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COVID-19 Variant: Travel Guidance for Local Authorities

Volume 812: debated on Wednesday 26 May 2021

Private Notice Question

Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what plans they have to ensure local authorities are informed of new travel guidance on areas where the COVID-19 variant B.1.617.2, first identified in India, is spreading.

My Lords, we are always looking to see how we can communicate more effectively with local authorities. We will have discussions with local authority colleagues this week to make sure that everyone is clear what the expectations are and how we can improve communications going forward.

My Lords, to paraphrase Matt Lucas as the Prime Minister: “Don’t go to work—go to work. If you can stay indoors, go outside. Don’t go outside—go on public transport. Don’t go to work and then—something or other will happen.” It would be laughable if it were not so serious. I have two questions for the Minister. The amended guidance asks people to minimise travel into and out of the eight hotspot areas. The previous version asked them to avoid all non-essential travel. What is the difference between those two things or is it like the amber countries—you can go there but you should not? If the Government want people to heed their advice, guidance or instructions, why were the notices posted on a website during the night without consultation or accompanying dissemination to people and organisations such as public health, councils and mayors? That does not seem the most effective way to communicate with people.

My Lords, the characterisation presented by the noble Baroness is unfair. We are trusting people to be responsible and to act with caution and common sense, as they have done throughout this pandemic, and to make decisions on how best to protect themselves and their loved ones. We are seeking to avoid bringing these measures into law and instead are using guidance. The communication of that guidance could have been done better but we are working extremely hard with regional partnership teams, Public Health England, local authorities, JBC colleagues and the incident management teams to ensure that these communications are done in the most effective way possible.

I declare my interest as a vice-president of the Local Government Association. Earlier, on the “Today” programme, Grant Shapps said that it was down to local authorities to disseminate the new travel guidance to their citizens, but local authorities reported that they had not been told about it. Do the Government expect them to develop telepathic skills? What does that say for the way government truly operates as a partner with our councils, directors of public health and local resilience forums, which are dealing brilliantly with this new, rapidly transmissible Covid variant? Are they getting extra resources to cope with the extra burdens on them?

No, the noble Baroness will be relieved to know that we are not relying on telepathy. Instead we have regional partnership teams, which include Public Health England regional directors, and Contain and JBC colleagues, working together with local authorities, and these meet on a three-times-a-week basis at the regional team updates. Attendees can include government departments, including the MHCLG, the DfE, particularly REACT, and the No. 10 Cabinet Office task force. It is through this kind of extremely regular and intense collaboration between all the different parties working on this extremely complex pandemic response that we share data, provide guidance and ensure that the communications are done to the best of our ability.

I declare an interest as a resident of Bedford borough. Bedford has repeatedly been let down by the failure of government to share information. It did not get information on test results on cases that tested positive with the Indian variant returning through airports, and now there is this communication failure, which it found out about only when the Manchester press phoned it up to tell it that it was on the website. It has been starved of the Pfizer vaccine and now denied the additional boots on the ground that it needs to deal with the crisis, which apparently have all been sent to the red-wall authorities. What ill will do the Government have for Bedford and what is the Minister doing to sort out the important relationship with key local authorities without imposing top-down lockdowns, either clandestinely or publicly?

My Lords, I am conscious of having been asked questions about the vaccine, testing and lockdowns in Bedford before. However, I absolutely reassure the noble Baroness that we approach all areas on an absolutely equitable basis, and in fact I pay tribute to the people of Bedford and the local authorities there for their energetic response to this pandemic. We are working extremely hard with all local authorities to give them the effective powers and resources to deal with the pandemic on a local basis. That means that national co-ordination comes second to local implementation and that these communications are sometimes extremely complex. We should not be surprised if sometimes there are differences between how different areas implement those communications.

My Lords, is it not time for the department to stop formulating rules that are neither enforced nor obeyed? Instead, if it wants to publish lists, could it not consider publishing a list of the growing waiting lists for treatments for cancer, heart problems and the many other things which are growing out of all proportion to the amount of effort put into constantly talking about Covid?

My Lords, my noble friend makes an extremely pertinent point but the two things are inextricably linked. We can get back and address the backlog of operations to which he quite rightly alludes only if we are not fighting the pandemic and if our wards are not full of Covid victims. Only through the right kind of guidance, testing, the vaccine and the behaviours of the public can we contain this virulent virus, a new strain of which has arrived on our shores, and if we do not, our hospitals will be overwhelmed and we will not be able to address the backlog.

My Lords, I declare an interest as resident in the area of Blackburn. After the advice last Friday, I was unsure whether I would be entitled to travel to London for duty this week and allowed to return if I did. There might have been people in both places who would have been equally delighted. There is real uncertainty, disquiet and disappointment at the unclear and mixed messages that have been received, especially among communities that are struggling with very high rates of infection. The point is not so much about information being given but about consultation. What will the Minister do to make sure that this debacle does not happen again and that, to hear the local voice, there will be proper consultation with directors of public health, not just information?

My Lords, as I sought to explain to the noble Baroness, Lady Brinton, there is a huge amount of consultation with directors of public health. There are meetings on these matters on a daily basis through the chief medical officer, the silver/gold process and the local outbreak teams. However, the right reverend Prelate refers to a serious issue. We are seeking to avoid the kind of legal lockdowns that the public are quite understandably exhausted by and naturally quite resistant to. Therefore our message to the public is that we are asking them to behave in a responsible fashion, to act with caution and to use their common sense, as he had to in his decision about whether to come to London. We are not seeking to legislate on that, and we are asking people to make those decisions for themselves. I completely sympathise with those who find that challenging and who in some cases would prefer to have some certainty. However, that is what people have asked for and it is the right approach to keep the British public on side during this difficult period.

My Lords, I refer the House to my relevant interests. I live in Kirklees, one of the affected areas. Yesterday, the new guidance on the Government’s website said, “Avoid meeting inside”. Today, the amended site says, “Meet outside where possible”. Perhaps the Minister can help me. Does it mean that, in Kirklees and elsewhere, pubs, cafés and restaurants must turn customers away from service inside? The Minister has just said, “We must use common sense”. Does that mean that council meetings must be held virtually, not face-to-face, which is what the other part of the Government now demand?

My Lords, the noble Baroness has given some very good examples of exactly where we are asking the public, and legislatures, to use their common sense. We are saying, “Avoid meeting inside”, but we are not closing the pubs. We also say, “Avoid smoking”, but we do not ban smoking.

We have not banned smoking; lots of smoking is going on among the British public.

This is where the public have a role to play. They have agency, they are able to make their own decisions and they can make the sensible distinction between meeting inside when they could be meeting outside and making unavoidable decisions of the kind the noble Baroness alluded to.

I will have a go now. The latest advice to people in these areas is to minimise travel and use their common sense. If a family have booked a trip away for the weekend, how would the Minister advise them?

My Lords, I would ask them to use their common sense. I am a parliamentarian; I am not telling them or legislating for them on that particular decision. They can see the rising infection rates around them, they know for themselves how this disease spreads and we are asking them to make a sensible, reasonable, common-sense decision about whether that journey is necessary. That is not something we are legislating for, it is what we are putting in guidelines, and I think that that, at this stage of the pandemic, is a reasonable response.

My Lords, given the long, arduous months of confinement suffered by the city of Leicester, compounded by the confusion caused by the apparent secret lockdown, and then the recognition that the city of Leicester should not have been included on the list, according to the figures—that arose as a result of a faulty calculation—can the Minister explain how the error came to be made in the case of the city of Leicester and how it will be avoided in future?

My Lords, guidance for people in Bolton and Blackburn with Darwen was published on Friday 14 May. It was then extended on 21 May to Bedford, Burnley, Hounslow, Leicester and North Tyneside. That guidance has now been fine-tuned, in response to feedback from the local directors of public health and, as the noble Baroness will know, the website has been updated. The chronology of that is relatively straightforward. It could have been done better—that I have made plain to the noble Baroness, Lady Thornton—and we are with working directors of public health, local authorities and others to ensure that we get smoother systems for that kind of thing.

My Lords, I share a lot of the concern in the House about the confusion that has been sown. I am somewhat shocked that the Government did not work closely with those who are dealing with Covid in the affected areas, who are at the sharp end: the mayors, public health officials and councils. They are the local experts, and I implore the Minister to work closely with them. Does he accept that what is really needed in the affected areas now is isolation support, enhanced contact tracing and the rollout of vaccine for everybody?

My Lords, I completely object to the false premise of the question. I cannot tell you how hard we are working in collaboration with local authorities, directors of public health and the incredible rhythm of regional partnership teams, regional team updates and the huge amount of data and interaction between all parts of government. It is absolutely phenomenal, and the characterisation by the noble Baroness is just not right. Where I completely agree with her is that we are working as hard as we humanly can to get the vaccine out to everyone, we are doing absolutely all we can to spread testing to all areas where there are outbreaks and we are working extremely hard to improve all those systems.

Does the noble Lord agree that in one regard, government communication has been brilliantly successful? In Laura Dodsworth’s new book, A State of Fear, she exposes how the nudge unit, behavioural scientists and SPI-B weaponise fear. She quotes the statement:

“The perceived level of personal threat needs to be increased among those who are complacent, using hard-hitting emotional messaging.”

I genuinely want to know: can the Minister explain why the Government are so adept at deploying huge resources to communicate scary messages but seem so inept in communicating the trust and common-sense messaging he has just explained here but did not manage to explain to local people, which is why they are so confused?

My Lords, I did read that book, and it was based on the premise that the public cannot be trusted and the public cannot make decisions for themselves. That is not the Government’s view.