The following Statement was made yesterday in the House of Commons.
“With permission, Mr Speaker, I would like to make a Statement about the next steps in our battle against coronavirus and how we can, with the utmost caution, gradually begin to rebuild our economy and reopen our society.
For the last two months, the British people have faced a grave threat with common sense, compassion and unflinching resolve. We have together observed the toughest restrictions on our freedoms in memory, changing our way of life on a scale unimaginable only months ago. All our efforts have been directed towards protecting our NHS and saving lives. Tragically, many families have lost loved ones before their time, and we share their grief, yet our shared effort has averted a still worse catastrophe, one that could have overwhelmed the NHS and claimed half a million lives.
Every day, dedicated doctors, nurses, social care workers, Army medics and more have risked their own lives in the service of others. They have helped to cut the reproduction rate from between 2.6 and 2.8 in April to between 0.5 and 0.9 today. The number of Covid patients in hospital has fallen by over a third since Easter Sunday. Our Armed Forces joined the NHS to build new hospitals on timetables that were telescoped from years to weeks, almost doubling the number of critical care beds and ensuring that, since the end of March, at least a third have always been available.
Our challenge now is to find a way forward that preserves our hard-won gains while easing the burden of the lockdown. I will be candid with the House: this is a supremely difficult balance to strike. There could be no greater mistake than to jeopardise everything we have striven to achieve by proceeding too far and too fast. We will be driven not by hope or economic revival as an end in itself, but by data, science and public health.
The Government are today submitting to the House a plan that is conditional and dependent, as always, on the common sense and observance of the British people and on the continual reassessment of the data. That picture varies across the regions and home nations of the United Kingdom, requiring a flexible response. Different parts of the UK may need to stay in full lockdown longer, but any divergence should be only short term because, as Prime Minister of the UK, I am in no doubt that we must defeat this threat and face the challenge of recovery together.
Our progress will depend on meeting five essential tests: protecting the NHS; reducing both the daily death toll and the infection rate in a sustained way; ensuring that testing and personal protective equipment can meet future demand, which is a global problem, but one that we must fix; and avoiding a second peak that would overwhelm the NHS. A new UK-wide joint biosecurity centre will measure our progress with a five- stage Covid alert system.
The combined effect of our measures so far has been to prevent us from reaching level 5—a situation in which the NHS would have been overwhelmed—and hold us at level 4. Thanks to the hard work and sacrifice of the British people in following social distancing rules, we are now in a position where we can move in stages to where I hope the scientific advice will tell us that we are down to level 3, but this will only happen if everyone continues to play their part, to stay alert and to follow the rules.
We must also deal with the epidemic in care homes, where a tragic number of the elderly and vulnerable have been lost, and while the situation is thankfully improving, there is a vast amount more to be done. Of course, we need a world-leading system for testing, tracking and tracing victims and their contacts, so I am delighted that Baroness Harding, the chair of NHS Improvement, has agreed to take charge of a programme that will ultimately enable us to test hundreds of thousands of people every day.
All this means that we have begun our descent from the peak of the epidemic, but our journey has reached the most perilous moment, where a wrong move could be disastrous. So at this stage, we can go no further than to announce the first careful modification of our measures. Step 1 in moving towards Covid alert level 3 involves a shift in emphasis that we can begin this week. Anyone who cannot work from home should be actively encouraged to go to work. Sectors that are allowed to be open should indeed be open, but subject to social distancing. These include food production, construction, manufacturing, logistics, distribution and scientific research. To support this, we are publishing guidance for businesses on how to make these workplaces safe and Covid-secure.
People who are able to work from home should do so, as we have continually said, and people who cannot work from home should talk to their employers about returning this week and about the difficulties that they may or may not have. Obviously, anyone with Covid symptoms, or who is in a household where someone else has symptoms, should self-isolate. We want everyone travelling to work to be safe, so people should continue to avoid public transport wherever possible, because we must maintain social distancing, which will inevitably limit capacity. Instead, people should drive or, better still, walk or cycle.
With more activity outside our homes, we would now advise people to wear a cloth face-covering in enclosed spaces where social distancing is not always possible and you are more likely to come into contact with people you do not normally meet. The reason is that face-coverings can help us to protect each other and reduce the spread of the disease, particularly if you have coronavirus-like symptoms. But I must stress that this does not mean wearing medical face masks—2R or FFP3—which must be reserved for people who need them.
We have all lived, so far, with onerous restrictions on outdoor spaces and exercise. This is where we can go significantly further, because there is a lower risk outdoors than indoors. So from Wednesday there will be no limits on the frequency of outdoor exercise people can take. You can now walk, sit and rest in parks, you can play sports and exercise, and you can do all these things with members of your own household, or with one other person from another household, provided you observe social distancing and remain two metres apart. I do hope that that is clear. I am conscious that people will come back and ask questions in more detail, and I will be happy to answer them.
We shall increase the fines for the small minority who break the rules, starting at £100, but doubling with each infringement up to £3,600. You can drive as far as you like to reach an outdoor space, subject to the same rules and the laws and guidance of the devolved Administrations. I am sorry to say, however, that we shall continue to ask those who are clinically vulnerable, including pregnant women and people over 70, or those with pre-existing chronic conditions, to take particular care to minimise contact with those outside their households. We must continue to shield people who are extremely vulnerable. They should, I am afraid, remain at home and avoid any direct contact with others. I know that easing restrictions for the many will only increase the anguish of those who must remain shielded, so the Government will look at every possible way of supporting the most vulnerable.
All of our precautions will count for little if our country is reinfected from overseas, so I give notice that we shall introduce new restrictions at the UK border, requiring 14 days of self-isolation for international arrivals, while respecting our common travel area with Ireland. Every day, we shall monitor our progress, and if we stay on the downward slope, and the R remains below 1, then, and only then, will it become safe to go further and move to the second step. This will not happen until 1 June at the earliest, but we may then be in a position to start the phased reopening of shops; to return children to early years’ settings, including nurseries and childminders; to return primary pupils to school in stages, giving priority to the youngest children in reception and year 1 and those in year 6 preparing for secondary school; and to enable secondary school pupils facing exams next year to get at least some time with their teachers. Our ambition, and I stress that this is conditional, is for all primary school pupils to return to the classroom for a month before the summer break.
To those ends, we are publishing guidance on how schools might reopen safely. Step 2 could also include allowing cultural and sporting events behind closed doors for broadcast, which I think would provide a much-needed boost to national morale. Nothing can substitute for human contact, so the Government have asked the Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies when and how we can safely allow people to expand their household group to include one other household on a strictly reciprocal basis.
Finally, no earlier than July, we may be able to move to step 3, if and only if that is supported by the data and the best scientific advice. We would then aim to reopen some remaining businesses including, potentially, hospitality, cinemas and hairdressers, as well as places of worship and leisure facilities. This will depend on maintaining social distancing and new ways of providing services, so we will phase and pilot any reopenings to ensure public safety. I must be clear again: if the data goes the wrong way and if the alert level begins to rise, we will have no hesitation in putting on the brakes and delaying or reintroducing measures locally, regionally or nationally.
Our struggle against this virus has placed our country under the kind of strain that will be remembered for generations, but so too will the response of the British people, from dedicated shopworkers keeping our supermarkets open and ingenious teachers finding new ways of inspiring their pupils, to the kindness of millions who have checked on their neighbours, delivered food to the elderly, or raised astonishing amounts for charity. In these and so many other ways, we are seeing the indomitable spirit of Britain.
Let me summarise by saying that people should stay alert, by working from home if you possibly can, by limiting contact with others, by keeping your distance to two metres apart where possible and by washing your hands regularly. If you or anyone in your household has symptoms, you all need to self-isolate. If everyone stays alert and follows the rules, we can control the virus, keep the rate of infection down and keep the number of infections down. That is how we will be able to save lives and to save livelihoods as we begin to recover from coronavirus. I commend this Statement to the House.”
The Statement was considered in a Virtual Proceeding via video call.
My Lords, the Virtual Proceeding on the Statement made in the House of Commons yesterday on the Covid-19 strategy will now commence. Please note that it has been agreed in the usual channels to dispense with the reading of the Statement itself, and we will proceed immediately to questions from the Opposition Front Bench.
My Lords, having watched the Prime Minister’s recorded message on Sunday and his Statement to MPs yesterday, I will make two observations. We recognise that the complexities and unknowns of this virus mean that decisions about how we respond are very difficult and challenging. To meet those unprecedented challenges, the Government must provide certainty, confidence and clarity. Unfortunately, in his two statements the Prime Minister missed those targets by announcing the plans without the detail needed. Dominic Raab then had to tour the media studios on Monday morning with a basic message of, “What the Prime Minister meant to say was…” For example, when Mr Johnson said that people who were able to should go back to work on Monday, he really meant Wednesday. When we most needed clarity, we got confusion.
We now have the strategy document, so we can discuss the detail, but there is a reason why Statements should be made to Parliament, rather than taking the “Blue Peter” approach of “Here’s one I made earlier” and recording them especially for the media. The Government should not see the normal process of consultation, engagement, questions and scrutiny as political obstacles to be avoided. They must understand that this is the way that we get the best decisions and, therefore, the best outcomes. It is only by highlighting problems that we can work together to overcome them. Can the noble Baroness confirm that the impact assessments on these strategy documents will also be published?
Because of the way this has been handled, there are numerous questions to be addressed to ensure that the public have all the information they need and that we can all monitor and support the way forward. Will the noble Baroness guarantee that no question today is left unanswered and that, if necessary, she will follow up in writing with complete answers?
I will pick up four specific issues. The first is about understanding the R rate—the reproduction rate—which is essential in fighting the virus. How robust is the calculation of the current level being between 0.5 and 0.9? The report states that 136,000 people are currently infected in the UK. Given that there is no universal testing or tracing, on what scientific basis is it calculated and what is the confidence level of the statistics and the margin of error? It is a basic question of whether it is a calculation or an estimate. Our national strategy is predicated on that figure, so we need to be able to respond quickly if it changes, either by the further easing of restrictions or, as is happening in parts of Germany and in South Korea, having to respond to an increase in the R rate. How quickly can we accurately identify changes and adapt plans accordingly? If we are asking those who enter the country to self-isolate for 14 days to help keep the R rate down, how will this be enforced and monitored?
Secondly, the Prime Minister said that the virus varies across the nations and regions of the UK and therefore needs a flexible response. That makes sense, but flexibility does not mean the Government going it alone for England; it means consultation and engagement to ensure coherent policy even if there are differences. So what discussion and consultation took place with the devolved Governments before the Prime Minister’s announcement? And I have to ask: is it really true that they heard about the change of advice from “Stay at home” to “Stay alert” in the media and on Twitter? The noble Baroness attends COBRA meetings so she will be aware of the weekly meetings with the leaders of the devolved Administrations. Were the differences in policy discussed at those meetings? Can she also confirm that the meetings will continue to be weekly? It seems even more important now that they are so, if they are not, why not?
At a smaller, regional level, how accurate is that R figure in identifying regional and local differences? We see that the information regarding infections and deaths is given at local government level. Can the R rate be identified in the same way?
I want to ask about the advice on going back to work, which still appears to be that if you can work from home then you should do so. Many decisions will be predicated on social distancing and other protection measures being in place. I have real concerns about workplaces where there is no proper system for challenging decisions that are taken by an employer or manager. Should employees have little or no confidence that a proper risk assessment at the workplace has been carried out or acted upon, what support will the Government provide to protect their health, or in the event of any threat of job losses just for asking questions? I have to put this to the noble Baroness as well: does she consider that the Health and Safety Executive is fit for purpose on this front? Does it have both the capacity and the political support?
Today we have had more detail on how social distancing will work on public transport and where capacity is to be dramatically reduced. However, given that demand to travel on buses, trams and the Tube may start to outstrip supply, how will the Government ensure that transport networks are not overwhelmed by those just trying to get back to work, as the Government have advised?
It is also suggested that primary schools will go back in June. In the interests of the wider workforce, is guidance being prepared for schools and nurseries on how long children should attend for each day? If that were provided, it could help the public, employers and employees to properly plan ahead. On all those issues, can the noble Baroness confirm that genuine consultation with the relevant trade unions will be part of the decision-making and implementation process?
As we move to the next stages and some parts of everyday life begin to reopen, it is even more important that we get shielding and support for vulnerable people right. What are the Government doing to improve their efforts to identify and notify those in high-risk categories? Local authorities are reporting huge errors. They initially raised their concerns that the numbers seemed too low, but were not asked to contribute their knowledge as data identification was being undertaken centrally. It now appears that thousands of people were initially missed off, and in some areas local authorities have been told that the numbers of citizens to be shielded have more than doubled in the last week. That is a lesson to us all that local authorities have a vital role to play, given their understanding and knowledge of their communities, and that we have to work in ongoing partnership with them to make improvements and harness their local knowledge.
A huge amount is being asked of individuals over the coming weeks. People will rise to the challenge and do their best to keep themselves and each other safe, but it is not just an individual responsibility; it is a collective one and the Government must maintain their end of the bargain. That means delivering on testing, tracing and PPE for front-line workers.
Over the past few months our lives have changed. Thousands are grieving for loved ones. We have seen extraordinary efforts and commitment to manage and eradicate the virus and support individuals and communities. Staff in the NHS, in caring, in transport, in retail, in pharmacies and so many other public-facing roles that we rely on have done so much. We have a responsibility to them to prepare for the future, to do what we can to get the economy moving and to support people in getting back to work, but with great caution, as well as hope for what our country might become when this horrible disease is no more.
My Lords, I thank the noble Baroness the Leader of the House for taking questions on the Prime Minister’s Statement. I think everybody agrees that the Government have to strike an extraordinarily difficult balance in moving from the simplicity of lockdown and the “stay at home” slogan towards some sort of social and economic normality without jeopardising the progress being made to control the virus. Even while following the science, there are many uncertainties and risks that have to be weighed, and decisions have to be based on judgments which only Ministers can make.
In these circumstances, the best way to secure maximum public trust and support is to be clear, consistent and open. The Prime Minister’s statements to both the nation and the Commons, coupled with many and various briefings by Ministers, spads and other officials over the past week, have unfortunately led to many uncertainties, inconsistencies and unanswered questions.
I therefore have some questions for the noble Baroness the Leader of the House. First, on testing, how resilient do the Government believe the system now is, given that only a few days ago they sent some 5,000 tests to America because they could not be analysed in a timely manner in the UK? Have any further such shipments proved necessary?
On the crucial track and trace technology, how confident are the Government that their own bespoke system, currently being tested in the Isle of Wight, is fit for purpose in the light of their placing a £3.8 million contract last week to investigate the use in the UK of a completely different one? If a track and trace system is implemented, how will the Government ensure that those who need to isolate do so, given that the number of people they plan to employ on this task is way short of the numbers involved in countries that have been following such a system effectively for some time? Will they consider establishing multidisciplinary community Covid teams, on the German model, involving local directors of public health, which will check not only that people really are isolating themselves but that they are getting the support they need in their homes?
Underlying these questions is the common theme of a monolithic, national programme that has been implemented with little apparent understanding of local conditions and the potential for working collaboratively with local public and private sector partners. Will the Government now look at developing a more collaborative approach in the months ahead in order to avoid some of the problems that they have encountered in the weeks we have just seen?
Moving on to the safety of people at work—an issue which the noble Baroness, Lady Smith, touched on—compliance with the rules is policed by the Health and Safety Executive and local authorities. Both are desperately short of resources to undertake this additional work. What further resources will the Government make available to them to ensure that if employees have concerns about their working conditions they can get a timely inspection of their premises? At the moment, I feel that any concerns raised by employees will not be dealt with expeditiously, because there are simply not the people able to deal with them.
In relation to quarantining for those coming into the UK, why have the Government waited so long to take a measure that has been in place in over 100 other countries for several months? If this is now such an important barrier against the virus, why has the Prime Minister agreed to President Macron’s request to exempt all those travelling from France, which has also had a very high incidence of the disease? It is very difficult to see on what science that decision could possibly have been made.
On schools, why have reception and year 1 groups been prioritised over other primary and junior years, given that these groups will find it the most difficult to maintain social distancing? Again, what is the scientific rationale for that? In the light of the fact that some headmasters are saying that they will not open their schools because they do not believe that they can do so safely, what response, if any, do the Government plan in such cases?
Finally, on your Lordships’ House, the Prime Minister has been keen to urge the House of Commons to move
“in step with public health guidance … towards further physical proceedings”.
Does the noble Baroness agree that the Lords should also embrace this principle and move now towards a hybrid Chamber along the lines of that already in place in the Commons?
As the noble Baroness, Lady Smith, said, there has been a terrific and positive communal response to beating this virus. That feeling exists strongly today, but if it is to continue, the Government must just be open with the people, be clear, and make sure that all of us know how we are supposed to behave in the best interests of ourselves, our families and the country in the months ahead.
I thank the noble Lord and the noble Baroness for their comments. Like them, I pay tribute to everybody for the fantastic national effort that we have seen over the last few weeks. They are absolutely right: it is critical that we provide information at this very difficult time, particularly as we are coming out of the lockdown. We are committed to keeping Parliament and the public informed. In addition to the plan that was published on Monday, over 45 guidance documents have been published, and there is more to come, so we are absolutely committed to making sure that everybody has the most up-to-date and best information possible so that they can understand their responsibilities and the decisions they have to make in the coming weeks.
The noble Baroness asked about the vulnerable and shielded. I assure her that there has been a huge amount of cross-government, cross-agency and local government work. Local resilience fora in particular are playing a critical role in supporting and helping those who are shielded—that will continue—and, of course, we should pay tribute to the hundreds of thousands of members of the public who have signed up to the good Samaritan app to help and provide support to those people.
The noble Baroness rightly asked about the data and the R rate. The fact that the R rate today remains between 0.5 and 0.9, which is perilously close to 1, is the reason why we are taking very careful steps in the coming weeks. In particular, that is why we have set up the joint biosecurity centre, which will bring the UK’s leading epidemiological expertise together to ensure that future outbreaks are detected and brought under control.
This centre will collect a range of data to build up the picture of infection rates across the country, and analyse it to form pictures of changes in infection rates across the country, thereby providing intelligence on both the overall national picture and potential community level spikes. It will advise the CMO of a potential change in the alert level, which we have also just set up, and the CMO will then advise Ministers. It will identify specific actions to address local spikes in infection in partnership with local agencies, and of course it will work in partnership with the Government and the devolved Administrations to ensure that it is effective throughout the United Kingdom.
I hope that the noble Baroness will therefore see that this centre will be critical as we move into the next phase. We will rightly be looking at all the data and its robustness, and ensuring that we can act quickly to changes in data and, along with SAGE, advise the Government. Several other countries, such as New Zealand, South Korea and the United States are also operating a Covid alerting system of the type that we have just set up.
I can assure the noble Baroness that the devolved Administrations have been involved in all discussions. As she rightly said, I sit on a number of the COBRA committees. Representatives of the devolved Administrations attend every committee. We discuss areas of best practice and mutual interest, and where approaches and data slightly diverge. It has been a very strong relationship between the Administrations, but there have been differences in the data in each country—it is of course right that the devolved Administrations make decisions for the people of their area.
Both the noble Lord and the noble Baroness asked about the return to work. We have been working closely with unions, the Health and Safety Executive, public health authorities, business groups and local authorities to develop the guidance that we have published for businesses, and we will of course continue to do so. I am pleased to let the noble Lord and the noble Baroness know that today we announced £14 million of additional funding for the Health and Safety Executive. We are determined that it should be able to do its job. Nobody should be forced to work in an unsafe workplace. If employees are concerned that their employers are not taking all practical steps to promote social distancing, they can report them to their local authority or to the HSE, which can take a range of actions. We will support them in doing that.
The noble Baroness and the noble Lord asked about schools. We want to get reception and year 1 children back into education as quickly as possible and as the scientific advice allows. We believe that school is the best place for them to learn and we know that it is important for their mental well-being to be back with their friends and teachers. Schools will open only in a phased way and only when it is safe to do so. We will of course continue to work closely on this with the unions. We have published guidance for schools and other healthcare settings. We are asking them to implement a range of protective measures, including increasing cleaning, reducing pinch points at the start and end of the day and utilising outdoor space, and we will look at their staying in their small classes for as long as possible so that they have minimum contact with groups around the rest of the school.
The noble Lord asked about testing. We believe that we have a robust system in place, but we will not be complacent. We are trialling the NHS app, but that is just one part of the track and tracing system that we will use. We will ensure that the vulnerable and those who do not have access to the app will be able to be tracked and traced. We will certainly continue to learn from international experience, as the noble Lord mentioned.
The noble Lord also asked about the UK’s borders. During the contain phase, we had enhanced monitoring at the borders to identify symptomatic travellers, but once there was significant transmission within the UK, the scientific advice was that border restrictions would have had a marginal effect on the number of coronavirus cases. Now that domestic transmission within the UK is coming under control, it is right that we take these new measures. As the noble Lord said, the Prime Minister has been talking to President Macron to develop a joint approach.
The noble Lord asked about the House of Lords and a hybrid House. As he will know, work is ongoing to establish how we can do that, but I am sure that all noble Lords will want to ensure that if we return physically we do so in a safe environment both for your Lordships and for the staff, who are supporting us fantastically through this difficult time.
My Lords, I thank and congratulate all who have been involved in containing the coronavirus crisis. The Government’s plans are correctly conditional, and they have a difficult balance to strike. This must avoid proceeding too far and too fast. When life is at stake, perhaps the first objective must be to avoid a second peak, which could overwhelm the NHS. Under the Government’s plan, we are just about at level 3. When do the Government expect to achieve our target of level 1?
My second question is prompted by my wife and focuses on the tragic number of the elderly and vulnerable who have died in care homes, where the Covid virus is still life-threatening. Will the Government consider obliging all care home employers to provide regular testing of the carers in their employment? Many carers do not wish to be tested, as they fear losing their jobs if they test positive.
I thank my noble friend for his question. More than 140,000 tests have been delivered to almost 440 care homes since April. The CQC has referred more than 34,000 care workers for testing, so testing is on the up, and we will be delivering up to 30,000 tests a day for staff and residents of all care homes that look after the over-65s by early June.
I am afraid that my noble friend cannot tempt me to speculate about when we might reach level 1. Of course that is what we are aiming for, and we have set out some cautious steps over the next couple of months that we believe we can take but only, as he rightly says, if we manage to keep the virus under control by paying attention to social distancing and the other measures that we need to keep us safe.
My Lords, I refer to my declared interests. I want to return to the question of safety in the workplace. Does the Leader not agree that to provide clarity and simplicity the Government should now agree to make Covid-19 safety standards in the workplace legally enforceable, thus ensuring that employers that implement the safety standards are not undercut by those that do not and, importantly, that employees have a quick resolution of disputes about the safety of their workplace and confidence that their health and well-being are protected without delay so that they can continue to be in their workplace safely?
As I said in my answer to the previous question, it is absolutely right that nobody should be forced to work in an unsafe workplace. I have set out a number of ways in which employees with concerns could take them forward. Of course, we expect businesses to abide by the Covid-secure guidelines. We have done a whole series of them for different types of workplaces. We have worked closely with the unions, the Health and Safety Executive and public health authorities to make sure that these are accessible, and will work very hard with business to make sure they provide the safe workplaces we all want to see.
My Lords, the muddled messages of the last 72 hours have left the nation uncertain and confused by the Prime Minister’s plan. Does the Minister agree that first publishing draft proposals—even options—and a Green Paper that experts, Parliament and the public could have scrutinised and interrogated could have delivered greater clarity, less confusion and quite possibly better answers? Then, announcing conclusions first to Parliament, where they could be questioned and explained, would certainly have ensured that the all-too-obvious confusions were at least answered and hopefully avoided. Does the Minister agree that Parliament has evolved in this way for a reason? Frankly, I am one of those who believes that the NHS’s increased capacity and the fact that the number of new cases is down means that a more targeted strategy focused on protecting the vulnerable would have been the better next step. Can the Government at least now publish their assessment of the main options that have been canvassed?
As I mentioned, I believe that we are being clear in our messaging and that the public understand our messages. As I said, in addition to the road map we have published more than 46 pieces of additional guidance on a whole range of areas from transport to workplace safety and school settings, and we will continue to do that over the coming weeks. We want to keep a dialogue with both Parliament and the public and take everyone with us as we navigate this cruel disease. I believe everyone is playing their part. It is fantastic that we have been able to get to a point where we have a road map and can start to see a bit of light at the end of the tunnel, but we have to make sure we continue abiding by the social distancing rules, keeping up with hand-washing and doing all those other things we have been told about. That is what we need to do to keep moving in the right direction as we tackle this disease.
We are not at all complacent about the task ahead of us, but we reached 100,000 tests when we said we would. Our testing capacity was 110,670 and, in the last 24 hours up to 12 May, 85,293 tests were undertaken. This is a massive effort, and credit should go to everybody who is ramping it up. We will continue to work to the target the Prime Minister has set.
My Lords, language matters. Loose language and sloppy images hinder, rather than help. We need to continue to suppress the coronavirus—learn to coexist with it—as eradication is a long way off. Does the Leader agree that any recovery road map must recognise and speak of the importance of spiritual, social and mental well-being, as much as physical and economic health? Will she guarantee that this will be the case as phases 2 and 3 are developed?
I thank the right reverend Prelate for his comments; he is absolutely right. I assure him that mental and physical health and well-being, as well as the financial pressures that many people are facing, are foremost in our minds. As he rightly said, it is critical that, having got the disease under control, and being able to take steps forward, we make sure we continue with that. If we do start to see the R number rise again, we have to take swift action to make sure that we do not see a second peak.
My Lords, the new lockdown rules are making the job of the police “almost impossible”. Those are not my words, but those of John Apter, the chairman of the front-line Police Federation. On the next sunny weekend, a father of five in London can now gather his household and drive for a day’s exercise to the Lake District. Were the police consulted on this relaxation of the rules? What advice would the Leader of the House give to the police who might check the vehicle as it enters Cumbria, particularly in the light of convoys of other drivers doing the same thing? Finally, does she think that this decision is an example of good, solid, British common sense?
First, I pay tribute to the police for the fantastic work that they have done. I assure the noble Lord that the Home Office has been working closely with the police to make sure that the new guidance is clear to officers. The police are updating their guidance regularly and those discussions will continue. The overwhelming majority of the public will follow the rules without the need for enforcement action or for the police to take action. That is welcome, but the police must have the ability to act if people are acting recklessly. They have been doing that around the country and we commend them for their great work.
My Lords, what plans are there to give museums and galleries the opportunity to reopen in July? These are much appreciated resources. Many of them are also at the heart of our tourist industry. While I completely accept that we could not necessarily just open the doors and let everybody come, we could presumably arrange booking systems so that numbers were controlled as well as distance maintained. Will my noble friend reflect on that and give me some encouragement?
One of the many tragedies of the virus is that we are not able to enjoy the fantastic cultural life and sporting events that we may have been looking forward to in the summer. As the noble Lord will know, museums, cinemas and theatres are being looked at under step 3—July at the earliest. However, I have to stress again that all this is based on ensuring that we keep the disease under control. We have seen examples of supermarkets, and other businesses that have been able to remain open through this time, being able to find safe ways to socially distance. Museums and other organisations can learn from that and from the best practice in other countries coming out of lockdown. Then if, as we hope, we get to the point when they are able to open their doors—albeit, perhaps, to a smaller number of visitors—they can do so in a safe way and we can start to see a bit more of normal life return.
After a few days of muddle and mixed messages, it is very welcome that the Government have acted positively on the health and safety of workers. The TUC has described it as a step in the right direction. The challenge now is to live up to the Prime Minister’s promises. As the noble Lord, Lord Newby, asked, will this involve extra resources for the HSE, if necessary, in addition to the welcome £14 million to date? Will it involve much-needed investment in PPE so that we do not have to experience the problems in care homes spreading to other workplaces? Will there be legal protection for whistleblowers? Are the Government likely to encourage the mobilisation of the network of union safety reps, who can do an important job on this? Will the self-employed get the same protection as employees?
I thank the noble Lord for mentioning and recognising the TUC’s comment that these guidelines are a step in the right direction. As I have said, it is a testament to the fact that unions, businesses, the Health and Safety Executive and the Government have been working very closely together because it is of paramount importance that we ensure that workplaces are safe for all those returning to work. As he rightly said, and as I mentioned, further funding has been provided to the HSE. I am sure that discussions will continue to make sure that everyone has the resources they need so that, slowly but surely, people are able to go back to their workplaces and start that side of their life again, which I am sure many people around the country want to do. I am sure there will be a positive partnership between employers and employees; we all want the best for everyone and for this country to come out of this terrible disease.
My Lords, I shall pursue a point made by the noble Baroness, Lady Smith of Basildon. The Prime Minister’s Statement says:
“Different parts of the UK may need to stay in full lockdown longer.”—[Official Report, Commons, 11/5/20; col. 24.]
What evidence base will the Government use, and will they publish the past, current and future R rates for all parts of the United Kingdom so that future decisions can be shared, discussed and understood?
I hope I answered that question by talking about the role of the joint biosecurity centre, the new body that has been set up. It will have a critical role. One of its roles will be to identify specific local actions to address local spikes in infection in partnership with local agencies. It will work with the devolved Administrations and SAGE to provide guidance. We want to be transparent and we are continually looking at what data we can make available as our knowledge of this virus grows.
My Lords, in the new plan, how will the needs and best interests of individuals with protected characteristics, as required under the Equality Act and the Mental Capacity Act, be balanced with public health concerns? For example, just as in society at large, could family contact be resumed for people in care when both parties have recovered from Covid-19, or will blanket rules continue in care settings regardless of the mental well-being and best interests of individuals? I include here the one in four disabled adults of working age who live in care homes.
Of course we are absolutely cognisant of the real issues that many of the socially isolated are having, and we are very concerned about them, but we cannot put them, their carers and their families in danger—in a situation where the virus could start to get out of control once again. Of course we keep this under review, but we are proceeding with cautious steps because we have seen the tragedy in care homes and we want to make sure that it does not happen again. We want to make sure that everyone is safe and that we can move forward as a country. However, I can assure the noble Baroness that we are very aware of all these issues and we look at them in the round when we are making decisions as we start to move away from the lockdown.
The Prime Minister is rightly charting a staged return to normality, in the interests of our economy and our economic future. I agree with my noble friend that we can learn from abroad. Will the Government consider adopting the World Health Organization standards of one metre of social distancing rather than two, as Denmark has done as part of its recovery? For example, that could help to restore the scale of activity that we need in our vital construction sector, or in galleries and museums, mentioned by my noble friend Lord Cormack.
There is good reason for the two-metre social distancing rules, because experimental and mathematically modelled data support the view that the droplets associated with the spread of coronavirus—those expelled during breathing and talking—in the main drop to the ground within a two-metre radius of the person. There is science behind the two-metre rule. Having said that, as we continue with our hand washing along with social distancing, I hope that we will steadily move to having the disease even further under control. SAGE continually looks at this, but there is good reason for the two-metre rule at the moment.
My Lords, given that we now know that the low paid in manual jobs face a greater risk of dying from the virus than high-paid white-collar workers, does the Minister consider that acceptable and what steps are proposed to rectify it? I join my noble friend Lord Monks in recommending that the Government look to TU safety reps as a significant resource to help tackle the current situation. Finally, one sector that the Government have particularly focused on to make a start under their “baby” return is construction. Of course, one thing we know about construction is that it is one of the riskier sectors so far as health and safety are concerned. There is a long history of challenges to the HSE. Although certain improvements have been made in recent times, it is an added challenge to the HSE to go about the task that it has been set. Are the Government satisfied with that?
On the noble Lord’s first point, we are extremely concerned about the apparent disparities in how Covid-19 affects people. That is why Public Health England is undertaking a rapid review to provide insight into how factors such as ethnicity, deprivation, age, gender and obesity are disproportionately impacting people. That review is under way and the findings will be published at the end of the month. In relation to his other points, as I said, we are working closely with the unions and businesses in developing our guidance. I am sure that we will take advantage of the excellent union reps that the two noble Lords mentioned. We are working closely with business in all sectors, including construction, to make sure that the workforce who return go to a safe place. That is in all our interests, and I believe that employers and employees will work together to ensure that it happens.
My Lords, the Prime Minister’s Statement announced an escalation in the level of fines. The debate earlier this afternoon highlighted how much confusion there is around legally enforceable regulations and non-enforceable guidelines, and the noble Lord, Lord Mackenzie, highlighted the difficulties the police have. In order to develop some clarity, perhaps the Minister could give just two specific examples of public behaviour which the new increased fines are designed to stop.
As I have said, the Home Office is working closely with the police on the guidance, and I am sure that it will update it through the NPCC and the College of Policing. As the noble Lord rightly says, fines will go up to £100, which will be lowered to £50 if paid within 14 days. As now, if members of the public do not follow the rules, the police can arrest individuals who are acting unlawfully and instruct people to go home, leave an area or disperse, or impose fines.
It is worth reiterating to noble Lords that the vast majority of people are respecting the rules and what is happening. Only a very small minority are not doing so, and it is absolutely right that the police should have the tools at their disposal to deal with that minority.
My Lords, I draw attention to my interests as set out in the register. Yesterday, when answering questions on the Statement, the Prime Minister spoke of the huge opportunities for cleaner, greener transport in the Government’s current proposals. Does the Leader of the House agree that, when looking ahead to the enormous investment that will be required to rebuild our shattered economy, we need not to try to replicate exactly what we had before but to take the opportunities to build better and to forge a greener, fairer and more sustainable economy for the future?
Yes, I do agree. That is why we have, for instance, announced a £2 billion package to boost cycling and walking, including £250 million for an emergency travel fund for England to fund pop-up cycle lanes and cycle-only corridors. This is a personal priority for the Prime Minister, and I can assure the noble Baroness that it is also at the top of the agenda for the Secretary of State for Transport.
My Lords, I know three people who have contracted Covid-19, one of whom became seriously ill. Fortunately, they are now all well again, thanks to the marvellous NHS. Unfortunately, it has come to light that members of the BAME communities are more likely to contract Covid-19 with fatal consequences compared with the rest of the population. I understand that a letter signed by 70 dignitaries has been sent to the Prime Minister asking for an independent inquiry to look into the reasons why this has happened. Can I ask my noble friend the Leader of the House if an independent inquiry will take place? If so, what is the timetable for that to happen?
I am very sorry to hear about the friends of my noble friend Lord Sheikh and I am glad to hear about their recovery. I too pay tribute to the fantastic work done by all those in our NHS and care homes who are keeping us safe. As I mentioned in a previous answer, Public Health England is undertaking a rapid review of how different factors, including ethnicity, are disproportionately impacting people. The review is being led by Professor Kevin Fenton, the London regional director of public health at Public Health England, and his findings will be published at the end of the month.
The Secretary of State for Education has said that nothing can replace being in the classroom. Can the Leader of the House confirm that all primary school pupils will be able to return to school by the end of June and that further reassurances about this will be given to parents? If the R rate allows, will the Government also reconsider their plans for secondary schools so that all these pupils, whose mental well-being is also at stake, can return to school, even if only briefly, before the summer holidays? That will help to mitigate the growing inequality among children in this age group.
I am afraid that, as with everything, I cannot give categorical promises or guarantees. Everything is being done in a cautious way on the basis of the science, the data and public health. However, I can certainly say to the noble Baroness that it is our ambition, if it is feasible, for all primary school-age children to return to school for a month before the summer, and this will be kept under review. At this point, I am afraid that only secondary school pupils with exams next year will be able to have face-to-face contact with their teachers in order to support their remote learning. There are no plans for other secondary school pupils to return to school before the summer.
My Lords, this Statement launched the Government’s document, Our Plan to Rebuild. It says:
“Anyone with symptoms should isolate immediately, alongside their households, and apply for a test. If a negative test is returned, then isolation is no longer required.”
But the NHS is widely reported as estimating a false negative rate of 30% for swab tests. On 1 May, Pulse Today reported that the advice from NHS England is for GPs and other staff who have tested negative not to return to work if they still have symptoms. Can the noble Baroness the Minister explain the dangerous, and potentially deadly, apparent gap between those two sets of advice?
If people have symptoms, they should of course self-isolate, along with their household. As we have said all along, it is extremely important that people look after themselves, follow the advice and self-isolate if they think they have any symptoms. We are moving forward from the lockdown in an extremely cautious manner, and it is absolutely imperative that everybody puts their health, and the health of everyone around them, first.
My Lords, there is limited evidence about the extent of transmission of the virus between children and between children and adults. Returning to the issue of schools, I wonder whether my noble friend will ask the Government to publish their evidence on transmission of the virus between children. The Government must also look to France, which today is allowing the youngest children back into schools, in a way similar to that proposed for this country from the beginning of June. The Government should perhaps try to acquire data that would give reassurance, not least to teachers, about the safety of young people returning to school.
We will certainly look at international evidence. As countries come out of their lockdowns at different rates and through different measures, we will of course all learn from that. I assure my noble friend that the Government Office for Science is working to regularly publish the evidence, documents and studies that have formed the basis of SAGE’s discussions and advice to Ministers. We expect that to include the data raised by my noble friend on the reopening of schools.
My Lords, further to the question asked of the Leader of the House by my noble friend the Leader of the Opposition, can she confirm now that the Prime Minister did not actually consult the devolved nations about his change of message, from “Stay at Home” to “Stay Alert”, and the policy that followed? Will she therefore now explain why the Prime Minister thinks that it is safe for people in England to go back to work, while in Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland, it is seen as too risky and premature?
The Prime Minister has regular conversations with the devolved Administrations. As I said, the leaders of those Administrations are involved in all COBRA meetings and discussions. There is close dialogue. As Nicola Sturgeon said, it is
“perhaps reflecting the fact that our first cases came later than England’s … so we may be at a different—and slightly later—stage of the infection”.
As we move out of lockdown, while we want the four nations to move together, if there are slight differences, we will need to take that into account. However, I do not think that the divergence in approach between the four nations is as great as has been made out. We continue to work closely together because we all want the best for all of our citizens.