The following Statement was made in the House of Commons on Thursday 10 September.
“With permission, I would like to make a further Statement on coronavirus. We have done much as a nation to get this virus under control, so we have been able to restore so much. To give just one example, figures today show that radiotherapy services in England have now returned to pre-pandemic levels. This is good news and will save lives. But, as I said to the House on Tuesday, we are seeing some concerning trends, including an increase in the number of positive cases, especially, but not only, among younger people. As the Chief Medical Officer said yesterday, we must learn from the recent experience of countries such as Belgium that have successfully put in place measures to combat a similar rise in infections. So today I would like to update the House on a number of new measures that will help us to get this virus under control and to make the rules clearer, simpler and more enforceable.
First, we are putting in place new rules on social contact. We have listened to feedback from the public and the police, and we are simplifying and strengthening the rules, making them easier to understand and easier to enforce. In England, from Monday, we are introducing the rule of six. Nobody should meet socially in groups of more than six and, if they do, they will be breaking the law. This will apply in any setting—indoors or outdoors, at home or in the pub. It replaces both the existing ban on gatherings of more than 30 and the current guidance on allowing two households to meet indoors.
There will be some exemptions. For example, if a single household or support bubble is larger than six, they can still gather. Places of education and work are unaffected. Covid-secure weddings, wedding receptions and funerals can go ahead up to a limit of 30 people. Organised sport and exercise is exempt.
These are not measures that we take lightly. I understand that for many they will mean changing long-awaited plans or missing out on precious moments with loved ones, but this sacrifice is vital to control the virus for the long term and save lives, and I vow that we will not keep these rules in place for any longer than we have to.
Secondly, we are putting in place stronger enforcement. Hospitality venues will be legally required to request the contact details of every party. They will have to record and retain those details for 21 days and provide them to NHS Test and Trace without delay when required. This system is working well voluntarily, with minimal friction, and it is very effective, but it is not in place in all venues. It is only fair that it is followed by all. We are supporting local authorities to make greater use of their powers to close venues that are breaking rules and pose a risk to public health, and fines will be levied against hospitality venues that fail to ensure their premises are Covid-secure.
Our goal, as much as possible, is to protect keeping schools and businesses open, while controlling the virus. The data shows that, while the cases among 17 to 30 year-olds are rising, the number of cases among under-16s remains very low. We all know how important it is to keep schools open. As the chief medical officers have said, the long-term risks to children’s life chances of not going to school are significant and far greater than the health risks of going back to school. The latest data confirms that.
University students will soon be returning. The Department for Education has published the updated guidance for universities on how they can operate in a Covid-secure way. That includes a clear request not to send students home in the event of an outbreak, to avoid spreading the virus further across the country. If you are a student who is about to return to university or go to university for the first time, please, for the sake of your education and your parents’ and grandparents’ health, follow the rules and do not gather in groups of more than six.
Our ability to test and trace on a large scale is fundamental to controlling the virus, as we have discussed in the House many times. The latest data shows that we are doing more testing per head than other European countries such as Germany and Spain, and we have record capacity. We have increased capacity by more than 10,000 tests a day over the last fortnight. While there have been challenges in access to tests, the vast majority of people get their tests rapidly and close to home. The average distance travelled to a test site is 6.4 miles, and 90% of people who book a test travel 22 miles or less. We already have more than 400 testing sites in operation. We added 19 last week and plan 17 more this week.
However, as capacity has increased, we have seen an even faster rise in demand, including a significant increase from people who do not have symptoms and are not eligible for a test. That takes tests away from people who need them. If you have symptoms of coronavirus or are asked by a clinician or local authority to get a test, please apply, but if you do not have symptoms and have not been asked, you are not eligible for a test.
At the same time, we are developing new types of tests that are simple, quick and scalable. They use swabs or saliva and can be turned round in 90 minutes or even 20 minutes. So-called Operation Moonshot, to deploy mass testing, will allow people to lead more normal lives and reduce the need for social distancing. For instance, it could mean that theatres and sports venues could test audience members on the day and let in those with a negative result; workplaces could be opened up to all those who test negative that morning; and anyone isolating because they are a contact or quarantining after travelling abroad could be tested and released. We are piloting that approach right now and verifying the new technology, and then it can be rolled out nationwide.
I am looking forward to rolling out this programme and this work, which has been under way for some time already, and I am determined that we will get there. If everything comes together, and if the technology comes off, it will be possible, even for challenging sectors, such as theatres, to get closer to normal before Christmas.
Finally, the most important thing that each and every one of us can do is remember the small things that can make a big difference: ‘hands, face, space’, and if you have symptoms, get a test. Hands: wash your hands regularly and for 20 seconds; face: wear a face covering over your mouth and nose if you are in an enclosed space and in close contact with people you do not normally meet; space: always stay two metres away from people you do not live with, or one metre with extra precautions, such as extra ventilation, screens or face coverings. And of course, if you have Covid symptoms, get a test and self-isolate.
Coronavirus is a powerful adversary and, when called upon, the British people have done so much to blunt the force of this invisible killer. Now, at this important juncture, we are being called upon once more to deliver our collective commitment to follow the rules and get this virus under control. I commend this Statement to the House.”
My Lords, I thank the Minister for taking the Statement this afternoon. It was taken in the Commons on Thursday and enacted at one minute after midnight today. The order was laid about an hour ago, but I am not sure when we will be discussing it. Noble Lords might have noticed that we are not short of Covid-19 orders to discuss in the next two weeks. Perhaps the Minister can tell us when we might be discussing this one.
We are at a dangerous moment in the life of this horrible virus—one where we are being advised by SAGE that we need to bring down the rate of infection, which has increased alarmingly in the last week or so. Last week I asked the Minister about the R rate. I think we all understand that this has now gone up and might be as high as 1.7. Has a tipping point been reached?
Today, I want to ask about the alert level. Can the Minister confirm what assessment the Joint Biosecurity Centre has made of the risk? Have we moved to level 4? The Government have tightened restrictions on meeting in groups after a surge in infections prompted by these concerns, and we on these Benches absolutely support that. From today, it will be illegal for people in England to gather in groups of more than six.
It is the first time that the Prime Minister has imposed a nationwide lockdown measure since restrictions began to be eased in May. At a press briefing, he admitted that over time the rules “have become quite complicated and confusing”. Announcing the rule of six, he said, “We are responding, and we are simplifying and strengthening the rules, making them easier for everyone to understand.” Well, that remains to be seen.
The Chief Medical Officer has said that the number of cases has been increasing more rapidly. On 9 September, he said that, while the numbers among older people and children remained “flat”, in other age groups there were “rapid upticks”. Professor Sir Mark Walport, a member of the Government’s scientific advisory group, told BBC Radio 4’s “Today” programme that one might have to say that we are “on the edge of losing control”. He said that data suggested that, without action, Britain would be on a path “extremely similar” to that of France, where the numbers continue to rise.
Can the Minister advise the House how the Government arrived at the rule of six? Why not eight? Why not four? The Justice Secretary, Robert Buckland, said that another nationwide lockdown remains a “nuclear option”. Can the Minister outline what additional national restrictions the Government are considering to prevent a return to a full national lockdown? I have a few questions on this.
The Government say that they will “boost the local enforcement capacity of local authorities by introducing Covid-secure marshals to help ensure social distancing in town and city centres, and by setting up a register of environmental health officers that local authorities can draw upon for support.” If the new restrictions are dependent on Covid-secure marshals employed by local councils’ public health departments, how many does the Minister believe will be required, and how will they be funded?
Can the Minister confirm whether and at what age children are included in the six? It seems that different countries have different ideas about this. In England it seems that a child under 12 is included in the six, but in other countries that is not the case. Why have we taken a different line on that?
I gather that sports are exempt from this, but can the Minister confirm that that includes shooting and hunting and that they are exempt from the ban?
This morning I received a copy of a letter to the Home Secretary from the leader of Hammersmith Council. I feel that I need to raise this because it is important that the Minister is aware that there is a Covid-19 outbreak among asylum seekers placed in a hotel in Hammersmith and Fulham. The council has been misinformed by the Home Office people dealing with this and that has led to an outbreak. Last week I was talking about a dissonance between the Department for Education and the Department of Health in terms of information that has been used to try to control Covid. Today I am saying that it looks as if there is a dissonance between the Home Office and the Department of Health. In this case, that will feed directly into the spreading of the virus, so it is a matter of some urgency for the Government and I draw it to the attention of the Minister.
Bolton remains the place in England with the highest rates of coronavirus infections, with the equivalent of 192 new cases per 100,000 people. That increase comes despite the Government implementing even tougher lockdown restrictions for the town, including a strict curfew for bars and restaurants. What is the next step? Are the Government considering closing pubs and restaurants?
We have mingling on public transport and in offices and restaurants and pubs. All these are factors where infections can happen and spread, so what plans do the Government have to review the back-to-work advice?
I have to talk about the availability of tests. There is an increasing number of people reporting problems, people still being referred to Aberdeen from 400 miles away and test centres still empty or not being used because tests cannot be processed. Please can the Minister own that there is a problem here, explain what the challenges are and tell the House how and when they will be resolved?
Finally, I want to highlight that the key to preventing mass outbreaks in care homes was the availability of testing for those homes. So how many care-home tests have not been processed in the last week or so? That seems to be vital. Care home providers are reporting a slight rise in care home infections, and we cannot possibly face a repeat of what happened during the last spike of the pandemic in our care homes.
My Lords, these Benches welcome anything from the Government that is based on rational evidence and can prove to be effective in this public health crisis to keep people safe and reduce the spread of the virus. So does this Statement live up to that? Unfortunately, yet again the sales pitch from the Secretary of State last week fell short of what is required to be effective. It has to be based on fact and scientific evidence that the public have confidence in and understand.
I have some simple questions for the Minister. Now that the scientific evidence has been produced, members of the public are asking why children under 12 and 11 are included as part of the six. Why can they be in a school in a class of 30 but from 3.30 pm they cannot be in a house with seven people, including their two grandparents? What scientific evidence exists to suggest that that causes more harm than 30 children in a classroom?
There is something else that people have asked me. Why is it that I can go to the office and be there with 20 people until 4 pm, but at 4.15 pm, if I go to the pub, I have to be in a bubble of no more than six? The evidence may be there, but it has to be explained in a way that those questions can be answered and the public have confidence in those answers. Inconsistency, rather than the public not having confidence, is one of the issues that the virus breeds on.
The public health message has to be clear and consistent. The regulations do not just bring in a power of six; there are quite a number of exemptions, including a legal definition of “mingle”: for the first time since 1393 it becomes illegal to “mingle”. Can the Minister give a legal definition of “mingling”? I can go to an event with six people but I cannot mingle beyond those six if it is an event run by a charity, a public body, a philanthropic organisation or a business. If I open the door for somebody and speak to them to thank them, am I mingling? If I stop somebody who I know and speak to them, am I mingling? What is the legal definition? That is going to cause confusion and not be consistent.
These regulations and rules have to be developed in a collaborative manner with local areas to be effective. Why was the Local Government Association informed of the Covid-secure marshals only one hour before? If the rate is rising so fast and we need to be effective today to monitor six people and no more, where are those marshals’ powers as of today and in which legislation?
It is quite clear that action needs to be taken to stop this virus, but it is time for the Government to stop and be much more strategic and considered and to implement legislation and systems in a more collaborative way. People’s lives and livelihoods depend on the Government getting this right, but unfortunately this Statement is not a complete and right answer.
My Lords, I thank the noble Baroness and the noble Lord for their perceptive and thoughtful questions. On the noble Baroness’s questions about the level of alert, to my knowledge it has not changed. It was reduced from four to three on 19 June; it remains subject to review on a weekly basis, but we are not in a position to raise it at the moment.
The noble Baroness asked about the rule of six and why we had committed to six as opposed to anything else. The short answer is that we are seeking to have rules that are simple to understand and straightforward to apply. We accept that during the last few months the guidelines have grown increasingly complex and difficult to understand in all their detail. Across the board, with “Hands, Face, Space”, the rule of six and other measures that we are seeking to publish, there is a genuine effort to engage the public in a really simple lexicon of how we can beat the coronavirus.
Sir Mark Walport, the head of UKRI, was right in his warning that the jeopardy is enormous. If we do not get this communications challenge right, and if people think they are confused and think they have a way out because it is in some way complicated, we will fail, the disease will come back and we will have tens of thousands of deaths; we will have an NHS that is challenged; we will have an economy that is shut down; and we will have a generation that is lost to education. Those are the stakes, so we are determined to get it right. I am happy to stand here for as long as it takes and be pub-quizzed on “What about this? What about that?” if it means that we get it right.
However, the public seem to understand these simpler rules. The response from the public in our planning focus groups and in the response since their publication has been extremely positive, and we think we are on the right track. This is advice that was informed by SAGE and we went through its models in great detail.
The noble Baroness and the noble Lord, Lord Scriven, asked why children are included. The bottom line is that we want to keep it simple. Children are vectors of infection; they can pass the disease from one generation to the next. Time and again, in city after city, we have seen an infection that starts with a young person, moves to mum and dad, then to grandma and grandpa. It takes weeks or sometimes months for that progress to take place but, as I have said at this Dispatch Box before, as night follows day, the infection moves through the generations unless we take steps to break the chain of transmission. The rule of six is a critical, unambiguous step in the Government’s strategy for doing just that.
The noble Baroness and the noble Lord, Lord Scriven, asked about marshalls, so let me just say a word about that. This measure came from our engagement with local authorities. Local authorities are looking for ways in which they can implement the right measures to disrupt crowds forming and, as the noble Lord, Lord Scriven, said, mingling—a concept which, frankly, I do not think needs much description and nor do members of the public. In order to break things up, they are looking for ways in which they can have both the authority and the personnel to do that, and we have responded by putting in the right regulations to do that and by providing the right resources. But it will be up to local authorities to implement that in detail.
The noble Baroness asked about shooting and hunting. My understanding is that guidelines on all sorts of sports and activities where the rule of six is in any way ambiguous will be issued in the coming days.
The noble Baroness asked about Hammersmith, and I am extremely grateful for the tip-off. I will look into it, as I have done when other noble Lords have alerted me to concerns they might have. I am extremely concerned that there might be a breakdown in the asylum centre in Hammersmith. However, I reassure the noble Baroness and the House that directors of public health are responsible for this kind of implementation, and the benefit of directors of public health is that they work across all departments. Some directors of public health have a health background, some have a police background and some come from a leisure background, but they all hold the ring when it comes to local implementation of local measures, and therefore they are the best-placed people to ensure that situations like this are not overlooked.
The noble Baroness asked whether we should be reviewing the current measures for pubs, clubs and workplaces. The simple answer to that is yes, absolutely; we should be reviewing it—and we do review it every single week. We are on tenterhooks because, if we get this wrong, the jeopardy is enormous. We are working as hard as we can, with regulatory measures such as the rule of six, marketing measures such as “Hands, Face, Space” and containment measures such as the test and trace programme, in order to keep the economy open, to keep our educational institutions open and to keep life as normal as we possibly can. If we do not—if we fail—it will go back to where we were before, and I hope memories are not so short that people do not remember quite how imposing and draconian the former lockdown was.
On test and trace, the noble Baroness quite reasonably asked about the capacity and about demand. I can reassure her that the capacity has literally never been higher. We are up 7% week on week and—if I can provide the right figures here—we will have a capacity of 500,000 by the end of October. We have 500 centres, including five major laboratories, 236 mobile testing units, 72 walk-through testing sites, and more sites opening all the time. For every 1,000 people in this country, we test 2.43 a day; that compares with Germany at 1.15, Spain at one and France at 1.15.
We are throwing everything we can at the test and trace system, but it is true that demand has gone up. Part of that demand is through children returning to school. I welcome enormously the return of children to school, but it is an un unambiguous fact that this has led to a very large increase in the number of children being sent to testing centres—often bringing their parents and other household members with them—and that has put an enormous pressure on the system.
Another feature is asymptomatic testing. Estimates are that between 20% and 25% of those turning up for a test are currently asymptomatic. If we had all the tests in the world, that would not be a problem and I would welcome it, but right now we are building the system, we are under pressure and we need to communicate more clearly to the public that asymptomatic testing is not supported by our current testing system.
The noble Baroness asked about social care—quite rightly, as this is a major feature; we are concerned about it, and I know that noble Lords are concerned about it. I reassure the noble Baroness and the House that care homes are absolutely our number one priority. This was reiterated in meetings with the Prime Minister last week. Some of the capacity challenges in places such as walk-in and drive-in centres are because we have put care homes front of the queue and because those tests are taking priority.
The noble Lord, Lord Scriven, asked a number of extremely detailed questions, some of which I have touched on. He asked why we have included children. He is entirely right that, in Scotland, they have not included all children and in some other countries they do not do so either. We have taken a different view. Partly, that is on the epidemiological advice from SAGE; partly, that is on the marketing advice from our communications department, which is insistent that we are clear and unambiguous with the population; and, partly, that is the CMO’s advice—he rightly identifies children as potential vectors of infection, particularly in intergenerational households.
The noble Lord, Lord Scriven, asked for consistency. Well, we are consistent in that we are determined to break these chains of transmission. The science is not simple; if it were, the disease would have been beaten. It bounces around, and we are doing our best to fight it. We are communicating as best we can on all the science we have.
In terms of collaboration, I pay a massive tribute to all my colleagues at the department, in other departments, in local authorities, at PHE and in the NHS. It is difficult for me to explain in great detail in a short amount of time the immense amount of cross-departmental, inter-agency collaboration that has sprung up around Covid. The amount of data that is shared, the number of Zoom calls and the working together are absolutely phenomenal. The noble Lord cited that the LGA did not know about the marshalls plan until the last minute; I am afraid to say that it must have been the last one on the list.
My Lords, we now come to the 30 minutes allocated for Back-Bench questions. I ask that questions and answers be brief, so that I can call the maximum number of speakers.
My Lords, last week I pursued the question as to whether there were precedents for using emergency powers under an old Act—this is an Act from 1984—and also whether the Government had any plans to change the procedure to one that is more like what we have come to expect over many years, so that we debate these regulations before they came into force. Many of the questions that are asked would be much sharper if the debate was before the regulations came into force. It would be better, because the future is more interesting than the past—and doubly so in these hybrid days, when debate is not as easy as it is in normal circumstances. Indeed, one reason for thinking that we should change is that there must be an impression that the Executive are riding roughshod over us, when what is actually needed is consensus—as has been indicated by the two Front-Bench speeches today—and I think that consensus is available. Will the Government have another think, decide it is better to be in front and implement some changes that will make Parliament’s job easier?
I thank my noble friend for his comments, but my perspective is slightly different. The fact is that this disease is incredibly aggressive and nimble; we sometimes have to turn decisions around literally within hours. I cannot think of another situation, other than war, where the decision-making has to be quite so quick. I would love to be able to bring regulations to this House for full debate in advance of their implementation, but no human institution can move at that kind of speed—it is just not possible. In answer to his question, we have no plans to switch horses at the moment. We are working as hard as we can to bring regulations here as quickly as we can, and I pay tribute to the House authorities for doing everything they can to put regulations in front of the House as quickly as they can.
My Lords, the Office for National Statistics records over 52,000 deaths of people whose death certificates have Covid-19 as a contributory cause. More than 42,000 of these deaths were of people over the age of 65. As the numbers of infections increase, which they are, more older and vulnerable people will be infected—as has happened in France—leading to a rise in hospital admissions and deaths. What plans do the Government have as the rate of infection increases in our country to protect the elderly and more vulnerable?
My Lords, we are discussing, among other things, the very regulations we are putting in place to protect the elderly and vulnerable. The rule of six, although not part of this provision, is an emphatic commitment to protect the people whom the noble Lord cites. I add that we are concerned about not only the elderly and vulnerable; we are increasingly concerned about the phenomenon of long Covid, which hits the young. It is one of our objectives to rid this country of Covid altogether and to protect all demographics.
My Lords, in answer to my noble friend Lady Thornton’s question about the alert level, the Minister said that to his knowledge it had not changed, although it was subject to weekly review. However, these are the Government’s own levels. How can the level stay at number 3, which means “virus contained”, when number 4 means “virus not contained”? Does the Minister really think that an average travel requirement of 6.4 miles to a testing centre, with 10% of people having to travel up to 22 miles, is acceptable after all these months?
The change in the alert level is done in consultation with the CMO and it is his advice that the circumstances have not changed enough for us to move it. On the average travel time, most reasonable people would consider six-and-a-half miles a reasonable distance to travel for such an important test.
My Lords, why is it safer to allow six individuals from different households to meet together indoors, rather than limiting it to members of two families?
My Lords, the phenomenon we had noticed was that large groups of people, sometimes in pubs and sometimes in other congregations, would seemingly be from two households, but that the actual definition of “household” was proving to be extremely flexible in the minds of many people. Therefore, putting an integer into the formula makes it much clearer.
May I return to the issue of political gatherings, which my noble friend and I discussed last Thursday? He mentioned that protests such as those we have seen recently from Extinction Rebellion might not be outlawed quite yet, but it is not really a matter of outlawing political protest—I did not ask for that. However, can he understand how deeply outraged many would feel while spending their Christmases abiding by the very difficult rule of six if, out their window, they were watching political protesters who do not give a monkey’s about the rules? Will he confirm that political protesters are subject right now to precisely the same rules as the rest of us?
My Lords, I sympathise with my noble friend’s point, but I remind him that the regulations come into force later today. It is up to the Metropolitan Police to implement crowd dispersal but the sentiments he expresses are ones that I share.
My Lords, will the Minister please accept that while there may be good reason for the Government to ratchet up further the restrictions on social distancing, it is surely unreasonable to at the same time pressure people to return to their offices? These two objectives are incompatible, as was shown by government officers last week. Surely the Government should accept that they can press either greater social distancing or a return to offices, but not both?
My Lords, I do not think that this Government are pressuring anyone into doing anything. We are keen to give those who have a reason to, whether personal or professional, the confidence to return to their workplace. I pay tribute to the very large number of employers who have invested a huge amount in making those workplaces socially distanced and safe for employees.
My Lords, the Statement makes it clear that the numbers of cases are rising. Will the Health Minister give the House his personal assurance that sufficient personal protective equipment will be available, unlike during the first wave?
I am very glad to make that assurance: 13 billion items of PPE have been procured and made available for NHS, social care and other key workers. I pay tribute to my colleague and noble friend Lord Deighton, who has led our efforts on this. The situation is completely transformed from that of earlier this year.
My Lords, in the past week, over 700 schools have reported Covid cases among teachers and pupils, but getting a test is difficult for many. I declare an interest: my seven year-old grandson went back to school last Monday and got a high temperature. He was told to stay at home and his parents tried all week to get a test for him. They were sent to Brighton and eventually managed to get one 10 miles away, but that is because they have a car. What happens to families who do not have a car but want their children to go back to school and not lose out? Why are test kits not being made available to schools or local authorities, maybe in clusters, to enable equal access for all children and teachers to such kits so that they do not have to self-isolate unnecessarily for 14 days and can—like my grandson, whose test was thankfully negative—go back to school?
I thank the noble Baroness for her testimony, which completely resonates with me. The current national prevalence is around one in 1,500, so there is a strong likelihood that, in a school with 1,500 kids, one of them will turn up with Covid. We are aware of the challenge of febrile children who have a temperature, as children often do, and are naturally anxious to get a test. We therefore provide kits of tests to schools, but we are not able to turn schools into testing centres—I do not think that parents, teachers or schoolchildren would like us to do that. We have also prioritised social care, the protection of hospitals and the asymptomatic testing of key workers over schoolchildren for the moment. As our capacity increases, that will be reviewed.
My Lords, this virus has shown it is extremely difficult to eradicate or keep under control until a vaccine is produced. I ask the Minister about people being asked to isolate because data has shown that some are facing real hardship. We are told that this is a central reason for people sometimes ignoring advice. Are Ministers looking at the possibility of helping with extra financial support?
The noble Baroness is entirely right that the isolation protocol is extremely onerous for some people and has a huge impact on their life, mental health, income and social life. I completely understand the point she is making. We are keeping the question of financial support under review and will continue to look at this important subject.
My Lords, picking up on one of the points made by the noble Baroness, Lady Thornton, what arrangements have been made to enable compliance with the rule of six for asylum seekers living in reception centres or hostels that have communal facilities for eating, sleeping, washing, cooking and leisure time? This could be a national issue, not just in Hammersmith. Also, why is there no link on the National Asylum Support Service website to any Covid information or advice in languages other than English and Welsh?
My Lords, asylum hostels are one example of a very great many that will have to put thoughtful arrangements in place in order to comply with the rule of six. I pay tribute to their efforts.
My Lords, why insist on a mask-wearing policy totally at variance with international practice? Surely, by now the Government can admit to the major benefits: they alert others to danger, signal an element of risk and, when worn without valves, protect both users and those in the immediate vicinity. Therefore, why not revisit the whole policy and promote the enforcement of wider and appropriate usage—a very, very much needed U-turn?
My Lords, I pay tribute to the noble Lord’s campaigning on this issue; he has contributed to the Government changing their strategy on mask wearing. However, we are here discussing the onerous burden that these measures put on people in this country, and we have to be careful not to overburden them. The CMO’s guidance on masks is that the science remains ambiguous. I know the noble Lord does not agree with that, but that is the CMO’s advice. We have come a long way on masks in order to change policy on this and, as the scientific evidence changes, we will review that policy.
Since the Minister wants to keep things simple, could he explain to families that are separated what the rules now are? In my case, I am a single father of three young boys who live with me every other week. They live in a household of six on the other weeks, and it includes another child who also lives in another household part of the time. Which of us are allowed to get together when?
My Lords, that is the pub-quiz question of all pub-quiz questions. There are special provisions for families that are, like the noble Lord’s, separated or complex. Those guidelines have been published, I believe, and I would be glad to send him an email with a link to them.
[Inaudible]—simple rule and the long overdue emphasis on better and stricter enforcement. Does my noble friend not agree that when a law is systematically and routinely broken and not enforced, it brings the rest of the law into disrepute? Therefore, will he encourage the police, in the strongest possible measures, to stop turning a blind eye to massive house parties, raves and woke demonstrations and tell them to get off their knees and enforce the law?
My Lords, I completely endorse my noble friend’s comments on raves, but the effectiveness of these measures is reliant not just on police implementation but the compliance of the British public. While I understand his point on mandation and police action, it is really the personal decisions and social pressure of the British public that will make these work, and I cannot help but pay tribute to them for their sensible approach to Covid to date; that is where our trust really lies.
My Lords, following on from the previous question, effective policing requires the consent of those being policed, and those enforcing it need good training and interpersonal skills. Covid marshals—when they are actually implemented—could well face some resistance from those who have had enough of being told what to do. Will marshals have the power to issue fixed penalties, and does the noble Lord agree that friction with them could cause breaches of the peace and place even more demands on the police themselves?
My Lords, I do not know the precise legal powers of the marshals, but I remind the House that city centres and public areas frequently have civilian marshals of one kind or another to help guide public gatherings. This is a not uncommon aspect of city and public life, and I have an enormous amount of faith in the good sense of the British public to go along as requested without legal mandation.
My Lords, the WHO’s watchword has been “test, test, test” to isolate the disease, so I am in favour of the Prime Minister’s stated ambition of mass testing. With regard to Operation Moonshot, have the Government a date in mind for testing audience members at theatres and sports venues? Secondly, does the Minister agree that we should now be testing at airports, as British Airways is asking for?
My Lords, we have embraced the “test, test, test” recommendation in a very big way, and the noble Earl is entirely right to aspire to using testing to enable a return to the economy, theatreland and all sorts of public gatherings. We are looking energetically at this, working with suppliers, academia and the NHS to figure out ways of using the new testing technologies in the way he describes.
However, we are at a relatively early stage and I am not able to make announcements on this here today. We have funded—to the tune of £500 million—a huge amount of investment in these technologies and, when they are right, we will roll them out in the theatres and airports of Britain.
My Lords, we have heard a lot from the Minister today about the importance of obeying the law, yet a Bill has been introduced in the other place today that essentially sees the Government seeking to break the law. I refer him to what Geoffrey Cox, the former Attorney-General, said this morning:
“When the Queen’s minister gives his word, on her behalf, it should be axiomatic that he will keep it, even if the consequences are unpalatable. By doing so he pledges the faith, honour and credit of this nation and it diminishes the standing and reputation of Britain in the world if it should be seen to be otherwise.”
He went on to say:
“It is unconscionable that this country, justly famous for its regard for the rule of law around the world, should act in such a way”.
Does the Minister think this a good example to the public, and does he not fear that the appeal to the rule of law regarding the rule of six might just fall on rather stony ground?
My Lords, I am here to support the regulations before the House, not to comment on the issues about which the noble Lord asks.
My Lords, the noble Lord has previously congratulated people in my part of Lancashire on how well we are doing, which I do not quite agree with; we are working hard. Why are people, whether in our borough or the surrounding ones, still not able to book tests locally when we usually have three testing stations going? Some are being told to ration the number of tests they do each day, which involves gaps of perhaps two hours when they will not accept any bookings, even though the testing kit and the people are there, and the tests could be carried out. However, people are not being allowed to use them.
My Lords, the amount of testing we are doing is increasing enormously. Most people who book a test do get it locally, and that test is delivered quickly and on time. The result arrives within 24 hours and we are doing a million tests a week, which is well within the bounds of our business capacity.
The noble Lord is right that the system is under scrutiny and pressure. Not everyone is getting a test where and when they want it. However, overall, it is reasonable to ask people not to make frivolous demands upon the tests, and to ask that those who are asymptomatic wait until there is further test capacity before they step forward to ask for their test.
My Lords, can my noble friend tell me what the Government have identified in English children under 12, including babies, that makes them, to use his phrase, “a vector of infection and a Covid hazard”, that does not apply to children in Scotland, who have been back at school for weeks? And on the subject of making things easier to understand—simplifying matters—why is it okay in England to meet one’s grandchildren in the pub but not in their family home if the household consists of six people?
My Lords, Scottish children are just the same as English children, but the Scottish Government have decided to take a different approach; we celebrate the differences between our two nations in this. With respect to meeting in the pub, you cannot meet more than six people in the pub and you cannot meet more than six people between two households. The arithmetic is reasonably straightforward.
My Lords, it is clear that face masks are a critical component of slowing the virus. Following on from the observations of the noble Lord, Lord Rooker, and other noble Lords, how self-sufficient is the UK expected to become in the supply of PPE, and are there targets for the supply of face masks in particular?
My Lords, we have taken huge steps in the domestic production of PPE. In some matters, where the production is relatively straightforward, such as aprons, we have taken huge steps forward and the vast majority of our production is done at home. For some products, such as gloves, that are more complex because of their shape, we are having to work harder. The progress of my noble friend Lord Deighton’s Make strategy for PPE has been profound, and we are looking at making up to half of our PPE requirements in the UK.
My Lords, given the intrusive and damaging effects, especially on family life, of the decision to limit social contacts to six people, can the Minister say why it was decided to apply this both inside and outside, rather than to follow the Welsh Government’s position of applying the new ruling only to meetings inside? Does he agree that medical evidence suggests that the chance of contracting the virus outside is tiny in comparison with inside, and that, with regard to his quest for simplicity, nobody is so simple that they cannot tell the difference between inside and outside.
My Lords, I agree that everyone can tell the difference between inside and outside, but everyone also has eyes, and may have seen, as I have, how people crowd together in the forecourts and beer gardens of Britain. If they were all standing on draughty hillsides with the wind blowing the disease around, that would be one thing, but the simple fact is that our prevalence has gone up—the evidence speaks for itself—and that is why we need to be clearer about this simple measure.
My Lords, in the US 513,000 children have been infected as of 3 September, with 70,630 cases reported in the past two weeks. Only this morning in my locality, all reception classes bar one were shut down due to the Covid infection of a teacher. As a father, the Minister will understand that many parents remain fearful and are seeking assurance and evidence of safety. Holding the Government to account after a tragedy has occurred would be meaningless. What lessons can we learn from our friends in the US and elsewhere about minimising the spread of infection among teachers and children in the UK, with the inevitable consequence of transmission to their homes and vulnerable loved ones in their families?
My Lords, policymakers around the world are facing exactly the same dilemma. We are determined to have the schools back, because the long-term effects on young people—particularly the least advantaged—will be profound if we shut the schools. The noble Baroness is entirely right to say that parents are naturally concerned that the safety of children, and other generations that they may come into contact with, is at risk. That is why we are massively prioritising the return of schools and introducing measures such as the rule of six to break the chain of transmission and thereby protect the schools from closure.
I apologise to the noble Baroness, Lady Verma, who I should call now.
Thank you, Deputy Lord Speaker. My noble friend has talked about Covid, but I think it is important in the same debate to talk about the flu injections that are available to help people reduce their ability to catch Covid. Will my noble friend ask the pharmacies that are distributing flu injections to step up their communications, in particular to people with south Asian backgrounds, who are slightly resistant to going into pharmacies to get flu jabs? I know from my experience of having to persuade my mother that this is an issue, and it would be helpful to get the communications about getting flu injections out as quickly as possible, so that people build up their immunity as quickly as possible.
My Lords, we are hopeful that this season the number of flu injections will be a massive increase on previous seasons. We will, therefore, be putting huge responsibility on the shoulders of pharmacies and pharmacists to deliver them. I take on board completely the very good advice from my noble friend about the reputation of pharmacists compared to GPs, particularly in certain communities. I trust that the pharmacy profession will be doing an enormous amount to promote the flu injection itself, and to reassure its customers about the efficacy of its service. It is, however, an idea that I will take back to the department.
My Lords, when we had questions on the Statement last Thursday, I asked the Minister two questions that he did not answer. I have another opportunity now. Can the Minister say what evaluation the Government have made of the economic and societal impact of alternative responses to the spike that we are seeing in infection rates? Secondly, will they publish that evaluation?
My Lords, we have a very clear example of what will happen to the economy if the infection comes back. We will have to close down society as we did before, and the economy will suffer profoundly as a result.
Most of the Covid measures made under the Public Health Act 1984 have major adverse effects on the economy and on the treatment of other fatal diseases. We cannot go on like this indefinitely until we have a vaccine. We need a new strategy that offers a degree of protection where it is needed, for example in care homes and for the very elderly, and that restores economic and social life. Are the Government now developing such a strategy, and when will we hear about it?
My Lords, my noble friend describes in the most beautiful and succinct way exactly the strategy that we are following. It balances on the one hand a fight against disease, a breaking of the chain of transmission, the protection of the NHS and the saving of lives, and on the other a measured, thoughtful and reasonable opening up of the economy, workplaces, schools, shops and other valued economic assets. We are working hard to get that balance right. I believe that we have got it right, but we are open to suggestion and we review the situation incessantly. Until we have a vaccine and other therapeutics to fight this disease, that is the life and the road that we will be walking.