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House of Lords Hansard
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25 June 2020
Volume 804

Statement

The following Statement was made on Tuesday 23 June in the House of Commons.

“Before I begin, I am sure the whole House will join me in sending our deepest condolences to the families and friends of James Furlong, Joe Ritchie-Bennett and David Wails, who were brutally killed in Reading on Saturday. To assault defenceless people in a park is an act not simply of wickedness but of abject cowardice. We will never yield to those who would seek to destroy our way of life.

With permission, Mr Speaker, I will update the House on the next steps in our plan to rebuild our economy and reopen our society, while waging our struggle against Covid-19. From the outset, we have trusted in the common sense and perseverance of the British people, and their response has more than justified our faith. Since I set out our plan on 11 May, we have been clear that our cautious relaxation of the guidance is entirely conditional on our continued defeat of the virus. In the first half of May, nearly 69,000 people tested positive for Covid-19 across the UK; by the first half of June, that total had fallen by nearly 70% to just under 22,000. The number of new infections is now declining by between 2% and 4% every day.

Four weeks ago, an average of one in 400 people in the community in England had Covid-19; in the first half of June, the figure was one in 1,700. We created a human shield around the NHS, and in turn our doctors and nurses have protected us. Together, we have saved our hospitals from being overwhelmed. On 11 May, 1,073 people were admitted to hospital in England, Wales and Northern Ireland with Covid-19; by 20 June, the figure had fallen by 74% to 283.

This pandemic has inflicted permanent scars, and we mourn everyone we have lost. Measured by a seven-day rolling average, the number of daily deaths peaked at 943 on 14 April. On 11 May, it was 476 and yesterday the rolling average stood at 130. We have ordered over 2.2 billion items of protective equipment from UK-based manufacturers, many of whose production lines have been called into being to serve this new demand. And yesterday we conducted or posted 139,659 tests, bringing the total to over 8 million.

While we remain vigilant, we do not believe that there is currently—currently—a risk of a second peak of infections that might overwhelm the NHS. Taking everything together, we continue to meet our five tests, and the chief medical officers of all four home nations have downgraded the UK’s Covid alert level from 4 to 3, meaning that we no longer face the virus spreading exponentially, although it remains in general circulation.

The Administrations in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland hold responsibility for their own lockdown restrictions, and they will respond to the united view of the chief medical officers at their own pace, based on their own judgment. But all parts of the UK are now travelling in the same direction, and we will continue to work together to ensure that everyone in our country gets the support they need.

Thanks to our progress, we can now go further and safely ease the lockdown in England. At every stage, caution will remain our watchword, and each step will be conditional and reversible. Given the significant fall in the prevalence of the virus, we can change the 2-metre social distancing rule from 4 July. I know that this rule effectively makes life impossible for large parts of our economy, even without other restrictions—for example, it prevents all but a fraction of our hospitality industry from operating. That is why almost two weeks ago I asked our experts to conduct a review; I will place a summary of their conclusions in the Libraries of both Houses this week.

Where it is possible to keep two metres apart, people should. But where it is not, we will advise people to keep a social distance of one metre-plus, meaning that they should remain one metre apart while taking mitigations to reduce the risk of transmission. We are today publishing guidance on how business can reduce the risk by taking certain steps to protect workers and customers. Those include, for instance, avoiding face-to-face seating by changing office layouts, reducing the number of people in enclosed spaces, improving ventilation, using protective screens and face coverings, closing non-essential social spaces, providing hand sanitiser, or changing shift patterns so that staff work in set teams. We already mandate face coverings on public transport.

While the experts cannot give a precise assessment of how much the risk is reduced, they judge that those mitigations would make one metre-plus broadly equivalent to the risk at two metres, if those mitigations are fully implemented. Either would be acceptable, and our guidance will change accordingly. That vital change enables the next stage of our plan to ease the lockdown.

I am acutely conscious that people will ask legitimate questions about why certain activities are allowed when others are not, but I must ask the House to understand that the virus has no interest in such debates. Its only ambition is to exploit any opportunities to recapture ground that we might carelessly vacate, and to reinfect our communities. There is only one certainty, which is that the fewer social contacts someone has, the safer they will be, and our duty as a Government is to guide the British people, balancing our overriding aim of controlling the virus against our natural desire to bring back normal life.

We cannot lift all the restrictions at once, so we have to make difficult judgments. Every step is scrupulously weighed against the evidence. Our principle is to trust the British public to use their common sense in the full knowledge of the risks, remembering that the more we open up, the more vigilant we will need to be. From now on, we will ask people to follow guidance on social contact, instead of legislation, and in that spirit we advise that from 4 July, two households of any size should be able to meet in any setting, inside or out. That does not mean that they must always be the same two households; it will, for instance, be possible to meet one set of grandparents one weekend, and the other set the following weekend. We are not recommending meetings of multiple households indoors, because of the risk of creating greater chains of transmission. Outside, the guidance remains that people from several households can meet in groups of up to six, and it follows that two households can also meet, regardless of size.

I can tell the House that we will also reopen restaurants and pubs. All hospitality indoors will be limited to table service, and our guidance will encourage minimal staff and customer contact. We will ask businesses to help NHS Test and Trace respond to any local outbreaks by collecting contact details from customers, as happens in other countries, and we will work with the sector to make that manageable. Almost as eagerly awaited as a pint will be a haircut—particularly by me, Mr Speaker—and we will reopen hairdressers with appropriate precautions, including the use of visors. We also intend to allow some other close-contact services such as nail bars to reopen as soon as we can, once we are confident that they can operate in a Covid-secure way.

From 4 July, provided that no more than two households stay together, people will be free to stay overnight in self-contained accommodation, including hotels and bed and breakfasts, as well as campsites, as long as shared facilities are kept clean. Most leisure facilities and tourist attractions will reopen if they can do so safely, including outdoor gyms and playgrounds, cinemas, museums, galleries, theme parks and arcades, as well as libraries, social clubs and community centres.

Close-proximity venues such as nightclubs, soft-play areas, indoor gyms, swimming pools and spas will, I am afraid, need to remain closed for now, as will bowling alleys and waterparks, but my right honourable friends the Business Secretary and the Culture Secretary will establish task forces with public health experts and those sectors to help them to become Covid-secure and reopen as soon as possible.

We will also work with the arts industry on specific guidance to enable choirs, orchestras and theatres to resume live performances as soon as possible. Recreation and sport will be allowed, but indoor facilities, including changing rooms and courts, will remain closed, and people should only play close-contact team sports with members of their household.

I know that many have mourned the closure of places of worship, and this year Easter, Passover and Eid all occurred during the lockdown. I am delighted that places of worship will be able to reopen for prayer and services, including weddings, with a maximum of 30 people, all subject to social distancing.

Meanwhile, our courts, probation services, police stations and other public services will increasingly resume face-to-face proceedings. Wraparound care for school-age children and formal childcare will restart over the summer. Primary and secondary education will recommence in September with full attendance, and those children who can already go to school should do so, because it is safe.

We will publish Covid-secure guidelines for every sector that is reopening, and slowly but surely these measures will restore a sense of normality. After the toughest restrictions in peacetime history, we are now able to make life easier for people, so that they can see more of their friends and families, and to help businesses get back on their feet and get people back into work.

The virus has not gone away, however. We will continue to monitor the data with the Joint Biosecurity Centre and our ever more effective test and trace system. I must be clear to the House that, as we have seen in other countries, there will be flare-ups, for which local measures will be needed. We will not hesitate to apply the brakes and reintroduce restrictions, even at national level, if required. I urge everyone to stay alert, control the virus and save lives. Let us keep washing our hands; staying two metres apart wherever feasible; mitigating the risks at one metre where it is not; avoiding public transport where possible and wearing a mask when we have to use public transport; getting tested immediately if we have symptoms; and self-isolating if instructed to do so by NHS Test and Trace.

Today we can say that our long national hibernation is beginning to come to an end. Life is returning to our streets and to our shops, the bustle is starting to come back and a new but cautious optimism is palpable. But I must say to the House that it would be all too easy for that frost to return. That is why we will continue to trust in the common sense and the community spirit of the British people to follow this guidance, to carry us through and to see us to victory over this virus. I commend this Statement to the House.”

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My Lords, the Prime Minister’s Statement was targeted at a nation desperate to return to a more normal way of living as soon as it is safe to do so. We support that aim. The past few months have taken an enormous toll on individuals and communities. Some, long after most of us will be getting back to work, school and socialising, will still be coping with grief and loss, with mental and physical health issues and, of course, with financial hardship.

The Government have to balance and weigh up the risks of both action and inaction as they plot the path out of lockdown. It is not easy; these are judgment calls. The fundamental change in the Government’s response in the Statement is to move further towards individual decision-making and responsibility through guidance and away from legislation.

I appreciate the need for some flexibility in the system and the wisdom of basic common sense—perhaps such as not going out for a drive to test one’s eyesight—but alongside the benefits of flexibility, it inevitably creates some mixed messages and a lack of clarity. So, as we have come to expect with announcements from this Prime Minister, we need further details and I hope the Leader of the House will be able to help with that.

I want to say at the outset, though, that the tone of the debate is really important. When urging others to act responsibly, Mr Johnson has to understand that this also applies to him. When debating the Statement, my friend and south coast parliamentary colleague, the Hove MP Peter Kyle, sought advice from the Prime Minister. Bear in mind the scenes that we saw on beaches yesterday. My honourable friend asked how, in the absence of an app for tracking and tracing, we can keep places such as beachfront bars safe where it is impossible to get customers’ addresses. In response, Mr Johnson bellowed that elected representatives should “show some guts”. That is a pretty unhelpful and offensive response. I am sure that the noble Baroness will disassociate herself from comments such as that, but, more importantly, can she shed any light on the very sensible question asked by my honourable friend?

On the wider issue of that missing app, the leader of the Opposition, Keir Starmer, also sought clarity from the Prime Minister yesterday, but to little avail. So let us try again. Having been promised a “world-beating” app by 1 June, it is a bit strange now to be told by the Prime Minister, after spending £11.8 million, that we do not have an app—and, he says, neither does any other country. That was news to Australia, China, Germany, Singapore and South Korea. But the Prime Minister still says that we can do better.

Mr Johnson was asked, given that around 33,000 people are currently infected with the virus and around 10,000 people have been tracked and their contacts traced, what has happened to the other 23,000 who are infected? Yesterday, the Prime Minister did not have an answer, but now, 24 hours later, the Government will have had time to find out. So can the noble Baroness update the House on how many of the other 23,000 have now been tracked and had their contacts traced? It is not a trick question; it really is fundamental to understanding how we will navigate through the next few months. We need a system that is effective and has public trust, so that people will co-operate and isolate when told to do so. We need a system that allows local authorities and communities to respond quickly and efficiently to any localised outbreaks of Covid. Without that, we run a serious risk of a second wave.

The Prime Minister also said each step out of lockdown will be “conditional and reversible”. That is a sensible and proportionate response. On what criteria will decisions be based, and will the criteria be published? The reintroduction of restrictions could be local or national, and action will have to be swift, well planned and enforced.

The role of local authorities will be crucial, but council leaders have reported to me that they have had no guidance from the Government on how local lockdowns could work, what powers they will need to enforce them and, crucially, who would make the decisions to impose any restrictions. Would it be the council or does it have to be the Government? Therefore, can the noble Baroness either confirm that such discussions are already scheduled or reassure your Lordships’ House that Ministers will immediately initiate urgent discussions with the Local Government Association and local authorities to ensure that they have the powers and resources they need?

Yesterday, a group of the country’s leading health experts called for an urgent review to ensure that the UK is prepared for what they called the “real risk” of a second wave. In an open letter, the chair of the British Medical Association and the presidents of the Royal College of Surgeons, the Royal College of Nursing, the Royal College of Physicians and the Royal College of GPs urged Ministers to examine

“areas of weakness where action is needed urgently to prevent further loss of life”.

We all know the consequences of failing to prepare, plan and learn the right lessons. The Prime Minister has said that caution is his watchword. Can the Leader confirm that the Government are undertaking a preparedness review? If she does not have the details on that, I am happy for her to write to me.

We all know how important it is to get the economy moving again, and that is reflected in the Statement. We want to do so safely. Can the noble Baroness say something more about how the one metre-plus measures to protect staff and customers will be monitored and enforced? What resources are being made available to assist employers in providing such measures? What recourse to immediate action will employees have if they feel that their safety is at risk?

Finally, on getting back to school, my good friend Sam Parker, now aged eight, is very keen that his year 3 class gets back to school next month. I think that his parents would like that as well. On behalf of Sam and other children who are itching to get back to that more formal learning environment, can the noble Baroness say whether new guidelines will be issued to head teachers in England and when further information will be available?

Also, yesterday the Children’s Commissioner, Anne Longfield, said that she thought it was ridiculous that schools were opening after theme parks. She expressed concern that education had become a lower priority. Can the noble Baroness explain why theme parks have opened before schools?

Over the past few weeks and months we have become used to scientific and medical experts publicly talking about their advice to government and answering questions from the public and the press. That has been really important in maintaining public confidence. For the majority of us who are not experts but rely on them, it has been really helpful as we try to understand the judgments the Government are having to make. Any unlocking carries risks. We know that it has to be done in stages, with careful planning based on scientific evidence. Can the noble Baroness assure us that the package of measures announced is welcomed and supported by the Government’s own emergency advisers SAGE, as well as the CMO and the Chief Scientific Officer?

Finally, given that the daily press conferences for announcements and updates have been abandoned, I assume that we will return to the normal process of Statements to Parliament, such as this one, which I certainly welcome. Can the noble Baroness confirm that we will receive regular Statements on progress?

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My Lords, I thank the Leader of the House for answering questions on this Statement.

I welcome the broad thrust of the Government’s proposals because as the risks of catching Covid-19 have diminished, the economic and mental health costs being incurred by many people are increasing. At some point, the costs of remaining in lockdown were bound to be greater than those of lifting it, and that moment appears to have arrived.

As far as the detailed proposals are concerned, the Prime Minister says that they are based on the principle of,

“trust the British public to use their common sense.”

“Trust the people” is of course an old Liberal slogan, so I cannot but applaud that, but the problem about using one’s common sense is that there is no universally agreed view of what common sense constitutes in any particular circumstance. Everybody will disagree with the Government on what it means in specific instances now, and I will mention just two of my own. I do not understand why local cricket clubs cannot re-open when so many other sports are operating, and I do not know why cathedrals and large churches are not allowed any choral music at all, even though individual choristers could stand apart from each other and many metres away from the congregation. These are relatively small issues, but they matter a lot to those affected. What is the process for keeping such inconveniences under review? Will the Government look at further small steps that would seem to many to be an application of the common sense which the Prime Minister claims is the hallmark of his policy?

Going forward, the two bigger challenges are support for the economy and dealing with any new outbreaks. Today’s Statement is not primarily about the economy but it has major economic implications, not only for those working in sectors where the lockdown is effectively being removed, but also for those where it is not. My only plea to the Government is to be nuanced in any stimulus they give to the economy, and to concentrate on giving continued support to sectors that at present cannot begin to return to normal, such as the performing arts, where a failure to be generous now could lead to a long-term hollowing out of the sector.

There is also the issue facing those who are currently shielding, who will not be able to return to work safely at the end of July, because their workplace will not have adequate anti-Covid-19 measures in place, due to the intrinsic nature of the work. Working as a chef is one example. Will the Government extend the provision of statutory sick pay for such people? If not, how are they supposed to make ends meet?

The second big challenge is how to deal with any resurgence of the disease, which is likely to begin with localised outbreaks. In this respect it is instructive to look at what has happened in Germany. The recent outbreak at the Gütersloh meat processing factory saw 1,500 cases out of a workforce of 7,000. This led almost immediately to the lockdown, for a week, of a district of some 360,000 people, and the rapid deployment of some 100 mobile testing teams to identify further infection among the population as a whole. My concern is that a similar outbreak here would not be met with a similarly decisive response.

If such an outbreak happened in England, as the noble Baroness, Lady Smith, said, who would make the decision to lock down the equivalent of a London borough or a district council area? How quickly could such a decision be made? What capacity exists for large-scale local testing in such an area, and what contingency planning has already been undertaken by the Government to ensure that there is a decisive response?

At present, the “track, trace and isolate” policy is based on a national system of telephone callers who have no knowledge of local areas, no local credibility and therefore limited powers of persuasion. It is backed up by an app which, at best, will not be ready for months, and in any event is now not the most important thing that is going to happen but

“the cherry on top of the cake”.

Will the Government now refocus their “track and trace” efforts towards a more locally led approach, and will they change tack and commit to being open with people when significant new outbreaks occur in specific local settings—for example, in meat processing plants, as has happened in two or three cases in the UK already?

While loosening the lockdown and opening up more of the economy is welcome, it will only remain welcome while we avoid a generalised second wave of infections. This is perfectly possible with a rigorous, locally based “track, trace and isolate” system. At present, however, neither I nor anybody else believes that such a system is in place. Until it is, the Government run the risk of making the same hash of coming out of the pandemic as they did of going into it.

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I thank the noble Lord and the noble Baroness for their comments. Both rightly asked about the “test and trace” system. It has been important to learn as we have developed this new technology, which is why it has undergone testing on the Isle of Wight and in a series of field tests. This has uncovered some issues with the app, particularly the Google-Apple framework. We are now bringing together the app and the Google-Apple solution so that we can carry out contact tracing and make it easier to order tests and access advice and guidance on self-isolation.

On 18 June, the Secretary of State for Health and Social Care announced that NHSX has begun the next phase of development in building this app, and we will conduct a national rollout only when we are confident of having got it right. The noble Baroness is right that other countries have started to roll out apps, but they too—Singapore, for instance—have found very similar issues with the compatibility of this data. Germany has had 12.2 million downloads, but as we have said, you need about 60% of the population for this to be a fully functioning rollout, and downloads are not the same as rollout. I am not saying that there are no issues, but a lot of countries are grappling with this. We are making progress and will continue to do so.

The noble Lord and the noble Baroness rightly asked about local outbreaks, and the noble Lord referred to specific examples. I can confirm that there are ongoing discussions with local authorities. Each local area has its own local action committee and its own arrangements to choose how it wants to run its local outbreak plans. Decisions will be supported at a local level by the Joint Biosecurity Centre—which is also tracking data and will be involved—Public Health England and NHS Test and Trace. We have made £300 million available to local authorities to work with NHS Test and Trace in developing local outbreak control plans, which will identify and contain potential outbreaks in places such as workplaces, ensure that testing capacities are effectively deployed and help the most vulnerable in isolation. We are in discussions with local authorities about what enforcement powers are available and what more can be granted. As has always been the case, if multiple cases appear in a specific setting, a specialist team from the local authority or Public Health England will help to manage the outbreak. A lot of work from central and local government is ongoing throughout this pandemic, and it will continue.

The noble Baroness asked about the one-metre rule, particularly in respect of businesses. It is for each business to carry out its own risk assessment, in consultation with workers, to inform their actions and the mitigation steps they may take if they move to the one-metre-plus rule. The noble Lord and the noble Baroness will have seen that a significant amount of detailed guidance has been published since the Prime Minister’s Statement. Obviously, employers have a duty under the law to protect the health and safety of their employees, and if there are concerns about employers’ steps, employees should get in touch with their employee representative, union, local authority or the Health and Safety Executive. We have announced an additional £14 million for the Health and Safety Executive for extra call-centre staff, inspectors and equipment.

I hope that the noble Baroness can assure her eight-year-old friend, whose name I am afraid I have forgotten—

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Sam Parker.

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I hope that she can assure Sam Parker that we are committed to doing everything possible to allow children to go back to school safely. In the next couple of weeks, we will be publishing the guidance to help schools plan successfully for a full return in September.

The noble Lord, Lord Newby, asked about choral singing. I am afraid I hear that the science shows that there is an additional risk of infection when you or others are singing or speaking loudly, and this applies even if others are at a distance from you. This is something—I am trying to speak softly—that we will continue to look into. I share the noble Lord’s wish for cricket to return and will continue to apply whatever pressure I can. Yes, it is the ball, I believe.

The noble Lord also asked about orchestras. Sector-wide guidance for the performing arts returning to rehearsal and performance is something we are working on with the sector. It is a priority because we entirely understand the difficulties that the sector is facing.

The noble Lord asked about statutory sick pay. People will be eligible for statutory sick pay on the basis of their shielding status until 31 July.

Finally, the noble Baroness, Lady Smith, asked about the preparedness plan. We are constantly working to make sure that we are prepared for whatever turn of events we face. Obviously, we have learned a lot from where we have got to now. We continue to hope that we will continue to beat this virus, but we all need to abide by the guidelines and to play our part. We are absolutely committed to continuing to move in the right direction, and we believe we can do that.

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We now come to the 30 minutes allocated to Back-Bench questions. I ask that questions and answers are short so that I can call the maximum number of questioners.

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I thank the Leader of the House for taking questions on this Statement. Although testing of symptomatic individuals and tracing their contacts represents an important approach to controlling the spread of Covid-19 disease in the community as lockdown restrictions are lifted, there may be an alternative approach: mass population testing to identify both symptomatic and asymptomatic individuals carrying the SARS-CoV-2 virus in the community, with them being isolated if they test positive. Such a testing strategy would need to be delivered locally and to provide the results in real time to facilitate maximum workplace participation and consumer confidence. What assessment have Her Majesty’s Government made of the emergent technologies that could facilitate this population approach? What provision has been made for the necessary logistical arrangements that would need to be adopted to test the entire population on a repeated and regular basis?

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The noble Lord obviously knows a lot about this area. He is right that a series of strategies will need to be used for us to continue to make progress in combating this virus. The Department of Health is looking at an array of issues with SAGE and the medical advisers, so work is ongoing in the area that he suggested, as well as in developing track and trace, because we are going to need all these different strands to come together to beat this virus and make sure that all areas are able to clamp down if we start to see a sudden resurgence in any area. I am sure we all want to avoid going into a national lockdown again if the virus were to start to reappear.

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Lord McColl of Dulwich. No? We will move on. Lord Dubs.

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My Lords, I put it to the Leader of the House that public confidence is not of a high order as regards the Government’s handling. The Minister has said on a number of occasions that discussions are ongoing. What specific plans are available in the event of a second wave on a local level? What would the Government do, as opposed to having ongoing discussions with local authorities? It is all too vague. We need a clear statement of policy about what will trigger local action, which the Government have said they want to support.

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I hoped that I had set out some of that detail in my answer to the noble Baroness, Lady Smith. Each local area will have a local action committee to manage its outbreaks, and discussions at a local level will be supported by the joint work of the joint biosecurity centre, Public Health England and NHS Test and Trace. We have already seen a successful lockdown in Weston-super-Mare, so we are starting to see these situations being taken under control and dealt with at a very local level.

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My Lords, the Leader referred to guidance for theatres and orchestras pending a move back to live theatre. What practical assistance are the Government able to give to the performing arts pending reopening to ensure that the sector remains vibrant post lockdown?

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Ministers in the department recently met leaders in this sector to discuss the impact and how guidance could be developed to ensure that the sector can reopen. It will be consulted on guidelines. There is another round table with the sector next week to discuss that. Obviously, this is an incredibly important sector and we are looking to continue support, but the sector has benefited from the job retention scheme and the self-employment support scheme, as well as from the £160 million Arts Council England emergency funding. We are in ongoing discussions. Of course, we want this sector to open up as quickly as possible, but in a way that ensures that audiences and performers are safe in the environment.

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My Lords, I am grateful to the Government for the easing of social distancing from two metres to one metre. This will save thousands of jobs and businesses. Can the Leader of the House assure us that businesses will have access to widespread testing to test their employees on a regular basis to get confidence? We can see from the Premier League how well regular testing is being proven to work. On that basis, surely cricket can also start with regular testing. Football is a contact sport, and it is working safely. Surely it can work for cricket. Although the Statement allows pubs and restaurants to commence, there are lots of caterers, such as events caterers and wedding caterers, who cannot operate. Their businesses have been destroyed. There are 1 million individuals not covered by the Chancellor’s excellent initiatives for business. What will the Government do to help all these individuals and businesses?

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I am sure that, like me, the noble Lord has seen pictures of the England cricket team being tested this morning as they went into their bubble in advance of their series against the West Indies. That is happening and it is a small step in the right direction. The noble Lord will know that testing capacity has increased to over 200,000 tests a day and that around 8 million tests have been delivered through our testing programme, so nationwide testing is moving in the right direction. That will be critical as we start to unlock the economy further. The noble Lord is right that a series of schemes have been in place during the lockdown. The Chancellor will be making further Statements in this area in the next couple of weeks.

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I, too, have some sympathy with the view of the noble Lord, Lord Newby, on cricket. There is no doubt that the return of first-class sport on TV is important for morale around the country. I noted that in the debate on the Statement in the other place, the honourable Member for Dartford called on the people of Britain

“to do their patriotic best … and go to the pub”.—[Official Report, Commons, 22/6/20; col. 1176.]

There is indeed timely and welcome news for restaurants and pubs in this Statement, but does my noble friend agree that, while acknowledging that there has never been a textbook to follow, the Government should be commended for their efforts to protect people’s livelihoods via the job retention scheme and other measures?

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I thank my noble friend. While I entirely agree with him about professional sport returning, as Norwich City fan the return of the Premier League has not been a happy experience so far, but let us hope a corner has been turned. My noble friend is right. It is great news. It is welcome that parts of the economy that we want to see unlocked are doing so. Of course, 1.1 million employers have used the job retention scheme, which has protected 9.2 million jobs. That has been an extremely important help. From the start of August workers will be able to return to work part-time, and as we slowly unlock the economy and open up key elements of hospitality and other sectors, we want to see that people can start to get to back to their working life and people can enjoy the services that they provide.

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My Lords, I count about eight major changes in the Statement, all of which are worth while. However, they all take place on the same date, so how will the Government monitor the effect of each on the virus situation? As an aside, will the Leader of the House be kind enough to answer one of the questions from my honourable friend on the Front Bench in the Commons, Peter Kyle? What happens when people order drinks at beach bars, in terms of giving information? It was quite a legitimate question, bearing in mind the weather and what is going to happen.

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I welcome the noble Lord back; it is good to see him on the screen. In relation to bars, one of the key things is that we urge everyone buying drinks to abide by the guidance and to stick to either two metres or one metre-plus. That is how we can start to make sure that, when hospitality opens, everyone remains safe. There are obviously other mitigating factors around sanitisation, hand washing and being sensible—there are all those issues. We will be asking businesses to provide details of customers if possible, but it probably will not be in all circumstances—for instance, in the example he cited.

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My Lords, the Statement says that the Government will work with the arts industry on specific guidance to enable choirs, orchestras and theatres to resume live performances as soon as possible. That is helpful but it is urgent financially. Seventy per cent of the UK’s theatre venues, for example, could be bankrupt by the end of the year because the one-metre rule means that only a quarter of seats can be sold. What financial help are the Government planning, given that theatres receive £1.3 billion from ticket sales a year?

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As I said, we are working extremely closely with the performing arts sector because we are well aware of the issues it faces. The noble Lord will know that we have set up the Cultural Renewal Taskforce, an entertainments and events working group, with extensive membership from across the artistic and creative sectors, to work with us to make sure that we can reopen these venues when it is safe to do so. As I mentioned, a further round table is being held next week to discuss guidance and innovative ideas on how we may permit live performances again. I mentioned in response to an earlier question that the sector has been helped financially in a number of ways, including the £160 million Arts Council England emergency funding. The Secretary of State is continuing discussions with the sector and I am sure they are discussing these very issues.

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My Lords, I have two points. Incidents in Gütersloh, China and various other places have demonstrated that the virus can spread in meat markets and open markets. Have the Government initiated any scientific investigation of the need for extra measures around abattoirs?

My second question regards local lockdowns. I am still not clear who decides to impose a lockdown. Who is the responsible officer who can say, “Right, this is an outbreak, we need a lockdown”, and then call people together? Crucially, there has to be one person who can make the decision. Who is it?

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As I have said, each local area has a local action committee, which will be working with a number of different organisations. That is where decisions will be made at a local level. If, for instance, in Weston-super-Mare, the issue was around a specific hospital, the hospital would close. To a degree, it will also depend on exactly where the outbreak has happened. Central and local information will be used so that we can act very quickly. The NHS Test and Trace system and the joint biosecurity centre will play an important role in helping feed through data on local outbreaks.

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My Lords, as has been mentioned, classical musicians, orchestras, freelance players and venues have been particularly hard hit by the virus because they fall between the pillars of support that the Chancellor has erected. The Secretary of State, as the noble Baroness said, has made very welcome promises and has met leaders of these various institutions but what orchestras need this minute—before they go bust—is financial help. When might these good wishes be translated into a date and actual figures?

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I am afraid I have provided all the information I can in terms of the fact that discussions are ongoing. There are further meetings next week. Support has been provided already. The department is very cognisant of the issues facing theatres, orchestras and others, and we will do everything we can to ensure that orchestras, for instance, can start rehearsing again and venues can open. It is an unfortunate fact that there are unique challenges, but we are doing everything we can. Orchestras and the theatre play a huge and important role in our culture and we want them back.

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My noble friend will be aware that the Government and the regional Governments all say that they are taking decisions based on the science. How, therefore, is it that different decisions are being taken and at different times? Can the Minister also tell the House whether the science is being shared between HMG and the devolved regions and vice versa?

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I assure the noble Lord that the Chief Medical Officers share data and work together. All four nations have downgraded the UK’s Covid alert level from four to three, which means that we no longer face the virus spreading exponentially, although it remains in general circulation. It is right for the Administrations in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland to have responsibility for their own lockdown restrictions. I am sure the noble Lord will see that the direction of travel is extremely similar and that we are all working closely together.

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My Lords, the Minister is probably not aware that today is the International Day of the Seafarer, recognising the efforts of 1.8 million seafarers—of many nations, manning 96,000 ships that carry 80% of world trade, valued at $7 trillion—who ensure that the global economy continues to function. Yet that very trade is in crisis because of the impact of the Wuhan virus restrictions on Merchant Navy crews. Because of the virus, more than 400,000 sailors are stranded by travel restrictions that bar crew from disembarking to return to their home country or from travelling to a port where their ship is waiting for a crew change. Many seafarers have had to remain at sea for over 15 months and ships are beginning to refuse to sail. Will the United Kingdom take the lead in getting other nations to designate seafarers as key workers who can travel without restrictions when leaving or joining a vessel, creating safe areas in airports for their transit and accepting official maritime documents as proof of identity? The global economy and the financial recovery post pandemic are totally reliant on maritime trade, yet that trade is at present collapsing. A global economic disaster is looming unless nations take some certain action. The UK, as a great maritime nation with world shipping run from London, should take the lead.

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It certainly feels like a bit of normality has returned with the noble Lord managing to discuss these issues in the Chamber. That is good to hear. I will certainly take back his comments to the relevant departments. I am sure a lot of work is ongoing, but he makes some very good points and I will make sure that they are raised with the relevant Ministers.

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The Government’s figures, which may be as uncertain and unreliable as scientific opinion on this matter, say that five children under the age of 18 have died from this ghastly virus and that the death rate in the population is fewer than one in 1,500, which my maths makes less than 0.065 of the population. Yet we seem to have suspended our normal critical faculties. Of course there is risk—great risk to the elderly, the infirm and those with underlying health conditions, who should shield themselves. Otherwise, we should lift all restrictions and take sensible precautions. We should send the schools back now. Can my noble friend the Leader of the House go back to the Cabinet and say—it is not just my opinion—that many people believe that we should take such action. Thereby, we might salvage something of this country’s future and our children’s future.

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As I said, we are committed to doing everything possible to allow children to go back to school safely and to support their well-being and education, and we are working with schools to make sure that that can happen. We are very well aware of the disadvantage that many schoolchildren have faced over the last few months. That is why we have announced £650 million—to be shared across state primary and secondary schools over the 2020-21 academic year—for head teachers to spend on evidence-based interventions for those children who have missed out. In addition, we have put a further £350 million into a national tutoring programme to increase access to tuition for the most disadvantaged children. My noble friend is absolutely right: we need to make sure that children are not disadvantaged by the lockdown, and that is why we want to get them back into schools as quickly as possible.

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My Lords, as a former chair of the National Housing Federation and as someone still working with that sector, I am acutely conscious that many planned improvement works on people’s homes—not least the fire safety efforts in high-rise buildings—are currently on hold because there is no clarity about contractors going into people’s homes to do the necessary work, although they can do so in emergencies. I am talking about electricians and plumbers, and this applies not just to affordable homes but across the country. There is no clarity for a huge number of people who work on improving people’s homes, often carrying out necessary interventions and, indeed, tackling sustainability. As I said, we are all very conscious of the fire safety issues. Can the Minister give some clarity about whether these contractors are now able to engage in that work in people’s homes, while of course exercising due caution, carrying out cleaning and maintaining a distance? After all, they are identifiable through track and trace if need be.

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The noble Lord is absolutely right. As we take another step in moving from the two-metre to the one-metre-plus rule, that will help to ensure that some who have not been able to work are now able to do so. A huge amount of guidance is available, including for the construction industry. While travelling to the House, you can see that construction is picking up and that a lot more of this work is ongoing. I hope that, as we move towards unlocking and allow more people back to work, and as we move away from the two-metre rule, those things will help to ensure that more of that kind of work can begin again.

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My Lords, do the Government accept that, to avoid public misunderstanding and mistrust of their key statements about Covid-19, be they made in Parliament, No. 10 or elsewhere, they need to take much greater care to clarify more frequently whether any of the rules and guidance given by the national Government apply to the whole of the United Kingdom or only to England?

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I did not repeat the Statement but it makes it clear that the measures that have been announced relate to England. Obviously, the devolved Administrations are responsible for their own lockdown restrictions. Therefore, yes, these are measures for England.

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Does the noble Baroness agree that a key factor in avoiding the risk of a second wave is the capacity to introduce effective local lockdowns with effective tracking and tracing? Does she also agree that local authorities have a key role to play in this? However, how can they possibly meet these responsibilities unless they have the financial resources to tackle them? When so many face the possibility of bankruptcy, how will the Government overcome this problem?

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The noble Lord is absolutely right: local authorities have a key role to play. That is why we have made £3.2 billion of funding available to support them in delivering essential services. This funding was paid as an non-ring-fenced amount, so that they could decide how best to spend it. We have also helped to ease the immediate pressures that councils have faced by bringing forward payments of social care grants totalling £850 million and allowing councils to defer £2.6 billion in business rates payments to central government. In total, we have committed over £27 billion to local areas to support councils and their communities and to help them in their vital work.

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My Lords, in the light of the disgraceful scenes in south London last night, in which a number of police officers were injured, what additional planning have the Government put in place to support the police in view of the approach of a possibly long, hot summer and a greater consumption of alcohol from 4 July?

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The noble Lord is absolutely right about the scenes that we saw. However, I stress that the vast majority of our citizens have abided by the guidelines and behaved respectfully. It is thanks to their sacrifice and everything that they have done that we are now in a position to gradually unlock the present situation. The Home Secretary is having ongoing discussions with the police about the pressures that they face, and those will continue. The police deserve our thanks for all their work.

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My Lords, a number of noble Lords, including three of my Liberal Democrat colleagues, have raised the crisis facing performing arts organisations. It seems that the Government’s answer to this is simply that they are aware of the problem and that talks are going on. Does the noble Baroness not accept that the time for talking is probably now over? Furthermore, is she not aware of the letter in yesterday’s Times from over 60 leaders of arts organisations saying that, without “immediate and substantial” financial support, theatres and performing arts companies will close and tens of thousands of artistic careers will be cut short?

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I do not accept that it has all just been talk. It is extremely important to bring performers in theatres, choirs and orchestras together with medical experts and advisers to discuss ways in which the sector can open safely. That is how we will get through this difficult situation, and we will develop guidelines that can be implemented to allow these settings to open. As I said, that work is ongoing. The group that has been brought together will focus on piloting innovative ways in which live performances might be permitted in the light of the scientific and medical advice that is being given.

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My Lords, care home residents and people detained in secure settings were not mentioned in the Statement, but the mental health of all of them and their families benefits from regular social contact, both virtually and in person. That might be resource intensive but what attention is being given to the needs of these groups of people?

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I assure the noble Baroness that they are at the forefront of our mind. Attention is being given to them and further work is ongoing. One thing that I have not mentioned so far is that from 1 August shielding will be paused. Therefore, people who have had the most intense experience during the lockdown will be able to start having social contact again, which we know is incredibly important, and I am sure that they are looking forward to that. From 6 July, those shielding will be able to spend time outdoors in a group of up to six people, including people from outside their household. Of course, support will also continue from the fantastic NHS volunteers, who have done so much to provide some contact for particularly vulnerable people who might not have relatives or family with whom they have been able to have contact.

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My Lords, I draw attention to my interests as entered in the register. This is a health crisis and, for millions of people in this country, visiting a gym or going to a swimming pool is an essential part of their health regime. Can my noble friend now reiterate the Culture Secretary’s aspiration that gyms and leisure facilities will be reopened by mid-July?

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I am happy to reiterate that, subject to public health advice, it is indeed our aspiration to reopen gyms and leisure facilities by mid-July.

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My Lords, in answer to the noble Lord, Lord Balfe, the noble Baroness referred to using local action committees as the way in which local lockdowns will be achieved. I refer to my interest in the register with the Local Government Association and to the words of Ian Hudspeth, who speaks for it on health matters. He and other local authorities have been begging for information on getting direct, real-time data about diagnoses of Covid-19, so that they can see and manage what is happening in their local areas. Can she say when or if that real-time information, down to the detail of at least street and postcode or small local areas, will be given to local authorities and those local action committees?

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What I can say is that we have made £300 million available to local authorities to work with test and trace to develop the local outbreak control plans. Those plans will identify and contain potential outbreaks in places such as workplaces, ensure that testing capacity is effectively deployed, and help the most vulnerable in self-isolation.

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My Lords, I welcome the Prime Minister’s reference to live performance, but it is just one element of the UK’s cultural ecology. I have seen very little over recent weeks to give me confidence that the Government fully understand the interdependences between buildings and people, and the roles of freelancers, diverse and disabled artists, community organisations and SMEs. Every day, we are seeing examples of arts organisations brought to their knees, and we risk decimation of one of our nation’s most significant social, cultural and economic assets. When will we see action to make good on the Secretary of State’s commitment on 8 June that he will not see our world-leading arts and culture destroyed?

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Well, I have already set out the significant financial help that has been provided for the sector and mentioned that we have a cultural renewal task force, with an entertainment and events working group, which includes extensive membership from across the artistic and creative industries sector and is working with the Government to ensure that we can provide Covid-secure guidelines, building, where relevant, on existing guidance, as well as providing intelligent and sector-specific expert input. The department is working closely with the sector to make sure that we can open it as safely and quickly as possible, and to provide it with the support that it needs.

Sitting suspended.