The following Statement was made in the House of Commons on Monday 22 February.
“With your permission, Mr Speaker, I will make a Statement on the road map that will guide us cautiously but irreversibly towards reclaiming our freedoms, while doing all we can to protect our people against Covid. Today’s measures will apply in England, but we are working closely with the devolved Administrations, who are setting out similar plans.
The threat remains substantial, with the numbers in hospital only now beginning to fall below the peak of the first wave last April, but we are able to take these steps because of the resolve of the British public and the extraordinary success of our NHS in vaccinating over 17.5 million people across the UK. The data so far suggest both vaccines are effective against the dominant strains of Covid. Public Health England has found that one dose of the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine reduces hospitalisations and deaths by at least 75%, and early data suggest that the Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccine provides a good level of protection, although since we only started deploying this vaccine last month, at this stage the size of the effect is less certain. But no vaccine can ever be 100% effective, nor will everyone take them up, and like all viruses, Covid-19 will mutate.
As the modelling released today by the Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies shows, we cannot escape the fact that lifting lockdown will result in more cases, more hospitalisations, and sadly more deaths. This will happen whenever lockdown is lifted, whether now or in six or nine months, because there will always be some vulnerable people who are not protected by the vaccines. There is therefore no credible route to a zero-Covid Britain or indeed a zero-Covid world, and we cannot persist indefinitely with restrictions that debilitate our economy, our physical and mental well-being, and the life chances of our children That is why it is so crucial that this road map should be cautious but also irreversible.
We are now setting out on what I hope and believe is a one-way road to freedom, and this journey is made possible by the pace of the vaccination programme. In England, everyone in the top four priority groups was successfully offered a vaccine by the middle of February. We now aim to offer a first dose to all those in groups five to nine by 15 April, and I am setting another stretching target: to offer a first dose to every adult by the end of July. As more of us are inoculated, so the protection afforded by the vaccines will gradually replace the restrictions, and today’s road map sets out the principles of that transition.
The level of infection is broadly similar across England, so we will ease restrictions in all areas at the same time. The sequence will be driven by the evidence, so outdoor activity will be prioritised as the best way to restore freedoms while minimising the risk. At every stage, our decisions will be led by data not dates, and subjected to four tests: first, that the vaccine deployment programme continues successfully; second, that evidence shows vaccines are sufficiently effective in reducing hospitalisations and deaths; third, that infection rates do not risk a surge in hospitalisations, which would put unsustainable pressure on the NHS; and, fourth, that our assessment of the risks is not fundamentally changed by new variants of Covid that cause concern.
Before taking each step, we will review the data against these tests. Because it takes at least four weeks for the data to reflect the impact of relaxations in restrictions, and because we want to give the country a week’s notice before each change, there will be at least five weeks between each step. The Chief Medical Officer is clear that moving any faster would mean acting before we know the impact of each step, which would increase the risk of us having to reverse course and reimpose restrictions. I will not take that risk.
Step one will happen from 8 March, by which time those in the top four priority groups will be benefiting from the increased protection they receive from their first dose of the vaccine. All the evidence shows that classrooms are the best places for our young people to be. That is why I have always said that schools would be the last to close and the first to reopen. Based on our assessment of the current data against the four tests, I can tell the House that, two weeks from today, pupils and students in all schools and further education settings can safely return to face-to-face teaching, supported by twice-weekly testing of secondary school and college pupils. Families and childcare bubbles will also be encouraged to get tested regularly. Breakfast and after-school clubs can also reopen, and other children’s activities, including sport, can restart where necessary to help parents to work. Students on university courses requiring practical teaching, specialist facilities or onsite assessments will also return, but all others will need to continue learning online, and we will review the options for when they can return by the end of the Easter holidays.
From 8 March, people will also be able to meet one person from outside their household for outdoor recreation, such as a coffee on a bench or a picnic in a park, in addition to exercise, but we are advising the clinically extremely vulnerable to shield at least until the end of March. Every care-home resident will be able to nominate a named visitor, able to see them regularly, provided they are tested and wear personal protective equipment. Finally, we will amend regulations to enable a broader range of Covid-secure campaign activities for local elections on 6 May.
As part of step one, we will go further and make limited changes on 29 March, when schools go on Easter holidays. It will become possible to meet in limited numbers outdoors, where the risk is lower. So the rule of six will return outdoors, including in private gardens, and outdoor meetings of two households will also be permitted on the same basis, so that families in different circumstances can meet. Outdoor sports facilities, such as tennis and basketball courts and open-air swimming pools, will be able to reopen, and formally organised outdoor sports will resume, subject to guidance. From this point, 29 March, people will no longer be legally required to stay at home, but many lockdown restrictions will remain. People should continue to work from home where they can and minimise all travel wherever possible.
Step two will begin at least five weeks after the beginning of step one and no earlier than 12 April, with an announcement at least seven days in advance. If analysis of the latest data against the four tests requires a delay, then this and subsequent steps will also be delayed, to maintain the five-week gap.
In step two, non-essential retail will reopen, as will personal care, including hairdressers, I am glad to say, and nail salons. Indoor leisure facilities such as gyms will reopen, as will holiday lets, but only for use by individuals or household groups. We will begin to reopen our pubs and restaurants outdoors; honourable Members will be relieved that there will be no curfew, and the Scotch egg debate will be over because there will be no requirement for alcohol to be accompanied by a substantial meal. Zoos, theme parks and drive-in cinemas will reopen, as will public libraries and community centres.
Step three will begin no earlier than 17 May. Provided that the data satisfies the four tests, most restrictions on meetings outdoors will be lifted, subject to a limit of 30, and this is the point when you will be able to see your friends and family indoors, subject to the rule of six or the meeting of two households. We will also reopen pubs and restaurants indoors, along with cinemas and children’s play areas, hotels, hostels, and bed and breakfasts. Theatres and concert halls will reopen their doors, and the turnstiles of our sports stadiums will once again rotate, subject in all cases to capacity limits depending on the size of the venue. We will pilot larger events using enhanced testing, with the ambition of further easing restrictions in the next step.
Step four will begin no earlier than 21 June. With appropriate mitigations, we will aim to remove all legal limits on social contact and on weddings and other life events. We will reopen everything up to and including nightclubs, and enable large events such as theatre performances above the limits of step three, potentially using testing to reduce the risk of infection.
Our journey back towards normality will be subject to resolving a number of key questions, and to do this we will conduct four reviews. One will assess how long we need to maintain social distancing and face masks. This will also inform guidance on working from home, which should continue wherever possible until this review is complete, and it will be critical in determining how Parliament can safely return in a way that I know honourable Members would wish.
A second review will consider the resumption of international travel, which is vital for many businesses that have been hardest hit, including retail, hospitality, tourism and aviation. A successor to the global travel taskforce will report by 12 April so that people can plan for the summer. The third review will consider the potential role of Covid status certification in helping venues to open safely, but be mindful of the many concerns surrounding exclusion, discrimination and privacy. The fourth review will look at the safe return of major events.
As we proceed through these steps, we will benefit from the combined protection of our vaccines and the continued expansion of rapid testing. We will extend the provision of free test kits for workplaces until the end of June, and families, small businesses and the self-employed can collect those tests from local testing sites.
In view of these cautious but, I hope, irreversible changes, people may be concerned about what they mean for the various support packages for livelihoods, for people and for the economy, so I want to assure the House that we will not pull the rug out. For the duration of the pandemic, the Government will continue to do whatever it takes to protect jobs and livelihoods across the UK, and my right honourable friend the Chancellor will set out further details in the Budget next Wednesday.
Finally, we must remain alert to the constant mutations of the virus. Next month we will publish an updated plan for responding to local outbreaks with a range of measures to address variants of concern, including surge PCR testing and enhanced contact tracing. We cannot, I am afraid, rule out reimposing restrictions at local or regional level if evidence suggests that they are necessary to contain or suppress a new variant which escapes the vaccines.
I know there will be many people who will be worried that we are being too ambitious and that it is arrogant to impose any kind of plan upon a virus. I agree that we must always be humble in the face of nature and we must be cautious, but I also believe that the vaccination programme has dramatically changed the odds in our favour, and it is on that basis that we can now proceed.
Of course, there will be others who believe that we could go faster on the basis of the vaccination programme. I understand their feelings, and I sympathise very much with the exhaustion and the stress that people and businesses are experiencing after so long in lockdown. But to them all, I say that today the end really is in sight and a wretched year will give way to a spring and a summer that will be very different and incomparably better than the picture we see around us today. In that spirit, I commend this Statement to the House.”
My Lords, I certainly appreciate the different tone and style of this Statement from previous ones from the Prime Minister, so I am sorry that it is not being repeated in your Lordships’ House. I hope that once we return to more traditional ways of working we can also return to hearing Statements, as well as responses.
We know that nobody likes Covid lockdowns and restrictions, but not liking is very different from knowing when it is essential. I have said before that far worse than lockdowns are repeated lockdowns where infections rise because we have been too slow to start and too quick to get out. Yesterday, the Prime Minister started his Statement—his third announcing restrictions coming to an end—with two key words, describing the road map back to living and working more normally as being undertaken “cautiously” and “irreversibly”. That is crucial, because we need this to be the last lockdown.
As we emerge from the restrictions that have made life so difficult, our whole country needs to have confidence in the process, so Mr Johnson’s assurances that this will be led by facts and science, with four stages, not aiming for specific dates but moving forward as the evidence allows, is welcome. We know that there will be those, perhaps some of them taking part in today’s debate, who will press the noble Baroness the Leader that each stage must be quicker and less cautious. I urge her and the Prime Minister to resist. The change in approach to ensure that we move only forward and not back means that we can now be optimistic, just cautiously and carefully so.
We must also recognise the amazing efforts that have led to such a successful vaccine rollout. The brilliant endeavours of scientists, the impressive leadership of our NHS and the support of volunteers have made this a game-changer. Without that rollout, although I speak as someone who was not yet had their first jab, we would not be able to have this road map back to normality, but I seek further clarification from the noble Baroness on some key issues.
On schools, a 10 year-old child will have lost about a fifth of their school time because of this pandemic. The educational, emotional and physical toll is significant, so we need pupils, parents, teachers and other staff to have confidence in the way this is being done, and that it addresses their concerns. Yesterday, Keir Starmer highlighted the problem that beset many schools and children in the autumn, when whole classes or year groups found themselves having to isolate in response to individual cases. Given the knock-on impact such developments have had on family members, including the additional pressures on working parents, do the Government consider that it now makes sense, with all children about to go back to school, to deliver a rapid rollout of vaccines to all school staff? Could the noble Baroness also say something about how the testing regime will work for those working in schools?
The test, trace and isolate system has been the Achilles heel of pandemic planning. The world-beating system we were promised never emerged, with too few people being contacted and inadequate support for those who need to isolate. The noble Baroness will be aware of the recent SAGE report that says that most people do not isolate when they should and that many people avoid even going for tests in case they are told not to work. This holds back the recovery for all of us, so I hope she can assure us that a review of self-isolation payments will take place in the light of the Prime Minister’s Statement.
On a related point, one in four UK households does not have a car, and as restrictions are lifted many people will have to use public transport. Given the lack of guidance in the Statement and the accompanying documents, could the noble Baroness say more about plans to minimise the risk to drivers and other transport workers?
On businesses and jobs, the Statement provides a degree of certainty for many businesses about their route back. For some that will be April, but for others not until mid-June at the earliest. Pubs and restaurants will not be able to serve customers indoors until 17 May. That is more than a month after when they will have to start paying business rates and more than two weeks after furlough, which covers 1 million of their staff, ends. Surely support for this sector should be extended in line with the Prime Minister’s timetable. I am sure the noble Baroness will also understand the need for reassurances for those in the food and farming sectors who are reliant on seasonal workers for the picking and harvesting of essential and popular crops.
Next week’s Spring Budget is an opportunity to develop confidence in life after lockdown and the Prime Minister’s announcements need to be co-ordinated with the necessary support to make the strategy work. I understand that the noble Baroness might want to kick any answers on the economy to beyond the Budget, but we need reassurances today that these issues will be fully considered. I would include in that consideration of retraining those workers aged over 50 who have been affected so that they are not forced into early retirement. Please address the serious problems of the Kickstart Scheme, which is currently helping only one in every 100 young people trapped in long-term unemployment. And a real plea: can the Government cancel the planned cut to universal credit, as it will have a dire impact on struggling households?
Also, can the Government look again at sectoral deals, including proper support for the vast army of freelancers across our creative sectors? I suspect the noble Baroness might not have read the Guardian report last weekend that many of those whose skilled work behind the scenes is essential to live events are finding themselves becoming homeless and reliant on food banks.
I have just one additional point on that road map. Given the emphasis on the responsibilities of local authorities, which include enforcement, advising businesses and testing, I hope the Chancellor will be forthcoming with additional support for councils.
One aspect that has not been reported on quite so much is the impact on court cases, with some serious criminal cases facing possible delays of up to four years. Could the noble Baroness explain—either today or I am happy for her to write to me—why the Government are still failing to act to ensure the rapid rollout of more Nightingale courts and lateral flow testing at all courts?
But, looking forward, we all need this plan to work. There is obviously a sense of déjà vu when talking about lifting restrictions—as I said, this is the third Statement the Prime Minister has made on that—but this time there are two game-changers: first and very obviously, the extraordinary efforts making the vaccine rollout so successful, but also the Prime Minister’s different approach in learning, we hope, from past mistakes in planning this route map and using the evidence to chart a cautious advance. I am generally optimistic that we are turning a corner, but we need to remind ourselves that infections today are still as high as they were in the autumn and we need to be alert to ensure we do not at any point find ourselves falling back.
Could I ask the noble Baroness about two House-related matters? Would she agree that your Lordships’ House might benefit from a full and proper debate on the lessons already learned over the past year? That would also be an opportunity for the Government to respond to the December 2020 report of the Joint Committee on the National Security Strategy and its concerns about the profound shortcomings in the UK’s biosecurity and national security systems. As so many experts have said, we cannot treat this pandemic as an isolated incident, and we would want to build on the knowledge and expertise now required to inform our response if needed in the future. Does she agree that we must start planning our own route map to return to more normal ways of working in your Lordships’ House?
As we proceed “cautiously” and “irreversibly”, to quote the Prime Minister, we all hope that this is truly the final lockdown.
My Lords, the Government’s proposals for moving out of lockdown are being made possible by the extraordinarily impressive vaccination programme. As someone who has now had their first vaccination, I wish to echo the tribute given by the noble Baroness, Lady Smith, to those who have developed the vaccines at breakneck speed, to those who manufacture and distribute them and to NHS staff and volunteers who are administering them so efficiently and cheerfully.
The Prime Minister says that the measures are being driven by data rather than dates, yet very specific dates are being set for each stage of the easing. The Covid response document says:
“The indicative … dates in the roadmap are all contingent on the data and subject to change.”
The implication is that change might be in both directions and that, if the data are better than expected, either the dates to trigger each step might change or the activities that are allowed in each step might change. Is this correct?
It is obviously welcome to parents and children alike that schools are to reopen soon, but bringing the whole school back in one go, particularly when secondary schools will be required to do very regular testing, seems a very big ask. Why did the Government reject the approach adopted by my colleague Kirsty Williams in Wales, allowing some classes to come back this week but phasing the return to allow it to happen more smoothly?
On local elections, the document says that the Government will
“enable a broader range of campaign-related activity from 8 March”.
What does this mean? Up to this point, the Government have, without any medical justification, sought to ban parties from even delivering leaflets. When will we know what will now be allowed?
The resumption of care home visits is very welcome. But if the care home patient has been vaccinated and all the visitors are required to take a rapid flow test, why are they also required to wear PPE, given that face masks will significantly reduce the quality of many visits, especially for those with dementia?
From 29 March, six people or two households will be able to meet outdoors, but we are told to “minimise travel” until step 3 begins on 17 May. What does this mean for the vast majority of possible family and other reunions, which can take place only if people travel by car or public transport to meet each other? For example, can I and my wife travel 50 miles to have a socially distanced walk with another household in our family over Easter, as we would very much like to do, or does the minimising travel rule mean that the Government are telling us not to? This is a straightforward, practical question, to which millions of households now need a clear answer.
On how we operate in Parliament, the Statement says that the Government will conduct a review of social distancing that will
“be critical in determining how Parliament can safely return in a way that I know honourable Members would wish.”
Can the noble Baroness give any indication on the timing of this review? The document accompanying the Statement simply says that this will happen before step 4. Does that mean that the Government believe that the earliest that social distancing rules in the Chamber might be relaxed is 21 June?
On providing support for those hit financially by the pandemic, it seems perverse not to say now what continuing support will be given. People are asked to wait until the Budget, but surely the Government could have outlined the principal measures that they intend to take now to avoid another week of sleepless nights for many business owners in the retail, arts and hospitality sectors. For the Prime Minister to say that the Government are not going to “pull the rug out” from under them is simply not good enough.
Finally, on track and trace, the evidence remains that a large proportion of those told to self-isolate do not do so because of financial necessity. The £500 support scheme is clearly failing in its purpose, yet the Statement and supporting document propose no remedy. Will the Government now commit to repaying lost earnings up to a sensible limit to enable the isolate element of test, trace and isolate to work effectively for the first time? If not, why on earth not?
The Statement and the growing success of the vaccination programme give the whole country hope for an eventual return to something approaching normality. Despite the many specific questions and doubts that we might have on the details of the provisions and the timetable, we can certainly share the Government’s hope that by late June a large degree of normality can indeed be resumed.
I thank the noble Baroness and the noble Lord for their comments and for their broad welcome of the road map. I will now attempt to answer some of their questions.
The noble Baroness asked about vaccinating teachers. As we have said, we have kept this under review. As both the noble Baroness and the noble Lord will know, the JCVI advises that the immediate priority for the vaccination programme should be to prevent deaths and to protect health and care staff, which is where the prioritisation has been made. Based on the latest evidence, PHE has advised that the risks to education staff are similar to those for most other occupations and that occupational risk is not the only factor driving increased infections and the risk of mortality for certain groups. I assure the noble Baroness that work has been done in this area. The JCVI will look again at the prioritisation after phase 1 and we await its advice on that.
Both the noble Lord and the noble Baroness asked broader questions on education. In response to the noble Lord, I think that we all agree that there is clear evidence that the extended time without face-to-face teaching has been extremely detrimental for young people. We believe that with the vaccine rollout, and on the basis of our assessment of the current data against the four tests, all pupils and students in all schools and further education settings can safely return to face-to-face education from 8 March. That is why we have made that decision and why it is the first big step that we are taking. Schools have already worked extremely hard to implement a range of protective measures; indeed, since January, schools have conducted 3 million rapid tests. Of course, schools have still been able to take the children of key workers and others, so they have been able to start this regular testing, admittedly with fewer pupils, and they have processes in place.
I say to the noble Baroness that, in addition to that testing and the already established rapid testing regime, we will introduce twice-weekly testing of secondary school and college pupils, initially on site and then at home. Teachers in primary and secondary schools and further education will have twice-weekly asymptomatic testing and we will offer all schoolchildren’s households, including members of their support and childcare bubbles, and those who work in the proximity of schoolchildren free twice-weekly tests. Noble Lords will also be aware that we are temporarily recommending the use of face coverings in classrooms unless the two-metre distancing rule can be maintained. As we have said, schools were always safe and we believe that all these measures will help with the interaction and contact issue that led us to have to close schools before.
The noble Lord, Lord Newby, asked about the dates in the road map. He is absolutely right that we will review the data against the tests before taking each step. Because it takes four weeks for the data to reflect the impact of the changes and we want to give a week’s notice, there will be at least five weeks between each step. The Chief Medical Officer has been clear that moving any faster before we know the impact of each step could increase the risks, so we intend to keep five weeks between each step at a minimum.
Both the noble Lord and the noble Baroness asked about the £500 test and trace payment for those on low incomes who have to self-isolate. We are continuing this scheme and, in this announcement, have extended its eligibility to the parents of children who are isolating.
The noble Baroness asked more broadly about economic support for a range of groups and businesses. I reiterate what the Prime Minister said yesterday: we are committed to doing whatever it takes to support the country through Covid. Details of the next phase of the plan for jobs and the additional support for businesses and individuals will be provided in the Budget next week. The announcements at the Budget will reflect the steps set out in this road map, ensuring that as restrictions ease and the economy gradually and safely reopens, the level of support for businesses and individuals is carefully tailored to reflect the changing circumstances. I remind noble Lords that we have put in place one of the world’s most comprehensive economic responses to the pandemic, so our support will continue.
The noble Lord asked about the May elections. He will be aware that we published a delivery plan setting out how polls can be delivered in a Covid-secure way. We will publish further guidance shortly for candidates, their agents and political parties on campaigning during these elections.
The noble Lord also asked about social care. He said, rightly, that from 8 March care home residents will be allowed close contact indoors with one named visitor—something that I know is good news for everyone. He asked about the wearing of PPE. As he rightly said, with the vaccination programme having been rolled out in care homes, every resident in a care home has been offered a vaccination but, balancing the risks, we still believe that the right approach is to be cautious. At step 2 of the road map, we will take a further decision on extending the number of visitors. We all appreciate the noble Lord’s comments, so we will obviously look at extending contact and so on in care homes at every step of the way.
I will have to write to the noble Baroness about her question on the action we are taking in relation to courts. I entirely agree with her suggestion that we need to develop a road map for returning to normality in Parliament. Through the commission and the usual channels, we will work extremely hard with the administration to begin developing that immediately, while of course keeping in step with the situation more broadly.
The noble Lord asked about the review of social distancing. He is right that this will be completed ahead of step 4—that is, before 21 June. However, in the light of the increased number of vaccinations being delivered, we will also talk to PHE about whether further mitigations can be used—for instance, in the Chamber—to allow us to move forward before then. Obviously there might be other things that we can use, such as the one-and-a-half-metre rule, which we have not really been able to implement here, and face masks. I cannot make any promises but, along with the noble Lord and, I am sure, the rest of the commission, we will talk to PHE about what we can do.
We now come to the 30 minutes allocated for Back-Bench questions. I ask that questions and answers be brief so that I can call the maximum number of speakers.
My Lords, although the Government are, in my opinion, absolutely right to ease lockdown restrictions cautiously, experience suggests that some people might think that it is safe to go one or more steps further than they should under the road map. Therefore, is it not vital that the vaccination programme continues to expand and accelerate so that more people are likely to recognise that the reward for their patience in keeping closely within the current restrictions will mean, for them, a normality that is truly safe?
My noble friend is right and, like the noble Lord and the noble Baroness, I pay tribute to everybody involved in this fantastic effort. As my noble friend will know, more than 17.7 million people across the UK have had their first dose. Our target remains to offer the first nine priority groups, including everyone over 50, a vaccination by 15 April and all adults over the age of 18 a vaccination by 31 July. It is a fantastic target and we are confident that we will meet it.
I draw the House’s attention to my relevant interests in the register, both as Constable of the Tower of London and as a trustee of Historic Royal Palaces. I welcome the publication of the road map out of lockdown, but it will appear to many completely counterintuitive that the nation’s museums, art galleries and heritage sites represent both a greater health risk and a lesser social benefit than those venues termed “non-essential retail”. Can the Government please publish the scientific data on which that judgment is based? As a reinforcing question, if the early data were to show signs of improvement, might the Government be prepared to revisit that decision so that, come the early May bank holiday, the nation will have cultural alternatives to outdoor drinking and trips to the zoo?
I can certainly assure the noble and gallant Lord that the design of the road map has been informed by the latest scientific evidence and is a balance between the societal and economic impact of lockdowns and restrictions and the risks posed by the virus. As I said in response to a question from the noble Lord, we will make an assessment against the four tests at every point of the data, but there will be five weeks between each step.
My Lords, last week’s High Court judgment concluded that
“the secretary of state acted unlawfully by failing to comply with the transparency policy.”
What lessons have the Government learned from the court judgment, and when will a Minister come to the House to answer specific questions about it?
We are committed to publishing government contracts as quickly as possible. As my right honourable friend the Secretary of State said, the reason that some contracts were published late at the height of the pandemic was obviously that the team were working flat out, side by side with the public sector, to procure enormous amounts of goods and expertise with extreme urgency. I believe that there will be a UQ about this issue in the Commons tomorrow, and I assume your Lordships will want to take it.
My Lords, I very much welcome the optimistic tone of this road map. However, my concern is that, with the publishing of “not before” dates, we are going to become transfixed by dates rather than by the data. I have two questions. First, on the subject of the hospitality industry, which is vital to our economy, livelihoods and the nation’s general well-being, can my noble friend the Leader advise what evidence—or should I say data—can be found that proves that pubs and restaurants, which have worked so hard to provide Covid-safe environments, have been vectors for the spread of the virus? Secondly, does she agree that it is critical that we remember that the vaccination programme is to stem hospitalisation from severe illness and to prevent death? It is widely accepted that mild disease, much like the flu virus, will continue to be prevalent at a level that we need to co-exist with.
I am sure that my noble friend will agree that the immediate priority was to open schools; we have all agreed to that. This is why the first step is the reopening of schools on 8 March. As I hope I have made clear, we then need to look at the data on what happens and have a further week, which is why the beginnings of outdoor hospitality come after that.
My Lords, I draw attention to my entries in the register. I very much welcome the plan for the return of spectators to sporting venues, which is particularly important for my own sport, rugby league, given that the season begins in March and culminates with the Rugby League World Cup in the autumn. Can my noble friend the Lord Privy Seal confirm that it is the Government’s ambition that, well before the beginning of that tournament—I hope by late June—stadiums will be operating at full capacity? Does she agree that delivering a successful Rugby League World Cup, which is a manifesto commitment, will play an important role in post-pandemic economic recovery and levelling up, particularly across the north of England?
I thank my noble friend for his question and continued support of rugby league, which I know is very dear to his heart. As he will know, DCMS and BEIS have been working with representatives from industry and civil society to explore when and how events with larger crowd sizes and less social distancing will be able to return. This is why, over the spring, we will run a scientific events research programme, which will include a series of pilots that will start in April. We will then bring the findings from across different sectors and settings to determine a consistent approach. We hope that the outcome of the work is that we will be able to lift restrictions on these events and sectors, as he said, as part of step 4, which will be on 22 June at the earliest.
I apologise for missing the noble Baroness, Lady Brinton, whom I now call.
My Lords, I return to my noble friend Lord Newby’s question about self-isolation. Australia and New Zealand give a straight- forward grant, set at minimum wage, for those self-isolating and quarantining, with no means testing. Their results have been outstanding, with a very high compliance level; people do not have to choose between putting food on their tables and isolating. Given our low levels of compliance, should not the Government move to a non-means-tested grant, as a tool to succeed in lifting lockdown, as a matter of urgency?
As I said, the £500 support payment has been extended, so parents of children who are isolating are now eligible for it. In addition to that, we are increasing, to £20 million a month, the funding available to local authorities to make discretionary payments, and that money is intended to support those who fall outside the scope of the main payment but still face hardship. As I have said, obviously we have the Budget next week, where there will be further detail in the round about the economic support we will provide going forward.
My Lords, I draw attention to my interests in the register as I am chairman of the Association of Leading Visitor Attractions. I would like to echo the words of the noble and gallant Lord, Lord Houghton. It would appear that visitor attractions have not been responsible for any cases of Covid-19, yet in step 2 non-essential shops will be allowed to open and visitor attractions will only be allowed to open in step 3. Will the Government publish the data on why this is the case, since it has been—[Connection lost.]
I am happy to say that outdoor attractions can open in step 2 and, as I have said, we have been looking at the economic data, social data, vaccination data and everything in the round. That is how we have come to the conclusions in the road map.
My Lords, I think we are all feeling very optimistic as a result of the success of the wonderful vaccine programme. I was rather taken aback to read reports of the modelling that has been done on a reasonable assessment of vaccination and social distancing measures over the four months to June in the Financial Times this morning, which suggested there might be as many as 30,000 further deaths. This brings home to me that we are never going to eliminate Covid-19 and we need to start a public debate about what level of mortality is acceptable in dealing with this disease. We also need to concentrate on ensuring that we have a much more effective test, trace and isolate system in place for further outbreaks—with more reliance on tracing at the local level, where it works, and effective financial support for people who cannot afford to isolate.
I thank the noble Lord. He makes some very important comments. He is right that, even once everyone is vaccinated, we are going to need to learn to live with the disease and acknowledge that there will be further cases, hospitalisations and deaths. He rightly points out that the modelling released by SAGE shows that we cannot escape the fact that lifting lockdown, no matter when we do it, will result in more cases. He is right that we need to have discussions on all those issues. In relation to his points about outbreaks, he is absolutely right—for instance, when a new variant of concern was found recently in Middlesbrough, Walsall and Hampshire, we used a range of measures including enhanced contract tracing, surge testing and genomic sequencing. We are going to have to bear down hard on new outbreaks. I reassure him we will publish an updated Covid-19 contain framework next month. It will set out how national and local partners will continue to work with the public at a local level to prevent, contain and manage outbreaks in exactly the way he says.
The noble Baroness, Lady Stroud, has scratched, so I call the noble Baroness, Lady Doocey.
My Lords, self-catering accommodation can open from 12 April, but only if there are no shared facilities. Camping grounds cannot open because they have shared toilet blocks. Pubs can also open from 12 April, for those people sitting outside, and those people can use the pub’s toilets. Could the Leader explain why it is considered safe to use a shared toilet in a pub but not in a camping site?
My Lords, could I come back to a question asked by my noble friend Lady Smith? At the SAGE meeting on 4 February, it was identified that people who work in occupations which involve a higher degree of physical proximity tend to have a higher Covid-19 mortality rate. We know that many of those people do not have access to work- place sick pay and that 20,000 people per day are not self-isolating because they cannot afford not to work. Will the Government agree that those who do not have access to occupational sick pay should automatically receive the £500 test and trace support payment?
I think that I have said everything I can say on the support payment by explaining where we have extended eligibility. On the noble Lord’s question about occupational risk, as I said in response to the noble Baroness, it is not the only factor driving increased infection and mortality in certain groups. The evidence shows that a range of socioeconomic and geographical factors, such as occupational exposure, population density, household composition and pre-existing health conditions, contribute to the higher infection and mortality rates for some groups. In making decisions on phase 2 of the rollout, we will balance these factors alongside occupational risk.
My Lords, I congratulate the Government on prioritising the return of children to sport, building on the Daily Telegraph’s campaign to keep kids active, and recognising that the country must emerge from this crisis more engaged with an active lifestyle and more involved in sport and recreation than ever before, since these are vital mental, physical and preventive healthcare objectives. Will my noble friend the Leader ask her colleagues whether, if the lockdown and vaccinations continue to deliver anticipated results, socially distanced two-ball golf games and tennis matches can be reopened to the public, as they were many weeks ago in Scotland, without waiting another five weeks in England for their freedom to restart?
My Lords, the Prime Minister has accepted that we are not going to get rid of Covid and that it is going to be present at some level and endemic at least for quite a long time. Will it not be the case that, when we get the virus down to a level that we think is acceptable, outbreaks will be sporadic and localised? Is that not even more reason for putting testing, tracing, tracking back, stamping out and imposing lockdowns on individuals—self-isolating, if you like—in the hands of people who know what they are doing and who have the local knowledge and the professional expertise; that is, the environmental and public health officers of local authorities and the local health staff connected with GP surgeries?
I agree with the noble Lord, and I hope that I gave some indication of that in my answer to the noble Lord, Lord Liddle. As the Prime Minister said, we will take a highly precautionary approach, acting hard and fast to suppress worrying local outbreaks—the noble Lord is absolutely right: there will be local outbreaks. I referred to Middlesbrough and Walsall, where local action of exactly the sort described by the noble Lord has been taken. As I said, we will publish the updated Covid contain framework next month to bring all this together. That will be another way in which an enhanced toolkit of measures to address various concerns at a local level will be set out.
My Lords, I welcome the road map but wonder whether Her Majesty’s Government will consider loosening the hospital admissions criteria for those suffering from Covid-19. The UK has one of the highest Covid death rates in the world, and survival rates are much higher in countries such as Germany, partly because they admit people to hospital earlier. Will Her Majesty’s Government also learn lessons from countries such as Taiwan, which, although around a third the size of the UK, has suffered just nine tragic deaths compared to more than 120,000 here?
I am sure that the noble Lord will agree that the NHS and its staff have done a fantastic job in treating patients with Covid, of which there have been more than 250,000 in the past year. I am sure that the NHS regularly learns from experience and looks to deliver the best care it can and will continue to do so.
I wonder if I might ask my noble friend about vaccine passports. For months now, Ministers have pooh-poohed the idea of such passports; it is not a British thing to do, they have said. Yet now we hear that Michael Gove is heading a review into the matter and the Prime Minister has said today that it is a very difficult issue, which, of course, it is. As it is a matter of fiendishly conflicting principles, not least that of personal freedom on the one hand and everyone’s responsibility to the wider community on the other, will my noble friend accept that it is not simply the Executive who should review this cat’s cradle of conflicting responsibilities and interests but the two Houses of Parliament too? Will she ensure that this House is given an early opportunity to debate this issue? It would be so much better if we could contribute before any edict is handed down from on high.
My noble friend is right. The review will assess the extent to which certification might potentially be effective and whether it could be used, and will certainly consider the ethical, equalities, privacy, legal and operational aspects of any such approach. The review’s conclusion will be towards step 4, so there is plenty of time for noble Lords to make their views heard within the House and directly to Ministers involved—as my noble friend says—in overseeing the review.
My Lords, does the Minister agree that there is a degree of potential confusion in the attitudes towards childhood sport? We say that schools will have some activity, then the clubs. Clubs deliver a lot of school-age sport at the amateur level, and there has been a history of encouraging clubs into schools to deliver that sport with better training facilities. Can we have a more coherent position on what happens here? I refer to the comment about who can and cannot share a loo or a changing room. There must be a more coherent position here to make sure that something which has been lacking from people’s lives and which is said to be a benefit is brought back in.
I thank the noble Lord. I believe that by the end of March all organised outdoor sport for children, and all outdoor children’s activities, will be allowed under the road map. Obviously from 8 March wraparound care, including sport for children, will be allowed. So it is one of the early things that we are looking at, and one of the first things on the road map that will be back open in the first step, for exactly the reasons that he states—because of its importance to children’s mental and physical well-being.
I congratulate all those involved in the outstanding success of the development of the vaccine and the vaccination programme. This comes from the Prime Minister downwards, especially my right honourable friend Nadhim Zahawi, and Kate Bingham, who did such sterling work, pro bono, for seven months up to the end of last year and, sadly, was vociferously attacked by both main opposition parties.
Since by early April we will have vaccinated all the most vulnerable who want the vaccine—the over-50s and everyone in the first nine at-risk groups, who account for 99% of deaths—and it should be effective by the end of that month, why must we wait nearly two further months to lift all restrictions? That is a third of a year from here.
I join my noble friend in thanking those who he named, who have been so instrumental both behind the vaccines and in the rollout of the programme. I go back to my response to a previous question: the modelling released by SAGE shows that we cannot escape the fact that, despite all that my noble friend says, which is absolutely right, lifting the lockdown, no matter when we do it, will result in more cases, more hospitalisations and, sadly, more deaths. Moving too fast too soon risks a resurgence in infections. We have all said—and this has come across strongly during all your Lordships’ contributions today—that we want to keep moving forward, not backwards. This is a cautious path, but one that we believe will get us to where we want to be steadily and safely, and ensure that, when we take a step forward, we do not have to take a step back, as, sadly, we have had to do previously.
My Lords, during the lockdown last autumn, large churches and cathedrals were able to have services with a choir, suitably distanced of course. Spiritual health is very important. We are approaching the most significant week in the Christian year, Holy Week. In Lincoln, where I live, we have a great and glorious cathedral, we can have services and we can have a choir, but we cannot have them together. It is ludicrous. Can the Minister have this one looked into? It would be very sad indeed if during Holy Week we could have either a congregation or a choir, but not both together.
I can certainly say to my noble friend that we will continue to work with the Places of Worship Taskforce to ensure that advice is available for religious communities and faith leaders so we can enable the safe opening of places of worship as we move forward through the steps in the road map.
My Lords, our internationally harsh lockdown is driving mental ill health and unravelling our social fabric. Accordingly, should not parity of esteem between physical and mental health dictate that more than two SAGE advisers are mental health experts? Also, will the Government persist with the dispiriting law of the Medes and Persians, which permits the goalposts to be moved only in a more restrictive direction, even if the four indicators drop off a metaphorical cliff?
I am afraid I do not agree with my noble friend on his last point, but I certainly I agree with him on the importance of support for mental health, and he will know that expert participation in SAGE changes for each meeting. What I hope will reassure him is that in March, we will be publishing our cross-government action plan to prevent, mitigate and respond to the impact of Covid on mental health and well-being. We have already announced that the NHS will receive an extra £500 million to address waiting times and enhance support for mental health services. During the pandemic, we rolled out 24/7, all-age urgent mental care helplines across the country, provided more than £100 million to the voluntary sector and, recently, appointed a youth mental health ambassador to build on our support for young people. I hope this range of investment and initiatives shows the noble Lord how important we consider this issue.
Could I point out to the Leader that my noble friend Lord Dobbs asked whether time could be made available for a debate on the matter of vaccine passports? While many of us accept that people should have the freedom not to be vaccinated, those of us who have been vaccinated believe we should have the freedom not to have to travel with people who have decided not to be vaccinated. There are some complex issues that need looking at.
I will make a second point. Everything is down to Covid these days, but there is a huge backlog in the National Health Service building up literally every day. When are we going to see a White Paper on how to deal with that?
My noble friend is right, but we should recognise that hospitals and staff have gone to extraordinary lengths to deliver non-Covid care and treatment, from online consultations to chemo buses and Covid-free surgical hubs. We have seen the benefit of these, with, for instance, almost 390,000 people being treated for cancer between March and November last year. But he is right: waiting times have increased. We have allocated £1 billion to help the NHS recover elective care backlogs. This will be enough funding to enable hospitals to carry out up to 1 million extra checks, scans and additional operations and procedures. We are well aware of the issue he raises. I thank everyone in the NHS for all the work they are doing, but we understand that more work needs to be done.
My Lords, as various noble Lords have said, the Government’s plan accepts that Covid is going to remain endemic in the population for many years to come. In fact, the Prime Minister stated in emphatic and, in my view, realistic terms that there is no credible path to a zero-Covid Britain. In that light, does my noble friend agree that the right response is for the UK to redouble its already world-beating efforts to develop and discover new and effective cures and treatments for serious Covid cases?
I entirely agree with my noble friend. That is absolutely right and we have been at the forefront of that. He may be interested to know that we have also established a new partnership with vaccine manufacturer CureVac, which means that we are ready to build on our world-leading genomics expertise to develop new vaccines quickly if new variants appear. We have already placed an initial order for 50 million CureVac doses, in addition to the portfolio of more than 400 million doses that we have already secured. We believe that this will help ensure the ability rapidly to develop and deploy vaccines against any new variant or similar new diseases in the future.
My Lords, getting children back into schools for face-to-face teaching is critical and should be happening as quickly as possible. Can the Leader of the House say whether there has been contact by the Chief Medical Officer of England with the chief medical officers of the other countries of the United Kingdom to share his advice on that issue?
I assure the noble Lord that the chief medical officers speak regularly on a whole range of subjects, including this one. I think the Chief Medical Officer for England mentioned this in the press conference yesterday. Certainly, there are ongoing discussions and the chief medical officers work extremely closely together on issues such as this.
The relaxation of the rules to allow pubs to use their outside space from 12 April will be a boost to the economy and to the mental health of the nation. Alas, 60% of pubs do not have any outside space, but they are the lifeblood of many communities. Will pubs continue to have financial support if they do not have outside space?
As I have said in response to a number of other questions, we have the Budget next week. We have been clear that we will provide support to the country through Covid, and our actions speak as much as our words. Details of the next phase of the plan for jobs and support for businesses will be announced. I can assure my noble friend that the announcements in the Budget will reflect the steps in the road map, so that businesses will be supported as we move through the steps. Obviously, some businesses will perhaps be able to welcome people in sooner than others. That is clear from our discussions today.
My Lords, the aviation sector has taken a bigger hit than even the hospitality sector and I applaud the help that the Government have given to hospitality. IATA is preparing a Covid travel pass that is expected to be operational within weeks. Is that something that the Government would encourage those of us who wish to travel within Europe to use, once it is available?
I can say to my noble friend that there will be a review on international travel. The Department for Transport will be leading a successor to the Global Travel Taskforce, working with the industry to develop a framework that can facilitate greater travel while still managing the risk from imported cases. That taskforce will report on 12 April with recommendations aimed at facilitating travel as soon as possible, although not before 17 May, while still managing the risk from imported cases and variants.
My Lords, the time allocated for Back-Bench questions has elapsed and we have been able to get through them all. There is no need to adjourn the House. We shall take one minute to refresh the seating and get the Minister in and then move straight onto the next Motion.