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Covid-19: Infection Rate

Volume 804: debated on Monday 6 July 2020


Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what assessment they have made of the likelihood of an increase in COVID-19 infections as a result of lifting the restrictions in place to address the pandemic.

My Lords, tremendous sacrifices have been made by so many people to get the virus under control. The Government continue to be guided by the science and are easing restrictions in a cautious, phased way that protects lives and the NHS. We are closely monitoring the infection rate and are easing restrictions only when it is safe to do so.

I thank the noble Lord for his Answer, but I consider it absolutely inadequate. In the UK, during the epidemic, we have had more than 60,000 deaths, with 20,000 of those in care homes, leading to endless grief; we have had a failed test, track and isolate programme; we have had PPE failures; and we have had no real-time information to allow local councils to deal with cases properly. Today, the Government are now blaming the public for ignoring their confusing messages on easing the lockdown. Mistakes have been made, and that has cost lives. Is it not time that the Government admit their world-class, world-leading incompetence in running the country?

My Lords, that is a little wide of the original Question, which was about our view of the likelihood of increased infections as a result of lifting restrictions. If I were to write the history of this event, I would not write it in the lurid terms of the noble Baroness. I assure her that, at every stage, the Government and their advisers consider the best advice and take what they believe to be the right action at the right time.

My Lords, given the incidence of outbreaks of this virus in meat-processing plants and abattoirs in a number of countries, including our own, and the fact that many workers at such plants are often poorly paid and belong to ethnic minority communities, and frequently live in accommodation in multiple occupancy, what advice are Her Majesty’s Government giving to the managers of such plants to mitigate the spread of the virus?

My Lords, I regret that I am not apprised of specific advice in relation to abattoirs, but I will certainly undertake to get that information to the right reverend Prelate. However, I can assure him and the House that the Government take seriously the safety of all workers—including the incredible number who have worked throughout the virus epidemic—at all times, and in particular BAME workers.

My Lords, I can see that, like me, my noble friend the Minister was the immensely grateful recipient of a much needed hair appointment over the weekend. Will he join me in thanking all those involved in the hairdressing industry, as well as those in our pubs and restaurants, for working so hard to make sure that clients and customers feel safe in this new world of eased lockdown restrictions? The work that has gone into preparing these new Covid-safe environments has been well thought through, and it is now for us—the consumer—to support these businesses and act responsibly, playing our part by ensuring that we keep to the guidelines and avoid any chance of spreading the virus.

I strongly agree with my noble friend and reiterate what I just said about paying tribute to all workers, and to businesses which have been patient through this difficult time and have now made arrangements to reopen—it is very good to see those businesses reopening. I am glad that, after 35 years of loyal custom, I was allowed to have a hair-cut on Saturday.

My Lords, the noble Lord is well known and respected for his own respect for Parliament. Will he therefore please ask his noble friends to fully answer the topical Written Question which I tabled on 28 April, about the decision taken, when Covid restrictions were already in place in Spain, to permit on 11 March a football match between Liverpool and Atlético Madrid? Can he say what lessons we have learned about the imposition and lifting of restrictions from what then followed?

My Lords, I will look into this specific matter. I am aware of the event the noble Lord refers to. He will also be aware that, at the time, the advice on large-scale events was not necessarily what it is today. I will certainly undertake to pursue the matter and will ensure that there is a response to Parliament.

My Lords, could early street-level data sharing with local directors of public health be the way forward for local lockdowns in the event of future spikes in infection? Will the Minister say why that did not happen in time in Leicester, and why pillar 2 testing data is muddled and full of duplications?

My Lords, the role of local councils is extremely important—noble Lords will not be surprised to hear me say that, given that I gave half a lifetime to local councils. We are ensuring that all local and public health bodies have the data that they need to support their plans for potential outbreaks. Since 11 June, an operational data dashboard was made available for all local authorities, to give them a clear picture in their local area. This includes counts of total tests and total positives, and a rolling average for pillar 2.

My Lords, will the Minister say what publicly available epidemiological criteria the Government are using to decide on area-based local lockdowns and when to lift them?

My Lords, as the noble Lord knows, the Government have published a great deal of information, including from SAGE meetings. We will continue to be as transparent as possible. Clearly, on the policy on local lockdowns, we have seen this in Leicester. We will be vigilant and try to provide the maximum amount of information about reasons.

My noble friend will know that lifting restrictions cannot and will not apply to everyone. The list of vulnerabilities has increased since March as we have learned more about how this virus affects the body. Will my noble friend make sure that, as things ease up, as I hope they will, this particular group of people is not forgotten when policy, support and guidance are given? They will need to shelter for a very long time.

My noble friend makes an extremely important point. Although we are obviously relaxing restrictions for people who are shielding—indeed, from today—she refers to people who will continue to be extraordinarily vulnerable. The Government are well aware of that and very concerned for the welfare of such people.

Those encouraged to emerge from shielding fear that they are now at increased risk as observation of social distancing by others decreases. Do the Government recognise that the symbol prompting people to respect social distancing everywhere, developed through the Bevan Commission and endorsed by NHS Wales and the First Minister, is very widely welcomed by those currently shielding and those close to them, and now needs to be adopted across the whole of the UK?

My Lords, respect for others will be absolutely fundamental, as it always is, particularly to the interests of people who are shielding. I join the noble Baroness in urging everybody in this country to observe the continuing social distancing guidance.

We learned today from the BBC that people tested for the virus in England were not asked to provide addresses during the height of the pandemic. Indeed, they were asked to provide postcodes only from 23 April. Even after that, it took until 24 June for Public Health England to share this data with local councils. Could the Government guarantee that local authorities will have the data, power and resources to move speedily to identify those at risk of either having or spreading the virus?

My Lords, current guidelines certainly include the requirement to give contact details. I note the noble Baroness’s point, but I repeat that the role of local authorities is fundamental. We have given them a great deal more money, which was recently announced to be £500 million, I believe.

My Lords, does my noble friend agree that security is being jeopardised by those who totally flout the rule about social distancing? Does he not think that the time has come when those who congregate in great numbers, very often imbibing large amounts, are given real deterrent fines? That way we might achieve common sense throughout.

My Lords, I very much welcome seeing my noble friend here today. People should behave responsibly. The Government have been very clear that some of these large gatherings were undesirable and unacceptable. I repeat the point I made about social distancing, but I also say that over the weekend, when there were many dire predictions, the overwhelming majority of people in this country behaved with the common sense, dignity and decency I always expect from my fellow countrymen and women.

Sitting suspended.