friend asks are beyond the reach of measurement in our statistical accountability at the moment, but I completely take on board and celebrate her call for transparency. We are working as hard as we can to get as many numbers out to the public as possible.

My Lords, tracking, tracing and isolating can be effective only if there is adequate testing. It was reassuring to hear the Prime Minister say today that the target was to be 200,000 tests a day by the end of this month. Earlier, he referred to 250,000 tests a day. Can the Minister confirm that millions of tests a week will be available, not just to patients and staff in hospitals and care homes but to the whole British public? In particular, they should be available to workers so that they can get tested and have the confidence to go to work, while consumers can have the confidence to go to restaurants and hotels, bars and venues. Can he also confirm whether pin-prick antibody tests will be available in the millions later this month to the whole British public so that people such as me, who have had Covid-19, can get tested? This would show that we have the immunity to go out to work and participate in the economy without infecting people or getting infected ourselves.

“Track, test and isolate” does not necessarily depend on doing millions of tests. South Korea, which has an extremely effective regime, does only 20,000 tests a day. That is because its whole society has worked hard to get the prevalence of the infection as low as possible. I celebrate the fact that the British public have committed to the lockdown, but I cannot disguise from the House the fact that the lockdown needs to continue to get the prevalence rate lower.

My Lords, yesterday the deputy chief scientist said that we needed to “get to grips” with what is occurring in our care homes. As data shows that deaths in care homes are rising while hospital deaths are plateauing, what specific actions are Her Majesty’s Government taking to put a stop to this dreadful crisis, which is unfolding before our very eyes?

The right reverend Prelate is entirely right to focus on care homes. It is an awful aspect of this disease that it attacks the most vulnerable who live in enclosed environments such as care homes. They have been an absolute priority for the Government. One aspect of our response is to massively increase testing in care homes. The increased capacity that we announced last week has been shifted massively towards care home testing. We are using mobile units and satellite drop-offs to increase the screening of patients and care home workers.

My Lords, I was contacted for help by a manufacturer, Thomas Olsen, who was responding to an appeal on television by the Health and Social Care Secretary, Matt Hancock, for ventilators to be made at scale by British companies. With my assistance, and after several attempts, we came up against a brick wall. Over a month later he discovered by chance that sufficient ventilators had been sourced, yet no message was sent down to all those working hard to produce them. Will the Minister ensure, first, that when such an appeal is made in future a single contact point is provided, rather as with Crimestoppers, so that there is no doubt how to get in touch and, secondly, that when the appeal is fulfilled the responders are given the courtesy of being stood down?

I completely acknowledge the situation and the testimony of the noble Lord. The response by British companies to the ventilator challenge was incredible and, at times, overwhelming. No discourtesy was meant to the firm that he mentioned and I completely take on board his comments about the importance of courtesy, respect and a proper feedback mechanism in such circumstances.

Following up on the question from my noble friend Lady Thornton, when the number of deaths in Britain is now the highest in Europe and the second highest in the world, do the Government really believe that their level of accountability to Parliament matches the scale of the crisis? If they can manage a press conference every day, can they not manage a regular parliamentary session which allows for proper questioning of what is going on?

I return to my comments to the noble Baroness, Lady Thornton. In the Lords at least, Ministers have been on the Front Bench answering questions on Covid every day since the Lords reopened. Subjects have ranged from social security and housing to, in my case, the Department of Health and Social Care. We remain accountable for the measures that we have put in place. The media also have a huge role in that scrutiny. We remain committed to keeping Parliament open, despite the lockdown regime, and completely respect the importance of parliamentary scrutiny.

My Lords, the time allotted for the Statement is now up. The day’s Virtual Proceedings are now complete and are adjourned. Good evening.

Virtual Proceeding adjourned at 8.16 pm.