House of Lords
Thursday 7 January 2021
The House met in a hybrid proceeding.
Prayers—read by the Lord Bishop of Rochester.
Introduction: Lord Wolfson of Tredegar
David Wolfson, QC, having been created Baron Wolfson of Tredegar, of Tredegar in the County of Gwent, was introduced and took the oath, supported by Lord Faulks and Lord Greenhalgh, and signed an undertaking to abide by the Code of Conduct.
Arrangement of Business
My Lords, the Hybrid Sitting of the House will now begin. Some Members are here in the Chamber, others are participating remotely, but all Members will be treated equally. I ask all Members to respect social distancing. If the capacity of the Chamber is exceeded, I shall immediately adjourn the House. Oral Questions will now commence. Please can I ask those asking supplementary questions to keep them to no longer than 30 seconds and confined to two points—and may I ask that Ministers’ answers are also brief? I call the noble Baroness, Lady D’Souza, to ask the first Oral Question.
My Lords, families play a primary role in caring for and educating their children. The right honourable Secretary of State for Education has therefore been asked to drive forward policy in order to protect vulnerable children and give all children the best start in life. To work towards this, the Government have announced £2.5 million to research and develop best practice on how to integrate family services and support for vulnerable children.
I thank the Minister for her Answer. As I said somewhat earlier, there has been a welcome focus on children’s welfare in the past few months, including children’s poverty, free school meals, obesity, domestic abuse, education and excluded children, among other issues. However, is it not now time for the Government to consider it appropriate to appoint a senior, Cabinet-level Minister with special responsibilities for children to consolidate, co-ordinate, streamline, implement and introduce new policies to meet these continuing needs?
My Lords, the needs of children and families indeed cut across government departments. Therefore, the Government’s existing procedures are utilised when policy impacts on more than one department. For instance, there is now a ministerial group in relation to the needs of care leavers. Reviews have taken place, such as the Selous review of service families. So existing procedures are being used across government and the Secretary of State is driving forward new policy.
My Lords, I understand that the next speaker, the noble Lord, Lord Winston, is absent, so I call the next speaker, the noble Baroness, Lady Uddin.
My Lords, as a practitioner in the field of family protection, I add my voice to the call by the noble Baroness, Lady D’Souza, for a Cabinet-level Minister. This is a seminal moment in children’s lives. They face countless burdens, including poverty, education, mental well-being, online harms, county lines, and an unprecedented level of violence and abuse. A Cabinet Minister with a diverse team to address these complexities would be in the forefront of decision-making. Does the Minister agree?
My Lords, it is a privilege for the Secretary of State to be in charge of driving forward policy in this area. However, we should not focus solely on the level of responsibility, because often the first points of contact for vulnerable children are not only the local authority but voluntary services. So we have invested about £9 million with Barnardo’s, which takes the lead on See, Hear, Respond to try to reach children who have yet to be sighted by the statutory authorities.
My Lords, might I urge caution on the Minister? We have many departments that deal with children, particularly the DHSC, which has responsibility for social services aspects. We have a Children’s Commissioner and I am not sure that we would advance anything by adding a title to a Cabinet Minister’s role, when there are already Cabinet Ministers responsible for social services and education. So caution, please.
My Lords, yes, there are a number of departments that have responsibility in this area. For instance, the DHSC has led on the childhood obesity strategy, while money raised by the sugar tax is actually spent out of the Department for Education on healthy eating and PE. We welcome the appointment of the new Children’s Commissioner, Rachel de Souza, who will take office soon.
My Lords, the suggestion by the noble Baroness, Lady D’Souza, is not without merit, but the Minister will be aware that we have a Children’s Commissioner in England who promotes the rights, views and interests of children in policies and decisions affecting their lives. Will the Minister consider ways of enhancing the role of the commissioner?
My Lords, the advantage in having a Children’s Commissioner is that it is a statutory appointment and, as I say, there will be a new occupant. However, we are privileged in this country to have a very active civil society on behalf of children, making sure that their views are known, as well as through MPs. There are government-led programmes to reach the most vulnerable families, such as the successful Troubled Families programme, where we have spent over £1 billion and where we have seen significant reductions in the number of children coming into care from those families, and significant reductions in juvenile convictions.
My Lords, I am a vice-president of the National Association of Child Contact Centres and I warmly welcome the focus on children’s welfare in the range of Bills currently before the House on online harms, domestic abuse and covert human intelligence, among others. My noble friend in her replies outlined an ad hoc basis of interrelationships between relevant departments. Is there some merit in setting up a permanent cross-party group that will consider the welfare of children at the earliest possible stages of drafting policies with regard to children’s welfare, and again at the stage of implementation? At the moment we have only an ad hoc basis, bringing departments together where relevant. There is some merit in having a permanent, formal cross-departmental relationship.
My Lords, in relation to certain matters such as care leavers, there is a formal cross-ministerial group, but I assure noble Lords that the processes are not ad hoc. There are procedures across Whitehall to ensure that policy-making is coherent. The Government also now applies the family test to policy-making. We also must not forget as well that one of the key things we need to focus on is that schools are now closed for most pupils, and that is one of the best protective factors for our children and is why vulnerable children and those of critical workers are, I hope, currently in school.
My Lords, I support the concern of the noble Baroness, Lady D’Souza. Of all Bills with relevance to children, surely the Domestic Abuse Bill should have their interests high on its agenda, yet they are hardly mentioned. I think I found three mentions in the Bill. Does the Minister agree that a Cabinet-level Minister for children would have ensured that children’s interests are fully reflected in this incredibly important Bill?
My Lords, the noble Baroness may be aware that the DWP has a specific initiative to reduce parental conflict. When the Domestic Abuse Bill is before the House, I am sure noble Lords will make the needs and interests of children clear. We have been focused on this, particularly with schools, which are the second-largest referrers to the police, to ensure that local authorities have enough capacity for referrals to be made.
My Lords, the Minister says that the Secretary of State for Education is responsible for driving forward policy on children, yet, on the DfE website, the welfare of children is not listed under his responsibilities, although providing support for children is included under the responsibilities of the DWP’s Secretary of State. Does this not demonstrate the need for a cross-departmental approach to protect children’s welfare? Given her other role as Minister for Equalities, the Minister surely understands the benefits of overarching departmental responsibility. Without a Cabinet member responsible for the welfare of children, what new cross-government procedures will be introduced during the current lockdown to ensure that vulnerable children are protected from levels of abuse similar to those reported by the NSPCC during the spring lockdown?
My Lords, the NSPCC’s role is very important at the moment. That is why we have ensured funding so that its helpline can exist. Within the structure of the Department for Education, the right honourable Member Vicky Ford is responsible for vulnerable children and children’s social care in policy terms. It is clearly a priority within the department, but I will take away the noble Lord’s comments about how things on our website are prioritised.
Minister, much has been said about cross-departmental working with some welcome remarks about civil society. In a post-pandemic recovery plan, is there any political will within the Government for part of the solution to be real devolution and decentralisation of responsibilities and powers to local governments?
As I understand it, the primary responsibility in statute is with the local authority. It has responsibility for the safety and welfare of every child within its area. That is why, during the pandemic, there has been an increase of £4.6 billion and £1.55 billion going forward to keep those services. They are now part of the local safeguarding partnership that has been put in place with the police and public health locally.
My Lords, I regret that the time allowed for this Question has elapsed.
Leaseholders: Properties with Cladding
The Government have published supplementary guidance and the Royal Institution of Chartered Surveyors will be working with lenders, valuers and the safety bodies to develop new advice for surveyors. This will enable surveyors to take a more proportionate approach where there are concerns about cladding. Furthermore, the Government have announced nearly £700,000 to train more assessors, speeding up the valuation process for home owners where an EWS1 form is required.
I know the Minister is trying very hard, but this is a lamentable and serious situation, with numerous facets impinging on millions of people who have done nothing wrong. It has dragged on for too long. Does the Minister agree that we need energetically to find a way forward that prioritises the most important matters, does not let the best become the enemy of good, limits the scale of the problem by excluding dwellings that do not pose a serious risk from the new cladding rules, and delivers a fair financial outcome? Will he set up a task force, possibly under a leading public figure, to recommend an early package of measures to get us out of this impasse, as a whole?
I thank my noble friend for raising this topic, which we both feel strongly about. I do not think the solution is a task force; it is about taking a position to implement something that makes good policy. The approach that the Government have taken so far is to restrict demand. In the guidance being published tomorrow, we will see all buildings below 11 metres, unless there is a rare example of one coated in Grenfell-style cladding, taken out of scope at one fell swoop. The focus will then be between 11 metres and 18 metres, where the threshold is deemed to be above 25% coated in flammable materials. That takes a vast majority of the 100,000 remaining buildings out of scope. Then you are left with 11,700 high-rises, which comes to 2,000 or so buildings. We have made huge strides by managing demand in this way, sending out the clarification to the advice note and addressing the supply issue to deal with the remediation required.
My Lords, millions of home owners in this situation bought their properties in good faith. Now their properties are deemed worthless; they cannot be bought, sold or remortgaged. The freeholders and insurance companies say that it is not their problem, and mortgage lenders, through the confusion created by the Government’s changing guidance and the EWS1 certification, have exacerbated the problem. So I welcome the clarification on the guidance that the noble Lord has just given. However, will he accept that this is a bigger problem and that the Government must deal with it? They must ensure that property developers and insurance companies accept their share of the responsibility.
My Lords, I absolutely accept that a generation of people have built buildings that are not fit for purpose and, under any regime, should not have been built in this way. In recent years, developers have made profits of between 20% and 30%, so of course they should step forward and do the right thing. I absolutely share that view. The leaseholders who find themselves in this position are victims. I have said that at the Dispatch Box and am happy to commit to do everything we can to ensure that this does not fall heavily on leaseholders.
As my noble friend Lady Neville-Rolfe rightly says, this problem has dragged on too long. We need a solution that avoids the costs and delays of the courts. Should the package of measures not include further support from the Government, as with PRC houses in the 1980s, and a major contribution from the developers, as was just implied by the noble Baroness, Lady Kennedy, which have a moral responsibility and should be subjected to a levy?
My Lords, I think the solution will include a levy on the development community, but I also want to talk about construction products. Look at the margins made by those who sold some of the construction materials used on high-rises such as Grenfell Tower. They made astronomical profits. Profits have been made and the result was products that are not fit for purpose. We have seen total regulatory system failure and construction practices that require significant regulatory change. As Buildings Safety Minister, I am committed to that.
My Lords, many leaseholders are shared owners who own perhaps only 25% of their homes, because they could not afford to buy more. However, they are liable for 100% of their flat’s share of the cost—maybe £40,000 or more—to rectify defects, such as cladding replacement. Would the Minister give special consideration to rescuing these shared owners, who are disproportionately affected, with many facing bankruptcy if they are not helped?
I thank the noble Lord for his comments on shared ownership. This tenure can be particularly unfair, if you own a proportion of your property and rent the rest, but are hit with 100% with the liability, when the problem was not of your own making. I take these points on board and we will do everything we can to ensure that people in shared ownership, on the pathway to home ownership, are protected as best they can be.
My Lords, I am not aware of a specific issue with right to buy, as we saw in the 1980s. If my Twitter account is anything to go by, it is not related. This is about all leaseholders, particularly those in high-rises, as opposed to those who have just exercised the right to buy. It is in all settings, both public housing and private housing.
My Lords, I rent a flat in a block of unsafe flats in London, and I am surrounded by leaseholders who suffer greatly as a result of the turmoil and fear of the consequences. Does the Minister agree that it is now time for a comprehensive financial solution to these matters, not one that tinkers around the edges? Will he tell the House what consideration he has given to the proposal he received last week from lawyers and financial advisers on behalf of leaseholders for a special purpose vehicle that would provide the £12 billion shortfall that the Government say they are unable to meet from public funds?
My Lords, I am happy to report that I spent a considerable amount of time being briefed by Dean Buckner, who is at the heart of those proposals, the Leasehold Knowledge Partnership, and the APPG on Leasehold and Commonhold Reform. I can also say that Michael Wade has been asked by my right honourable friend to look into this matter. There was a huge amount of similarity in thinking on how to move forward. In fact, we learned a lot from the discussions. At the moment, I cannot say exactly what will be put forward. That matter is obviously above my pay grade, but we are getting there.
My Lords, I draw attention to my property entries in the register. The Government have stated that they expect building owners to pay for the cost of remediation rather than passing it on to leaseholders. Despite that welcome aspiration, there is currently no compulsion for owners to cover these costs. Many are flatly refusing to take that responsibility. This has already resulted in bankruptcies and even suicides among leaseholders presented with enormous bills. What can the Government do to force building owners and the construction industry to do the right thing?
My Lords, that is a very pertinent question and I thank my noble friend for raising it. There are ways to deal with that. Frankly, they have made large sums of money in the last few years and their profits are often publicly available. There is a soft power aspect: developers want to continue to build if they are in business, and they can afford £60,000 for a fire alarm and to pay for remediation costs. They do the right thing. We saw with the aluminium composite material programme that around half of building owners did the right thing and did not to have to resort to payment and subsidy by the taxpayer.
My Lords, I refer the House to my relevant interests as set out in the register. Does the Minister agree that it is important for all building owners and managers to be open, honest and transparent with leaseholders about the fire safety defects and other risks in their buildings as part of dealing with the cladding and fire safety scandal and future problems? Will he agree to look at what specific legislative measures could be included in the building safety Bill, including serious criminal sanctions for those who fail to do so?
My Lords, there will be a lot of legislative work in the next calendar year on the building safety Bill, and we still have the Fire Safety Bill to play ping-pong with. I will ensure that we consider the noble Lord’s proposals very closely indeed to ensure that we hold building owners to account. That is the whole idea of the building safety Bill: that there is an accountable person.
My Lords, many leaseholders are suffering extreme stress. They are locked down in flats that could go up in flames but which they cannot sell. What urgent support is being given to cover all additional costs, including total waking watch costs, and to recoup long-term drops in value in their investment? Can the Minister confirm that, if their flats are now worth zero and they have been bought under the Help to Buy scheme, all repayments should have been reset to zero and reimbursed, since the scheme allowed for a drop in interest rates if the value dropped?
My Lords, I really do feel for the leaseholders. It is not 4.5 million leaseholders, because that would be every leaseholder in the country, but it is a significant number. It is a smaller number in high-rises. We have announced an interim measures package that includes a £30 million fund that will fund some 600 fire alarm systems, which is far cheaper than waking watch, where frankly the costs sometimes defy belief. We have looked into supporting them directly so that they can move to that alarm system, which is the most cost-effective way to provide interim protection.
My Lords, I am afraid that the time allowed for this Question has elapsed. We now come to the third Oral Question.
My Lords, Public Health England has undertaken a review of evidence on the public health harms relating to gambling and their social and economic burden. Publication has been delayed by Covid but is expected in the first part of this year. We have also launched our review of the Gambling Act. We are calling for evidence on how best to reduce harms and how we will recoup the cost to society.
When the Minister announced the gambling review, he mentioned the tax receipts provided by the industry, but there was absolutely no reference to the social costs, particularly those associated with health services. We know only that, as part of the Government’s NHS mental health plan, £6 million has been committed to gambling-related harm by 2023. How much do the NHS problem gambling clinics cost the NHS, including the 14 new clinics due to be opened by 2023-24? If the Minister is unable to give these figures, would she write to me?
To take the right reverend Prelate’s first point, I know he will acknowledge that it is very difficult to tease out the specific costs related to gambling harm, particularly on health and mental health. I will endeavour to dig out the updated figures from the mental health implementation plan for the 14 clinics, but I also note that this investment is in addition to the investment being made by GambleAware in specialist clinics in London and in the Northern Gambling Service.
My Lords, when I was a Minister in the Home Office in charge of gambling some 25 years ago, the rule was that operators were not allowed to stimulate demand. They were prevented from advertising or doing anything that encouraged people to gamble. Now, people are being bombarded on television and on the internet with offers of free bets and goodness knows what else. Is it any wonder, with many people in lockdown and subject to financial strictures, that we have an increasing problem with gambling? In considering the review, will my noble friend consider going back to that situation where demand cannot be stimulated, which means that people who want to gamble can do so but that we do not draw people into the net, which has had catastrophic consequences?
My noble friend makes important points. He will be aware that we are calling for evidence on the benefits and harms of advertising and sponsorship as part of the review. He will also be aware that there are already very strict rules around gambling advertising and promotions, particularly to those who have self-excluded and, importantly, to children.
The Royal Society for Public Health reported that not only loot boxes but skin betting created gambling problems for young gamers. Can the Minister assure the House that the Government’s call for evidence on loot boxes will also investigate skin betting and horizon scan for how the future monetisation of gaming can adversely affect young players?
Our number one priority in the Gambling Act review, which I appreciate is broader than the noble Viscount’s question, is the protection of children and their access to gambling. The call for evidence on loot boxes closed at the end of November. We received tens of thousands of responses, and we will publish our response to that early this year. I will need to confirm the position on skins and write to the noble Viscount.
My Lords, an effective review of gambling legislation requires consideration of social costs, which are undoubtedly substantial. Does the Minister agree that the review would need to include at least the costs of the effects on immediate family, relationship breakdowns, domestic violence, depression, attempted suicides, crime, cost to the criminal justice system, loss of employment, job searches, health treatment, bankruptcies and productivity?
I absolutely agree that we need to understand the social costs, but the more important issue is that we reduce the scale of problem gambling, because however well we measure the social costs, we will not capture the impact on human beings and their families.
My Lords, I refer to my interests as set out in the register. Despite all the publicity surrounding the promised increased voluntary contributions from gambling companies, in this financial year they are providing just £5 million extra to fund the treatment and prevention of problem gambling, yet leading charities and academics, the Advisory Board for Safer Gambling, your Lordships’ Committee on gambling, and even some gambling companies, are calling for a statutory rather than voluntary levy as a fair, robust and sustainable way forward. When will the Government accept this, and, recognising that change can be made without primary legislation, act?
As the noble Lord is aware, the review will look at all options for funding this area. The Government are open to alternative funding mechanisms, but it is only fair to acknowledge that the five major gambling companies have committed to an extra £100 million over four years.
My Lords, gambling legislation is a strange mixture of voluntary codes and inadequate self-regulation of advertising, all supervised by a regulator recently accused of needing to “up its game”. Can the Minister confirm that the long-awaited review will consider imposing a duty of care on operators, as the Government are doing regarding online harms?
Unfortunately I cannot confirm that to the noble Lord today, but we are inviting evidence on the effectiveness of the regulatory regime and of what reduces problem gambling. The noble Lord shakes his head, but we do not want to pre-empt the outcome of the review. We would welcome him contributing the evidence he has, which we would consider carefully.
My Lords, I declare my interests as set out in the register. The unregulated and at times unscrupulous ways in which some online and social media tipsters and affiliates operate may lead young and impressionable people to gamble in a potentially excessive way. As such, would the Minister agree that tipsters and affiliates should be licensed?
My Lords, the Minister’s response on this topic has been encouraging, but does she accept that it is highly likely that gambling, particularly among children, has increased during lockdown? Can she request that the assumptions in the delayed report be revisited to ensure that it is an accurate assessment of the current problem?
The noble Lord is right to raise the issue of gambling during lockdown. The evidence of an increase is not as clear-cut as he suggests. We are concerned and have taken very prompt action, including requiring operators to intervene in online gambling sessions lasting more than an hour, and increasing affordability checks.
My Lords, problem gambling disproportionately affects vulnerable groups, exacerbates social inequalities and imposes large economic costs on society. Back in 2017, the Gambling Commission described it as a public health concern. Does the Minister agree that if problem gambling is to be taken seriously as a public health issue, policy responsibility for prevention and treatment should primarily lie with the Department of Health and Social Care and not the DCMS, a department described by the Public Accounts Committee as both slow and weak on this subject?
We do not see ourselves as, and nor are the officials working in this area, slow or weak. As the noble Lord knows, the Department of Health and Social Care is responsible for the Government’s addiction strategy across all forms of addition. He will be aware of the comorbidity between different forms of addiction, and there are other aspects of gambling. We know that the vast majority of people who gamble do not experience harm, and that is the balance the department is trying to strike: to reduce the harm, and to allow those who gamble safely to do so.
My Lords, I am afraid that we have once again got to the end of time before we got to the end of the speakers’ list. We now come to the fourth Oral Question.
My Lords, the science of virus transmission is very simple: tiny bugs spread by contact and by breath. Lockdowns work because they put space between people, but there are costs—horrible costs. That is why each day we publish gigabytes of data on infection rates, we analyse the patterns and we design lockdowns to have the maximum impact for the lowest economic and social cost.
My Lords, yes, but: in the last few months we have seen ever more stringent restrictions—tiers 3 and 4, the failed circuit breaker in Wales, a second lockdown which ended only just over a month ago, and now a third lockdown—yet cases keep rising. The Prime Minister said on “The Andrew Marr Show” on Sunday that the evidence is not clear. We all want to see policy based on empirical evidence, so please, can the Minister go back to the department and instigate a detailed examination of why these hugely damaging restrictions have not seen a reduction in infections, hospitalisations and deaths?
My Lords, I am extremely grateful to my noble friend for that sage advice. I can reassure him that lockdowns do work—in Leicester, Bolton, Luton, Liverpool—and I can give him very clear case studies of how specific measures have affected national, regional and local outbreak infection rates. The truth is that tier 3 was enough for the original variant, but it is not enough for the new variant, which is 70% more transmittable. That has hit our country hard, which is why we have to have this new, horrible lockdown.
My Lords, the figures surely show that this pandemic is now endemic in our population. Clearly, lockdowns cannot permanently suppress the virus but might just temporarily prevent medical facilities being overwhelmed. What are the Government doing to ensure that vaccination is rolled out 24/7, including by Public Health England, and skilled medical staff on Covid duties are relieved from all non-specialist aspects of their work by the many skilled and suitable volunteers who are offering to help?
My Lords, the noble Baroness analyses the situation extremely well and has laid out exactly the Government’s plan for rolling out the vaccine. She is entirely right that we are using lockdowns to bridge the gap until herd immunity is achieved through the vaccine. We have mobilised an enormous amount of the NHS, and are very grateful to the volunteers who have stepped up and are making an enormous difference. We are trying to get as much of the vaccine as possible out of the factories and warehouses, with batch control, and into the country’s surgeries and hospitals to vaccinate millions of people before the spring.
My Lords, a weak link in the measures to suppress the virus has been the small percentage of people not self-isolating when they should. This is often because they cannot afford to do so. Dozens of times my Lib Dem colleagues and I have asked the Government to provide adequate financial support for self-isolators. So I ask the Minister again: in order to suppress the virus, will the Government pay the wages of poor people who need to self-isolate?
My Lords, I pay tribute to the advocacy of the noble Baroness and her colleagues on this important point. I acknowledge the financial pressures on those of limited means who are required to isolate. We have put in provisions for statutory sick pay and the £500 Covid bonus to help to support those people, and there are local authority funds and provisions to provide additional support. The point that she makes is made well and we completely acknowledge the challenge.
My Lords, does my noble friend share my incredulity that those who are opposed to lockdowns continue to make their arguments, in spite of the fact that cases are obviously rising very fast, in spite of the advent of the new variant, which is more infectious, and in spite of the current very serious pressure that our hospitals are seeing? Is it not the case that, in the end, their arguments boil down to the callous suggestion that somehow elderly people who have pre-existing conditions but might nevertheless expect to live for many more years are expendable, when they are clearly not?
My noble friend puts it well. I always welcome the challenge of noble Lords on any subject whatever, but I agree that underlying many of the objections to lockdown appears to be an assumption that some lives matter less than others. Whether you are asthmatic, diabetic, infirm or just old, I think that your life is worth just as much as everybody else’s. That is why I am extremely proud of the national effort to work together to protect those who are less advantaged and to protect our health service.
My Lords, thousands of people who are currently extremely vulnerable are now in greater danger from a lack of protection against the virus. Our care workers are more likely to come into contact with coronavirus, and requests for testing have escalated. Therefore, can the Minister please tell me when I and countless others who employ personal assistants can expect them to be vaccinated? Our workforce is not currently prioritised in the same way as care home workers and registered agency carers.
My Lords, I do not know the precise nature or status of the care that the noble Baroness has, but it is true that care workers are massively prioritised, and those with pre-existing conditions are also prioritised. We cannot prioritise everyone at once. Those over 80 are at the top of the queue, but those who work with the vulnerable, those shielding and those with pre-existing conditions are also towards the top of the list. We are working as hard as we can to get vaccines to those people as soon as possible.
My Lords, on this second day of national lockdown, it is important to look to the future and make every effort to keep our families and fellow citizens safe. Given how close London’s hospitals are to being overwhelmed—within days—what are the short-term plans to alleviate this very urgent and serious challenge? I gather that the ExCel Nightingale hospital will be used either for in-patients or as a mass vaccination centre, or both. How soon will that happen?
The noble Baroness quite rightly pays tribute to the work of the NHS. An enormous amount has been done on the marginal expansion of ICUs. My local hospital, University College Hospital, has increased the number of beds from 19 to 52 by expanding the scope of the wards and the oxygen supply. We have put a huge amount of work into A&E units, often building out the front of the units to create more space. Those marginal differences are being extremely effective, and that is our first line of defence. The Nightingale hospitals are there as back-up and, if they are needed, we will bring them into play.
My Lords, perhaps I may break with convention and the advice I was given when I first entered Parliament and ask a question to which I do not already know the answer. Every week, the Government submit figures to EuroMOMO for deaths from all causes. During the spring, the figures showed a huge level of excess deaths over the normal, but currently, and in recent weeks right up to the end of last year, they show almost no excess over the normal level of deaths in this country. That conflicts with all the evidence we are seeing from hospitals and elsewhere. Can my noble friend reconcile the figures and the facts?
The CMO has given some guidance on this matter. He has made the observation that deaths from other flus are down, partly because of the social-distancing that is part of the lockdown. He has also pointed out the very sad, but I am afraid inevitable, possibility that the large amount of infection that has grown up in the last few weeks will in time lead to further deaths. This is an uncomfortable piece of speculation but, as sure as night follows day, I am afraid that infections and hospitalisations will lead to further deaths. We are running at nearly 1,000 a day at the moment and that number is set to increase.
My Lords, I refer to my interests as set out in the register and point out that my remarks are personal. Compliance and transmission are interlinked, and transmission rates are hugely dependent on public compliance. So I echo the point made by the noble Lord, Lord Herbert, that, although senior libertarian individuals and leaders point to the fact that individuals can make their own assessments of risk, that is not the case. Does the Minister agree that complying with the rules is a public duty that we owe one another and not a matter of choice?
The noble Baroness makes the point well. My observation is that the British public are extremely supportive of both the lockdown and the measures involved. Of course, we all see highly visible exceptions in our travels and when we work, but by and large the British public have massively complied with the measures without any severe form of compulsion, and for that I pay an enormous amount of tribute. In the first lockdown, we had to behave as though the person we saw near us might have the disease; the suggestion now is that we should behave as though we have the disease. It is that discipline that we all need to apply.
My Lords, the time allowed for this Question has now elapsed.
Hong Kong: National Security Law
Private Notice Question
My Lords, as my right honourable friend the Foreign Secretary made clear in his Statement on 6 January, the mass arrests of politicians and activists in Hong Kong are a grievous attack on Hong Kong’s rights and freedoms as protected under the joint declaration. These arrests demonstrate that the Hong Kong and Chinese authorities deliberately misled the world about the true purpose of the national security law, which is being used to crush dissent and opposing political views. The United Kingdom will not turn our backs on the people of Hong Kong and will continue to offer BNOs the right to live and work in the United Kingdom.
My Lords, as we have seen in the last 24 hours, there are many ways in which the precious gift of democracy can be trashed. Under the cover of such darkness, does the Minister agree that mass arrests by 1,000 security officers and police and the intimidation and arrest of lawyers, legislators and activists are the methods of a police state and a crushing and grievous attack on democracy, human rights and the rule of law, and require immediate, robust Magnitsky sanctions against those responsible and those who are collaborators? As we watch the unfolding tragedy of democracy being replaced by dictatorship, will the Minister spell out how, beyond the BNO scheme, we intend to honour our treaty obligations to uphold a high degree of autonomy in Hong Kong, now clearly violated under the Vienna Convention on the Law of Treaties?
The continued suppression of the right to protest and a real decrease in the rights to representation, through the actions against the legislative body and indeed the recent Acts and arrests, have been increasingly evident in Hong Kong. We will certainly look at Magnitsky sanctions in their broadest sense. I cannot speculate on the specifics, as the noble Lord will appreciate, but the UK has been clear that—whether in terms of a suspension of the extradition treaty or the imposition of an arms embargo—we are taking a comprehensive look to ensure that those who suppress the rights of the people of Hong Kong are dealt with in a manner reflective of the values that we stand for.
My Lords, I entirely support all that the noble Lord, Lord Alton, said about the concerning situation in Hong Kong. I am glad to hear of the Minister’s deep concerns about what has been taking place. On Monday I met Ted Hui, one of the lawmakers who has fled from Hong Kong, concerned about his safety if he remained. He has had his assets frozen by HSBC, as have his wife and parents, who fled with him into exile. Is the Minister aware of any private meetings that have taken place between his ministerial colleagues and HSBC since the bank announced its support for the national security law? Are we concerned that Beijing is co-opting banks and international companies that have strong positions here in Britain into supporting the security law and freezing the assets of people who have been arrested? What can be done with our allies—
My Lords, we are acting in conjunction with our allies and have led international action in condemnation of the actions not just in Hong Kong but in mainland China. We regularly meet financial services organisations and remind them of their obligations to all their clients, but it would be inappropriate for me to comment on one specific case.
My Lords, we led in the EU on adopting human rights sanctions. Since the UK has refused the EU’s offer of a formal arrangement to address foreign affairs, when and if we introduce Magnitsky sanctions, how do we ensure that the EU follows suit?
My Lords, we are working closely with all our allies, including the EU. The noble Baroness will have noticed the recent statement made by the EU, but also by key countries such as Germany, condemning the actions in Hong Kong. On the specifics of sanctions and our human rights policy more generally, as I have assured her before, we will continue to work very closely with all our allies, including the European Union, on the important priorities that we give to human rights, not just in Hong Kong but across the world.
After the next speaker, the noble and learned Lord, Lord Garnier, I will call the noble Lord, Lord Collins.
My Lords, as other noble Lords have said, democracy and respect for human rights in Hong Kong are being snuffed out in front of our very eyes. Does my noble friend the Minister agree that any further delay in deploying Magnitsky sanctions against those identifiable Chinese officials responsible for this will just be embarrassing?
My Lords, we will look at all instruments available to us. On the issue of Magnitsky sanctions, as I said, I cannot speculate on the specifics but we keep the issue under review. To my mind, sanctions work effectively only when we work with our allies specifically.
Let us turn to the Minister’s last point. The United States has been able to introduce Magnitsky-style sanctions against Chinese Communist Party officials and Hong Kong executive members who are responsible for imposing these restrictions. Is the Minister aware of any obstacles or reasons why the Government have not acted, despite the calls across this House for the last six months for such sanctions to be introduced?
My Lords, as the noble Lord will be aware, we look at the sanctions policy specifically to ensure that the evidence base and thresholds are met. As I said, while I cannot go into specifics, we will continue to keep the situation under review—and, yes, act in co-ordination with our allies, including the United States, whose actions we observe closely in this respect.
My Lords, Title XII in Part 3 of the UK’s new deal with the EU provides that if the UK has “denounced”—that is the word used—the European Convention on Human Rights, the whole of Part 3 and all the security provisions cease to have force. Will the Government make representations to the European Commission not to approve the EU-China trade deal now before it unless there is a similar provision requiring China to abide by the current Hong Kong bill of rights—specifically its Article 16, on freedom of expression, and Article 17, on freedom of assembly? Will the Government ensure a similar provision in any trade deal between the UK and China?
My Lords, let me assure the noble Lord that human rights will be paramount in our discussions on a range of trade deals around the world. On the specific issues of our work with the EU and the decision it has taken on its trade deal, of course we make representations with European colleagues and will continue to do so while working closely with them in this respect.
My Lords, does not this further egregious breach of the treaty between us show that China has wilfully broken the friendship that we have long nourished and is firmly set on a path to be not a friend but an adversary of this nation and all who wish to maintain a rules-based order in the decades ahead?
My Lords, China continues to be an important international and strategic partner, but where there are abuses of human rights or other challenges, issues and concerns, we will raise them candidly, both bilaterally and through international fora. If we look at issues around the environment and climate change, for example, it is important that China also acts in this respect.
My Lords, it is about time that we got realistic about China. It is on a course of expansionism where it is threatening not only Hong Kong but Taiwan, and fortifying islands. Will the Minister not work hard to build a common front, which includes not only our traditional allies but the frontier states of the former Soviet republics and Russia itself? Unless we can get them on board, we will not effectively contain China.
My noble friend makes an important point. Let me assure him that my right honourable friend the Foreign Secretary and I are working hard, including in my capacity as Minister for Human Rights, to ensure that we broaden the alliance against the human rights situation that we see in Hong Kong and mainland China. We saw recently at the UN Third Committee an increase in the number of countries supporting the UK position, which I believe went from 28 to 39.
My Lords, will the Minister tell us what initiatives Her Majesty’s Government are taking to lead efforts to build international co-operation and establish multilateral mechanisms for response, including the establishment of a UN special rapporteur to monitor and report on the human rights situation, as called for by many serving and former UN independent experts last year?
My Lords, my right honourable friend the Foreign Secretary has been at the forefront of strengthening international alliances and action in this respect. I have already alluded to the progress we have made. The noble Baroness is right to raise the important issue of other representation within the context of human rights. I note in particular that the human rights commissioner recently put out a statement on the arrests. We continue to implore China to allow access for the human rights commissioner to China, to ensure that human rights can be respected and the world can see what is being done currently on many minorities within China.
My Lords, given the Minister’s response to the noble Lord, Lord Alton, will the Government consider lodging a case against China in the International Court of Justice on the grounds that its actions in Hong Kong constitute a violation of the Vienna Convention on the Law of Treaties?
As the noble Baroness may know, an issue at the International Court of Justice requires both parties to consent. It would not, to my mind, be an option that we should pursue because it is highly unlikely that China would consent to such actions.
My Lords, I declare an interest in Hong Kong that goes back to 1961, when I first went to work there. Does my noble friend agree that one lesson that applies to China and the USA is that, in any civilised nation state, the exercise of authority needs both the support and consent of the people? Does he also agree that China must be well aware that it was fortunate to inherit from Britain the world’s third most important financial centre, and that to flourish, such a tender plant needs sensitive treatment?
I agree with my noble friend on his final point. As someone who worked in financial services for 20 years before joining the Government, I totally agree that Hong Kong has long been a centre for financial services. It is therefore appropriate that, in Hong Kong, the Chinese authorities look to create the conditions and environment that allow firms to flourish and that centre to progress. I equally share his views that we must ensure freedoms and protections. He cited his long experience since 1961; he has had more time in business than I have had on God’s earth. Nevertheless, I totally share his view and opinions in this respect.
My Lords, while supporting every move by the Government to condemn the actions of the Hong Kong Government and to build up international pressure on the Government of China, I would like to receive reassurance that the Government recognise their responsibility for the interests and well-being of all the people of Hong Kong, and that any action they take does not directly or indirectly affect the ongoing business and livelihoods of its people and companies.
My Lords, I agree with the noble Lord that it is important that we consider our actions in the light of the situation in Hong Kong and, equally, the implications of our continuing relationship. However, it is right that, while we recognise China and Hong Kong as important financial centres and trade partners—and, as I have indicated already, an important international partner on issues such as climate change—it is also right that we call out human rights abuses wherever we see them, whether in mainland China, particularly in Xinjiang against the Uighurs, or as we currently see in the continuing suppression of democracy, human rights, freedom and the right to protest. It is right that we do so and we have a special obligation, particular to BNOs. I am proud of the fact that the Government are taking specific steps in this respect.
My Lords, all supplementary questions have been asked.
Business of the House
Motion on Standing Orders
That Standing Order 72 (Affirmative Instruments) be dispensed with to allow the motions to approve the Health Protection (Coronavirus, Restrictions) (Self-Isolation and Linked Households) (England) Regulations 2020, laid before the House on 11 December 2020, the Health Protection (Coronavirus, Restrictions) (All Tiers) (England) (Amendment) (No. 4) Regulations 2020, laid before the House on 30 December 2020, and the Health Protection (Coronavirus, Restrictions) (No. 3) and (All Tiers) (England) (Amendment) Regulations 2021, laid before the House on 5 January, to be moved today, notwithstanding that no report from the Joint Committee on Statutory Instruments on the instruments has been laid before the House; and that the debate on the Health Protection (Coronavirus, Restrictions) (Self-Isolation and Linked Households) (England) Regulations 2020, the Health Protection (Coronavirus, Restrictions) (All Tiers) (England) (Amendment) Regulations 2020, the Health Protection (Coronavirus, Restrictions) (All Tiers) (England) (Amendment) (No. 4) Regulations 2020 and the Health Protection (Coronavirus, Restrictions) (No. 3) and (All Tiers) (England) (Amendment) Regulations 2021 set down for today shall be limited to three hours and not one and a half hours.
Business of the House
Timing of Debates
The following Statement was made in the House of Commons on Wednesday 6 January.
“Mr Speaker, I share your gratitude to the House of Commons staff for all their efforts and hard work to allow us to meet today in the way that we are. Before I begin my Statement, I would like to say that I know the thoughts of the whole House will be with the honourable Member for Cardiff Central (Jo Stevens), who is currently in hospital with Covid, and we wish her a full and speedy recovery.
With your permission, Mr Speaker, I will make a Statement about the measures we are taking to defeat this new variant of Covid-19, protecting our NHS while it carries out the vaccinations that will finally free us from this wretched virus. There is a fundamental difference between the regulations before the House today and the position we have faced at any previous stage, because we now have the vaccines that are our means of escape, and we will use every available second of the lockdown to place this invisible shield around the elderly and the vulnerable.
Already, with Pfizer and Oxford-AstraZeneca combined, we have immunised over 1.1 million people in England and over 1.3 million in the UK. Our NHS is following the plan drawn up by the Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation, which is aimed at saving the most lives in the fastest possible time. Given that the average age of Covid fatalities is over 80, it is significant that we have already vaccinated more than 650,000 people in that age group, meaning that within two to three weeks almost one in four of the most vulnerable groups will have a significant degree of immunity. By 15 February, the NHS is committed to offering a vaccination to everyone in the top four priority groups, including older care home residents and staff, everyone over 70, all front-line NHS and care staff and all those who are clinically extremely vulnerable.
In working towards that target, there are already almost 1,000 vaccination centres across the country, including 595 GP-led sites, with a further 180 opening later this week, and 107 hospital sites, with another 100 later this week. Next week we will also have seven vaccination centres opening in places such as sports stadiums and exhibition centres. Pharmacies are already working with GPs to deliver the vaccine in many areas of the country, and I am grateful to Brigadier Prosser, who is leading the efforts of our Armed Forces in supporting this vaccine rollout. We have already vaccinated more people in this country than the rest of Europe combined, and we will give the House the maximum possible transparency about our acceleration of this effort, publishing daily updates online from Monday, so that jab by jab honourable Members can scrutinise the progress being made every single day.
Yet as we take this giant leap towards finally overcoming the virus and reclaiming our lives, we have to contend with the new variant, which is between 50% and 70% more contagious. With the old variant, the tiers agreed by the House last month were working. But, alas, this mutation, spreading with frightening ease and speed in spite of the sterling work of the British public, has led to more cases than we have ever seen before—numbers that, alas, cannot be explained away by the meteoric rise in testing. When the Office for National Statistics reports that more than 2% of the population is now infected, and when the number of patients in hospitals in England is now 40% higher than during the first peak in April, it is inescapable that the facts are changing and we must change our response. And so we have no choice but to return to a national lockdown in England, with similar measures being adopted by the devolved Administrations, so that we can control this new variant until we can take the most likely victims out of its path with vaccines.
My right honourable friend the Secretary of State for Health and Social Care will open the debate on the full regulations shortly, but the key point, I am afraid, is that once again we are instructing everyone to stay at home, leaving only for limited reasons permitted by law, such as to shop for essentials, to work if people absolutely cannot work from home, to exercise, to seek medical assistance such as getting a Covid test or to escape injury or harm, including domestic abuse. We are advising the clinically extremely vulnerable to begin shielding again, and, because we must do everything possible to stop the spread of the disease, we have asked schools and colleges to close their doors to all except vulnerable children and those of critical workers.
I do not think the House will be in any doubt about our determination—my determination—to keep schools open, especially primary schools, for as long as possible, because all the evidence shows that school is the best place for our children. Indeed, all the evidence shows that schools are safe and that the risk posed to children by coronavirus is vanishingly small. For most children, the most dangerous part of going to school, even in the midst of a global pandemic, remains, I am afraid, crossing the road in order to get there. But the data showed, and our scientific advisers agreed, that our efforts to contain the spread of this new variant would not be sufficient if schools continued to act as a vector, or potential vector, for spreading the virus between households.
I know the whole House will join me in paying tribute to all the teachers, pupils and parents who are now making the rapid move to remote learning. We will do everything possible to support that process, building on the 560,000 laptops and tablets provided last year, with over 50,000 delivered to schools on Monday and more than 100,000 being delivered in total during the first week of term. We have partnered with some of the UK’s leading mobile operators to provide free mobile data to disadvantaged families to support access to education resources, and I am very grateful to EE, Three, Tesco Mobile, Smarty, Sky Mobile, Virgin Mobile and Vodafone for supporting this offer.
Oak National Academy will continue to provide video lessons, and it is very good news that the BBC is launching the biggest education programme in its history, with both primary and secondary school programmes across its platforms. We recognise it will not be possible or fair for all exams to go ahead this summer as normal, and the Education Secretary will make a Statement shortly.
I know many people will ask whether the decision on schools could have been reached sooner, and the answer is that we have been doing everything in our power to keep them open, because children’s education is too vital and their futures too precious to be disrupted until every other avenue, every other option, has been closed off and every other course of action has been taken. That is why schools were the very last thing to close, as I have long promised they would be. When we begin to move out of lockdown, I promise that they will be the very first things to reopen. That moment may come after the February half-term, although we should remain extremely cautious about the timetable ahead.
As was the case last spring, our emergence from the lockdown cocoon will be not a big bang but a gradual unwrapping. That is why the legislation this House will vote on later today runs until 31 March, not because we expect the full national lockdown to continue until then, but to allow a steady, controlled and evidence-led move down through the tiers on a regional basis, carefully and brick by brick, as it were, breaking free of our confinement, but without risking the hard-won gains that our protections have given us.
These restrictions will be kept under continuous review, with a statutory requirement to review every two weeks and a legal obligation to remove them if they are no longer deemed necessary to limit the transmission of the virus. For as long as restrictions are in place we will continue to support everyone affected by them, from the continued provision of free school meals to the £4.6 billion of additional assistance for our retail, hospitality and leisure sectors announced by my right honourable friend the Chancellor yesterday.
We are in a tough final stretch, made only tougher by the new variant, but this country will come together. The miracle of scientific endeavour, much of it right here in the UK, has given us not only sight of the finish line but a clear route to get there. After the marathon of last year, we are indeed now in a sprint—a race to vaccinate the vulnerable faster than the virus can reach them, and every needle in every arm makes a difference. As I say, we are already vaccinating faster than every comparable country, and that rate I hope will only increase, but if we are going to win this race for our population, we have to give our army of vaccinators the biggest head start we possibly can and that is why, to do that, we must once again stay at home, protect the NHS and save lives. I commend this Statement to the House.”
My Lords, I think it is appropriate to begin with a comment on the shocking and extraordinary events that unfolded on our TV screens last night. Today we are discussing the impact of a global virus on the UK and the drastic and difficult measures needed to tackle it. At the same time, the United States is having to contend with an additional virus of lies, misinformation and conspiracy theories that have infected the very heart of its democracy. Last night was perhaps predictable, given the toxic atmosphere that has characterised President Trump’s term of office and the clear attempt by him and his close allies, including some involved in UK politics, to poison democracy.
It is right to condemn the violence of last night, but to do so without also condemning the cause of such violence is an empty gesture. Given that the Conservative Government gave the extraordinary honour of a state visit to President Trump and given his close relationship with the Prime Minister, Mr Johnson is in a strong position to lead that condemnation. To do otherwise would be a failure to defend democracy.
I hope that the noble Baroness the Lord Privy Seal, being the only Cabinet Minister speaking in Parliament today, as the House of Commons is not sitting, will also condemn the actions, comments and tweets of President Trump. She should be clear that we stand alongside those Senators and House Representatives, Democrats and Republicans, who have defended and preserved the rule of law.
Tackling the Covid virus here at home needs that same resolve and determination of purpose. It is disappointing that our current way of working means that Ministers no longer read Statement repeats, particularly on matters of such grave importance. When events are so fast moving, and the government response changes so often, it would be helpful.
With the Covid virus mutating and infections, hospitalisations and deaths rising at an alarming rate, we must all abide by the new lockdown rules and play our part in trying to minimise the impact on our fellow citizens. As far as I am concerned, that is not for debate. I am appalled by those who have tried to downplay the impact. Since Monday we have seen 2,278 Covid-related deaths in the UK and over 180,000 new cases recorded. The position is now worse than in April and we all know that winter is a more dangerous time for viruses to spread.
Our National Health Service risks being completely overwhelmed by this new variant, which is at least 50% more infectious than the original. An increased number of infections means not just greater prevalence of the virus, but also the possibility of further variants. The last Statement from the Prime Minister on Covid, when he announced the so-called winter plan, was just six weeks ago, although, with all that has happened and the policy changes we have seen, it feels much longer.
We understand that policies change in response to events. However, too often policies are changed at the last minute, then again and even again, when others with greater expertise and knowledge have been issuing warnings for weeks. Many of us heard with incredulity the Home Secretary claim:
“The Government has consistently, throughout this year, been ahead of the curve in terms of proactive measures with regards to coronavirus.”
This is an extraordinary claim when the Prime Minister’s actions have often lagged behind the advice of the Government’s own scientific advisory body, SAGE. Yes, we support the proposed measures, but the Government have to understand that it is in the national interest to raise concerns and make suggestions. We will press for further economic measures for individuals, businesses and jobs. This is vital for their survival now and the post-Covid recovery.
I know that the noble Baroness the Leader of the House understands that public confidence and support are essential. Lockdown restrictions might buy time by reducing the number of infections, but they are not a cure. The only game in town is now the vaccine. The new vaccines bring great optimism, but also challenges. The rollout needs to be swift, efficient and successful. This will be a huge logistical exercise so the Government must fully exploit all the experience and expertise available. We must all give our support.
The Statement announces that there will be updates online. Can the noble Baroness confirm that this information will provide details for the whole of the UK? Will she ensure there is an opportunity to ask questions of Ministers in the House? She will understand the need to ensure there are not local or regional disparities that leave some areas more vulnerable than others. In the Statement, the Prime Minister said that
“pharmacies are already working with GPs to deliver the vaccine”
but she may have seen the reports that major pharmacy companies with expertise in vaccinations have said that their efforts to support the scheme have been rebuffed. Can the noble Baroness the Lord Privy Seal comment on that?
On schools, teachers, parents and pupils are in despair at the Government’s incompetence. The constant chopping and changing of policy is mind-blowing. A start to rebuilding some confidence would be an apology to the London Borough of Greenwich and other authorities threatened with legal action by the Department for Education before Christmas for daring to act ahead of the Government’s decision to do the same. The focus now has to be on protecting pupils’ education.
On home schooling, could the noble Baroness update us on three issues? First, what progress has been made to relieve the financial burden of many families facing increased data charges? Secondly, how many pupils still do not have access to an adequate digital device and what further action is being taken to ensure that all pupils have access to the tech equipment they need? Thirdly, what are the Government doing to ensure that all school leadership teams are supported in their attempts to increase the online learning offer to home-schooled pupils? These are vital to stem the clear gap in provision between independent and state sector schools.
There is some progress in the Statement about financial support. However, as the Chamber of Commerce and others have warned, it does not yet go far enough. I have previously raised the issue of the self-employed, including our world-renowned creative arts sector. What are the plans to support our arts, music and performance industries? Alongside performers, an army of support staff, writers and many others add real colour to our daily lives, and we will all need a bit more of a splash of that when the pandemic has passed. I also make my now regular plea for the hospitality sector. It is among the hardest hit in this hokey-cokey year of lockdowns. Can the noble Baroness the Leader of the House outline any Government plans for pubs, bars and restaurants to ensure that they can function properly once restrictions start to be lifted again?
Given the further lockdown, it is harder for many to remain in or seek regular employment. When will the Government make further announcements on support for those in the private rental sector facing the possible threat of eviction? Will the Government now halt their pernicious plans to cut universal credit by £20 a week in April? It has been estimated that failing to do so could put 300,000 more children into poverty—a legacy no Government should want.
The noble Baroness the Lord Privy Seal will be aware that Health Service Journal reported an official briefing by NHS England yesterday which suggests that
“London’s hospitals are less than two weeks from being overwhelmed.”
Can she tell your Lordships’ House whether NHS England expects the same impact on hospitals elsewhere in the UK? What national response is planned?
Even when concerned or exasperated by delays in action or failures in the available economic support, we have supported the Government’s efforts to tackle this awful disease and find a way out of the pandemic. It is challenging and we will continue to give that support. That also includes asking questions and raising issues of concern in the national interest, so that we can play our part in seeking to eradicate this virus and prepare the UK for the post-Covid recovery.
My Lords, I begin by associating myself with the comments of the noble Baroness, Lady Smith, in respect of recent events in America. This is probably the most sombre Statement we have heard on Covid. Despite all the restrictions of the past nine months, the incidence of the disease and the numbers of hospital admissions and deaths are at record highs. These terrible figures make today’s measures inevitable and we support them.
The difference between the first time we went into lockdown and today is, of course, the arrival of the vaccines. This is what can give the country some hope. The key challenge now posed to the Government, the NHS and the whole country is how to get as many people vaccinated as speedily as possible. The government targets are extremely ambitions. While such ambition is commendable, the failure to achieve so many past targets, particularly in relation to test and trace, make us somewhat cautious about simply accepting them. If they are to be achieved, every possible resource must be brought into play. In this respect, there are legitimate questions to be asked of the Government.
First, we clearly need more qualified health professionals to administer the vaccines than those currently employed by the NHS. Many retired doctors and nurses are desperately keen to get involved, but they are finding that the bureaucracy required before they can get started is ludicrously burdensome and disproportionately prescriptive. Both the Prime Minister and the Health Secretary have said in recent days that they would look into this, so what is the Government’s target for producing a new, streamlined application process for such retired medics? The Government will not meet their targets without them, so they had better get a move on.
Secondly, I echo the noble Baroness, Lady Smith, and ask why more pharmacists are not planned to be involved. They have an extremely good track record in administering flu jabs. What reason is there for not involving in the Covid vaccination programme any pharmacy that takes part in the national flu vaccination programme?
Thirdly, particularly at the larger vaccination centres, there appears to be a need for volunteers to support the medics in managing the flow of those being vaccinated, helping, among other things, to sort out their transport requirements. Last year, some 750,000 people volunteered to help the NHS to deal with the disease. Is this volunteer pool being activated to help facilitate the vaccination process?
If we need every possible resource to be brought to bear, we also need to ensure that everybody who needs a vaccination actually gets one. In recent weeks, the noble Lord, Lord Bethell, has explained that, unless you are enrolled with a GP, you will not be covered by the programme at all. That is simply not good enough. Particularly in the inner cities, there are vulnerable groups, such as the homeless, who are unlikely to be registered with a GP, and unless the Government act those groups will fall through the cracks. Will the Government undertake to work with relevant homeless, refugee and other charities that are in touch with these registered groups to make sure that they do get registered and vaccinated in due time?
I fully accept that the Government need to be rigorous about the priority order in which they undertake the vaccinations. However, do they accept that there is a strong case for vaccinating teachers and other school staff at a relatively early stage, possibly placing them in category 7—that is, when all the over-65s and the most vulnerable have been vaccinated? This will facilitate the resumption of the education system and give those who work in our schools the protection that they deserve.
Even if the vaccination programme goes to plan, the economic costs of Covid will be dire for many individuals and businesses. The Government have taken many welcome steps to support those affected, but there are two areas where I believe further action is needed. First, we know that many individuals who should be self-isolating fail to do so because they cannot afford the loss of income that this would involve. The Government established a scheme involving a payment of £500 for those on low income, administered by local authorities, but this is not working properly. Not enough funds have been made available—we suggest that full salary support should be offered in any event—not enough of those affected even know about the scheme, and many of those who need support are not covered by it. Could the Government undertake an urgent and fundamental review of the scheme, because at present its failure seriously undermines the whole test, track and trace system.
Secondly, it is now clear that for many businesses, particularly in retail, hospitality, the arts and accommodation, the impact of Covid will last far longer than anybody ever feared. For those who cannot trade at all, even the current government support will simply be inadequate because they cannot escape their overheads, so many fundamentally sound businesses will go under unless the support packages are improved and lengthened. Will the Government now commit to an enhanced support package arranged to last until the summer? Will they modify the job support scheme to include those who were previously excluded?
The Government have consistently responded slowly, overpromised and underdelivered. Trust and faith in government requires the Government to level with people, not just on the current threat but on the realistic, unvarnished possibilities of dealing with it. Only on that basis will we all be able to work together, as we wish to do, to see off this terrible scourge.
I thank the noble Baroness and the noble Lord for their comments and questions. I wish the noble Baroness a very happy birthday. I hope she enjoys a gin or two later, as I am sure she will. I also fully endorse the comments of my right honourable friends the Prime Minister and the Foreign Secretary about the shocking events in the United States last night.
The noble Baroness asked about data. From Monday we will publish daily data on the vaccination programme, going through the levels of detail that she asked about. Both the noble Lord and the noble Baroness asked about the economic response, quite rightly, and they will be aware that we have put in place one of the world’s most comprehensive responses to the pandemic, spending over £280 billion so far on economic support. Of course, this week, we also announced additional support worth £4.6 billion for businesses affected by the new restrictions.
All businesses in England legally required to close as a result of this lockdown will receive one-off grants of up to £9,000, which will benefit over 600,000 businesses. As more businesses are forced to close by the restrictions, more will also receive the monthly grants, worth up to £3,000, which, taken together, means that businesses could receive up to £18,000 over the next three months if they have been forced to close due to restrictions. That is in no way to diminish the terrible time many businesses are having, but it is further support, and I believe it shows that we will continue to keep the package under review and react to circumstances as and when we can. Of course, I remind the noble Baroness and the noble Lord that we have protected 12 million jobs so far through the furlough and self-employment schemes, both of which have been extended to April.
On the vaccine programme, by the end of the week, we expect there to be 1,000 vaccination centres across the country, with another seven major centres following next week. Both the noble Lord and the noble Baroness asked about community pharmacies, and as more supplies become available and they can administer significant numbers of doses of the vaccine, they will certainly play a role in the programme. We have undertaken months of extensive preparations and significant investment, including £230 million for our manufacturing infrastructure, so that we can ensure that this ambitious programme, as the noble Lord rightly said, is rolled out.
He mentioned the bureaucracy for those wanting to help with the vaccination programme, and he may have heard my right honourable friend the Prime Minister yesterday, when he was asked about this, saying that we will be tackling this as an immediate priority. Of course, we will work with charities and groups across civil society to help deliver our ambitious plan. Once again, the British people have shown their willingness to engage and help to deliver the programmes that we need, by volunteering and other things. We are incredibly grateful to everyone who is doing that on our behalf, and we thank them in advance.
The noble Baroness asked about education. We have bought over 1 million laptops and tablets for disadvantaged young people throughout this pandemic. Over 560,000 have already been delivered, with an extra 100,000 this week alone, and by the end of the week we hope to have delivered 750,000 devices to the most disadvantaged families. We are working with all the UK’s leading mobile network operators to provide free data for educational sites and to deliver 4G routers to families who need to access the internet. Of course, we will continue to work closely with teachers to support them through this difficult time, and we are very grateful for all the work that they undertook over the Christmas holidays in order to provide Covid-secure environments for young people. We know how disappointing it is that, unfortunately, the variant has meant that we have had to take the very difficult decision to close schools in the short term.
The noble Baroness asked about culture. She may well be aware that theatres, although with no audiences, are still able to open for training, rehearsals and filming. Of course, we have created the £1.7 billion Culture Recovery Fund, and, so far, over £500 million of grants have been awarded to the sector. The noble Baroness also asked about support for renters. The measures are currently being reviewed and we will provide an update shortly.
There are a variety of ways in which the NHS can increase its capacity—for instance, through opening further surge beds in existing hospitals, mutual aid, using independent sector capacity and, of course, opening extra capacity in the Nightingale hospitals. I assure her that, around the country, options will be explored and taken up where they are both relevant and necessary across the country.
The noble Lord asked about the test and trace support payments—the £500 for those on low incomes to self-isolate. We have provided £50 million to local authorities delivering this scheme and have made sure that those advised to self-isolate by the NHS app can also access the payment. We have also made available £15 million for discretionary funding for those facing hardship when self-isolating but who are not eligible for the payment. The noble Lord will also be aware that we have made statutory sick pay available from day one.
My Lords, we now come to the 30 minutes allocated for Back-Bench questions. I ask that questions and answers be brief, so that we can call a maximum number of speakers.
My Lords, as the PM’s Statement yesterday made clear, this lockdown is sadly necessary to avoid medical catastrophe, but he was also clear that it comes with significant costs, not least to schoolchildren, who face a year of disrupted education—I declare my interest as a founder of two schools and a parent of three school-aged children. Does my noble friend agree that the closure of schools if necessary is nevertheless highly regrettable? Does she commit to reopening schools as soon as is humanly possible and before any other institutions in society reopen once the vaccination programme is rolled out? Does she agree with the noble Lord, Lord Newby, with Robert Halfon, the chair of the Select Committee, and with others that teachers and TAs should be vaccinated as an urgent priority to make that happen?
I thank my noble friend for his questions. He is absolutely right. We entirely agree that schools and colleges are the best place for children and young people to be, not just for education but for their health and well-being, which is why we tried so hard to keep them open. Unfortunately, as my noble friend said, we just could not do it. It was not that schools themselves were unsafe for either children or pupils; it is that, with the new variant, we need to use every lever at our disposal to reduce community transmission and contact. It was for that reason that schools were closed; it was not because teachers have not done fantastic work. My brother and sister-in-law, who are both teachers, spent Christmas trying to make their schools Covid secure, but we still had to close them. We will certainly keep this position under review; we will certainly try to bring back schools as soon as we can. Of course, regular testing will be at the centre of our plans. All that hard work will not be in vain; it will just be used slightly further away than we may have hoped.
As the Leader of the House knows, it is not yet clear whether a person who has been vaccinated is still able to transmit the virus; it is quite possible in theory for them to have no symptoms themselves and yet to pass it on. I understand that a group of scientists is working on this issue. Is the Leader of the House able to indicate when those scientists might be able to report? Clearly, this is vital information which we need to have sooner rather than later.
I can assure the noble and right reverend Lord that PHE will be employing existing surveillance systems and enhanced follow-up of cases to monitor how effective the vaccine is in protecting against a range of outcomes, including infections, symptomatic disease, hospitalisations, mortality and onward transmission. I can assure him that that work is in progress, but I cannot give him a timescale. He will understand that we will need time to gather sufficient data to get a clear picture, but he is right that it will be critical.
My Lords, the black and Asian community is particularly at risk from the virus. The vaccine is our best hope. Yet that community is targeted by anti-vaccine campaigners. Will the Government work with faith leaders and work with and support the voluntary community health sector within those communities to promote strong and culturally appropriate public health messages? Will they work too with social media platforms to counter this insidious and deadly anti-vaccine propaganda?
My Lords, this morning, the Health Service Journal has said that our already overburdened hospitals are trying to release Covid patients into care homes but that a major problem is stopping this. The National Care Forum reports that insurance for designated Covid settings is now almost impossible to get and that, without indemnity cover, they cannot take Covid patients. NHS Providers is begging the Treasury to help, as hospital beds must be freed up, but the Treasury is refusing. Can the Lord Privy Seal take this up with the Treasury as a matter of extreme urgency and help resolve this problem, not of care homes’ making, which is blocking beds in hospitals at a time of national crisis? Please will she keep me informed of progress?
My Lords, I congratulate the Government on being way ahead of the curve in vaccinating more people in this country than the whole of Europe combined—and thank God we did not sign up to the EU procurement racket. Does my noble friend agree that a jab in the arm is not rocket science and does not need experts to do it? Tens of thousands of people self-inject daily, and all we had was a two-minute teach-in from a nurse and that worked. Can we call on every able-bodied volunteer, not just retired medics and professionals and the military, cut out the NHS’s idiotic 21 forms to fill in, and run those vaccination centres 24/7? The public want to pile in to help. Let us encourage them to do it and put no obstacles in their way.
My noble friend is absolutely right: I am pleased to say that more than 1.3 million people across the UK have already received the first dose of the vaccine—as he said, it is more people than the rest of Europe combined. This is a united endeavour across all four nations. We will move every sinew to ensure that we can roll out the vaccine programme as quickly as we can, but, of course, it must also be done safely.
My Lords, all GPs are required to register their patients with learning disabilities—that is just 200,000 people nationally. All are entitled to a flu jab, along with the over-65s. Given their 20-year shorter life expectancy in ordinary times and a Covid mortality rate for under-35s that is 30 times higher than for their chronological age group, will the Lord Privy Seal ask the Government to offer early vaccination to this whole group of registered patients with learning disability and not just to those with Down’s syndrome or severe learning disabilities?
As the noble Baroness will know, we are following the advice of the independent experts on the JCVI on which groups of people to prioritise for vaccines. The committee has advised that the immediate priority should be to prevent deaths and to protect health and care staff, with old age deemed the single biggest factor determining mortality.
My Lords, in his Statement yesterday, the Prime Minister said
“we must do everything possible to stop the spread of the disease”.
Of course, we all agree with that, but one thing missing from the Statement was any reference to the importance of wearing face coverings in places where it is mandatory—I am thinking particularly of public transport, shops and other areas where it makes a real difference to the spread of the disease. Last Wednesday, in the debate on the Covid SIs, I asked the Lord Privy Seal’s noble colleague what the Government intended to do about the attacks on public-spirited individuals who attempt to encourage non-wearers of masks to comply with the law and what advice they could offer to members of the public who believe that the law should be obeyed but are deterred by the threat of physical violence from confronting the law-breakers. He was not able to give me an answer; he said that it was not in his brief, but I wonder whether the noble Baroness is able to do so today.
I am afraid I shall have to go back to my noble friend and ask him to get back to the noble Lord, because I do not have the answer. Obviously he will know that there are fines available, including enforcement fines, so there are mechanisms in place—but I will return to my noble friend and ask him to respond.
My Lords, it is not only American democracy that is under threat from conspiracy theories and fake news, as the noble Lord, Lord Boateng, indicated, so it is important that the Government keep their nerve and keep to a consistency of policy in taking us forward. We have some very hard pounding ahead of us, and it is important to make people aware of how difficult the way ahead is. To that extent I found myself in agreement with the noble Lord, Lord Blencathra, that we have to avoid the tick-box approach to using the vast number of volunteers and retired medics who are willing to come forward and help us in this crisis. I hope that the Government will stay consistent, but also be flexible in bringing forward those volunteers to help.
I hope I addressed the noble Lord’s point when I responded to similar comments from the noble Lord, Lord Newby, and also, of course, from my noble friend. The Prime Minister said yesterday quite clearly that we wanted to cut through the bureaucracy as an immediate priority.
My Lords, if any may have doubted the seriousness of the current situation, they had only to watch last night’s BBC report from University College Hospital, or to note that we are once again seeing multiple deaths in care home settings. Along with the Prime Minister’s Statement, it was announced that places of worship in England may remain open. I know that that has been welcomed by some faith communities, although others have already gone largely online. However, all such communities continue to engage with energy in acts of pastoral and community service. In the light of this, would the Leader of the House care to suggest what she and her colleagues would most wish to ask of our faith communities? What further might we offer? I believe that the noble Lord, Lord Boateng, may already have provided part of an answer.
I thank the right reverend Prelate—and, of course, all the people from all the different faith communities who are working so hard to help with the difficult situation we find ourselves in. He is absolutely right: the noble Lord, Lord Boateng, raised some very important points, and we all need to come together to encourage people to take up the vaccine, and to deal with some of the myths and worries that people have. Trusted local community leaders such as faith leaders can really help to do that. We want to try to get everyone involved, so that we can get to the light at the end of the tunnel and, we hope, beat this thing once and for all.
My Lords, may I ask my noble friend what assurances have been received from AstraZeneca that vaccine supply will be able to keep pace with the Government’s commendably ambitious deployment plans? And what contribution is expected of other vaccine sources?
I am sure we would all like to pay tribute to everyone who has worked so amazingly quickly to help to develop both the Oxford vaccine and the Pfizer vaccine. I can assure my noble friend that AstraZeneca is accelerating its delivery schedule. Obviously, we are working extremely closely with the companies in order to deliver what the noble Lord called our ambitious programme. We of course have access to 100 million doses of the vaccine on behalf of the whole of the UK, the Crown dependencies and the overseas territories.
My Lords, about 40% of those working in the arts, which continue to buckle under the strain of the pandemic, remain ineligible for financial support. Will the Government allow the guidance for the culture recovery fund to be changed so that freelancers can benefit, if there is still time—or will they provide directly the necessary support that they and the rest of the 3 million workers who have fallen through the gaps in support since March desperately need?
As the noble Earl rightly says, we have created the £1.57 billion culture recovery fund, of which £500 million in grants has already been awarded to more than 3,000 museums, music venues, independent cinemas, circuses, heritage sites and theatres in England. I know that there is ongoing dialogue between the Secretary of State and the sector to which he refers, and I am sure that all is being done to try to see what else can be done.
My Lords, as we now know that, in facing this virus, no one is safe unless everyone is safe, are the Government going to repeat and expand the successful Everybody In programme from the first lockdown, to ensure that every rough sleeper is in safe accommodation, with adequate washing and toilet facilities, so that they are safe and the community is safe?
The noble Baroness refers to an extremely important issue. Through this dreadful time, we can all agree that the programme to help get rough sleepers into accommodation has been one of the positive things that has come out of it. I can assure her that our £15 million Protect programme, which is running alongside the Everyone In campaign, is providing targeted funding for councils in areas with high numbers of rough sleepers, prioritising the clinically vulnerable and those with a history of rough sleeping. That is on top of the £10 million cold winter fund, which is helping all councils support rough sleepers into self-contained accommodation. By September 2020 we had housed 29,000 vulnerable people as part of the successful Everyone In programme.
My Lords, the Minister quite rightly said that we now have access to Oxford AstraZeneca vaccines, which will be distributed across the United Kingdom and the Crown dependencies. Can she also undertake to publish data on a regular basis on how many vaccines per 100,000 of population are being made available in England, Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland?
I can say to the noble Baroness that currently we are allocating the vaccine doses based on the business as usual Barnett formula. As I have said, we will begin to publish daily data next week. I suspect that the data she is talking about will be part of that, but I will make sure that her request goes to the Department of Health, because I am sure that is data that everyone would be interested in.
My Lords, the rollout of vaccines is a massive achievement, and gives us much-needed light at the end of the tunnel. However, I read today that clinicians in South Africa suggest that administering a single dose of the vaccines leaves patients at great risk from the new coronavirus variants. Can the Leader of the House give an assurance that urgent research is being undertaken in this country to ensure the efficacy of the Pfizer vaccine, now that the second dose has been moved from the original recommended three-week gap to 12 weeks?
I can certainly assure my noble friend that, obviously, this will be kept under review—but the UK CMOs agree with the JCVI that the evidence shows that one dose of either vaccine can protect people against the effects of the virus, reducing severe disease, hospitalisations and deaths. For both vaccines, data provided to the MHRA demonstrates that, while she is right to say that efficacy is optimised when a second dose is administered, both offer considerable protection after a single dose in the short term. I would also reassure her that everyone will still receive their second dose within 12 weeks of their first. The second dose completes the course and is important for longer-term protection—but the data provided to the MHRA gives us comfort that giving one dose with that gap remains an important thing to do.
My Lords, as the need for tighter restrictions is, sadly, all too evident, can the Minister explain the rationale for issuing regulations that fall short of the guidance? The government website offers a sphinx-like riddle by way of explanation: the law is what you must do—that bit is clear—and the guidance might be a mixture of what you must do and what you should do. How does this confused messaging help citizens who are trying to do the right thing, and how does it help our police, who are being asked to enforce restrictions that are not, in truth, mandated by law?
We are continuing to work with the National Police Chiefs’ Council and the College of Policing on updated guidance. I think that with the new strain, and the figures we are seeing on a daily basis, people are well aware of the situation we are in. The British people have been fantastic in all the work they have done and the efforts they have made to get us this far. With the vaccine rollout there is light at the end of the tunnel, and we repeat the message “Stay at home, wash your hands, keep your space and protect the NHS”.
I hope that the noble Baroness will support the campaign launched today by the Daily Mirror, the TUC and the Labour Party called Let’s Vaccinate Britain. To go back to what the noble Lord, Lord Blencathra, said—and I might not agree with everything he said—it is an effort that we should all be making on a 24-hour basis. Furthermore, what are the Government doing about the 9% of children who do not have technology at home so they can take advantage of remote learning?
As I said in a previous answer, we have bought more than 1 million laptops and tablets for disadvantaged people, which are being distributed. By the end of the week we will have delivered 750,000 devices. We are also working with all the UK’s leading mobile network operators to provide free data for educational sites and have been delivering 4G routers to families who need access to the internet. Of course, the BBC has also announced that it will deliver 14 weeks of educational programmes and lessons to every household, which is also very welcome.
I remind my noble friend and this House that major elections involving millions of people have actually successfully taken place in Georgia this week, and by-elections have taken place in Scotland. Given the rollout of the vaccine, could my noble friend please reconfirm that elections will take place here on 6 May? As with other aspects of government, will that be reviewed in mid-February and stuck to? At the same time, could the request be made to all parties that they desist from delivering literature until the end of March?
As my noble friend will know, primary legislation provides that local elections take place in May. The Cabinet Office is working with election administrators and public health bodies to make sure that everyone can cast their vote safety and securely. I am sure that the whole House would like to thank those authorities for the work they are undertaking to make sure that elections can go ahead in a Covid-secure way.
My Lords, do the Government anticipate approving a programme of digitalisation of all vaccination records when passporting of such becomes a necessary fact of life? Will that include those from abroad, and in a way that counters fraud, which I am informed occasionally happens with PCR test results? In so saying, will the Government consider an immediate mandatory pre-boarding PCR test within 72 hours of travel to avoid the need for self-isolation on arrival, while somehow making provision for in-transit passengers?
We will be, and we are, looking at additional measures for international travel. Pre-departure testing is an option that we are considering for an extra layer of protection, which would be in addition to our mandatory 10-day self-isolation period for countries not on the travel corridor or the test and release scheme. Work is going on in the DfT and an announcement on decisions around that will be made in the coming days.
My Lords, could the noble Baroness come back to the issue of community pharmacists? They have huge experience of flu vaccination, are used to opening all hours and are very accessible, yet the Government and NHS seem very reluctant to use them in the vaccination programme. Is that being reviewed?
My Lords, I welcome the additional financial support for businesses and communities announced by the Government this week. I highlight in particular the extra £729 million that will go to Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. Does my noble friend agree with me that that further underlines the value of our union and the fact that, during and beyond this pandemic, we are stronger, safer and better off together?
I entirely agree with my noble friend. He is absolutely right about the £729 million that we have provided to Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. Of course, as we have already discussed, the vaccination programme is a UK-wide effort, and we will all be working together for a common aim within our union.
My Lords, the Government have given commitments regarding rolling out the vaccination programme in England. Is the noble Baroness aware that the Government of Wales have been unable to give such a firm timescale because of uncertainty about time scheduling and the quantity of vaccine available to them, which is provided by the NHS in England? Can she ensure urgent transparency concerning an adequate supply of this vaccine for the Welsh Government?
I think all the devolved Administrations are working closely with central government. As I mentioned in response to a previous question, we are allocating vaccine doses based on the business-as-usual Barnett formula, and more than 1.3 million people across the UK have already received the first dose of the vaccine. Of course, we will continue to work closely together because we want to ensure that the programme is rolled out across all four nations so we can all benefit from it.
My Lords, the noble Baroness may well be aware that in Brighton and Hove the council made the decision to close nurseries under its control, except to vulnerable children and those of key workers. Councillor Hannah Clare of Brighton and Hove Council has written to the Education Department to say that it believes that the same data and science that led to school closures applies also to the early years sector. I note that the Early Years Alliance says that many nurseries are closing voluntarily to protect the staff, the families and their communities. Will the noble Baroness tell us how the science differs between primary schools and nurseries, and whether the Government will provide financial support to nurseries making this decision in the interests of their communities?
The rollout of the vaccines means that many people will shortly have had two jabs, which in the case of the Pfizer vaccine, at least, confers over 90% immunity against catching Covid-19 and also against transmitting it. Are such people still forbidden from seeing their children and grandchildren or from using public transport?
As I mentioned in a previous answer, those who have been vaccinated still need to follow the rules, as the challenge we currently face is that we do not yet know how the vaccine impacts on transmissibility. As I mentioned, PHE is assessing the effectiveness of the vaccine in protecting against a range of outcomes, and the issues that the noble Baroness raises will be among those considered. We do not yet have the data to say to people anything other than what I have just said, which is, I am afraid, that if you have been vaccinated you need to stick by the rules.
Health Protection (Coronavirus, Restrictions) (Self-Isolation and Linked Households) (England) Regulations 2020
Motion to Approve
My Lords, today we have more than a million people in Britain infected with Covid. A third are asymptomatic, and most are highly infectious. That is just too many. That is why on Monday the Prime Minister announced a new national lockdown. The measures are tough but necessarily so. They reflect not only the current case rate but the extent of the pressures faced by our health and care system.
We have over 30,000 people with Covid in hospital beds, with over 2,500 people on mechanical ventilation, and based on the infection rates of the last month and the inevitable clinical chain reaction those numbers are set to rise. Yesterday, sadly, the UK reported a further 1,041 people who had died after testing positive in the 28 days previous and, with yesterday recording our highest daily increase since mass testing began, unfortunately it is inevitable that more deaths are on their way. That is why the Government took swift and decisive action this week, introducing a national lockdown and closing schools. We take this action with deep regret—for society and for the economy—but it is necessary to respond to the grave situation that we face.
The SIs we are debating today cover the tiering system introduced following the November national lockdown. Those regulations have been amended five times to extend the geographical reach and to fine-tune the terms, and we are also debating this week’s national lockdown. Overall, these SIs tell the story of our containment of the original strain of the virus, with a tiering system that eventually proved to work. They also cover the subsequent identification of and reaction to a more transmissible strain of the virus that was far more aggressive than anything that had been seen anywhere in the world before.
The New and Emerging Respiratory Virus Threats Advisory Group spelled it out clearly: the new variant demonstrates a 70% increase in transmissibility. This means that successful measures that were previously in place such as tier 3 are no longer enough to reduce the transmission of cases. The new variant makes up around 60% of cases in some parts of England, and that is rising. Since the beginning of December, cases reported per day in the UK have steadily increased, with on average 15,000 reported in the week of the 6 December, 34,000 in the week of 20 December, and a shocking 57,000 in the week to 3 January. This will inevitably lead to more hospital admissions and increased pressure on secondary care over the coming weeks. This is why a national intervention, introduced swiftly, is so necessary, and why the tier 4 measures have been strengthened by the closure of schools.
We are also taking on additional measures to support industry given the further national restrictions. We have announced additional support to the most affected businesses worth £4.6 billion across the UK. This support will help businesses get through this difficult period until spring. We will take further decisions about our economic response to coronavirus and how best to support the economy, businesses and jobs at the Budget on 3 March.
We have aimed to balance the economic impact of greater restrictions on business with measures to protect public health. Implementing a national lockdown with the vaccine rollout will allow the nation to return to some sense of normality and for the economy to bounce back. We have mitigated the short-term impact through financial support schemes to reflect these changes, and will carry on supporting the British public through these tough times.
However, we are not back to the bleak days in March: hope is on the horizon. The rollout of the Pfizer and AstraZeneca vaccines is making excellent progress. We have now vaccinated over 1.1 million people in England and over 1.3 million across the UK. The rollout in care homes started on 16 December, meaning that our most vulnerable as well as vital care staff can be protected.
While the vaccines project is an international collaboration, we should take a moment to recognise the contribution of the British life sciences sector and to reflect that an easy-to-administer, affordable and mass-produced vaccine offers Britain a way out of this disease and will make a huge impact on the global response.
The end is in sight but, until that time, we must all take responsibility for reducing the transmission of the virus, protecting the NHS and saving lives by complying with these restrictions. I know that these measures require a huge sacrifice. They are designed to minimise our social contact, coming at the cost of seeing our friends and family, participating in the hobbies we love and preventing us taking those holidays we desperately look forward to, and the economic cost is high. But this is a price worth paying to help our key workers, who have dedicated themselves for the benefit of others. We owe it to them and to protect the economy from a collapse in confidence and from rolling lockdowns.
The other SI that we are debating today relates to the self-isolation periods for households and is another example of how we have applied what we have learned. We are doing everything we can to identify and isolate the infectious. Between 25 December and 31 December, 346,901 people across the UK tested positive and were told to isolate, and a further 493,573 people were identified as recent close contacts, of which 92.3% were reached and told to self-isolate. This is a massive national effort.
On 14 December, we amended these regulations to make changes to the self-isolation period for households, non-household contacts and international arrivals, reducing it from 14 days to 10. This is based on evidence showing that the likelihood of being infectious as a contact after 10 days is low. To bring our policy in line with other nations in the UK, the 10-day self-isolation countdown begins on the day after exposure, onset of symptoms, or a positive test result.
Before I finish, I will address the question of parliamentary scrutiny. I want to be clear that no one in the Government makes use of these emergency procedures lightly, nor do they do so without the conviction that they are absolutely essential. Unfortunately, as I have set out and as we have seen across recent weeks, urgent action has been required. I know that some of your Lordships may be disappointed that the amendments were made before there was a debate. However, I emphatically reassure them that we remain committed to parliamentary scrutiny. I commend these regulations to the House.
My Lords, I am very grateful to the Minister and declare my interests as a member of the GMC. As we enter lockdown, the NHS finds itself in a critical position, with the four Chief Medical Officers warning that it is at risk of being overwhelmed in parts of the country. This week, NHS Providers has given a sobering analysis of some of the pressures. Indeed, since Christmas Day, the NHS has had 5,000 more Covid in-patients, equivalent to filling 10 hospitals. It also has fewer beds in use than this time last year because of the need for tight infection control to protect patients and staff.
Areas with a high Covid load are suffering from a double whammy of high numbers of Covid patients and high levels of staff absence. Trusts are utilising every last ounce of capacity available and are seeking to maximise the number of patients being safely discharged into community beds and being looked after at home. However, there is understandable concern about the impact of this on already tired and exhausted staff who are now being asked to delay leave, work extra shifts and transfer to new roles, for instance to help in critical care.
I would like to hear from the Minister what plans are under way to try to relieve at least some of the immediate pressure. I have asked him before about the nearly 30,000 additional doctors who were brought on to the GMC’s supplementary list; I know there is an issue around the bureaucracy involved, but is there also an issue of philosophy? Is the NHS, per se, reluctant to use this incredible facility that could be made available? Can he assure me that, as we come out of this critical situation, thought is being given to what support needs to be given to the thousands of staff who will inevitably be scarred and deeply affected by what they have gone through?
We have a national emergency. The number of people catching the virus is rocketing; the NHS is struggling to provide urgent care to all those who require it; and there is the tragedy of early death for so many families. Everyone must do all they can to keep people safe. As difficult as these regulations will be for so many, these Benches support them. We do so with suggestions the Government should listen to and will hopefully take forward. I offer improvements for self-isolation; others will make other suggestions.
We are now vaccinating, but virologists say it is highly likely that we will have to live with the virus for years to come. Fully funded localised test, trace and isolate systems will therefore be important. Changing the number of days for which a person has to self-isolate is totally useless if less than 20% do so. We must deal with the cause of this, which for many is the lack of financial security and support. The present financial support is not enough; SSP works out at £2.59 per hour, and even if a person claims the £500 grant, that still works out as below the rate of the national living wage. What percentage of eligible people apply for and receive the £500 one-off grant for self-isolation?
To improve the numbers of people who self-isolate, the Liberal Democrats request that the Government pay lower-paid people their normal income for the period of isolation, along with a bonus for completing the required days to thank them for doing the right thing. This must be supported by fully funded Covid community teams that are in regular contact with people isolating to offer full practical and well-being support. These two things would give people the security and support to self-isolate. It is a blind spot of the Government and needs to be addressed. They should start to plan and prepare for when we come out of lockdown and not be caught off guard again. With the right government actions and support, it becomes easier for my actions to save your life and for your actions to save mine. That is why self-isolation payments and support must be addressed urgently.
My Lords, I wish to make two points.
Many, including in this House, question the need for and see no benefits in policies related to lockdown. Some believe that the rising rates of infection mean that restrictions to reduce people’s contacts and movement are ineffective in controlling the transmission of the virus. Many factors affect the transmission of the virus, contact between people being the key factor. In the case of the variant that more readily attaches to the ACE2 cells of the host, reducing contact between people is even more important. What matrix do the Government use to assess the effectiveness or otherwise of measures such as lockdown, apart from the decrease in the number of new infections, to inform the public better?
Secondly, on the vaccination strategy, the Government’s ambition is to vaccinate the JCVI’s top four priority groups by mid-February. I commend that, even if the target is not met. The concern voiced in popular and science media is about the proposal to extend the second dose of the vaccine by up to three months, especially for the Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine. Does the Minister agree that the JCVI should publish the scientific data on which this decision is based, for both approved vaccines, to reassure scientists and the public that the dosage regime does not compromise the effectiveness of the vaccines, which I believe to be the case? If he does not have time to answer me today, could he write to me and put a copy in the Library?
My Lords, my awareness of the situation we are in was heightened last night by an email from the care home in which my mother lives informing me that eight residents and six members of staff have tested positive, in a place where they have been remarkably successful at controlling the virus hitherto. It is this new variant; nobody suggests that there are easy answers and we can all feel the Prime Minister’s inner and outer struggles every time he stands to speak.
In these circumstances, these regulations, unwelcome as they may be in some respects, must be agreed and given force. In the equivalent debate in the other place, some were asking for various clear undertakings as to what might happen in particular circumstances in future. All that we have seen hitherto tells us that, while we can and should plan for a range of scenarios, such attempts at certainty are just not realistic. Even with vaccines and the prospect of their effective rollout, we, as a technologically advanced society, are having to live with the reality of our own vulnerability: imperfect knowledge and an inability fully to control our circumstances—things with which people in other places and cultures are more familiar.
In that respect, our societal pride and self-confidence have perhaps been somewhat challenged. It is little wonder that we see a rise in mental health issues, anxiety, doubts about people’s futures and bereavement, in loss of both life and life opportunities. These are not matters that can easily be addressed by, for example, a financial package from the Chancellor. How and by whom does the Minister think these issues in our society might best be addressed?
My Lords, we are repeatedly told that we are in a race against time. It is in fact a race against the virus; presently, the virus, tragically, is winning. This must change. These restrictions may be regrettable but they are necessary and must be persisted with. Will the Government make it clear that a relaxation of restrictions can happen only when the alert level is brought down to three, and not fully relaxed until it is down to two? Even if the most at-risk population is immunised, this will not be 100% effective, and we should maintain social distancing while we drive cases down to the point where test, track and trace can suppress outbreaks.
I want to ask about two issues. First, on the NHS Covid-19 app, we have 20 million-plus downloads and 750,000 QR codes, but how many positive tests are being registered on the app? It should be some 25,000 a day, and we should expect more than 100,000 alerts to be sent out each day. Without them, contact tracing and isolation will miss most of the contacts in public places. Can our app, like those of some other countries, have the option to provide a mobile phone contact number to allow track and trace to follow up those testing positive?
Secondly, we must now maximise the capacity for vaccination, using the military medical support units and community pharmacy. We should not have arrived at the point yesterday where the pharmacy sector was saying that it did not know whether it would be used. Thousands of trained vaccinators are an essential resource. Can my noble friend confirm that they will be integral to our vaccination programme?
My Lords, I will make only two points.
First, if our fellow citizens are being asked to undergo testing and tolerate restrictions, self-isolation, lockdown and so on—I support these measures—how on earth do the Government explain why so many visitors to this country have been able to fly into our airports without testing, self-isolation and lockdown? How do they explain that to people?
Secondly, what consideration is being given to the effect of the restrictive regulations on the terminally ill? Each year, some 225,000 people undergo palliative care in the United Kingdom. Some have only weeks or months to live. To them, every day is like gold dust, yet currently those undergoing such treatment outside hospices are behind some 7 million other people in the queue for vaccinations. Do not the restrictions being placed on that group cry out for a commensurate prioritisation in vaccination?
My Lords, as we debate these regulations—after the event, as ever—we are in the throes of a national emergency the like of which I have not witnessed in my lifetime. We must learn lessons from the handling of the pandemic so far. The overriding need is to act fast, early and with consistency of message. We need to treat the population like grown-ups who prefer to hear it straight, even if the news is bad.
With the new, more aggressive strain of the virus, we are in a race against time, as my honourable friend Munira Wilson said yesterday, and we need a military-style response. Above all, we must introduce a 24/7 vaccination programme, bringing the vaccine to every high street in the country, including on Sundays. We must make maximum use of volunteers for all the nonclinical tasks involved and remove unnecessary barriers to recruitment. Critically, we must make full use of the roughly 11,400 local pharmacies that already administer millions of flu jabs every year. They have the capacity to vaccinate about 1.3 million people each week, which will save the lives, particularly, I suggest, of people who are not registered with a GP. What assurances can the Minister give that this will now happen?
The next few weeks will put huge strain on the mental health of millions, particularly the vulnerable, the marginalised and young people. What assurances can the Minister give that mental health services will be fully resourced and will stay open to respond to the ever-growing mental health need?
Finally, with the number of Covid patients in UK hospitals topping 30,000, and having witnessed the harrowing scenes in last night’s news coverage of the intensive care unit at University College London Hospital, will the Minister say what specific steps the Government are taking to support the mental health needs of front-line health and social care workers who are suffering from exhaustion, burnout and flagging morale? You can only stretch a piece of elastic so far, and many are close to breaking point.
My Lords, given the grim statistics that the Prime Minister outlined in his address on Monday, I fully accept the need for this third lockdown, but I am also clear that it cannot last indefinitely and that we must do everything we can to avoid treading this path again. I share the concerns of many, including my right honourable friend the Prime Minister, over the impact of a third lockdown: on the economy, particularly in retail, hospitality and small businesses; on the education and life chances of our young people; and on the physical and mental well-being of the public, especially those we are asking to shield—something of which I, sadly, have direct personal experience from the first lockdown.
We must therefore find a way out of here, and that must of course be through mass vaccination. I applaud the Government’s efforts in delivering the vaccine so far and in ensuring that more people have been vaccinated here than in the rest of Europe put together, and I strongly support the ambition to have everyone in the top four priority groups vaccinated by mid-February. To achieve that, as other noble Lords have stressed, we need to use every resource at our disposal. That includes the extensive deployment of our Armed Forces, a stripping away of any unnecessary bureaucracy, and ever-more vaccination centres.
In short, we need to act as if we are on a total war footing by running this vaccination programme as a round-the-clock and precise military operation, with the production of the vaccine akin the production of munitions. Ministers and other noble Lords have rightly said that we are in a race against time between the vaccine and the virus. It is not a race that we can afford to lose.
My Lords, I am pleased to contribute to this debate and I hope that it will result in further clarification of the Government’s approach to managing the pandemic over the next two months. There is much concern about the plethora of statutory instruments that have been passed with the aim of containing the virus, and about what appear to be sudden, unexpected changes in geographical tier allocation and guidance restricting the way in which people lead their lives. Are decisions made entirely on the R rate locally, or is it this and other issues, including the estimated risk factors in a local population and the availability of hospital beds for treatment? Research shows that if you want people to comply, you need a straightforward message. Greater transparency about the reasons for changing allocations would, I believe, result in greater adherence to the restrictions.
Nearly every UK citizen wants to do their best to reduce the spread of the virus, but many fail to understand why, for example, they were encouraged to send their children to school on Monday but are now asked to keep them home, seemingly until half term. Can the Minister explain when there will be a review of the current restrictions and whether there will be further attempts to work with the devolved Administrations to get a more joined-up approach across the four countries?
I congratulate the Government on rapidly altering the training requirements for retired healthcare workers wanting to return to assist in vaccination, and I am pleased to report from a Microsoft Teams meeting with the CNO, Ruth May, and Mark Radford from the HEE this morning that there are sufficient permanent and recent volunteers to administer the vaccines for the foreseeable future. However, there remains a need for extra staff to work in clinical areas. Can the Minister confirm that that is the case and tell us what further interventions will be taken to increase the health and social care workforce this year, including intakes in September?
My Lords, I had the privilege of sitting on the Select Committee that looked at the virus. The committee was brilliantly chaired by the noble Lord, Lord Patel, who has already spoken. One thing we heard was that this virus occurred from a mutation and that mutations were likely to be possible in future. The fact is that the more people who are infected in a population, the greater the likelihood of mutation that may be deleterious to human health, and the more treatment that is given to people, the more likely there is to be a mutation, as the virus fights against that treatment.
Of course, people who come from outside your environment—for example, from outside the country—are more likely to bring such mutations in with them. One of the clear issues, which was not properly answered by the noble Baroness, Lady Evans of Bowes Park, earlier today, when she answered the noble Viscount, Lord Waverley, I think, is what we are doing about international travel, a point already raised very ably by my noble friend Lord Reid. It seems to me, looking at the figures for people coming through London airports, that hundreds of thousands of people are coming through on a weekly basis and we are not properly tracking or tracing them. Some of them are being asked if they might like voluntarily to be tested, and of course they have to pay for it. That is clearly nonsense. There should be much stricter controls on people coming into this country, as is happening in other countries. I ask the noble Lord, Lord Bethell, exactly what we are going to do now, because at present the Government do not seem to have a firm policy to do something to make sure that we are not bringing more viruses, which may be mutating in some cases, into this country.
My Lords, I am in isolation due to a contact of mine testing positive. I want to ask six questions. First, are all the Nightingale hospitals now being actively used? Secondly, have Her Majesty’s Government solved the problem with the 25,000 former nurses and doctors who have volunteered their services? Thirdly, as a politician, I am mystified how we can organise a general election involving more than 33 million people voting in five weeks, yet we are having difficulty organising in seven weeks sufficient jabs for 14 million people.
Fourthly, in a pandemic, is there any question of anyone at PHE, the MHRA or anybody else involved in the distribution of this vital jab not working on Sundays? Having done overnight work when I was in commerce, I suggest that people should work overnight if necessary.
Fifthly, will all GP practices be starting this Monday, 11 January, as mine is? Can we be reassured that all will have supplies in time for Monday morning? That is, they will need supplies tomorrow, on Friday.
Lastly, I take a particular interest in care homes, which have done a wonderful job, often on their own. They are now saying that care home staff should be treated the same as NHS staff and allowed to take LFD tests at home, rather than fixing them into their working week. I am most grateful to my noble friend on the Front Bench for the huge effort he has put into this whole programme.
My Lords, last year, we discovered that pandemic planning was inadequate. It was based too much on flu, failed dramatically on PPE and test-and-trace logistics, and dithered for too long before lockdown. If there are any lessons to learn, they are to think the unthinkable, implement at speed and get a grip on logistics. Delay costs lives and, in the end, costs more. That must be programmed in to cut the dither.
Now, vaccine rollout and logistics are slower than hoped, and we are seeing traffic jams and distressed elderly in long queues. With the handling advantages of the Oxford vaccine, it must be a seven-day operation, local and around the clock, where feasible. But why have we only just discovered the excessive red tape around approving vaccinators? We knew the size of the task and that the vaccine was coming, even if not exactly when. Why have local pharmacies not already been lined up and assessed for space and in-and-out arrangements? Each lesser-performing day costs lives, costs the NHS and costs the economy.
The Government have put forward some bold financial support packages, but there are still holes, such as excluding the self-employed and inadequate payments to those who cannot afford to self-isolate. Financial stress induces the rule-breaking that spreads the virus, all the more so after high-profile breaking by people not facing financial hardship. The public health aspect of isolating justifies more support than sick pay, which does not cover everyone. The £500 grant is insufficient and not that well known. These regulations, if anything, came later than they should have. That is a lesson that we will face again, with Covid, we are told, likely to stay around despite vaccination.
My Lords, I too appreciate the seriousness of the situation and how difficult it is for people across the United Kingdom, as we face the pressures of another lockdown. I also appreciate the difficulties faced by the Government in making decisions that have such serious implications for the curtailment of the liberties that people across the United Kingdom have enjoyed. Those who do not have a difficult decision to make can criticise the Government more easily. However, surely the safety and well-being of our citizens are uppermost in our minds. Therefore, it is imperative that we all pull together to ensure that we conquer this Covid virus.
I ask the Minister to confirm that all GPs and community pharmacists will be used to roll out our vaccine. Can we have a 24/7 programme for vaccination, because time is of the essence?
It is one thing to make lockdown restrictions, but we must bear in mind the implications. I therefore ask the Minister what consideration has been given and plans made to prepare for an avalanche of serious mental health problems, which will follow this Covid-19 crisis. With so many being forced into isolation, not only because of personal sickness but because of government restrictions and the depths of despair and loneliness being felt by many across the community, will we not see a serious increase in alcohol and other addictions manifesting, which will need appropriate and professional treatment? Can the Government therefore assure us that appropriate provision is being made to handle the situation?
In my humble opinion, winning the battle against Covid will not end the crisis that we face, but uncover numerous other challenges for society. Government must lead, but it is important that each of us within society does everything in our power to achieve success.
My Lords, as we enter the epic phase of vaccine versus virus, the exemptions in these regulations for elite sportsmen and sportswomen are welcome. The related debate over the timing of their vaccination and that of their entourages has now become a key issue. The president of the International Olympic Committee, Thomas Bach, is to be praised for saying that athletes should not jump the queue in front of those in greater need of vaccination. I agree with him. No one wants to see the world of elite sport given advantage over the most vulnerable in society, namely those most likely to require hospitalisation if they were to contract Covid.
Canadian Richard Pound, who is closely associated with the World Anti-Doping Agency, called overnight for the immediate prioritisation of Canadian athletes in the first wave of vaccinations in his country. He was wrong; “not yet” would have been a more considered view.
Moving through the tiers of those most in need of vaccination, I urge the Government to recognise the pressures that our athletes, both Olympic and Paralympic, are under to qualify for selection for the Games. Selection criteria vary by sport. Some need to qualify soon; others, in the summer. Sport by sport, I urge the Government to work with the Olympic governing bodies to determine the latest possible time it would help Olympic and Paralympic hopefuls to be vaccinated. I believe that they will find that the end of February is broadly the consensual point, but it is vital that this comes after the most vulnerable in society.
In so doing, I hope that the world of international sport also considers the global and not just national socioeconomic inequalities associated with Covid-19. First-world countries will benefit from the vaccine first, with supplies to developing countries lagging significantly behind, some potentially after the Games. While the whole sporting world hopes that the Olympic and Paralympic Games will take place this summer, all involved need to work to ensure that selection processes are fair, that opportunities are taken to optimise performance preparation and that the interest of the world’s athletes is critical, but not more important than the most vulnerable in society.
Today, Health Service Journal published:
“Hospitals, particularly in London and the surrounding areas, are seeing very high and rapidly growing numbers of covid-19 admissions, and are running out of options to free up beds.”
Discharge of patients to care homes has become increasingly difficult, despite beds in many care homes lying empty, as care providers fear repeating the disaster of the spring in the sector, and they are not insured to become Covid-designated homes. Will the Government provide rapid short-term indemnity, such as is provided for the NHS?
Ysbyty’r Seren in Bridgend is the busiest field hospital, operating since mid-October as a step-down unit. Today it has 72 patients. Wales has been about two weeks ahead in this second wave and important virological evidence is emerging. Is experience being sought from Wales for the Nightingale hospitals and is data from all aspects of the pandemic, including genomic testing, being rapidly shared?
Lockdowns have seen a drop in other respiratory infections, such as respiratory syncytial virus, yet sceptics are doing untold damage, endangering the lives of many, including clinical staff who are now exhausted, burnt out, seriously ill with Covid or having to isolate. As the Minister said, the new variant is highly infectious, yet many workplaces, such as factories, food processing plants and schools have remained open without any ventilation system guidance. Will the Government urgently learn from Germany and instigate ventilation guidance, support and certification of ventilation systems, establishing a rapid national standard for machines that lower viral count in the ambient air?
My Lords, I will focus on school education in lockdown. Education has had a poor deal during this crisis. Education is vital for children and young people to thrive and prosper, yet those involved have suffered U-turns—sometimes almost instant—a lack of equipment, and mixed messages about exams and assessments. This has left them confused and distressed.
I ask the Government to put in place a long-term strategy for education, with transparent options if things need to change. They should work with local authorities, unions, parents and children to develop and share a strategy now.
This strategy should include the following. All those working in schools should be vaccinated and treated as a priority. They should have reliable supplies of protective equipment and a safe environment, as they are very special. Testing for all in schools must be established. A broad and balanced curriculum must be maintained and guaranteed as far as possible. Children need not only academic education but structure, routine, socialising, activities such as art, sport and exercise, and the chance to discuss how best to cope in challenging times. Exam assessment systems need to be firm and clear. Families must be guaranteed computer equipment for each child when working at home. Services such as mental health services must be geared up to cope with present and future demand. Where is such a strategy?
Parents also face a crisis. The Government need to listen to parents, who may have the challenge of coping with work, running a household and supporting children who are not at school. Those who cannot work due to childcare commitments must be guaranteed flexible job retention. Confusion and anxiety about the basic needs of children and parents must be addressed urgently by the Government; otherwise, we risk long-term problems in mental health and inequalities, with services that cannot cope.
The noble Lord, Lord Robathan, has withdrawn, so I call the noble Lord, Lord McNally.
My Lords, when the noble Lord, Lord Bethell, opened the debate, he was slightly apologetic about parliamentary scrutiny. I do not think that there can be any doubt now that, as long as the Government show courage, transparency and consistency of message, he will get massive support in his work in the fight against this virus.
I will use this short time to put my pressure behind the use of community chemists. We have had a number of vague statements by Ministers that have certainly lacked any “Action This Day”, given that the Royal Pharmaceutical Society and others have made the offer of their facilities. We have already seen and heard anecdotal evidence of how difficult it is for particularly the very elderly to be handled safely by large, often out-of-town centres. Can I have the Minister’s assurance that local pharmacies, particularly those with existing experience of dispensing flu jabs, will be brought into service immediately?
I continue to be worried because the Lord Privy Seal, in answering questions earlier, mentioned that pharmacies might be used where they had capacity to give “significant” doses of vaccine. What does “significant” mean? Another answer was that conversations would be ongoing. The message from all the Benches today, from the noble Lords, Lord Hunt and Lord Lansley, my noble friend Lady Bowles and others, is that it is really “Action This Day” on community pharmacies. It would be absolutely outrageous if that facility was not urgently used.
My Lords, hindsight is a wonderful thing and used wisely I am sure that, with a careful, detailed, objective review, there is much that we will learn from the Government’s handling of this crisis that will better prepare us for future pandemics. My concern, though, is that the knowledge that hindsight brings seems to be currently used only for attacks on a Government trying to deal with a pandemic in unprecedented times. I have no doubt that the Government have made their mistakes, but I do not believe that a different set of Ministers would have dealt with the situation radically differently.
The Government’s strategy of trying to keep the balance between protecting the NHS and minimising the impact on the economy and the nation’s physical and mental health is a challenge beyond all others. There are two areas where I hope we will learn specific lessons and have an agreed framework for the future. Both relate to the fact that any graduated or full lockdown will work only with the support, understanding and, crucially, consent of the population.
The first must be to get an agreed and consistent approach among the four nations of the United Kingdom. Of course I understand the principle of devolved government, but the fact is that differing rules sow confusion and ultimately a distrust of a scientific approach. That is surely to nobody’s advantage.
The second lies in the use of local authority boundaries as tier boundaries. While simple, this has caused enormous challenges in some parts of the country. I live in Gosport, where my wife Caroline Dinenage is Member of Parliament. Her constituency is part Gosport Borough, part Fareham, and was initially split in half between tier 2 and tier 4. This meant that it was fine to have social gatherings on one side of the road but literally not the other. That was impossible to explain to constituents and undermined public confidence in the system.
Boundaries must be drawn somewhere but surely not, where possible, through centres of population. I suggest to the Minister that, if preventing the NHS being overwhelmed is the main objective, perhaps a tiering system based on catchment areas to principal hospitals using postcodes would be an equally simple but more logical approach.
My Lords, I will ask the Minister two slightly uncomfortable questions. First, it is always very important, when one tries to set an example, that we look at ourselves. Does the Minister feel that, in terms of attendance and mask wearing, we in the Chamber and at Westminster are setting the right example? Is there anything we could do better?
My second point is this. I have been reading a book, Breathtaking: Inside the NHS in a Time of Pandemic, by Dr Rachel Clarke. Anybody who read this book would think twice about breaking the rules. I want to go further than the Government in some aspects. For example, the fact that going to a party or organising a party might mean you get a £60 or £500 fine should be seen in the light of the fact that it could cause a porter, a cleaner, a nurse or a doctor to visit not merely ICU but the mortuary. If people thought about this more carefully and the penalties were much more draconian, they would think twice about their behaviour. I am shocked that people might get a fine of £60—a parking meter fine—for going to a party, spreading this pandemic and putting so many lives at risk.
My Lords, here in snowy Cumbria we have lately witnessed a massive increase in cases of the new mutation of the virus, with Carlisle having almost 1,100 cases per 100,000. One reason for this increase is the influx of thousands of visitors who often unwittingly carry coronavirus.
The guidance for the current lockdown urges people not to travel out of their own district. Under the first lockdown there was similar guidance, but there was a critical difference in that it was enshrined in law. This time, unfortunately, this is not the case; it is only guidance. Thus the police cannot, as they did previously, prevent people entering the county, possibly spreading the disease.
Will the Minister consider this particular proposal to enshrine the guidance in law? Doing so would reduce transmission of the virus and save the lives of many thousands of people.
My Lords, it is politically healthy that the UK system has the ability to correct and polish statutory instruments, and that such changes made by government need to secure the approval of both Houses of Parliament. The House of Lords has a useful role in investigating and debating changes to the law made under the affirmative procedure. It is particularly useful that a large number of eminent lawyers sit in the Lords.
The two relevant key instruments currently being addressed reduce the self-isolation period from 14 to 10 days for people in England who have had close contact with someone who has coronavirus. This change also applies to the minimum period of isolation for households switching their support bubbles. The regulations also make changes to the starting date for calculating the isolation period. The Government made the changes following a review by the chief medical officers of the evidence on self-isolating. The regulations shortened the infectious period to 10 days after contact; it was defined as being low, although it was higher than the likelihood of being infectious after 14 days.
The changes to self-isolation period starting points in England were made to bring them in line with the rest of the UK. While there has been some professional questioning of these changes to the regulations, I observe that they have, in the main, been accepted as necessary and appropriate.
My Lords, all the measures covered in the SIs we are debating will amount to nothing if we fail to defend our borders. I will address the points made by the noble Lords, Lord Reid and Lord Winston, about international travellers.
We have a proposed test-to-release scheme that allows passengers to shorten their required isolation period to five days if they take a private Covid-19 test five days after their arrival and receive a negative result. Information provided to the Secondary Legislation Scrutiny Committee by the department stated that
“the protective effect of testing to release international arrivals after 5 days of self-isolation is only marginally less effective than 14 days of self-isolation”.
Public Health England modelling says that the effectiveness of testing after five days is 85%, after eight days 96% and after 10 days 98%—13% more effectiveness if testing is postponed to 10 days after arrival.
The proposal was examined by the committee, which was told that the new approach mirrored that taken by close partners, but no mention was made of the fact that infection rates have been much lower in those countries than in the UK. The committee was also told that our Border Force will be issuing more people with fines if they have not completed the passenger locator forms, the PLFs. However, if they have not completed the form how are they able to be contacted in order to levy the fine? By comparison, all passengers arriving in Australia, whether citizens or travellers from elsewhere, are required to isolate in a hotel, chosen by Australian immigration, for two weeks at their own expense.
We know that the virus has mutated. That is what viruses do, which makes the situation more uncomfortable. We need to be more ready and defend our borders. We cannot take risks. Will the Minister commit to reviewing the evidence and the department’s decision in these matters?