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Covid-19: Local Restrictions

Volume 805: debated on Thursday 3 September 2020


Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what plans they have to publish the scientific advice which informs decisions to lift restrictions put in place to address Covid-19 in specific local areas.

My Lords, data is the key scientific commodity in our fight against Covid. We started with very little; now we have lots, and we are sharing it with our local partners as quickly as the legal, technical and privacy constraints allow. This shared intelligence informs collaborative decisions on local restrictions.

I thank the Minister. On the ministerial Zoom, I witnessed the Conservative MP for Shipley having what looked like a hissy fit when the Bradford lockdown was announced. Despite recommendations to the contrary from the leader of the council and local public health officials, a month later Shipley has been lifted out of lockdown when other parts of Bradford still in lockdown have lower infection rates. On Friday, the Health Secretary announced that restrictions in Bolton and Trafford would be eased on Wednesday, despite leaving Labour constituencies with lower infection rates in lockdown. It seems that the Government were again lobbied by local Conservative MPs to lift restrictions. However, yesterday, the Health Secretary, with what might be called a skidding U-turn, announced that current restrictions would remain following a significant increase in infection. Will the Minister commit to publishing the scientific evidence behind decisions to impose, maintain and lift lockdown restrictions? Would it be better if discussions with local MPs were on the record? Does he agree that political neutrality and transparency are essential to securing public trust and support for measures locally to prevent a national lockdown?

My Lords, I entirely agree with the noble Baroness that local support, trust and collaboration between actors from all political parties are essential to fighting Covid effectively. I pay tribute to the very large number of dialogues and collaborative interventions we have had across the country with local actors from all political parties. Yes, local lockdown decisions are not always popular. They are tough choices and elected representatives find them difficult, but we have found that politics does not play a part in those decisions and we stick to that.

My Lords, it seems to have been decided that areas of low infection do not need the same degree of access to testing as the known hotspots. Indeed, there are accounts of people in London being directed to Wales because there is not sufficient testing capacity. Is this not exactly the way in which to miss the next hotspots and possibly the trigger of a national spike? Is it not another stable door that is left open? On what scientific evidence was this decision made and will it be published?

My Lords, the noble Baroness is right that testing capacity is naturally prioritised to those areas with a major outbreak and that, when supply is constrained, some of the recommendations for travelling, particularly later in the day and in the afternoon, can involve long distances. Our objective is to put in place massive testing capacity right across the country in all areas, whether high or low in infection prevalence. That is our ambition.

My noble friend will be aware that regulations differ in each of the home nations and within those home nations. In addition to publishing scientific advice, is he prepared to ensure that there is a single point where persons travelling within or visiting the United Kingdom can go to get the latest restrictions in each particular area so that they are properly informed of what the position is geographically?

My Lords, I have before me a large list of eight or nine public portals where exactly that information can be received. I will lodge links to those portals in the Library and on my Twitter feed.

My Lords, there is a marked polarisation in the country, particularly evident in attitudes towards and poor rates of return to work. Many would agree that this is not about where people can work most effectively but about unnecessary fear, given what the science says about transmission. What are the Government doing to reduce the level of polarisation in the country?

My Lords, we are working extremely hard to create confidence in the Test and Trace system and in the effectiveness of our two-tier system of hands, face and space combined with Test and Trace. We are appealing to the country to take necessary precautions but within those precautions to go about everyday life.

My Lords, in the pandemic, I fear that some sectors of the public are losing confidence in politicians. Scientists, on the other hand, are seen as independent and trusted. Surely, advice for politicians from scientists should be published in the interests of openness and transparency. Does the Minister agree?

I completely agree with the noble Baroness. The collapse in confidence in politicians is nothing new, I am afraid. I can only pay tribute to British scientists, who have been extraordinary in terms not only of the integrity of their work but its pioneering nature. In many fields, Britain has led the world in the innovative and brave science that we have pioneered.

My Lords, lockdowns have seen victims of domestic violence trapped at home with no escape, and underfunded and understaffed support services struggling to provide the necessary help and assistance. In the United Kingdom, support for domestic abuse survivors is often patchwork, with the availability of emergency shelters varying wildly. Can the Minister therefore say what consideration is given in the Government’s scientific advice to the impact of local lockdowns on victims of domestic violence? What measures have the Government taken to provide additional support for services for domestic abuse survivors in the areas subject to local restrictions?

The noble Baroness is entirely right that the impact of local lockdowns is far reaching. The impact is not only on families where there is domestic abuse but on children, those who are shielded, the elderly and so forth. The responsibility for caring for those vulnerable groups is with the local authorities. Central government has provided additional funding to support those interventions by local authorities; it is up to local actors to make those interventions, and we are grateful for their work.

My Lords, finally the Government are investing in preparations for widespread home testing, producing results within minutes. What priorities does the Government’s scientific advice recommend for that mass testing? Do they include avoiding local lockdowns, enabling the former shielded parents of schoolchildren to test their children daily on return from school to protect the parent, and solving the nursing-home visitor problem?

My Lords, I cannot help but feel that it is not a case of “finally”. This Government could not have worked harder to push for home testing, and we are extremely grateful for the innovations in business and government that have made home testing possible and effective. When home testing is deployable on a mass scale, we will work on a prioritisation of how best to use it. But the noble Baroness is entirely right; the kinds of use cases that she articulated are the ones that we have in mind.

Could I press the Minister on the specific Question asked by the noble Baroness, Lady Thornton? The council leader of Trafford has blasted the chaotic way in which the Government have handled local lockdowns, where application and lifting of restrictions has yo-yoed sometimes daily and sometimes hourly, with inadequate consultation with local leaders. It is impossible for councils and local people to plan life on that basis, and it continues to erode trust in the Government. When will the Minister guarantee the publication of clear thresholds and criteria, backed up by published science, on which local lockdowns and their liftings will be based in future? Will he give us a date for that?

I apologise to the noble Baroness for disrupting the lives of local officials, but this disease is completely unpredictable. It is prevalent where we least expect it and it travels long distances very quickly. It is a fact of life—one that local authorities will have to get used to—that we cannot always predict where it is going to pop up and that fighting this epidemic is going to require fast action, which is why we have brought about the kinds of regulations that we will debate in this Chamber later this afternoon.

Sitting suspended.