Considered in Grand Committee
That the Grand Committee do consider the Health Protection (Coronavirus, Restrictions) (Steps and Local Authority Enforcement Powers) (England) (Amendment) Regulations 2021.
Relevant documents: 52nd Report from the Secondary Legislation Scrutiny Committee, Session 2019–21, and 48th Report from the Joint Committee on Statutory Instruments, Session 2019–21 (special attention drawn to the instrument)
My Lords, we are here today to discuss the regulations allowing the move to step 2 of the coronavirus road map, a decision which not only allowed us to reclaim some normality in our lives but set the platform for today’s move to step 3. Getting to this point has taken remarkable perseverance and resolve; I am hugely grateful to everyone involved in getting us there. We are clearly not free of coronavirus yet and, while we have met the first four tests that have enabled the move to step 3, the disease still poses a clear and present threat.
The Prime Minister’s address last week clearly highlighted the threat from variants of concern and we must remain cautious and vigilant. We are putting in place measures to combat variants. The evidence so far suggests that the vaccine is effective. I am heartened to hear that teams deployed to Bolton over the weekend were well received and reported a positive atmosphere—a result of strong community engagement and an effective communications campaign conducted in the area. As the Prime Minister made clear on Friday, while we progress further along the road map today, we must continue to exercise caution and common sense because the choices we have to make in the coming days will have a profound effect on the road ahead.
It has been a year like no other but we are taking significant steps forward to regaining our freedom. It is this combination of the public’s dedication, our world-leading vaccine programme and the unrelenting hard work of our health and care workers that has allowed us cautiously to unlock the country.
The road map seeks a balance between our social and economic priorities and the need to save lives and avoid another surge in infections. The decisions to move to step 2 and 3 were both informed by the latest scientific evidence and based on the assessment that all four tests set out in the road map had been met.
The tests are as follows. First, the vaccine deployment must continue successfully. We continue to make great progress in vaccinating the most vulnerable, having offered a first dose to the nine priority cohorts, which included everyone aged over 50, front-line health and care staff, residents in care homes for the elderly and those deemed clinically vulnerable. As of 15 May, more than 36.5 million people have received their first dose of an approved vaccine and another 20.1 million have received their second dose. In total, a staggering 56.6 million Covid vaccine doses have now been administered in the UK.
On test 2, the evidence suggests that the vaccine continues to be effective in reducing hospitalisations and deaths. Public Health England reports that the UK Covid-19 vaccination programme has so far prevented more than 12,000 deaths in those aged 60 and above. Furthermore, it is reported that 33,000 hospital admissions have been prevented in those aged 65 and older.
On test 3, we need to determine that infection rates do not risk a surge in hospital admissions, which could put undue pressure on the NHS. Currently, hospital admissions continue to fall and case rates among the over 60s are also declining. The NHS emergency alert level has been dropped from level 4 to level 3, mirroring how the NHS was operating in the summer of 2020.
On test 4, our assessment is that the risks have not fundamentally been changed by the variants of concern. We will continue to monitor variants closely as we ease restrictions and the Government will not hesitate to take firm action as necessary and where needed to protect lives and livelihoods. Having met these four tests on 12 April 2021, we were able to take the next cautious step in easing restrictions. Today we are debating this move to step 2, as set out in the regulations agreed by the House on 25 March. They were as follows.
The first was the reopening of non-essential retail, personal care and indoor leisure, including hairdressers and gyms, and additional outdoor settings, including the hospitality sector and attractions. Outdoor hospitality is no longer required to provide a substantial meal alongside the serving of alcohol, although there is the requirement for table service. As well as ordering via table service, if the venue sells alcohol, payment must be taken at the table or another outdoor location wherever possible. Further to this, the early closures imposed on pubs and restaurants were removed.
Step 2 also allowed the resumption of indoor childcare and supervised activities for children, provided they are not in private homes, and includes indoor sport, and parent and child groups of up to 15 people. It also allowed wedding ceremonies for up to 15 people, with wedding receptions permitted outdoors for up to 15 people in the form of a sit-down meal. This has changed again from today, with up to 30 people being able to attend weddings and other life events, and the capacity limit at funerals is removed. Furthermore, smaller outdoor events, such as fetes, literary fairs and fairgrounds can restart, as can the use of self-contained accommodation for single households or bubbles. Finally, social restrictions remain the same as those in place from 29 March, with the rule of six or two households allowed to mix outdoors only.
I thank the Joint Committee on Statutory Instruments for its crucial and tireless work in scrutinising all the secondary legislation that the Government bring forward, and I acknowledge the committee’s report on the wider steps regulations, which are amended by the regulations that we are debating today. I am pleased to say that we have already implemented responses to some of the issues the committee raises, through the regulations that we are debating today, and we have brought forward more amendments as part of the separate step 3 regulations.
It is unfortunate that there was a delay in debating these regulations. However, the content of each step received the prior approval of Parliament during the extensive debates on 25 March, and it was essential to bring these measures in quickly once it had been determined that the four tests had been met. As ever, no restrictions should be in place longer than is necessary, and it remains extremely important that decisions on the road map steps are informed by the latest evidence.
By way of closing, I just say this: as we journey through the road map we are making great progress but will maintain caution; we are not out of the woods yet. New variants are a risk—we remain in a global pandemic. Events in India show the heartbreaking and devastating impact this disease can cause. We must all remain vigilant; it is vital that people continue to follow the restrictions in place to minimise the risks to themselves and others—hands, face, space, fresh air and take up the offer of a vaccination as soon as it is offered.
We hope that the continued successes of the vaccination rollout, and our increased testing capabilities alongside falling infections and hospitalisations, will allow us to continue to lift restrictions. In light of the most recent data and advice from the Joint Biosecurity Centre, we have not only moved to steps 2 and 3 but the UK Chief Medical Officers and the NHS England national medical director were recently able to announce that the UK alert level should move from level 4 to level 3. This is another positive sign on the road to recovery. We must continue the cautious approach and be guided by the latest data and scientific evidence before moving to step 4. However, considering all that we have achieved to bring us to this point today, there is reason for cautious optimism. I commend these regulations to the House.
My Lords, I am very grateful to the Minister. The debate takes place as we take the next step out of lockdown, but it also comes as concern rises about the impact of the Indian variant. Getting the balance right between getting back to normal as soon as possible and understandable caution about the risk of opening up too soon will always be an incredibly difficult judgment. But the Government’s record of vacillation and delay over key decisions does not inspire confidence, and the delay in placing India on the red list is at least questionable, given the rate of Covid cases in that country at the beginning of April.
The SAGE meeting on 13 May pointed to the multiple fast-growing clusters of the B16172 variant, most noticeably in the north-west of England, with transmission faster than that of the B117 variant most prevalent in the UK. SAGE concluded that it is a “realistic possibility” that the Indian variant is
“as much as 50% more transmissible”
“In the areas where numbers of infections are increasing rapidly under the measures”
“in place, an even faster increase can be expected if measures are relaxed.”
Of course, today, they have been so relaxed. SAGE warned that if the Indian variant
“were to have a 40-50% transmission advantage nationally compared to B.1.1.7 … it is likely that progressing with step 3”—
which we are doing today—
“would lead to a substantial resurgence of hospitalisations.”
“Progressing with both steps 3 and 4 at the earliest dates could lead to a much larger peak.”
It is therefore legitimate to ask the Minister why, in view of that, we are going ahead with step 3 today. What factors will be taken into account in respect of a decision to go ahead with step 4? What will the Government use as metrics to decide whether tougher restrictions need to be imposed nationally or locally? As we will not know until mid-June at the earliest the full impact of step 3 on hospitalisations and deaths, does the Minister agree that decisions on further steps out of lockdown must be considered after this information becomes available?
SAGE also pointed out that
“increasing regional vaccination in areas where it is prevalent could dampen growth in infections”.
Why do the Government seem to have been so slow to respond to health bodies in the north-west which wanted them to approve an emergency vaccination programme? The Minister may have seen reports today that health officials in Bolton have fast-tracked vaccination to residents as young as 17. What is the Government’s view on that?
My Lords, these regulations were laid on 7 April. It is ironic that we are discussing them today, as we start moving to step 3. If they had been discussed earlier, the facts on 9 April might have been raised to help us keep all local areas safer. On 9 April, Bangladesh had the South African variant but not the Brazilian variant but was put on the travel red list. Pakistan had neither the South African nor the Brazilian variant on that day but was put on the red list. India had both the South African and Brazilian variants and the emerging Indian variant but was not put on the red list. On 9 April, cases per 100 million on a seven-day rolling average were 21 in Pakistan, which was put on the red list, and 43 in Bangladesh, which was put on the red list. India had 84 cases per million—four times as many as Pakistan—but was not put on the travel red list.
Why, with more cases per million and with both the Brazilian and South African variants present, and the emerging Indian variant, was India left off the red list on 9 April? If the Government had followed the data, it would have been put on the red list. However, the Government were following a date—24 April—so that the Prime Minister could go on a trade mission. Dates, not data, yet again, will cause problems for individuals, families and businesses. In the period between 9 April and putting India on the red list, 900 people a day entered the country—nearly 20,000 people. They could have been carrying the South African, Brazilian or new Indian variants.
One can only assume that this was yet another abject failure of government to act with speed and good judgment to secure the nation’s borders and keep people safer. When trade deal trips trump the public health and safety of individuals and businesses, you have to ask when a government Minister will take responsibility and resign. By not putting India on the red list and by following a date and not data, the Government have put businesses and individuals at risk of illness, death and bankruptcy. It is time now for an independent inquiry to learn lessons and to put in place secure border restrictions to ensure that people stay safe and what we see in Bolton is not replicated in any other community in this country.
My Lords, I thank the Minister for his thorough introduction to these regulations. These amendments were necessary at the time, and therefore need approval, albeit retrospectively, as we go into step 3 of the journey. But journeys are rarely irreversible, and the road map may at some stage, at least in part, have to be reversed.
What analysis is being conducted of the effectiveness of the various regulations and restrictions so far? We cannot wait for the eventual inquiry to produce its results; we need to know now what has been effective and what has not.
Step 2 saw the opening of non-essential retail and gyms. Personally, I have always thought that gyms had to be a risk if the virus was around, but I would like to see some analysis of whether gyms have been responsible for carrying Covid. As the Minister knows, I really do not understand why non-essential retail could open and galleries and museums could not. Can we have some analysis of that? It would be useful, in case we have to return to level 2-type restrictions.
Can the Minister give us an indication of where the Government really stand on the importance of continuing to work from home if one can work from home? For instance, what guidance has been given to civil servants? It is important for our town centres that people return to the office. Are we really to wait until step 4 before that happens?
On travel, my understanding was that having an amber code for a lot of countries meant that those who wished to travel there and were prepared to quarantine on their return could do so. But we now hear the Foreign Secretary say that people should certainly not take holidays in amber-list countries. Understandably, the travel industry is unhappy about this and would like firm guidance on the Government’s position on foreign travel.
Finally, I read over the weekend that the Government are in talks with airport operators about how to deal with travellers coming in from red-list countries. Surely, at this stage, to be in talks with the authorities is fairly ridiculous. The stories from Heathrow about the intermingling of travellers are quite terrifying. Can the Minister give us some indication of when talks might turn into action?
The noble Lord, Lord Robathan, has withdrawn, so I call the noble Lord, Lord Rooker.
My Lords, nothing I shall say to the Minister is addressed personally to him; he is not in charge of this.
On 21 April, a devastating report was published by the Hansard Society and the Constitution Unit about the marginalisation of the House of Commons under Covid. Although it was specific to the Commons, it applied to Parliament as a whole. Of the five ways in which powers have been undermined, I just want to deal with those in paragraph 2, headed “The erosion of parliamentary control: regulations”. It says:
“Over 400 Coronavirus-related Statutory Instruments … have been laid … All have been subject to little or no scrutiny, a situation described as ‘totally unsatisfactory’ by the Commons Speaker … An unusually high share of Covid SIs have been subject to the ‘made affirmative’ scrutiny procedure—meaning they became law before being scrutinised, and require only retrospective … approval”.
This is such an SI. The report continues:
“This mechanism, which severely undermines accountability, has been described as ‘addictive’”
by those who watch us. It goes on:
“The government’s casual approach to the scheduling of debates on SIs means they have often been in force for weeks before MPs could consider them … Frequent errors that need to be corrected, the lack of Impact Assessments, and discrepancies between law and guidance have all compounded scrutiny problems … for the wider public”.
This is such an SI, as it corrects errors in another: No. 364. As the noble Lord, Lord Scriven, said, it was made at 10.30 am on 9 April, laid before Parliament at 1 pm on 9 April and was in law on 12 April. It was debated in the Commons on 26 April for 24 minutes. People would have been lonely in the room because, as far as I can see, only two people spoke. On 17 May, it was in the Lords.
The preamble to this SI is essentially a two-fingered salute to Parliament. It is about time the Commons got off its knees, and the Lords should encourage it to do so. I shall develop this theme further on Thursday in the debate on Covid and the Lords.
My Lords, it is of great concern that we are moving today not to step 2 but to step 3 of the road map, while the more transmissible Indian variant is spreading—Professor Whitty expects it to become predominant in the UK. I make no apology for repeating the concerns of other noble Lords. While the vaccine will provide a high level of protection to those who have received it, unvaccinated people could now be at high risk of serious disease and the NHS again of being overwhelmed.
The Prime Minister finally put India on the red list on 19 April, a few days before he was due to fly to India to discuss the trade deal he so desperately needed after Brexit. Many commentators believe the two facts are linked. Will the Minister give a clear answer to the following questions about India?
Why was India not put on the red list on 2 April, at the point when it had the same level of incidence as Pakistan and Bangladesh? By 9 April, cases in India were four times higher than in Pakistan, yet the Government waited another 10 days to act. During those three weeks’ delay, around 20,000 people came here from amber-listed India. Do the Government know whether they all quarantined for 10 days, as required, and had the necessary tests?
When red-list powers were announced in mid-February, the Government said they could be implemented in hours. Why, then, did they wait four days before implementation, allowing 900 people per day to come in from India without red-list restrictions? Why, when travellers arrived from India, were they forced to mingle at immigration with hundreds of people coming in on flights from other countries? Why have the Government not insisted on dedicated arrival facilities for passengers arriving from red-list countries? What support is being given to those people arriving from India who find it difficult to quarantine?
Why have the Government not learned that the characteristics of variants of concern are not the only reason to put countries on the red list? The cases in India had been rising exponentially for weeks before 19 April. There were more than 100,000 cases a day in India on 5 April, and the cemeteries were overflowing. Why did the Government not act when that level of cases was being reported?
The BMA and several scientists are seriously concerned about the further lifting of restrictions while this highly transmissible variant is spreading. It is one of the Government’s own tests. In Scotland, the First Minister has postponed the easing of restrictions in the south of Glasgow and in Moray, where cases of the Indian variant are growing. Will the UK Government do the same?
My Lords, it is a great pleasure to follow the noble Baroness, Lady Walmsley, who has made some extremely important points. I thank my noble friend for setting out the purport of these regulations, applaud his work ethic and say that what I shall say, just as the noble Lord, Lord Rooker, said, is no personal reflection on him.
These regulations are part of the road map setting the way out of lockdown, which I support; the approach is correct. I would like some reassurance from my noble friend. As we are out of the eye of the hurricane, it is about time we saw these regulations in advance of them becoming law. We are looking at these some 37 days after they became effective. Frankly, it is just not good enough. It is about time that we started to see these ahead of their becoming law rather than in the rear-view mirror, as has become the case. There may have been a time when that was justifiable, but that time has now passed.
I will take my noble friend up on some of what he said about the Indian variant. I am sure that we will look at this whole issue of why action seemed slow in relation to India when it was not so slow in relation to Pakistan and Bangladesh. It seems strange. Are flights still arriving from India in any way, as I have heard is the case? That might not be true. Could my noble friend also provide some reassurance about our border controls, which seem all too porous? People from countries where there is a known risk mingling with other travellers when they arrive is, frankly, amazing and needs to be stopped forthwith. I cannot understand why that is happening.
My noble friend the Minister spoke about action at the weekend in Bolton, which I certainly welcome. Could he tell us whether similar action has been taken elsewhere, in other communities where there is clearly a threat from this variant, such as Blackburn, Bedford and so on? Could he indicate where that is the case? If he is unable to provide a detailed list—there might be many areas that this applies to—perhaps he could undertake to write and put a copy in the Library.
In short, while the vaccine programme has been highly successful and the Government certainly deserve praise for it, it is not the sum total of what is happening. We have to look at the whole position. The position at our borders is worrying. The Minister himself said that one of the four tests, quite rightly, is whether there are variants of concern. He said that this test was being satisfied. He said later in his speech that new variants are a risk. Frankly, one of those statements has to be right; I suspect it is the latter. I would welcome the Minister taking that point up as well. I have these concerns and look forward to hearing from my noble friend on these points.
My Lords, as has been said, even by recent standards the timing of this debate is particularly ironic. On the very day that we move to step 3 of the easing of lockdown restrictions, here we are debating the move to step 2, which happened five weeks ago. To make matters worse, given the much more transmissible Indian variant, which the Health Secretary Matt Hancock said at the weekend could “spread like wildfire”, this easing now feels fraught with risk. I very much support what the noble Lord, Lord Bourne, just said about the need for us to scrutinise regulations in advance.
The Indian variant has caused great anxiety in recent days. For many people it feels as if, just when the sunlit uplands were coming into view, they are being snatched away by a new variant when more efforts could and should have been taken to avoid it. The Sunday Times reported this weekend that at least 20,000 passengers who could have been infected with the new variant were allowed to enter the UK because the Prime Minister delayed imposing a travel ban from India. I add my voice to those of other noble Lords asking whether the Minister can explain why India was added to the red list only on 23 April, three weeks after the announcement of a ban on flights from Pakistan and Bangladesh, both of which had lower case rates than India.
The combination of moving up the steps and the Indian variant makes having an effective test, trace, isolate and support system ever more critical. I place particular emphasis on the last two words—isolate and support—which is where things are still breaking down. The major problem reported by local resilience forums is that people are still not self-isolating and will not until they get their income paid. It is those on zero-hours contracts, those doing jobs that you cannot do from home and families living in multigenerational households who need the support most. People do not want vouchers; they want their earnings reimbursed. Reimbursing earnings is substantially cheaper than running the test and trace functions and, if a serious case of Covid occurs, the cost to the NHS.
I end by asking what planning is under way for a third wave, especially for paediatric care, given that as more adults are vaccinated it is possible that a variant may affect much younger children than in previous waves. Both the USA and Canada are reporting much higher cases in children than before and are starting to vaccinate children in the 12 to 15 age range. What plans are being developed for vaccinating children in this country?
My Lords, today signals a historic move in the Government’s approach to tackling the Covid-19 epidemic—a significant move away from detailed government regulation and restrictions; a return to personal responsibility; a renewed emphasis on individual choice; and an “up to you to decide” policy rather than the Government legislating over the intricate details of every aspect of social behaviour. While this is welcome to the population at large, to government and, in particular, to the libertarian instincts of many politicians—not least the Prime Minister—it raises a number of important questions for government.
Having decided to go ahead with a move to phase 3, the Government are in practice demonstrating their belief, driven by the evidence, that vaccination levels have now reached the point where we have decoupled the number of people in our country being infected with Covid-19, in particular variant B1617, from those who would require hospitalisation or become ill with long Covid, leaving those who, if infected, will have increased resistance and can be treated at home with improved medication to counter the illness. If the Government are absolutely satisfied that, yes, we have reached that point, we are right to take our foot off the restrictions and move to an era of personal responsibility. If not, this is the most serious risk the Government will have taken during the epidemic, and the scientific evidence they rely on will rapidly lose public confidence.
On the one hand, the evidence is strong that the time is right for phase 3. Since the winter peak, we have seen a reduction of 96% in those requiring hospitalisation. With test and trace, free lateral flow tests now available and improved medication, many will agree with the Government that the time is right. Yet, with variant B1617 potentially 40% to 50% more transmissible than the UK variant, step 3 could lead to a large resurgence of cases. Many scientists are arguing that we need more time to assess the impact this surge is having on transmissibility, infection and severity of illness.
However, my major concern today, shared by my noble friend Lady Wheatcroft and others, continues to be the transport policies: international travel and the mixed messages regarding holidays and business visits; the traffic light system; the time allowed for a massive influx of people from countries signalled to face future restrictions just days before they come into effect; and inadequate border control measures when they fly here. It is not surprising to learn that the mayor has today indicated that in London there were some 400 recent cases of the Indian variant, of which 100 were associated with travel.
I call on the Government to provide clearer and more effective travel policies, to review the policies they have set and to continue with clear restrictions on international travel. The weakest element of our overall policy since the first lockdown has been our travel policy. For all my strong support of the vaccination policy and the work the Government and my noble friend the Minister have done, especially this year, our policies on transport have been unclear, often poorly timed and, frankly, ineffective. We have encouraged tens of thousands of people back to this country on crowded flights after announcing impending travel bans.
My Lords, once again we meet to approve a statutory instrument that has already come into effect. As others have said, it relates to the easing of lockdown by moving from step 1 to step 2 on 12 April, but is being discussed in your Lordships’ House on the day England moves to step 3. Irony is not dead.
Can the Minister explain why the travel regulations, a 92-page document, were replaced and published last Friday evening to come into force today? We also had the amendment to shift us into step 3 published only on Saturday morning. Why was this done so last minute? The Prime Minister confirmed the move days before, and the amendment could have been ready to go. We say again: this is not a way to make the law or for Parliament to scrutinise it. On these Benches we have been asking for more than a year why there is not more planning about the publication and presentation to Parliament of these SIs.
I also note that the steps legislation is due to expire on 30 June. I ask the Minister now: what arrangements will be put in place in the event that the Government have to extend these regulations in light of the Indian variant beyond the end of June? With all the Minister’s rightful warnings about having to take action if needed, surely this is a clear case of being able to plan, publish and debate it earlier. I also ask the Minister about the following comments from the JSCI:
“The preamble to these Regulations contains a statutory proportionality statement in respect of the Steps Regulations but not in respect of the Enforcement Regulations.”
The department responded
“that no statement is required for the amendment of the Enforcement Regulations made by regulation 3, because it does not impose a restriction or requirement under section 45C(3)(c). The Committee believes there are arguments either way … the Committee notes the Department’s approach and accordingly reports regulation 3 for requiring elucidation, provided in the Department’s memorandum.”
Can the Minister comment and tell us when that elucidation will be available?
My noble friends Lady Tyler of Enfield, Lady Walmsley and Lord Scriven all asked why the Government have been so slow to add India to the red list. On these Benches we have raised the importance of controlling our borders effectively, first in January and February 2020, in relation to why the UK did not follow World Health Organization advice and enforce quarantine from countries with Covid. We saw the consequences of that with Covid coming in and spreading fast in our communities, causing the first lockdown. So, with a year’s experience, why did the Government not add India to the red list on 2 April when Pakistan and Bangladesh were added? Was it anything to do with the Prime Minister hoping to go to India and then having to cancel his trip at the very last minute? And why do we hear today on Radio 4’s “The World at One” that there is still no guidance for airports on passenger separation once landed and while queuing to go through the checks?
Tim Hawkins from the Manchester Airports Group said that it was still awaiting government guidance. He said that it would expect to put red-list countries into a separate process but there is an element of mixing at certain points at the moment. Last week we heard that Border Force was instructing people to get used to long queues as there would not be extra staff at the passport and Covid check desks. This is intolerable; because of government inertia, there is no guidance, no extra border staff, and people arriving from red list countries are still mixing with those from amber and green countries. That includes up to four flights a day from India into the UK. If the Indian variant is 50% more transmissible than the Kent variant, we risk rapid spread beyond those coming in from those red-list countries. Quarantining and self-isolation are vital to effective management of transmission and what the Prime Minister has called whack-a-mole.
Directors of public health and scientists from SAGE and alternative SAGE continue to ask for better support for people having to self-isolate. In particular, we on these Benches ask the Government to pay the earnings of those self-isolating, as happens in a number of other countries that achieve a much higher success rate of self-isolation. Local authorities report that the administration of the £500 grant has been so rule-bound it is almost impossible for people to claim it. That is not good enough, especially when the vast majority of people who really need it—who need to pay the rent and put food on the table—cannot manage 10 days without their regular pay cheque.
Finally, while it is encouraging to hear that tracing is now primarily in the hands of the experts in local resilience forums, can the Minister assure the Committee that they are being given explicit extra funding to be able to carry this out? Their roles are vital in controlling Covid because without effective test and trace, isolation and quarantining, this Government’s actions will not keep people safe.
It is regrettable, as my noble friend Lord Rooker said with a certain amount of robustness, that yet again the House is being asked to retrospectively approve significant legislation that impacts on individual liberty, well-being and livelihoods, five whole weeks after it came into effect and after it was further amended, on the day when a new lifting of restrictions is taking place—I suppose we will get to discuss that some time in the next month.
The regulations state that
“the Secretary of State is of the opinion that, by reason of urgency, it is necessary to make this instrument without a draft having been laid before, and approved by a resolution of, each House”.
Nothing in the regulations or in what has been said by the Minister today justifies using the emergency procedure to introduce previously announced policy changes at the 11th hour. We are now well over a year into the pandemic and, while we encourage the Government to be proactive and driven by data, that does not prevent or exempt them from following parliamentary procedures. The Minister will be familiar with this repeated complaint.
The countrywide road map for lockdown lifting announced on 22 February advised that England would enter stage 2 on or after 12 April. This date was confirmed at a government press conference on 5 April, yet these regulations were not laid before Parliament until 9 April, coming into force three days later. While that is definitely an improvement on the three hours’ notice that we have had for some regulations in the past, there is simply no excuse for the Government’s continuing indifference to the importance of parliamentary scrutiny.
We have so many errors in the regulations given to us; that is another reason why they need to be subject to proper scrutiny before they become law. According to the Explanatory Memorandum, alongside the stage 2 easements the instrument also makes
“minor drafting changes to remove superfluous wording and to amend references”
in the original steps regulation. I am not sure that these are minor. The Minister will be aware that the JCSI report raised a number of serious concerns about these regulations: first, because of their unusual or unexpected use of enabling powers; secondly, because of defective drafting; thirdly, because they required elucidation; and, fourthly, because they failed to comply with proper legislative practice. Frankly, you would have thought that after a year the Government would have got used to all this, that they would be experts and certainly that they would not be making mistakes in the drafting of legislation.
That is quite a sad list of failures for one statutory instrument whose purpose is to see us safely opening society following lockdown. In one instance, the regulations are so unclear that the Joint Committee said that the law being laid down was unsatisfactory in terms of the rule of law. If a committee of legislative experts is unsure what is or is not meant by certain regulations and does not believe that they give sufficient certainty and clarity, how will the rest of us fare, and how can an average person expect to understand them? This is deeply unfair on those required to enforce the rules and on the businesses grappling to comply so that they can safely resume trading. I fully expect the Government’s use—or misuse—of the emergency procedure and the impact of defective drafting to be covered by the inquiry, but I sincerely hope that the Government will get a grip on this now, especially given the continued threat posed by new variants and the risk of a third wave, which many noble Lords mentioned.
Noble Lords will be well aware that the steps regulations have been further amended, with provisions to move England into stage 3 coming into force today. It is therefore important that the Minister addresses those changes, especially given the growing concern about the B16172 Indian variant in the UK and calls from leading experts to postpone the planned easements. I will not repeat the information given by other noble Lords, because that has been very well covered. However, can the Minister confirm how many people to date have been hospitalised with the Indian variant of concern and how many of those had been partially or fully vaccinated? Over the weekend, the Health Secretary suggested that many coronavirus in-patients in Bolton had not been vaccinated, despite being eligible. I would like the Minister to address how that is being tackled. He has already mentioned that, and I know that my honourable friend Yasmin Qureshi, the MP in Bolton, has been very active on this. Surge vaccinations have been introduced in many hot-spot areas, with some bringing forward second doses and others extending eligibility to younger age groups. Can the Minister confirm whether that is happening and what is the JCVI’s position on this?
It is clear that it was a mistake to delay adding India to the travel list and not to implement a comprehensive hotel quarantine policy. This morning, the Health Secretary, Mr Hancock, said that people should not travel to amber countries except for essential reasons and “certainly not” for a holiday, because of the risk of coronavirus. This is not what the regulations state. The Minister needs to confirm whether the regulations will be updated to reflect the Health Secretary’s comments or whether this is yet another case of the Government’s mixed messaging.
My Lords, I am enormously grateful to noble Lords for their thoughtful, at times passionate, but at all moments detailed and challenging points. Rather than dwell on the regulations themselves, I will address the three key themes that have been raised in this important debate.
The first theme I will address is that raised by the noble Lord, Lord Rooker, the noble Baroness, Lady Thornton, and others on the presentation of the regulations themselves. I completely acknowledge the specific points made by the noble Lord, Lord Rooker, and the noble Baroness, Lady Thornton. I fully acknowledge the power of scrutiny, the consideration that noble Lords give to legislation and the benefits of that scrutiny, but I do not accept the implication of the noble Lord’s comments that there has in some way been a grand injustice or that these regulations have in any way undermined the power of the policy behind them.
I gently remind noble Lords of the immense complexity of the policy we are trying to apply in these regulations. They are extremely legally delicate and subject to judicial review. It is therefore quite reasonable that legal colleagues wish to spend as long as they possibly can getting them right. The environment in which they are drafted has been fast changing, as this debate has very clearly illustrated. They often require a very large amount of cross-government consensus and collaboration, which in itself brings in delays and a certain amount of complexity.
Given all those considerations, I pay tribute to the officials, the clerks and the legal support, who have done a heroic job tabling these regulations. It is of course up to the House of Lords itself to determine the sequencing of House business. I am afraid it is above my pay grade to comment on that, but when the inquest is finally done I think that the regulations will be a huge testimony to the thoughtfulness and effectiveness of our democratic processes. I say to the noble Lord, Lord Bourne, that the regulations are tweaked at the last minute to accommodate the changes in the situation we face. That is why they are sometimes laid at the last minute. I remind noble Lords that the House of Lords Constitution Committee is looking at processes around emergency legislation. My noble friend Lord True and I have given evidence to that committee. I very much look forward to its recommendations.
The noble Baroness, Lady Wheatcroft, asked about learning on the job, as it were, and what we are putting in place today for our future pandemic preparedness and to prepare for any potential third wave. I assure her, my noble friend Lord Moynihan and the noble Baroness, Lady Tyler, that we are doing a huge amount to put in place new systems, institutions and practices. The launches of the UK Health Security Agency and the office of health promotion have been brought forward to ensure that we have the institutional resilience to meet any future pandemics, and to bring the learnings from the handling of this epidemic in real time. They are already making huge strides in the institution-building and management systems necessary to upgrade our arrangements.
The investment in diagnostics is remarkable. Last week, I visited Leamington Spa, where I stood by a machine that could do 13,000 tests in one go. It reminded me of the days last March when we were struggling to do 1,300 tests in a day. In terms of our outbreak management, we have learned a huge amount from the success of Project Eagle in containing both the South African and Manaus variants, although the escape of the Indian variant demonstrates how a highly transmissible variant is something that even the best systems cannot fight.
To the noble Lord who asked about the stay-at-home protocols, I clarify that the guidance as of today is that people should continue to work from home wherever possible, but we look forward to a moment when we can have a general return to the offices.
We are looking at ways of dealing with new variants by potentially introducing booster shots in the autumn, introducing VoC vaccines through other providers and investing in therapeutics and antivirals. A huge amount of work is going into every level of our pandemic preparedness.
Let me tackle head-on the key issue of the India variant and our travel arrangements, which several noble Lords raised. On 8 April, we had the benefit of more surveillance, more genomic sequencing and more analysis of the infection rates in the UK than any other country. It is easy to imagine that all that data, which is so impressive to look at in retrospect, somehow gave a clear projection of what was going to happen, but at that date the India 2 variant with which we have now become so familiar had not been ascribed as a variant of concern. There were in fact three variants in India, all of which were competing with each other, none of which we had here in the UK—we therefore could not analyse them hands-on—and the anecdotal evidence from India was extremely unclear, whereas we had a lot more information on the presence of the South Africa and Manaus variants in the other neighbouring countries.
At that time, it was right that we invested in our red-list capacity, and I pay huge tribute to the officials managing the managed quarantine system, the airports and transport partners running an extremely efficient travel system, and the hotel and transport partners doing so much to ensure that the system for both red and amber-list countries is as good as possible. The red-list system has been an incredibly impressive mechanism for containing variant spread. It has grown dramatically since launch to contain a very large number of travellers each day. No other similar country has quite such an effective system in place. It continues to be an effective way in which we can maintain flights in and out of the country—something we are extremely reluctant to turn our backs on.
On ongoing travel, to clarify for my noble friend Lady Wheatcroft, it was not legal to travel until step 3 was brought in. It is now lawful, but it is not advised. Whatever was heard on the radio this morning, I reassure the noble Baroness, Lady Thornton, that we are not in talks with airport operators—we have been in daily contact for many months, running a complex and detailed managed quarantine scheme, and I pay enormous tribute to both Heathrow and the Border Force for the incredibly impressive arrangements that they have in place. I say to my noble friend Lord Bourne that, yes, there are still direct flights to India and Pakistan. It is actually better to channel passengers from those countries in direct flights to avoid what has become known as the Maldives hop and to avoid mingling wherever possible.
My noble friend Lord Bourne asked about the VoC map, which is available on the department and the Sanger institute websites, and I would be glad to send a map.
In response to the noble Baroness, Lady Thornton, I pay enormous tribute to those in Bolton who have done an enormous amount to upgrade the vaccination of local people there. I remind her that the priority is still very much to get the most vulnerable vaccinated—those who are older or with pre-existing morbidities. That is more important than getting young people, who are relatively low-risk with regard to the virus. The priority is to get those who have had a first jab and convert them into having a second jab, because it has emerged that, with the Indian variant, the second jab is all the more significant.
In conclusion, the good news is that the vaccine does seem to work. The Indian variant is highly transmissible, but the vaccine is protection for all people against severe illness and death. We should give thanks for that, but we are not counting our chickens quite yet and we remain extremely diligent and determined to contain any other variants that may come along. I commend the regulations to the Committee.