Skip to main content


Volume 673: debated on Wednesday 18 March 2020

The whole House will want to join me in paying tribute to Lance Corporal Brodie Gillon, a reservist medic of the Scottish and North Irish Yeomanry, who was tragically killed in Iraq last week. My thoughts and deepest sympathies are with her family and loved ones at this very difficult time.

This morning I had meetings with ministerial colleagues and others. In addition to my duties in the House, I shall have further such meetings later today.

Like many others in the United Kingdom, my constituents in Aylesbury are understandably deeply concerned about covid-19, and I pay tribute to staff at Stoke Mandeville Hospital, Bucks social services and everyone in the community who is helping those with the virus or in isolation. Can my right hon. Friend assure the people of Aylesbury, and everybody in the country, that the Government will take whatever action is needed and spend whatever money is needed to save lives and protect livelihoods?

I join my hon. Friend in paying tribute to the staff at Stoke Mandeville and to all the staff in our fantastic NHS for the way they are coping at this extremely difficult time. We not only put another £5 billion into the NHS last week, as he heard from my right hon. Friend the Chancellor, but we will certainly do whatever it takes and provide whatever funding is necessary to help our NHS through this crisis and, indeed, to support the whole country with Government-guaranteed loans, as he will have heard yesterday.

Thank you for your statement, Mr Speaker. I thank MPs for the very responsible approach they have taken to today’s Question Time by sitting a suitable distance apart to avoid cross-fertilisation of this horrible disease.

I also want to join the Prime Minister in paying tribute to Lance Corporal Brodie Gillon, who was killed in Iraq last week. Our thoughts are with her family and friends.

Today people are mourning the loss of loved ones, and many more will be suffering from the effects of coronavirus, including those already losing work or losing their jobs who are worried about whether they can keep a roof over their head. Our greatest thanks must go to the frontline medical and public health staff who are fighting to combat the spread of the disease, to the public servants, particularly postal workers, who have made such sacrifices today, and to the cleaners who are providing vital support. We must also thank those working round the clock to make sure our shops and warehouses are stocked with the essential food supplies that everybody needs.

We on these Benches will do our duty to hold the Government to account. Together, we need to ensure that the most effective action is taken to protect people, and it is in that spirit that I ask questions of the Prime Minister today.

Every member of the public will make sacrifices in the effort to stop the spread of coronavirus, but those on low pay, self-employed workers and small business owners are understandably worried. Sue wrote to me this week. Her family is in isolation, and she says the current £94.25 a week statutory sick pay is

“not enough to pay for their food shopping.”

Can the Prime Minister do what the Chancellor repeatedly refused to do yesterday and pledge to increase statutory sick pay to European levels?

I thank the right hon. Gentleman for the way in which the Opposition have approached the issue generally and for the co-operation so far between our Front Benches on this matter. As he rightly says, this is a national emergency, and we are asking the public to do things and take actions in a way that is unprecedented for a Government in peacetime, and perhaps even unprecedented in the last century.

When we ask people to take action to isolate themselves if they or a member of their household has the disease, or to take steps that jeopardise businesses and cause people to risk losing their job, it is absolutely right that, whatever their circumstances, we should ensure workers get the support they need. So in addition to the package of business support that my right hon. Friend the Chancellor outlined yesterday, we will be working with the unions and colleagues across the House, and bringing forward further measures to support workers of all kinds throughout this crisis.

UK sick pay levels lag far behind those of European counterparts. The Scandinavian countries are giving many people 100% of wages during this crisis, and I hope that when the Prime Minister brings forward proposals on this they will reflect the reality of people’s lives—you cannot feed a family on 90-odd quid a week. Those people are therefore putting everybody at risk because they have to go out to work in order to put food on the table. In order to claim statutory sick pay, workers need to prove that they earn a minimum of £118 per week, so I hope that when the Prime Minister brings forward proposals he will give confidence to the millions of people who work in low-income jobs, are in insecure work or are self-employed, and will commit to extending very much enhanced statutory sick pay to all workers.

As I have told the House before, of course we will ensure that nobody is penalised for doing the right thing, protecting not just themselves but other members of society and making sure that our NHS is able to cope. Clearly, statutory sick pay will, typically, be supplemented by other benefits, but I repeat what I said to the right hon. Gentleman: as the state is making these demands of the public and of business, it is only right that throughout this period we should be doing whatever it takes to support the workers of this country throughout this crisis.

What it takes is a recognition of the social injustice and inequalities that exist in this country, and I hope that when the Prime Minister makes the proposals on statutory sick pay levels that will be recognised. A quarter of the people who are most crucial to support us in the crisis, social care staff, and almost half of home care workers are on zero-hours contracts, so they are therefore automatically not entitled to sick pay. By not extending statutory sick pay to all workers, the Government are forcing social care staff—the people who could, unwittingly, be transmitting the disease among the most vulnerable in our community—to choose between health and their own hardship.

Yesterday the Chancellor, unfortunately, offered nothing to the 20 million people living in rented homes, including 3 million households with children. These people are worried sick that they will not be able to pay their rent if they get ill, lose pay or feel that they need to self-isolate. It is in the interests of public health, of the health of all of us, that people do not feel forced to go to work in order to avoid eviction when they know that they may be spreading this terrible disease, so will the Prime Minister now confirm that the Government’s emergency legislation will protect private renters from eviction?

The right hon. Gentleman is making a series of very powerful points, and I can indeed confirm that we will be bringing forward legislation to protect private renters from eviction. That is one thing we will do, but it is also important that, as we legislate, we do not simply pass on the problem, so we will also be taking steps to protect other actors in the economy.

We look forward to seeing the details of that, because we all represent private sector tenants in our constituencies and we know the stress that they are going through now. They need something to be said urgently about this issue, so I hope that the Government will say something as soon as possible. Today would be appropriate.

NHS staff and those who work in the care sector are on the frontline of caring for patients suffering from coronavirus. Sadly, however, those workers have no idea whether they are transmitting the virus themselves—they may not be obviously suffering from it, but they could still be transmitting it—whether they are ill or not, and what effect it will have when they return to work on the frontline. Will the Prime Minister please explain why the Government are not prioritising the testing of all healthcare staff—those in the NHS and those doing such a vital job in the care sector?

In point of fact, we are prioritising the testing of NHS staff, for the obvious reason that we want them to be able to look after everybody else with confidence that they are not transmitting the disease. This country is actually far ahead of many other comparable countries in testing huge numbers of people. We are increasing our tests from 5,000 a day to 10,000 a day. It may be of interest to the House to know that we are getting much closer to having a generally available test that will determine whether or not someone has had the disease. That will truly be of huge benefit to this country in tackling the outbreak.

The World Health Organisation said “test, test, test.” We should be testing on an industrial scale. When I met the Prime Minister on Monday evening, he assured me that 10,000 tests were going on per day. That is better than none, obviously, but it is nowhere near even the number of people working in the NHS and the care sector. It is a massive undertaking and I wish there was a greater sense of urgency from the Government in getting testing available for all staff.

NHS staff are obviously on the frontline, and many are scared because the guidance has been changed to say that they do not need to wear full protective equipment when caring for patients. A senior doctor has said:

“The rest of the world is providing staff with full protective gear and we are restricting it”.

This is a doctor saying, “I am scared.” We should not be scaring doctors and nurses. Is there or is there not a policy for them to have full protective equipment? I believe that that should be the case.

Quickly, on testing, I can reassure the right hon. Gentleman that we are moving up to 25,000 tests a day.

On personal protective equipment for NHS staff, the right hon. Gentleman is absolutely right to raise the issue. It is obviously of huge concern to everyone that our NHS staff should feel that they are able to interact with patients with perfect security and protection, so there is a massive effort going on, comparable to the effort to build enough ventilators, to ensure that we have adequate supplies of PPE, not just now but throughout the outbreak.

Generations to come will look back on this moment and they will judge us—they will judge us on the actions we take now. Our response must be bold and it must be decisive. The market cannot deliver what is needed; only collective public action, led by Government, can protect our people and our society. That collective action must not allow the burden to fall most on those who lack the resources to cope, as happened after the financial crash. People across the country do understand the need for temporary restrictions on our way of life to protect us all, and we will work with the Government, but the Prime Minister must understand that that will require balancing action to protect the most insecure and vulnerable, in the interests of public health as well as of social justice. The health of us all depends on the health of the most vulnerable, so I ask the Prime Minister: will he step up now—not tomorrow—and give support to those vulnerable people who live on the margins of our society, who are vulnerable themselves and make us all vulnerable, and give them the support and the assurance that they are desperately searching for today?

Indeed I can, and that is why we have announced another £500 million to go straight to councils to help them immediately with the needs of the poorest and the most vulnerable; that is why we have announced immediate cash injections into business, to help them through an unquestionably very difficult time; and that is why will be bringing forward further measures to ensure that every worker receives support throughout this difficult period.

Be in no doubt: the right hon. Gentleman is right to draw attention to the unprecedented nature of this crisis. We are asking the public to do quite extraordinary things and we are asking business to shoulder quite extraordinary burdens. But the more effectively we can work together to comply with the very best scientific advice, which is what has actuated this Government throughout the crisis—which is what has guided this Government throughout the crisis—the better our chances of relieving the burden on the NHS; the more lives we will save and the more suffering we will avoid; and the quicker we will get through it. Be in no doubt that—the right hon. Gentleman is absolutely right—this is an enormous challenge for this country, but I think the people of this country understand what they need to do to beat it. They also, I think, understand that we will beat it, and that we will beat it together.

Q2. In November, the Prime Minister and the Secretary of State for Health and Social Care came to visit us at Bassetlaw Hospital in Worksop to see the excellent work done by our local NHS. We were delighted to hear of a £14.9 million investment to upgrade our accident and emergency department. Will the Prime Minister update us on progress on that, and will he and the Secretary of State accept an invitation to see the work when it is completed? (901610)

I congratulate my hon. Friend on what he is doing for Bassetlaw Hospital. I remember going to talk to the wonderful doctors and staff at Bassetlaw. They explained in great detail their fascinating plan for improving service for their patients. I am absolutely determined to support him and them in their ambitions. That is why we have already put £15 million into expanding emergency care capacity in Bassetlaw. My right hon. Friend the Health Secretary is working intimately with Bassetlaw to take forward the whole project.

I associate myself with the remarks of the Prime Minister on the killing of Lance Corporal Brodie Gillon.

This is an unprecedented emergency and it requires an unprecedented response. I welcome the fact that parties across the House, and Governments across these islands, have worked together as we attempt to protect all our peoples. It is the right approach and it is the least the public expect and deserve from us.

Yesterday the Chancellor announced a £330 billion financial package for business. Today the UK Government need to announce a financial package for people. Members from six parties across the House have expressed support for a temporary universal basic income to help everyone, especially freelancers, renters and the self-employed. Using the current tax system, will the Prime Minister stand up and give a commitment today to provide people with the security of a universal basic income?

First, I want to thank the right hon. Gentleman for the spirit in which he has spoken. Indeed, there is a huge amount of collaboration going on across all four nations of this country, as you can imagine, Mr Speaker. We are in lockstep.

What I would say on the right hon. Gentleman’s appeal for basic income is, do not underestimate the value to people of the measures that we have already announced that will support business, keep jobs going and make sure those businesses continue in existence. That must be the first step. As I have said repeatedly now to the right hon. Gentleman, the Leader of the Opposition, it is important that throughout the crisis we take steps to support workers. The right hon. Member for Ross, Skye and Lochaber (Ian Blackford) is quite right and the suggestion that he makes is, of course, one of many such suggestions.

I thank the Prime Minister for his answer. There is a willingness from all of us to work together as we go through this crisis, but thousands of people are already losing their jobs. It is happening today. Millions will face the same threat. They need reassurance and support, and they need it today. They need an income guarantee.

We must not repeat history. People are worried about their bills and about keeping a roof over their head. In the last financial crisis, the banks were bailed out, but ordinary people were not. The Prime Minister has it in his power to protect people’s incomes and provide them with peace of mind. At this time, an emergency universal income scheme would do just that. Will he at least commit to meeting all of us who support that proposal to discuss how we can protect the incomes of all our peoples?

Yes, indeed. I can make that commitment and I said as much in my earlier answer to the right hon. Gentleman. It is very important that, as we go forward, we try to enlist a consensus in this House about how to support people throughout the crisis. I agree profoundly with what he said about not repeating history. It is very important that, as we ask the public to do the right thing for themselves and for everybody else, no one, whatever their income, should be penalised for doing the right thing, and we will make sure that that is the case.

Q3. I welcome confirmation that routine Ofsted inspections will be postponed, and will the Prime Minister join me in commending schools, leaders and teachers on all they have been doing in supporting families through this crisis? (901611)

I pay a particular tribute not just to our amazing NHS, but to our teachers and everybody who works in our schools for everything that they have done to keep our schools going throughout this difficult crisis so far. Of course we will do everything we can to remove burdens on schools, and Ofsted is one in particular that we can address. The House should expect further decisions to be taken imminently on schools and on how we make sure that we square the circle of ensuring that we both stop the spread of disease, but relieve, as much as we can, the pressure on our NHS.

Q5. My NHS colleagues on the frontline are already stressed with the pressure that they face. Last night I visited my father in a care home, and I am acutely aware that I may have fed him for the very last time. We are in unprecedented times. I want to know where was the forward planning for PPE for our NHS and care staff. Where is the testing for medics? Why are we waiting so long for mass testing and why are social distancing measures merely just suggestions? Prime Minister, it is right that we have all put party loyalty aside to work together during this time of national crisis, but we must scale up the response. Without good leadership, people in this country will start to panic. There must be no more time for delay. The time to act is now. (901613)

I completely agree with what the hon. Lady says, and I thank her for all the work that she does in the health service. I can certainly tell her that we have stockpiles of PPE equipment and that we are proceeding—it is very important for the House to understand this—in accordance with the best scientific advice, and it is the timeliness of those measures that is absolutely vital in combating the spread of the epidemic, and indeed that is how we save lives. I am delighted that the UK’s approach has been commended today not just by Neil Ferguson of Imperial College, but by Dr David Nabarro of the World Health Organisation.

Q4. The weeks and months ahead will test us all and stretch society to its limits, none more so than the national health service, which is working day and night to care for the sick and to save lives, but together we will get through this. Will my right hon. Friend update the House on his efforts to bring together a coalition of manufacturers to supply the NHS with the ventilators and other essential medical equipment it needs to treat the most adversely affected patients during this pandemic? (901612)

As the House will know, there is already a coalition of British manufacturers that are now working together at speed to supply the ventilators that we need. We already have 8,000, and we are moving rapidly upwards, and I will keep the House informed of developments.