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Covid-19: Restrictions

Volume 803: debated on Monday 18 May 2020


Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what further steps they plan to take by the end of June to adjust the restrictions in place for those isolating due to the COVID-19 pandemic; and what advice they have sought from experts not represented on the Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies to inform any such steps.

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

My Lords, as set out in the Government’s Covid-19 recovery strategy, we have advised people who are clinically extremely vulnerable to follow shielding guidance by staying at home at all times and avoiding all non-essential face-to-face contact until the end of June. However, we will continue to review that and will issue further guidance about shielding and social distancing as new evidence emerges. I assure the noble Lord that the Government continue to seek advice from a wide range of policy experts on this matter.

My Lords, the number who are shielding and are therefore in rigid lockdown appears to have risen to 2.5 million, and many, by the end of June, will have been doing so for 14 weeks. Surely there will need to be urgent advice to them on mental and physical health and also on employment rights, as well as resourcing of local government and the voluntary sector, even though many of us feel that it is not sustainable to keep that number of people in rigid lockdown for very much longer.

My Lords, the noble Lord makes an important point about mental health. The Government have stressed at all times that there needs to be a balance in these matters. However, the scientific advice is clear that the groups concerned are at the greatest danger of suffering severely from this virus. That has been the reason for the advice, which, as I said, is under continual review.

My Lords, as we have just heard, 2.5 million people have been advised to stay at home, often on the basis of just a text message or a letter from the NHS. Perhaps I may press my noble friend a little further on the details of the review: how it will be conducted; whether there are any timelines; and when the up to 2.5 million people might be given further guidance about whether they really need to continue shielding in the way that they are.

My Lords, I cannot give my noble friend a specific date. However, I underline not only that the matter is, as I stated, under continuous review but that Public Health England hopes to issue further guidance next month.

My Lords, will the Government ensure that the steps to adjust restrictions for those isolating clearly allow for healthy individuals over 70 to be trusted to use their judgment regarding their personal safety and that of the wider community?

My Lords, the guidance that is in place is advisory. We have no plans to make it mandatory for people aged 70 and over to follow advice beyond what is mandatory for all of us. However, I repeat that the scientific and medical evidence is clear that those in older age groups are in graver danger from the serious consequences of this virus.

My Lords, does the Minister understand that the shielded group and their household members are facing an impossible choice between returning to work and breaching public health advice, and endangering their own health? Therefore, will the Government review the restrictions in place for those shielding from Covid-19, and will they consider establishing a right for this group to be furloughed in protecting themselves from the coronavirus, which requires them not to work?

My Lords, I do not accept the premise of the noble Lord’s question. The advice to the shielding group is clear and is based on scientific advice that it is wise for them to avoid face-to-face contact and follow the shielding guidance. That advice is still in place and will remain so until the guidance is revised. I have told the House that the guidance is under review and that we hope that we will be able to say more during June.

My Lords, a society is judged by how it treats its most vulnerable. The real policy and practice experts are the NGOs and major specialist charities. Will the Minister tell the House which of those organisations have been consulted on the impact of the restrictions on vulnerable adults and what guidance is in place to help them see family and loved ones?

My Lords, I profoundly agree with the noble Baroness’s opening remark about the approach and the importance of staying in touch with all sources of expertise and advice. At present, and in the time available, I cannot give her a list of organisations of the type that she describes, but I will ensure that a letter is written to her on the matter.

My Lords, in order to promote more faith, not fear, what more will the Government do to show that the four nations of the United Kingdom can have a more co-ordinated approach to Covid-19?

My Lords, the Government work closely with the devolved Administrations and hope that the whole country will move forward together. That has been the advice, and the aspiration has been repeatedly expressed by the Government. Obviously, in moving forward, we have to review factors across the nation. But Covid does not discriminate by place of residence. The impact is on the factors that we have described so far in this conversation.

My Lords, many people in this country who have been sick over recent weeks believe that they have had Covid-19, even though they were not tested while they were ill. They now believe that they are immune and some are, therefore, not staying as alert as the Government would like. Given that the latest surveys suggest that only 5% to 10% of people have actually had the virus, most of these people will have had one of the other bugs circulating at the time. This is putting at risk the Government’s plans to bring R down. When will the reliable antibody test, announced last week, be widely available, to allow the public to know if they have had coronavirus or not, and therefore act responsibly as restrictions are lifted?

My Lords, again I agree with the sentiments expressed by my noble friend. The Government are proceeding as fast as, and in the best way that, they can on every front, including this one. As is often said at Downing Street press conferences, the science around immunity is, as yet, unclear—and, by definition, it will remain so, as this is a new virus. As the noble Baroness said, people should follow the guidance that is in place.

My Lords, some disabled people seem to have received a second letter asking them to shield for another 12 weeks. It appears that the government website is not necessarily clear on the correct procedure for vulnerable and/or disabled people. Will Her Majesty’s Government provide greater clarity on shielding and, at the very least, ensure that the website is up to date for this group of people?

I will look into the matter raised by the noble Baroness. Whenever somebody receives a shielding letter, the advice will be to observe the guidance in it. However, I repeat that that advice is currently under review. That will be the case for all those who have received a letter. If necessary, it will be updated, or reaffirmed, by the end of June.

My Lords, the Conservatives seem a bit confused about older people. They raised the pension age to 67 and Iain Duncan Smith now wants it raised to 70. Meanwhile, Ministers tell those aged 70 plus not to go out, even those who are fit and healthy, who look after grandchildren, who work and have an active life. At the same time, they leave the generations that fought the war under- resourced and underprotected against Covid-19. Will the Minister please listen to relevant representatives—not just scientists—of older people, both those in need of care and those whose health and independence give them much to contribute? Will he undertake that those talks will take place?

My Lords, the Government are talking with people, scientists and organisations right along the front. The noble Baroness injected a political note into this question, which I thought unfortunate. All parties should share in the aspiration to protect those she rightly describes as the most precious in our community, who have served the country longest. That is why the advice is in place. As I have said, that advice will be reviewed and further announcements made before the end of June.

My Lords, the Government’s guidance on social distancing for vulnerable people—the tier below those who have to shield—was published on 16 March and withdrawn on 1 May. Pregnant women and those over 70 without underlying conditions now have no guidance at all. Which group should they regard themselves as part of?

My Lords, it would be best if I wrote to the noble Baroness on that matter, as I am not scientifically qualified to answer it. However, I note the very important point that she has raised.

My Lords, the time allowed for this question has elapsed. I apologise to the noble Baroness, Lady Neville-Rolfe.