Considered in Grand Committee
Before I call the Minister, I must inform the Committee that the noble Baroness, Lady Brinton, will take part remotely so I will call the Lib Dem response at the appropriate time.
My Lords, the Coronavirus Act has been a central part of the Government’s response to Covid-19. It includes powers to bolster the health and social care workforce through the temporary registration of practitioners. More than 13,000 social workers and 28,000 nurses, midwives, paramedics, operating department practitioners, radiographers and other professionals have joined the temporary registers. This continues to provide extra resilience for our health and social care sector during these uncertain times. It also demonstrates the commitment and determination of our fantastic health and social care professionals.
The Act includes powers to ensure that critical functions in society are able to continue throughout the pandemic. For example, it has allowed virtual court hearings to take place in a wider range of circumstances. The Government plan to secure some of these powers in alternative primary legislation. The Act also includes powers that have enabled the Government to provide vital support to people and businesses, including provisions for statutory sick pay for Covid-19-related absences; the Coronavirus Job Retention Scheme, which has supported 11.7 million jobs; and the Self-employment Income Support Scheme, which supported almost 3 million self-employed individuals.
The Coronavirus Act has been a critical part of the Government’s response to the pandemic, but I acknowledge that some noble Lords are concerned about some of the powers in it. I assure them that the Government have sought to use the powers in an appropriate and proportionate way. There are arrangements in place to ensure accountability, including regular opportunities for parliamentary scrutiny; this accountability is vital. I am grateful to noble Lords, my honourable friends in the other place and the Joint Committee on Statutory Instruments, whose welcome review of our draft instruments continues to ensure their accuracy.
We will continue to review the powers in the Act and are committed to ensuring that emergency powers remain in place for only as long as they are necessary. The most recent six-month review of the Act in September identified seven provisions, and parts of an eighth, that could be expired. Once approved, Parliament will have expired half of the original 40 temporary, non-devolved powers in the Act ahead of schedule.
The regulations that we are debating today expire some of the most controversial provisions in the Act, including the powers under Schedule 21, relating to potentially infectious persons, and Schedule 22, giving powers “to issue directions relating to events, gatherings and premises”. The regulations also expire other powers that are no longer needed, such as those under Section 23 enabling the variation of “Time limits in relation to urgent warrants” under the Investigatory Powers Act and Section 56 powers related to “Live links in magistrates’ court appeals” in certain situations, as well as powers under Section 37 and parts of Section 38 relating to the education and childcare sectors. We are also expiring Sections 77 and 78, which were time-limited powers in the Act, and a further provision on behalf of Northern Ireland.
Expiring these provisions is an important milestone. It is possible only because of the significant progress that we have made so far in our fight against the virus, but we have continued to be clear that the pandemic is not yet over. The Government believe that the remaining provisions in the Act are important to continue to support the response to Covid- 19 over the coming months. Everyone should continue to do their bit to keep themselves and others safe as we tackle the winter months ahead, so let us encourage everyone to get their first, second and booster doses, when eligible. It is not too late for those who have not yet received their first or second doses to get them and we urge them to come forward. We also urge everyone to continue to wash their hands, to ventilate indoor spaces, to wear masks where mandated—but even where not mandated, if appropriate—and to stay home when they feel unwell.
We are conscious of how hard the pandemic has been for so many people and we are grateful to everyone who has made sacrifices. We are grateful for the dedication and determination of individuals and communities across our great nation and to all those who have worked so hard in the fight against Covid-19.
My Lords, I welcome the opportunity to debate the provisions in the regulations before us and I congratulate my noble friend on bringing them forward. I thank him for the meeting that I had in the last 10 days with him and his team, which was most useful. I endorse enthusiastically his invitation for those who have not yet been vaccinated to come forward. This would be an opportunity to ask where we are, particularly with those under 18. Have they had their second vaccinations and at what age will the vaccine programme be rolled out?
I remind the Committee of my interest as an adviser to the Dispensing Doctors’ Association, which may or may not pertain to the comments that I make this afternoon. I seek my noble friend’s guidance on whether one area that I am particularly interested in, as I know are all general practitioners, is covered in the provisions before us. If it is not, can he write to me? I understand that one of the reasons why GPs are unable to have as many face-to-face appointments as they would wish is that they have been constrained by the regulations passed by both Houses of Parliament. I cannot remember whether the provision was in the original Act or in supplementary regulations in the form of statutory instruments that we have adopted. However, I understand that specific regulations regarding the square footage or meterage of a waiting room were set out at the beginning of the pandemic, limiting the number of patients who could be accommodated in person in a waiting room during the pandemic. I think that it was the same for dental practices.
Are these provisions still in place? If they are not part of these regulations, I would be grateful if my noble friend could write to me. It could be extremely important to advise the public that that is why doctors are not able to see as many patients physically as they would wish to do. I am sure that the regulations were brought in for good reasons—that we should not be mixing and should be masking and that we should respect the ventilation to which my noble friend referred, while self-distancing—but it is important that patients understand the constraints under which general practitioners have to operate.
To turn to the specific remit of the regulations before us, my noble friend just stated, and I think that it is on page 5 of the Explanatory Memorandum, that the Government are minded to expire and lift the regulations relating to the power in Schedule 22
“to provide powers to issue directions relating to events, gatherings and premises in England and Northern Ireland respectively.”
With the greatest respect, mindful of the fact that we might have difficulties once we know more about the omicron variant, is this the right time to be lifting those restrictions? Can my noble friend put my mind at rest that powers exist elsewhere, either in subsequent regulations or still in the original Act? It seems a little premature to be expiring those provisions at this time.
Regulation 3 is on the operation of the working tax credits, as on page 5 of the EM, and I am delighted that that was addressed by the Chancellor of the Exchequer in the Budget and spending review. However, it would be helpful to know whether the figures that the Chancellor announced then will amount to a similar amount to what would have been received as a £20 top-up to those claimants of universal credit. Is it the same amount that can be claimed? Will they have to apply for it separately? What concerned a lot of colleagues both in your Lordships’ House and the other place was the neatness: that it was universally applied to all those on universal credit whereas, if I understand it correctly, what was announced by the Chancellor has to be applied for separately. Therefore, it is not automatic and not universal to those in receipt of universal credit.
My final point relates to Regulation 5, as on page 6 of the EM, which concerns local authority meetings. I think that it refers to Section 78 in the original Act. It states that the provision
“enabled all local authority meetings held before 7 May”
to be held remotely, but that was time-limited and no longer operable. It has been put to me by a friend who is a councillor in North Yorkshire that there may be instances where councils may wish to continue to meet remotely. I think in particular of the weather conditions —we still have no power in a great many parts of North Yorkshire, which is unbelievable, but obviously due to Storm Arwen. Is my understanding correct that they can continue to meet remotely if they wish and that that power will remain, so I can advise my friend and councillor in North Yorkshire, and others who are concerned, that that is the case? If so, it would be helpful to know under what authority they can continue to meet remotely. It just seems common sense that we keep that power in place. With those few remarks, I welcome the regulations.
My Lords, the noble Baroness, Lady Brinton, is taking part remotely. Can we beam her in?
My Lords, this is beginning to have the feeling of “Star Trek”, which is certainly not my intention. Thank you, Deputy Chairman. I declare my interest as a vice-president of the Local Government Association.
From these Benches, we will not oppose the expiry of these 12 provisions, although we have some comments on them. It was really good to hear the Minister outline the “hands, face, space” guidance, readopted in the past couple of days. Will there be a public communications campaign to reinforce it because, sadly, I suspect that not many people will have heard it in Grand Committee today in Parliament, let alone in the outside world?
Yesterday, in the Statement repeat, we debated masks and self-isolation; we will do so again tomorrow when we look at the SIs. On vaccination, it was good to hear the Prime Minister and the Secretary of State refer to the clinically extremely vulnerable in this afternoon’s press conference. I promise the Minister that I will not repeat all the questions I asked him yesterday, but not one of them has yet been answered. Delivering either the fourth, or a booster, jab for 3.7 million clinically extremely vulnerable people will not work effectively without clearer information systems on exactly who the CEV are and which jab they should get; there is still a lot of uncertainty there. I thank the Minister for his offer of a meeting during yesterday’s Statement. With today’s announcement, vaccination is becoming urgent; I look forward to hearing from him shortly about when it can happen.
From these Benches, we want to make a brief comment on the assessments for local authority care and support. I note that the Explanatory Memorandum says that only
“eight local authorities used these powers between April 2020 and June 2020. No local authorities in England have used them after 29 June 2020.”
That is good to hear, but it is evident that assessments are still happening very slowly. It is one of the problems that hospital trusts across the country are facing, with people in beds awaiting an assessment. Some of that is much more about workforce availability, both in the NHS and in the local authority system, than about the arrangements to reduce these assessments.
Reference has already been made to local authorities having virtual meetings. Members from these Benches and others objected when the Secretary of State decided that all local authority meetings had to cease being virtual in January this year. It has meant that a number of councillors have been unable to attend their council meetings through no fault of their own. If the Lords can have a handful of people contributing virtually, and with cases going up and certain areas having problems, is it possible to return to virtual meetings and leave the matter as a choice for the local authority concerned?
I note that the Explanatory Memorandum says:
“This instrument does not relate to withdrawal from the European Union/trigger the statement requirements under the European Union (Withdrawal) Act 2018.”
However, it is only fair to point out that Section 25 gives early expiration to the power to require information relating to food supply chains to avoid serious disruption. In principle, we do not have a problem with that as a provision during the pandemic, but I say to the Minister: that statement may be true in treaty and UK legislation terms but, as we face this Christmas, there are increasing concerns about disruption to food supply chains, for three reasons.
One is a direct consequence of Brexit. European providers of food and many other products have significantly reduced or stopped exporting to the UK because of the complex, slow and, for both exporter and importer, expensive costs now that we are outside the European Union. Since Brexit, the reduction in the number of EU abattoir workers—as they leave the UK—has meant, this week and for the past month, thousands of pigs and other livestock being culled but not brought into the food chain. Worse, the increase in avian flu cases and the restrictions placed on all poultry farms mean that there are concerns about the supply of birds for the Christmas dinner table. Thirdly, there is a delay in foods and other goods coming in from around the world as a result of the pandemic. This is what one might describe as a perfect storm. Is the Minister confident that, given all these factors as well as trying to manage omicron in its early stages, it is appropriate to expire this particular provision?
We accept the expiry of emergency volunteering leave and compensation for emergency volunteers, although I do want to comment on the problems with the Bring Back Staff scheme, especially for doctors and some nurses. It was absolutely fine in principle, until it hit human resources in trusts. I know of two doctors who had recently retired and were kept hanging around for five months. One was a doctor teaching trainee doctors; however, she was unable to be used because the system just made it impossible for her. If there is any cause to reintroduce this particular provision, will the Minister ensure that we do not gold-plate the complex HR arrangements, making it impossible for staff, former staff or those who might come back on a temporary basis to do so?
We do not believe that the extension of time limits for retention of fingerprints and DNA should remain. We objected to that a year ago, when it was brought in.
Finally, I wrote to the Minister earlier today with real concerns about the problems that some returning international travellers are facing, following the new regulations that came into force at 4 am today, arising from concern over omicron. This is a logistical problem with the change from lateral flow to PCR tests and the passenger locator form. As of this morning, it was still possible to put only the details of your lateral flow test on to the passenger locator form, not the arrangements for the PCR test. One cruise company has 700 people coming into a UK port tomorrow and, despite talking to officials, it cannot get a sense of how the passengers will be able to get off if their details are not on the passenger locator form. I hope another method has been found, otherwise this may be a bit of a problem.
It is right that the Government made the provisions we face today, even if we do not agree with all of them. But I say to the Minister that, as with other statutory instruments, holding on to some of these provisions for a little longer, even if unused, might be useful in case the pandemic takes us down a course that not one of us wants, as the Government and other public services might need to call on them at short notice.
My Lords, I thank the Minister for his most helpful introduction to these regulations, which we will not be opposing. As he acknowledged, when the original Act came into force, we were in extraordinary times and they required unprecedented legislation. However, as time moves on and experience and circumstances change, it is right that we seek to remove powers that are no longer needed. The move to do so today is welcome because, in those circumstances, such provisions should not remain in statute.
Examples of those include Section 56 and Schedule 26 powers relating to magistrates’ courts; Part 1 of Schedule 16, which provides for the temporary closure of education and childcare settings, and was not used; and Section 78 powers around local authority meetings, which need to go because the provisions are simply out of date. On this, I add my voice to a point I made previously in Grand Committee: as the Minister has heard from noble Lords today, surely how a local authority meeting is conducted must be the responsibility of the local authority itself. In the case of these regulations, I accept that the provision is out of date, but perhaps the Minister will apply his consideration to that more general point. The provision of powers to detain infectious people was particularly controversial and it is right that it is removed, having been used only 10 times, the last being October last year.
I will raise a few points with the Minister and I first emphasise the need for clarity of communication from the Government. With that in mind, I refer to the comments of Dr Jenny Harries, the head of the UK Health Security Agency, which she made on BBC Radio 4’s “Today” programme. She said:
“If we all decrease our social contacts a little bit, actually that helps to keep the variant at bay”.
However, a spokesperson for Prime Minister Boris Johnson said that he does not share her view. I understand that the Government have sought to reassure the public that they have no plans to tell people to limit their social contacts with others, which is in direct contrast to the view of this leading medical expert. I would be extremely grateful if the Minister could clear this up for us today.
Secondly, it does not seem so long ago that we were discussing the very matter of face masks in Grand Committee—I know it has come up many times in the Chamber. From these Benches we have repeatedly said that we are of the view that mask wearing should be continued and enforced, so it is welcome to see changes now in this regard, but why are shops and transport the only areas where we, the public, are required to wear face masks? One can be in a theatre, for example, a conference or some other large social gathering in even greater numbers and closer together than one might ever be in a shop or on transport, so I find myself once again seeking some advice from the Minister. I ask him to review this because, as we know, mask wearing is a major contributor to protecting everybody. Further on this point, how will it be enforced and how will compliance be encouraged?
The third area I would like to raise with the Minister is the end of the uprating of working tax credits and disregards corresponding to the universal credit £20 uplift. Does the Minister appreciate the financial pressures that many households live with, as reflected in the increasing use of food banks? Further to this, I note that there is no impact assessment. What assessment has been made of the number of households that will be affected by taking away the uplift of universal credit? What assessment has been made of the financial extent to which those households will be affected? What effect will that change have on levelling up—or, as appears to be the case here, levelling down?
The Explanatory Note suggests that the uprating of benefits was linked to supporting people at a time of unprecedented circumstances. However, one thing that the pandemic highlighted is that those most in need are struggling with incomes that are simply too low, pandemic or no, and it is this that needs addressing. The regulations may turn off the power to increase levels of benefit payment, but they cannot turn off the reality that many will go back to being unable to make ends meet, with all the inequalities that follow from that. I look forward to the Minister’s response to these points.
I start by thanking all noble Lords for their contributions to this important debate and for continuing to ask questions to hold us to account. The Coronavirus Act has been fundamental to facilitating the Government’s response to the pandemic, supporting individuals, our healthcare, our public services and our businesses. We see expiring a further seven provisions of the Act as a significant milestone towards winding down the emergency powers. To be clear, the Government retain only those powers seen as critical to the ongoing response and recovery, and I thank noble Lords for their general support for that principle, but we will continue to review every aspect of coronavirus legislation.
I now turn to some of the points made by noble Lords this afternoon. First, why are we making some of these changes now, given what happened over the weekend? In reality, a thorough, in-depth review of all the provisions was conducted in September. The provisions we expire today are seen as no longer needed, as we have explained. The provisions that give the Secretary of State the power to prohibit or restrict events and gatherings have been dropped, but most legal restrictions to date have been achieved under the Public Health (Control of Disease) Act 1984. Some of these additional powers are not required because the Government assess them as appropriate to expire, but they can also respond under that Act to increase our vigilance and restrictions in response to coronavirus and any possible variants.
A number of noble Lords raised concerns about the expiry of Section 77 on the uprating of working tax credits. Throughout the crisis, the Government have sought to protect people’s jobs and livelihoods, and to support businesses and public services. The Government have always been clear that the £20 increase was a temporary measure to support the households most affected, that it was time-limited and that it can no longer be used because it related to the 2020-21 tax year.
During the recent Budget, the Chancellor announced that, since the restrictions have been lifted, economic growth has exceeded expectations and the labour market is recovering strongly. The Government are now focusing on supporting people to move into and progress back to work, including the Plan for Jobs to help people move into employment so that they can get a regular wage. Also, workers leaving the furlough scheme and unemployed people over the age of 50 will be helped back into work as part of the more than £500 million expansion of the Government’s Plan for Jobs. Those on the lowest wages will also be helped to progress their careers, and existing schemes targeting young people will be extended into next year. On balance, it was considered appropriate to try to help those who genuinely want to get back to work.
Also, one of the struggles for any temporary government measure is, as I think Ronald Reagan once said, that there is nothing more permanent than a temporary government measure. We have to be aware that, whatever you do temporarily, there will be concerns when a temporary measure comes to an end. Frankly, I expect we will see that in a couple of years’ time when we reassign the uplift back to social care, given that we have given it to the NHS temporarily to help tackle the backlog. I imagine that in a few years’ time the Government will be accused of making cuts, even though we made it clear that it was temporary to help the backlog. We want to focus it mostly on social care.
A number of noble Lords raised points about Covid-19 vaccines. As many noble Lords will recognise, we stepped up yesterday in response to the variant. So far, the NHS has administered more than 17.5 million booster or third doses in the UK. Almost 51 million over-12s in the UK have now received at least one vaccine dose and 46 million have had at least two doses. The line that we continue to say is that it is important that people get jabbed.
Yesterday, the Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation updated its guidance, which the Government accepted, that booster vaccination eligibility should be extended to all adults aged 18 to 39 years, as well as to severely immunosuppressed individuals who have received three primary doses. We will continue to ask and to campaign. The general campaign reaches lots of the people who have already had their vaccines, but we are looking at more targeted ways to make sure that people recognise that it is never too late. If you have not had your first or second jab, do not think that it is too late. You can still do so. There is plenty of opportunity to do so. Do not feel that you have been ignored. We are also working with a number of civil society organisations at a local community level. I thank noble Lords across the Committee who have given advice on how we can reach some of those hard- to-reach demographics. In some ways, it is a more targeted approach to spend that effort making sure that people are vaccinated, rather than on a message that reaches lots of people, many of whom say, “Why is that aimed at me? I’ve already been vaccinated and I’ve told my family”.
Local authority meetings were raised by a number of noble Lords. The Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities launched a call for evidence on 25 March to gather views and inform a longer-term decision about whether to make express provision for councils to meet remotely on a permanent basis. That consultation has closed and the department is considering responses to it. I hear and understand the point very strongly that these decisions really should be left to local authorities. I will definitely take that back, because it is important when we are talking about devolving power to the most local level. I hear that message strongly and understand the concerns.
There are many other meetings which are not main meetings where councillors have been able to participate virtually as well as in person. Not all decisions are taken in full council or in local authority committees. A lot are delegated. The problem is that any permanent change would require primary legislation. The Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities is looking at this.
I was asked why the changes are expiring now, given what happened over the weekend. We think that the powers that have been retained are sufficient to ensure that we can respond, for example, to omicron and other variants. Some civil libertarians would say that these powers are still too much. The other powers which are expiring are not necessary for us to be able to continue to respond.
I thank the noble Baroness, Lady Brinton, for giving me notice of her question about people who are waiting for lateral flow tests to come back. I immediately raised that in my department. I have been trying to get an answer as quickly as possible. I had hoped to have it in time for this afternoon’s debate. I apologise that I do not have it yet. I will write to the noble Baroness on that specific issue. As she said, it is urgent to get this information as quickly as possible. I have impressed that on my department.
The noble Baroness also raised the issue of doctors who are kept hanging around for months. I note what she said and will raise it within my department. It is always helpful when noble Lords raise issues with me. They enable me to take them back to the department. If noble Lords raise an issue that has previously been raised, it emphasises its importance.
There were a number of questions about face coverings. Many noble Lords clearly feel that they make a difference. I wear one, partly because I think we should be sending this message anyway, but also because it is not too much of an imposition. It is not too much to ask. I do not see that my individual liberties are being impinged or affected by wearing a face mask in public. The advice we receive from a range of scientists balances political, social and economic needs with health care. With some of the restrictions we introduced previously, there have been concerns about their impact on mental health. We always try to keep a balance. We listen to a range of experts. I have listed a number of them in the past, including the UKHSA and others. Some have chosen to express their own view, but we have always been clear that we listen to a range of views.
There are issues about masks in indoor spaces. It is quite right that they should be worn on public transport and in shops. I asked a few experts today about why they should not be worn in restaurants. The answer was that, in a restaurant, you are continually taking off and putting on your mask. There was a concern that, touching it and having breathed on it, it could lead to a greater chance of transmission. In a shop, the situation is fairly constant. You go in with the mask on, keep it on and come out. In a restaurant, you are taking it off and putting it on. One of the other concerns was about balancing social mixing and economic impact. It is still up to individual establishments. Noble Lords will be aware that some establishments have decided that they will continue to insist that their customers wear masks. Frankly, in some ways, that is an appropriate level. It is about property rights. It is up to them whom they let in. It is a difficult balance. Given that some people think that continually taking a mask on and off and walking around may make things worse, on balance, it has been decided not to extend mask-wearing to restaurants. We continue to review all the advice.
I know noble Lords were asking for more restrictions and for face masks to be used more earlier on. We never ruled that out; what we said was that there was sufficient evidence to suggest it, or there was sufficient consensus among all our advisers, we would move that way. There is clearly quite a lot of consensus on face masks in shops and on public transport, but not yet in other places. This is why we have been clear.
I am trying to think if I have missed any of the questions. If I have, I apologise to noble Lords. I will make sure that we go through the transcript—
Before we go off the issue of face masks, I appreciate the explanation about restaurants, but my question was about large gatherings—for example, cinemas, theatres and conferences, to name but a few. The explanation about restaurants does not apply there. I hope the Minister will take this back as it is simply a question of where is the logic regarding the venue. It seems to make no difference; it is about the fact of there being a number of people.
The real point I would re-put to the Minister, which links with that, is my question about the comments of Dr Jenny Harries on Radio 4. She said that we should decrease our social contacts, whereas the spokesperson for the Prime Minister says that we will not be doing that. I am very concerned about mixed messaging, as I am sure the Minister is—I know he is from what he has said. It would be extremely helpful to put on the record where we are on whether decreasing social contact makes a difference.
I apologise if I was not clearer before. I thank the noble Baroness for taking advantage of the opportunity to ask that question and finding the urge to do so irresistible. On theatres and cinemas, one of the things that was put to us was that in a restaurant, you are constantly taking a mask on and off, whereas in a cinema or theatre you are not really eating that much. Okay, you might well go to buy your ice cream—I do not know whether they still sell ice cream and jelly babies in theatres, or whatever it used to be; this will look very odd in Hansard when someone reads it—but you are not constantly doing and you are more or less constantly wearing your mask. However, I will take that back. It is a fair point, and one thing that I do when I am being briefed is to challenge because I know that noble Lords will rightly challenge me on this issue.
In response to the comments by Jenny Harries, I hope I have been clear that we take advice from a range of advisers and there is not yet consensus, but we have been relying not just on making mask mandatory when necessary as a precaution, but at the same time on people’s individual behaviour and them acting responsibly. It is about getting that balance right. We listen to Dr Jenny Harries, but she is one of a number of experts whom we listen to. We weigh up the different views; it is as simple as that. As we have been clear, there is no one trigger for any of these measures. We always consider a range of measures, including capacity in the NHS, the trends et cetera. I have listed them in previous debates. It is not one person whom we listen to. We listen to a range of experts.
Will my noble friend undertake to write to me about waiting facilities in GP waiting rooms? That would be helpful. I am also prompted by a question that I do not think he responded to from the noble Baroness, Lady Brinton, on the welfare aspects of staff shortages in meat-processing plants and the massive cull of pigs. While I appreciate it might not be the direct responsibility of his department, this is an animal welfare disaster about to happen.
One thing that I did not like to raise—I am sure it will go no further than the Grand Committee, which is why I feel confident to raise it now—is that my noble friend will be aware that there is PPE equipment which was deemed not fit for use, but it is in the system and is, to a certain extent, clogging up the supply chain by taking space which should be used for other goods. Will he undertake to use his good offices to look into this? Perhaps we could have a word about it afterwards because it is contributing to shortages and delays in the supply chain, particularly in storage terms.
First, I apologise for missing that point earlier. Regarding the supply chain provision, an SI was laid under the draft affirmative procedure on 21 April 2021. It was debated and approved by both Houses, came into force on 16 July and expired the provision. As the noble Baroness rightly acknowledged, some of her questioning was not within the scope of these regulations. However, given that she has asked a question, I will endeavour to find out the answer. Clearly, that will include going across departments, so I hope that she will be patient as I try to get that answer as quickly as possible.
On GP access, we recognise the pressure that general practitioners are under, especially in the upcoming and challenging winter period. We are investing £250 million in the winter access fund to improve GPs’ practice capacity. I will take the noble Baroness’s specific question about square metres and areas back to be answered; I hope she understands that I do not have those facts to mind.
The issue of measures was also raised. We must remember that one of the counterpoints put is that the country is in a very different position to the one it was in last year, due to the vaccination programme. Some of the restrictions that might have seemed appropriate last year are not as appropriate this year because we have reduced the link between cases and hospitalisations, as well as between hospitalisations and deaths. Clearly, we have the vaccine. I am sorry if I sound like a broken record but we continue to push the vaccine because it helps to break that link; it is part of the reason why we will not have to go back to some of the restrictions—those similar to last year’s—that many noble Lords are pushing for.
All I will say is that the Government’s autumn and winter plan set out how we will sustain and strengthen some of the progress made so far. We all know that winter will be a challenging period, but more so over the next few months. We all have a role to play in fighting the virus. There is much that government can do but sometimes, even when we mandate things, we know that there will be people who do not obey, so we must get the balance right and decide how to get the appropriate enforcement. Together, we believe that we can protect the progress that we have made, protect the NHS in the months ahead and help friends, loved ones and ourselves by being vaccinated against Covid-19, getting a flu jab if eligible and sticking to the advice on how to keep safe.
I thank noble Lords for their contributions to this debate and previous ones on the Coronavirus Act; I also thank them in advance for future contributions. I welcome noble Lords’ expertise and contributions, and I commend the regulations to the Committee.