[Relevant documents: Joint Committee on Human Rights, Chair’s Briefing Paper: Coronavirus Restrictions Regulations and Lockdown, HC 265; Joint Committee on Human Rights: Background Paper: Covid-19, HC 265.]
With this we shall take the following motion:
That the Health Protection (Coronavirus, Restrictions) (England) (Amendment) Regulations 2020 (S.I., 2020, No. 447), dated 21 April 2020, a copy of which was laid before this House on 22 April, be approved.
The Minister is asked to speak for no more than 12 minutes.
These sets of regulations were made by the Secretary of State on 26 March and 21 April respectively. Following the return of the House after the Easter recess, they are rightly being brought before the House today for the scrutiny and debate that they require. They are exceptional measures, brought forward to reflect exceptional challenges and times, but although it is right that these regulations—necessary to meet the public health needs of the coronavirus pandemic—are brought forward, it is also right that we ensure that this House is able to play its proper role, and that due process and the rule of law are maintained. With that in mind, I thank the shadow Minister and the Opposition parties for facilitating this debate taking place today.
The country has been, and still is, engaged in a national effort to beat coronavirus covid-19. Delivering a strategy designed to ensure that our NHS is protected, with capacity at all times exceeding the demand for intensive care beds for coronavirus patients, flattening the peak, and driving down the rate of transmission of disease and the number of infections, alongside the work to significantly expand NHS capacity, have all helped to protect our NHS and to save lives. Sadly, although this has been working, there have been many who have died from this disease—each and every one of them a tragedy, and each and every one a real person. Our thoughts are with all their friends and families at this time. I also put on record all of our continued thanks and appreciation to NHS and care workers, and to key workers around the country, for the phenomenal work that they are doing caring for people and keeping the United Kingdom going.
The regulations we debate today have played a crucial role in the success we are seeing in reducing infection transmission levels. They impose significant demands upon individuals and society as a whole, with impacts on business, the economy and daily life, and I do understand the sacrifices people are making at this time, their frustrations, and, indeed, their anxieties. But these regulations are necessary, because the single most important step we can all take to beating this disease is to stay at home in order to reduce the spread and to protect ourselves and others.
That is why, in these regulations, the Government introduce three main social distancing measures: requiring people to stay at home as far as possible, with only very limited exceptions; closing certain businesses and venues; and stopping gatherings of more than two people in public. These regulations are similar to those introduced by other countries. We have worked closely with the devolved Administrations, to whom I should also pay tribute, in developing and reviewing these measures.
The main statutory instrument, No. 350, requires enforcement of the closure of some businesses and restrictions on others from 12 pm on 26 March 2020. As set out in the notes, the regulations require the closure of drinking establishments, including bars, pubs and nightclubs, and food and drink venues with consumption on-site, excluding hospitals, schools, care homes, homeless services and prison canteens, as well as other exemptions. Regulation 4(4) requires the closure of entertainment venues including cinemas, theatres, concert halls, bingo halls, museums, galleries, spas, hairdressing and massage parlours, casinos, funfairs, libraries, community centres, and non-food outdoor markets. Regulation 5(1) requires businesses offering goods for sale or for hire, or providing library services, to cease to do so except in response to orders received online, by telephone or by mail order. Types of businesses specified in part 3 of schedule 2 are exempt from these restrictions. Regulation 5(2) excludes hot and cold food collection and delivery from the closure restrictions. Regulations 5(3) and 5(4) require hotels and similar establishments to remain open for permanent residence only to persons in a hotel because they are moving home, attending a funeral, or unable to return home.
The second set of regulations, No. 447, makes a small number of consequential amendments to improve the operational implementation of the main regulations.
These regulations are made under section 45C of the Public Health (Control of Disease) Act 1984, with Her Majesty’s Government clear that the powers under that Act are sufficient to introduce them.
Given the impact that these regulations have on individuals and businesses, notwithstanding the huge support package announced by my right hon. Friend the Chancellor of the Exchequer, I know that a number of issues relating to these regulations have been raised in recent days by members of the public and, indeed, by hon. Members, and I will touch on those now. However, I will endeavour to respond more fully to specific points raised by Members when I wind up the debate.
First, there is the question of enforcement. The Joint Committee on Human Rights and others have expressed concerns about variations in enforcement and in the approach adopted to it by different police forces. As hon. Members will be aware, guidance was issued to police forces, and this has continued to be updated and clarified. It is important that the police operate within the law, which is the law as it is set out in these regulations, and that guidance is treated as just that—clarifying guidance.
The British people have been amazing in their collective response to the restrictions, and compliance has been very high. However, a very small minority have not always complied. The police have been doing their very challenging job at this time with dedication and, by and large, pragmatism. The approach of “engage, explain, encourage, and only then enforce where it is absolutely necessary” is the right one. The small number of examples, while important, of what can seem like over-enthusiastic enforcement should not detract from the fantastic work being done by the police across the country.
The final aspect of the regulations that I draw attention to is the requirement that they be reviewed every 21 days, to ensure that they remain necessary and appropriate. The first review took place on 16 April, with the First Secretary of State confirming that they would remain in place. The next review is due on 7 May. I am aware of the desire of Members and across the country for more detail on the UK’s progress and future steps, which I understand. The review on 7 May will consider the necessity of the regulations against the public health aim, including the five considerations set out by my right hon. Friend the First Secretary of State: first, that the NHS can provide critical care across the UK; secondly, that there is a sustained and consistent fall in the daily death rate; thirdly, that infection rates decrease to an acceptable level; fourthly, that supplies of personal protective equipment and testing meet future demand; and fifthly, that evidence is clear that any changes will not risk a second peak of the virus.
The Prime Minister has set out that further announcements on this will be made soon. As he said on Thursday last week, the Government will set out a comprehensive plan this week, which will explain how we will get our economy moving while continuing to suppress the disease. It will set out how we will seek to get life back to normal for as many people as we can, as quickly, equitably and fairly as we can, while continuing to protect the NHS. And it will, of course, as throughout, continue to be guided by the best scientific and medical advice. I hope the House will understand that I do not intend to pre-empt what the Prime Minister might say later this week on the basis of that advice.
It is right that we made these regulations as and when we did to help tackle the coronavirus/covid-19 pandemic. Her Majesty’s Government consider these regulations to be proportionate and appropriate in the face of this pandemic, but it is absolutely right that this House properly scrutinises and debates them and their impact upon our country, and I look forward to hearing Members’ contributions. I commend these regulations to the House.
Before I call the spokesman for the Opposition, I should draw to the attention of Members in the Chamber and who are going to participate by electronic means that there will be a time limit of five minutes on Back-Bench contributions. I have to adhere strictly to that timetable in order to make these proceedings work in this unusual way, so please do not look for leniency. I also ask Members who are participating from home to have some way of checking whether they have spoken for five minutes. I now call Justin Madders, who I ask to speak for no more than eight minutes.
We all wish that these regulations were not necessary, but we are all absolutely clear that, given the threat we face, they are required. Before we get into the substance of the regulations, I want to say a little bit about the process, because whether we support these measures or not, given that they represent the biggest peacetime restrictions that this country has ever seen, they do demand full parliamentary scrutiny. I do not intend this to be a criticism of the Minister or anyone else, because we all know the efforts that have been made to get this place up and running again, but a couple of hours’ debate weeks after the regulations were introduced cannot in future be sufficient to provide the level of examination and scrutiny that such sweeping laws require.
We all know the damage that this virus is doing to our society, and we all know that these measures are needed to limit that damage, but we should not forget their impact—the business shut down overnight with no idea if or when it might trade again; the child who cannot understand why they cannot see their friends any more; the grandparents cut off from their family, missing out on their grandchildren growing up. Everyone is facing their own challenges. The physical and mental toll is huge, yet virtually everyone is adhering to these rules in a way that is a testament to the resolve and determination of the British people. So we say thank you to everyone who has played their part in slowing the spread of the virus.
We acknowledge that this is incredibly difficult, and we do not want these measures to be in place for a day longer than is absolutely necessary. The first duty of any Government is to protect its citizens, and if it is necessary to curtail basic freedoms—freedoms for which people have fought and died—to protect them, reality dictates that that is what has to happen. That reality must be accompanied by openness, accountability and scrutiny at a greater level than we would ordinarily see. We accept that the regulations had to be introduced hurriedly in response to the rising number of infections, but there is now a new rhythm to life, and there ought to be time and space to ensure that any future changes have democratic consent before they are introduced.
The regulations require a review every three weeks—as the Minister said, one is due in the next few days. The Secretary of State is legally required to terminate any regulations that are not necessary or proportionate to control the transmission of the virus. A statement in the House following the review will provide a helpful examination of that requirement. I hope that when the Minister responds he will commit to that and to an oral statement after each subsequent review. If that review envisages some relaxation of the measures, we hope that any new regulations on the back of that are debated here before they are implemented and, most importantly, that they follow a wider conversation with Opposition parties, employers, trade unions and, of course, the public.
There are reports that that has begun to happen, but it needs to be done in a structured, open way, not through media briefings or leaks. I do not say that to make a political point, but because I believe that consent for an application of the rules will be better after full and transparent dialogue than it would be without that. We need only to look at the way in which some of those rules were interpreted and applied in the early days to know that there was confusion about their exact meaning. Again, that is not intended as a criticism—no law, let alone one that is completely unprecedented in its reach in modern times could be implemented without areas where there is ambiguity, and clarification is required.
Much of that was most likely due to the unusual and sudden nature of the regulations, but even recently we have seen a divergence between ministerial pronouncements and what the law actually allows. For example, the Secretary of State for Housing, Communities and Local Government has recently said on a number of occasions that tips should be able to reopen. Regulation 6 does not state that such a visit is a reasonable excuse for leaving home.
That leads to my next point—the current rules, sweeping as they are, are not numerous. If the next phase is likely to contain a longer list of reasonable excuses to leave home, it is even more important that those rules are clear and consistent. The rules need to be harmonised with advice, guidelines and all forms of official communication. We do not want people to imply legal authority where there is none, or to act outside the law. That is vital to preserve the rule of law. We know that the lockdown was a blunt tool—effective nevertheless—and one that will change by definition as restrictions ease. There will be a measure of nuance, distinction and variation that requires careful explanation and policing. People will inevitably ask why one set of businesses can reopen, but not another. We believe that full disclosure not just of the names of the attendees of the Scientific Group for Emergencies but of all the scientific evidence and advice that has been provided is required to give the public confidence and reassurance on any changes to the rules.
It is in the area of transparency that we need a change from what have seen so far. To take people with us, and for the morale of the nation, any changes to the rules must be viewed in the context of a published exit strategy. We need clear sight of the proposed areas where restrictions will be eased, and a robust plan to protect workers and the public alongside a published impact assessment. So far, there has been no impact assessment—again, we understand why that was not possible in the circumstances, but we do not want that to become the norm, especially for regulations such as this. We see the impact every day and we know that it is not distributed equally.
I should like the Minister to provide assurances that there will be adequate personal protective equipment for all those working on the frontline and facing exposure to the virus. I should like to put on the record our thanks for the extraordinary bravery and dedication demonstrated by NHS staff and other public servants. Our thoughts are with those who have lost loved ones to the virus, and we hear the concerns from many royal colleges and trade unions in the NHS and social care sectors about the availability of PPE. That matters going forward. If, for example, any changes to the lockdown rules involve the wearing of masks in public what steps will the Government take to ensure that everyone can access them consistently and securely?
Will the Minister also address the question of what resources will be devoted to helping businesses make physical changes to ensure safe working and to increase capacity for the official enforcement of safe working practices? The Health and Safety Executive has experienced significant cuts to its budget over the past decade, and demands on it will be higher as questions inevitably arise about safety. What extra funding will be available to meet that demand?
Will the Minister provide clarity on the status of the 2-metre social distancing rule? It is probably the most effective tool in helping to stop the spread of the virus, yet it does not appear in the regulations. Does it appear elsewhere? Is it actually enforceable? On the question of enforceability, the comments today from the TUC about the lack of enforceability of the proposed guidelines that it has seen are extremely troubling. We cannot allow people back into work unless there is confidence that a robust and enforceable system is in place to guarantee their safety.
Finally, we require clarification on the list of vulnerable people in schedule 1 of the first set of regulations. For example, motor neurone disease appears in the schedule as an underlying medical condition for those in the vulnerable category, but it is not among the high-risk category of patients on the NHS shielding list. This may well be another example of where there needs to be greater harmony between the regulations and other guidance.
In conclusion, we will not oppose the regulations but, given that they represent the most severe restrictions imposed on British liberty in modern history, it is critical that they are subject to continual comprehensive and transparent scrutiny. Democracy demands no less.
I am grateful to be called so early in this important debate.
I very much welcome the tone that has been adopted by both the Minister and the shadow Minister. The overriding point was that they accepted that these are extreme and unusual measures that no Government or Parliament would want to see lasting longer than is strictly necessary. I hope that as Ministers approach the second 21-day review, they will do so always with a view to removing restrictions and removing the arbitrary rules and limitations on freedom as quickly as possible. Where possible, they should also give advance notice. If restrictions are kept in the review on Thursday but may be lifted during the course of the following three weeks, it would be enormously helpful for people, and especially employers, to know in advance.
I hope that Ministers will always see the time limit as a long stop and not as a target to be met. In pressing that case, I ask Ministers to reflect carefully on the experience of the past few weeks and, as the shadow Minister said, the way in which the British people have responded. In essence, it has worked with that overriding objective of ensuring that NHS critical care capacity was not overwhelmed, and it has worked precisely because the British public have been prepared to comply voluntarily. It has not been about policing, in the main, and it has not been about the threat of enforcement; there has been a common desire to make this work. The public have been willing to assist. If anything, in some instances it may be that the public have been a little bit too willing to stay at home. I am sure I am not the only Member who has heard from employers who are struggling to fulfil orders because it is difficult to get employees back from furlough. We all know how critical it is that they ought to be able to get their workers back so that we make sure that the jobs remain when the furlough period ends.
As the Government begin to set out a staged return to work over the coming weeks—I hope that will be set out on Thursday—it will become even more important that we rely on common sense and voluntary co-operation rather than arbitrary rules. The shadow Minister referred to the 2-metre distancing rule; it is looking increasingly likely, from what I read—probably correctly—that Ministers will look to move to a more nuanced set of guidance, which may focus far more on the importance of hygiene. Perhaps there will be the use of disposable gloves if somebody is travelling on public transport, the regular cleaning of surfaces, and all the things that may apply in schools as well as in other workplaces. As these changes come forward, it will be far easier to make them work through a conversation with the British people—by giving people guidance as the Government’s views and the advice they receive evolve, rather than by seeking always to set out very clear, arbitrary rules and regulations.
It is perhaps more important that that approach should be taken in dealing with our more senior citizens. We have the healthiest, most active elderly generation of all time, and it would be tragic if the Government threatened that by trying to extend the so-called lockdown for those judged to be most at risk based on age. Why do we not just give them the best information and advice and let them limit their risk for themselves? There is no reason why the constituent that wrote to me who is a keen cyclist and turns 70 in November should not continue regularly to cycle 30 miles to 60 miles a day, as he did before the lockdown was imposed.
Finally, let me return briefly to the importance of parliamentary scrutiny. It is deeply regrettable that the current 21-day period of extension will end on a day when the House is not sitting. The announcements that will be made on Thursday would be better made in the House. We should hear them here first; it should not be the media that get to question Ministers on those announcements. I hope that when future periods of review are considered, the House, and perhaps the Government, might bear that in mind.
The Government were right to follow the scientific and medical advice to introduce the lockdown. They did so to keep people safe. I recognise the sacrifices made by people around the country who are diligently following the rules to protect themselves, their loved ones and the most vulnerable. However, doing the right thing comes at a heavy cost, so I welcome this opportunity to scrutinise the legislation and focus on the ways it is affecting our country, especially our communities up here in Cumbria.
I am so grateful to our police, in Cumbria and across the UK, for putting our safety above their own. As the Government consider easing the lockdown, they must provide clear guidance so that the police can continue to keep us safe with consistency and confidence.
We are battling to save lives, but also to save a way of life. We must not treat lightly our democracy and our freedom. Let me briefly put on the record my concern about the use of the Public Health (Control of Disease) Act 1984 to pass the regulations and urge Ministers to ensure that the three-week review of these measures is open and honest, and that there is full scrutiny of all new legislation.
The restrictions are necessary to save lives, and we should be extremely cautious about lifting them too soon. It is right that we are led by the science and not by politics. However, we have a responsibility to spare people from hardship and ruin. Here in Cumbria, we are deeply concerned about our tourism and hospitality industry, which had to shut down completely just as it was gearing up for its high season.
For many in the lakes, the dales and the rest of Cumbria, hospitality and tourism are seasonal. They operate their trading year on something of a “feast and famine” basis. The coronavirus hit right at the end of the famine, and now this year there will be no feast. If we do not get this right, we may inadvertently kill off an entire industry that is essential to our wider economy.
It is a humbling honour to speak for and from a part of Britain as breathtakingly beautiful as the south lakes. Our communities here are as strong as the landscape is beautiful. Hundreds of volunteers, many facing severe hardship themselves, are involved in serving their neighbours in their hour of need. We may need to stay a safe distance apart, but our communities have never been closer. I am proud of our people, and I am determined that they should be financially stable and secure at the end of all this.
In normal times, we are one of Europe’s biggest visitor destinations. Last year alone, we received 16 million visitors. Visitors come from Britain and all over the world, not only for the landscape but because we have a world-class hospitality and tourism industry, with the best pubs, restaurants, accommodation, attractions, heritage and history, and an innovative retail sector fully integrated with the visitor economy.
In the Lake district alone, 80% of the working population are employed in tourism or hospitality. The Cumbrian visitor economy contributes £3 billion a year, and £1.45 billion will already have been lost by next month, with 80% of the workers in the hotel and food industries currently furloughed. The RSA study indicated that Cumbria was the most exposed economy in the country, with one in three jobs now at risk. That would be utterly devastating to families throughout our area, so I am determined to defend them and to find a way to avoid that. We are encouraged by the Government’s announcement of £617 million of support to help those businesses that are falling through the gaps, but it remains to be seen whether that money will be enough to support all those currently struggling, such as small B&Bs and home-based businesses. I urge Ministers to ensure that no one is left behind and no one left destitute.
When it is safe to do so, the lockdown will ease, but it seems likely that hospitality and tourism will be the last to return to normality under the Government’s plans. We understand that. Our priority is to protect our people and to save lives. The problem is that if hospitality and tourism are phased back in in the autumn, having missed out on the feast of the summer months, they will have to try to keep themselves afloat just as the famine of winter begins. Additional grants and an extension of the furlough scheme will be needed over the summer, but if that is all we do, the Government will simply be delaying the failure of businesses, the loss of jobs and the hardship and misery of the families of the south lakes. I will not stand for that, and I hope that Ministers will not do so either. That is why I urge the Government to protect this vital industry by committing to a 12-month funding settlement for tourism and hospitality so that they can survive the winter and be ready to lead the revival in the spring of 2021.
I am reassured by the fact that the Government will be making a statement on 7 May reviewing the current lockdown, but I need to make it absolutely clear to the Minister that business is stressed. The lockdown has collapsed demand, and the longer it goes on, the harder it will be for businesses to claw back that demand. Their future is bleak. I remind the Minister that the economy is people’s lives. It is our health service, our schools, our policing, our pensions, our roads, our mortgages, our workplace and so many more things. In short, it is us.
I urge the Government to do some modelling on the impact that the lockdown will have on the 5.9 million privately owned businesses in this country. Of that 5.9 million, 99.3% employ between one and 49 people, and if hundreds of thousands—or a million or more—of those businesses go under, we will unleash a tidal wave of human misery. Unemployment of 12% means 4 million people out of work, 4 million people suffering from mental health problems, and many more millions of people underemployed. We need to have a frank, open and honest debate about the ethics of trading lives tomorrow to save lives today. The chief medical officer has made it perfectly clear that there are people who are going to die of cancer who otherwise would not have died of cancer because of this lockdown. It may well be that, after that debate, we decide that this is a terrible trade we want to make, but we need to have that discussion, as a Parliament and as a country.
The chief medical officer has said that we may well have to learn to live with covid-19 for years to come. It may not just be a battle to beat the first wave or the second wave. There may be many waves to come, year after year, and we need an economy that is resilient and that can meet that challenge and face it down. So we have to get people back to work as safely as possible. Maybe in a few months’ time, because we want to protect our public services and the things that we value, the slogan will be: “Go to work, wash your hands, save the NHS”. Most people find their purpose, their motivation and their happiness in the workplace.
May I conclude by saying that many people in my constituency are doing truly wonderful things? Each day, they get up in the morning and go to work. I know some of them are fearful and frightened, but they go to work to keep this country running as best as they can—they are all heroes. I cannot thank everyone, because it is impossible to do so, but I would like to thank those at the little Co-op in Goffs Oak, where I live. Young men and women, and older men and women, are working on the tills, behind their glass screens. I am sure they are concerned about their own welfare, but there is always a cheery smile and a warm welcome, and they give the impression that nothing is too much to ask. There are many, many heroes, and a number of them are found at the Co-op in Goffs Oak.
I am very aware that these regulations apply to England-only, so I will not detain the House for too long, but much of what is contained within them, and within future coronavirus regulations for England, has an impact on us in Wales, too.
As the Minister is very aware, the UK Government have, along with the Governments of Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland, closely co-ordinated the response to the public health crisis, in the so-called “four-nation” approach. As we enter the sixth week of lockdown, many are calling for clarity on how long it will last and on which measures could be relaxed first, especially as we are nearing the end of the current lockdown period. We all know that for measures to work properly we must ensure that the people we represent are fully on board with the decisions taken in this Parliament and in the devolved Parliaments.
Over the weekend, the Irish Government announced their plans for lifting their lockdown in some detail, and many other Governments across the world are communicating with the same level of transparency and clarity. The Irish Government have set out five phases. Phase 1, commencing on 18 May, will allow outdoor meetings between people from different households. The fifth phase, commencing in August, will allow larger social gatherings and a return to work across all sectors. Schools are not expected to return until the new academic year, and only then in a phased manner.
I urge the Minister to hold constructive and fully transparent discussions with the Welsh, Scottish and Northern Ireland Governments over the next few weeks, so that people across all nations can continue to respect the measures contained in these regulations and their counterpart regulations in Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland. Crucially, and if the four-nation approach is to mean anything meaningful, all Governments should have an equal voice and veto on those decisions.
Joint decision making is the way forward in the post-Brexit British state, especially on restrictions on movement. There are concerns that the £60 fixed penalty notice contained in the regulations—this is reduced to £30 if paid within 14 days—does not act as an effective deterrent. I urge the Government to look again at the fines contained in the regulations. Dafydd Llywelyn, the police and crime commissioner for my local police area of Dyfed-Powys, is advocating faster fines of about £1,000, after officers in Dyfed-Powys issued hundreds of penalties during the Easter holiday. Further, stiffer penalties and enforcement actions are also required against second home owners who break the lockdown to visit their holiday homes. I hope there will be action at the Welsh level on that, and I am glad to report to the House that discussions have taken place between the Welsh police forces, the Welsh local authorities and the Welsh Government on this issue.
I agree with the points raised by the hon. Member for Westmorland and Lonsdale (Tim Farron) about the impact that the regulations are having on the tourism sector in particular and on the need for a specific future economic strategy for tourism. Agriculture is another area facing considerable difficulty. I know we are all crying out for a day at the beach or a weekend away, but the regulations need to make it crystal clear that over the coming bank holiday weekend we should all be doing our part by staying home and saving lives.
These rules are necessary and the Government made the right call when they put the country into lockdown in order to protect lives. Nothing that I am about to say should in any way be taken to diminish people’s obligation to obey the law.
My first point is that we see that these regulations were made on 26 March at 1 pm. The Prime Minister announced these rules on 23 March and police officers quickly set about enforcing them, stopping people on trains and, in one case, overturning a barbecue. People very quickly found themselves subject to what seemed to be enforcement action. On 24 March, the Government sent a text message, saying that new rules were “in force now” and that people “must stay at home”. The problem is that those rules were not in force at that time; they were not in force until 26 March. I press on the Minister the fact that we must not again have a situation where the Prime Minister makes an announcement at a press conference and police officers start enforcing rules before they are made. We must in future make the law and then tell the public that it is enforced. I press on him the fact that that must not happen again.
Secondly, there is a good case that these regulations are ultra vires, and I recommend that the Government have a contingency plan in place in case a court case— a judicial review—succeeds in demonstrating that. I will try to sketch out the position very quickly—if I have understood it correctly. This is from an opinion from Blackstone, and I have tweeted the original article if people have an interest in the detail. It says:
“The regulations purport to authorise conduct which would otherwise constitute the torts of false imprisonment and trespass to the person”—
that is the physical restraint and forcible removal to one’s home. It goes on to say that for primary legislation to sanction such tortious conduct there must be
“express words or necessary implication”
to that effect. But section 45G(2)(j) of the Public Health (Control of Disease) Act 1984, under which these rules are made, does not expressly, or by necessary implication, authorise physical confinement.
It is also the case that the Act expressly prohibits the Secretary of State from imposing certain of the special restrictions on people; they can only be imposed by a magistrate. It suggests that, under the 1984 Act, the Secretary of State was not meant to be able to put on people restrictions that would otherwise be tortious—false imprisonment or physical restraint, for example. Therefore, we may be in a position where these draconian rules—these necessary rules—are not well founded in law, and I would like to know today the Government’s position on that. I would like to be assured that, if the lockdown needs to continue, the Government will have a contingency plan in place to ensure that it is well founded in law.
The third point was very well made by the shadow Minister, the hon. Member for Ellesmere Port and Neston (Justin Madders). He called for harmony between the guidance and the law. There have been very severe, absurd problems arising because the police have sought to enforce rules that were not actually in law. For example, the law in England does not specify that people may not drive to exercise. I know of people who have stayed at home because they need to drive a short distance from a place where they cannot exercise to one where they can. People have been accused, for example, of not sweating adequately when cycling. When doing yoga, they have been accused of not exercising. These things are absurd and wrong and worrying for law-abiding people. The Government may not in future be able to close this difficult area by harmonising the guidance with the rules, so what I suggest is for them to have a look at the Highway Code, where there is already a precedent for rules given with a “should”, which means that they are, in a sense, guidance and not enforceable, and for things that people must or must not do. Given that we have that precedent, can we please close this gap, so that police officers are not put in the invidious position of trying to enforce what are really no more than Ministers’ opinions of what should be done—in other words, things that are not in law.
I want to finish by saying that I am very grateful to the Prime Minister for his liberalism. I am extremely thankful for the exceptionally high-quality policing in Wycombe, where I have had no complaints. None the less, the people of the United Kingdom should not have to rely on the goodwill of the Prime Minister and the Government or the good sense of police officers in order to go about their lawful business. I implore my friends on the Front Bench to ensure that we uphold the rule of law and the freedoms on which they depend.
Without doubt, the introduction of these restrictions and the lockdown have saved lives in the UK. I would like to take this opportunity to thank everyone who has worked tirelessly for the past few months to help to prevent the spread of this deadly virus, as well as care for those who have been struck down with it.
In my North Devon constituency, I can see how effective the lockdown has been. Our infection rate is less than 1%. While every loss of life is to be mourned, we have lost fewer than 100 lives across the entire county of Devon, and I am just one of nine MPs who represent it. We achieved that, I believe, by being locked down early before the virus had really taken hold. We are grateful to Devon and Cornwall police for their diligence in deterring tourists at this time. I have been so impressed by the outstanding community spirit, which has enabled armies of volunteers to deliver food and medicines to self-isolating vulnerable and elderly members of the community. I would also like to thank our tourism businesses, who rapidly closed their doors, and to the visitors who took the decision not to travel. Another reason why the restrictions have been so successful is our sparse population and wide-open spaces. Indeed, I look longingly at the Atlantic ocean from my kitchen and yearn for the RNLI to reopen the water and allow us back in the sea to self-isolate there.
As we look towards a gradual easing of the restrictions, it is important that we keep the infection rate in North Devon as low as it has been. As a mathematician, I hope that alongside the excellent scientific advice, which has guided decisions throughout this pandemic, there is robust mathematical modelling that determines what does happen to an area like North Devon, with a low infection rate but with a population that increases each summer due to tourism. What would happen if we allowed the population to swell by its normal five-to-tenfold, as some parts of my constituency do? How does R behave then? Do we have enough open space in North Devon to accommodate anything like our normal seasonal influx? And if the answer is yes, I hope the data will be shared to give residents the confidence they need to leave their homes and welcome visitors back, and that our tourism industry can start to reopen without endangering the health of residents.
There are concerns that all the sacrifices made in April may be undermined if we release lockdown measures too quickly, or if social distancing, combined with an influx of tourists, is not enough. North Devon does not just have some of the best beaches in the UK, part of stunning Exmoor and its fabulous zoo, we also have the smallest hospital on the UK mainland, and our Nightingale Hospital is not yet built and will be 60 miles away.
I dearly want to return to being the one-woman tourist board for North Devon, but fear that the time for that might not be now. If there is a gradual easing of restrictions, I very much hope that the police will have the powers and clarity in their guidance to be able to respond to the unique challenges of the magnetic nature of the North Devon coastline, where people think nothing of driving many hours to catch a wave.
The restrictions are concerned with our health, but I trust that the health of my tourism businesses will be considered if we are unable to welcome back our normal volume of visitors this summer. Seasonal businesses cannot survive three consecutive winters, which is why regular reviews of our restrictions are of the upmost importance. I recognise and warmly welcome the most incredible support the Government have offered to our businesses, and thank the Treasury for everything they have done—more than we could have possibly imagined. However, the seasonal tourism industry may suffer more than most despite that generosity. I hope that the Government take that into consideration in their upcoming reviews over the next weeks and months.
The mental health of the nation has been put under strain throughout this pandemic. I hope that mathematicians are also modelling and advising those taking the decisions about the relative risks to the mental health of business owners watching years of their lives unravel in front of them, or of leaving people working in their kitchens for weeks or months more alone, versus the physical risks that this deadly virus presents, particularly in a region where the level of infection is currently so low.
Thank you to everyone who has stayed at home, protected the NHS and saved lives. As we gradually ease the restrictions. I hope that there will be a similar strength of message to give people the confidence to leave their homes and welcome visitors back when the time is right, and that when the mathematics and science allows I will again revert to being the one-woman tourist board in North Devon.
We are in a crisis, and parliamentary scrutiny is, as ever, the most important thing we can provide as a Parliament. I welcome the clarifications this statutory instrument makes, but there are reassurances and clarifications we have yet to receive from the Government on loopholes in these regulations, because not everyone is receiving fair and safe treatment under these regulations and there is one shocking example that I want to raise: the plight of call centre staff.
New research from Strathclyde university shows that thousands of call centre staff are still being asked to work in offices where social distancing is not practised. Hot-desking continues and colleagues have fallen ill from covid-19, with some being threatened that unless they go to work, they will lose their jobs. They have tried to whistleblow and been told there is nothing anyone can do, and there is nothing in these regulations that enforces social distancing in workplaces. That allows employers to exploit their employees, so they do not have to change how they work, and it is deeply worrying.
The Government classified call centre staff as key workers, but this is being applied to staff who have hitherto not provided essential services at all. Indeed, many who have, anonymously in some cases, given data to this study have said that they see no reason why they are essential. This is a loophole that the Government need to rectify in future regulations.
I can see why the blanket keyworker definition was used at first, but surely now is the time to tighten this. So can the Government reassure us in this debate that these regulations will be enforced, and clarified where needed to protect call centre staff, and indeed other staff, from exploitation?
I want to propose another solution: to give the automatic right to work from home, as is being considered by legislators in Germany. This of course builds on Liberal Democrat changes, that we led in coalition, to allow employees to ask for flexible working. However, as many watching at home might know, not many employers actually allowed that to happen; some did, but many said no. The crisis has, I hope, shown for many that this way of working can work well. However, those who are hiding behind the loopholes in this legislation remain resistant. If there was an automatic right to work from home unless there was a good reason why not—which is the opposite of how it is now—we could create a level playing field for all. Are the Government considering such an approach at all?
When our civil liberties are being curtailed, we also need to make sure that everyone is treated equally under the law, and this includes enforcement of the lockdown. The Government must work actively to ensure that the powers given to the police in these regulations are not used to disproportionately target BAME people, as stop-and-search powers are. We must be vigilant against wrongful convictions, as was highlighted in the case of 18-year-old Lewis Brown in Oxford. He was wrongfully prosecuted recently under, strangely, Welsh powers in the Coronavirus Act 2020. While the CPS has announced that every single case under the Act involving a child will be reviewed, we need reassurance from the Government that they are working with the police to prevent what happened to Lewis—which would be distressing to anyone, but especially someone of that age—from happening again.
I, of course, recognise that we are in uncharted territory, but where regulations are being exploited by some businesses, putting the lives of workers in danger, changes must be made. Where exceptional powers have been granted, they must not be allowed to become the new normal, and I hope the Minister will be able to reassure me and other Members that our concerns and the problems we have highlighted will be listened to and acted upon.
The precedent that health trumps liberty must not be the conclusion from this period. I am determined about that, because it is fundamental to our very souls as the British people. We are not a people who take well to surveillance, and it is a little ironic that the country that has probably been surveilling its population more than any other appears to have been the source of this virus. The point is that widespread surveillance really is not acceptable in Britain, so I want to talk a little about the app being proposed as part of the next phase, which may be related to the coming regulations that replace those we are looking at today.
Obviously track and trace and testing are essential parts of getting the population confident again that they can go about their business in a normal fashion. I support those things, and they are an incredibly important part of that. The opportunities that those things present to people must be taken up, but to do that they must be voluntary, decentralised and simple, because they have to be widely taken up to be effective as a process for giving people confidence that they do not have the virus and for spreading that confidence throughout society, so that people can go about their business normally. I am very concerned that it appears that that is not how the intended app has been designed.
The app is centralised, and it is worth understanding that Germany has now abandoned its plan to use an app that would centralise the information that it collected about where people had been and what their health conditions were. I understand that the NHS has itself assessed today that the proposed app may not provide enough security, performance or clinical safety for it to be used here. I would like to hear from the Minister whether those reports, for example on the UK Defence Journal today, are indeed accurate.
The decentralised model is how the app should be implemented by design, so that it is not possible for a security breach to be as serious. It is an essential principle of our democracy and our freedom that we are not tracked by the state, and I think that the centralisation of the data is entirely wrong. I would dump the centralised design and I would dump it now, because I do not think people will take it up in the proportions required for it to be effective if it is a centralised design.
We need to remember what the point is of these big intrusions. I completely agree that the lockdown was necessary, as I have said before, but these intrusions into normal life and our normal economic opportunities are really, really massive. They were done in order that we should not overwhelm the NHS—clearly that was the right thing to do—to give us time to build its capacity and to introduce capacity for testing. The whole idea behind that was so that we could get back to normal. We must never lose sight through this process of what normal means. “Normal” is not being tracked centrally. “Normal” is not being afraid. “Normal” is not being suspicious of every stranger. “Normal” is not dobbing in our neighbours. “Normal” is working when we can, not furloughing.
I genuinely believe that we need to get back to normal when restrictions are eased. We need to communicate that very clearly—much more clearly than has been done on occasion with some of the confusion about the regulations and their implementation. Our economy and our future depend on it.
Madam Deputy Speaker, I am grateful to you for calling me on my first occasion of trying this virtual system.
I would like to take this opportunity to put on record my thanks to the Minister and his team for the extraordinary efforts they have displayed during this crisis in galvanising both the health service and the entirety of Government to get behind combating this disease. This is no easy task, and I think they have done it admirably, if I may say so. I would also like to pay a brief tribute to everybody working in the NHS, in the care sector and in the public services generally—local authorities, emergency services—right across the country and particularly in Shropshire in keeping a grip. As some other speakers have said, we are some way behind the rest of the country, being a rural shire county, but that does not mean to say that the disease is not now present and, regrettably, killing people.
On the debate today, it is very clear that we are making regulations that are unprecedented in scope in taking away people’s liberty. It is therefore absolutely right that Parliament, which regards itself as the beacon of democracy around the world, is here to scrutinise, to hold Ministers to account and to hold the Government to account. I share the comments made by earlier speakers that it is absolutely right that we have the ability to review these measures every 21 days, and I encourage Ministers to acknowledge—perhaps the Minister can do so in his winding up—that it is the Government’s intent to speak to the measures as they are either repeated or relaxed over the coming weeks.
I would like to make three quick points in this debate. First, and directly related to the regulations before us, some of the most heartrending cases I have heard of during the weeks of lockdown have been the difficulties for family members of those who are patients in intensive care units in hospitals, where they quite properly cannot be visited because they are on incubator ventilators. However, when that treatment does not succeed and, regrettably, there is a tragedy and the death of a patient, it has been difficult for family members to be able to come to terms with their own grief because they are initially not able to attend either burials or cremations. I warmly welcome, first, the announcement by the Secretary of State for Housing, Communities and Local Government that close family members should be able to attend burials or cremations, but also that this is being confirmed in these regulations.
I would just like to add my support for care, when the Government look at relaxing the regulations, and for not imposing age-related restrictions on individuals. As we have seen all too vividly, it is possible to reach 100 and to walk—with assistance, but to walk—and take exercise in the way that Captain, now Colonel, Tom did so magnificently and galvanised the nation. We cannot introduce specific restrictions for those aged over an arbitrary limit—70-year-olds have been mentioned —without imposing very great inequality, in my view, on healthy individuals, so please do not do that.
Secondly, it is very clear from the Government’s five markers for relaxing restrictions that testing is one of the key platforms. I take my hat off to the Government again for the extraordinary effort in galvanising academia, the scientific research laboratories, the NHS laboratories, industry and even the military in achieving the very demanding testing target set by the Secretary of State for April. It is a tremendous achievement. However, these tests have all been swab tests—the antigen test—which tell whether an individual currently has the disease, so such a test is of limited use for as long as that individual is presenting symptoms. It does not help in identifying whether they have had the virus. Therefore, the antibody test is vital in order to allow us to get back to normal. It would be helpful if the Minister could give an indication to the House of what prospects we as a nation have of moving towards an antibody test that is effective.
I apologise, Madam Deputy Speaker. I would just like to echo the comment made by my hon. Friend the Member for Yeovil (Mr Fysh) that the contact tracing and tracking app needs to be introduced on a voluntary basis, and the Government should take great care in explaining to the public why it is such an important tool in fighting this disease.
These measures are doing great damage to the livelihoods and incomes of many of my constituents and people around the country, and they are also damaging to our freedoms and liberties, so I urge the Government to find safe ways to get more people back to work as quickly as possible. It is great news that the NHS has much enhanced capacity. It has tackled the covid-19 waves so well so far and has plenty of capacity, so we must now think about how we get many more people back to work so that they can restore their livelihoods.
It is all too easy for us Members of Parliament, with a guaranteed high salary paid into our bank accounts every month, whether the economy does well or badly, to be a little too dismissive of the struggles faced by people who may be furloughed but are not getting their tips, bonuses or commissions. Some may already have lost their job, while many are living in fear that the company they work for will run out of cash and not be able to trade.
My first piece of advice to the Government is to not make a person’s return to work conditional on them having had the virus. The right to work cannot become a macabre lottery whereby people have to prove that they have had a certain illness before they have the right to return to their job. If safe working can be arranged for that person, they should have every right to do it, even if they belong to the majority who the Government assume have not had the virus.
I also want to look at the Government’s method of making the decisions on the basis of statistical and scientific advice. We all see the graphs that are presented every day by the scientific advisers, and some of the numbers used to address whether or not we can return to work worry me considerably. The crucial figure, we are told by the Prime Minister and others, is the transmission rate, which they call R. We have all learned that if that figure is well below 1, we can relax much more because it means that the virus is waning and is not being passed on to enough people by each person who gets it, which means that it will wane further and we can think about returning to normal. We are also told that if it is over 1, we still have a problem because it is growing in scope.
The problem is that in recent discussions we have been given a range of values—from 0.5 to 1—of what R might be. If we look at how they calculate it, we see that it is an estimate, not a precise number. I find it surprising that over the past six weeks we have not been reproducing, through testing, a representative sample of the population. Surely the way to get a more accurate transmission rate is to see over time how the total number of cases, as represented by a sample of the population, is trending. I am pleased to read in a newspaper that we are now doing a series of random tests over time. Will they please speed those up? That is not as good as having six weeks of back data, which is a pity. I trust that Ministers will cross-examine scientists carefully to see what proxies they have for a proper set of random tests over time, because if the figures are to be an important part of the decision, we need to make sure they are as accurate as possible.
We then have the so-called comparable death rates in different countries. The death rate is important, because clearly the national death rate is part of the decision-making process. Again, it is very disturbing that the basis on which deaths are registered as being with or related to covid-19 has changed over the series, and of course the series has been greatly changed by moving from just hospital deaths to a wider range of deaths, including those in care homes. Will Ministers please ensure that when they make decisions based on death rates, they clean up the figures and understand that over the six or seven-week period of the intense duration of this virus, we need comparable and accurate figures? That is what they should concentrate on and try to construct.
We then have the figures for hospital admissions, which seem to be the closest that we have to reliable figures. They look as if they are showing an extremely good story indeed, so I trust that Ministers will focus considerably on them. They argue that now is the time to let more people get back to work in as safe a way as possible. Industry and commerce are very willing to amend the way in which they operate so that they can get some revenue and start serving their customers again. If we do not do this, the whole thing will be completely unaffordable and the pressures will mount economically, which will not be good news for our health policy either.
It is lovely to see you in the Chair, Madam Deputy Speaker.
As the hon. Member for Carmarthen East and Dinefwr (Jonathan Edwards) said, the legislation is devolved; Wales made that decision, and in Northern Ireland our now functioning and working Assembly was granted the right to establish how the legislation, such as the Health Protection (Coronavirus, Restrictions) Regulations (Northern Ireland) 2020, and the amendments to it would come about. We were given the ability to determine how we would fulfil our obligations in the matter; I wish we were afforded the same right and ability to determine other essential matters such as the introduction of abortion, but that is a debate for another day.
The vast majority understand the reason why the Government have taken steps to introduce lockdown, and the vast majority agree with those steps. People understand that extraordinary times call for extraordinary measures that we would never usually undertake. I am an example of that; I never thought that I would be part of a virtual Parliament. However, what concerns some people is how we ensure that we do not overstep what is necessary and enter the realms of what is convenient. I would appreciate understanding how the Minister believes we have ensured that we do not have a system that can be abused. I have every faith in the Minister and look forward to his response.
I have been contacted by constituents who are concerned about the impact on their mental health of lockdown and the closure of their usual walking spots. Every right hon. and hon. Member realises that mental health is a massive issue that strikes at many, many doors. I received one message from a nurse who needs that space to walk and think, which she always does by the sea; she, more than anyone else, knows how to distance, yet she has been nothing less than distressed. That has to be weighed against the fact that groups of people are meeting when they should not be, which is why councils have closed access where possible. I believe that there is a very tight balance, and I would like assurances about how we believe that it has been found.
Last week, at the daily coronavirus news conference, the Secretary of State for Health and Social Care said that Northern Ireland might make changes ahead of the UK mainland. Some of those changes have been discussed; the responsible Minister is looking at opening the recycling centres, which in some cases has already happened, but he is also looking—although no decision has yet been made—at reopening garden centres and churches and allowing angling, so that people can fish on riverbanks and in lakes while self-distancing. Science and expert advice must be crucial.
This is not just a UK issue; it is global, and we cannot ignore what is happening elsewhere. According to the United States Commission on International Religious Freedom, Governments around the world have been using the covid-19 crisis as an excuse to use police and other arms of the state to crack down on human rights such as freedom of expression and freedom of religion or belief. I believe that the UK Government must ensure that human rights are given full consideration when policing responses to covid-19 are considered.
There is a risk to prison populations, in the UK and globally, of contracting covid-19 because of overcrowding and limited opportunities for social distancing. I therefore believe that the UK Government should speak out—indeed, I know that Ministers have spoken out—on behalf of prisoners of conscience, and an example of that would be the Uighur Muslims in China.
Similarly, at home, asylum seekers who have been held in UK detention centres are at extreme risk during the pandemic because of the limited opportunities for social distancing, as well as other vulnerabilities. Despite not being criminals, these people, many of whom have had their human rights breached in other countries, face some of the same threats as prison populations and are extremely vulnerable. Our UK Government should at the very least increase efforts to support them during these trying times. Does the Minister agree that that is what we are doing?
To conclude, I would like to know how the points I have raised are met by this legislation and ensure that covid powers designed to help us deal with this disease are not being used in a year’s time to deal with those we do not entirely agree with or, indeed, disagree with. It is a fine line, and I want to ensure that the Minister and the Government are on the right side of it.
Unprecedented times call for unprecedented measures, and that is the case here. The entry of coronavirus on the scene and the terrifying wave of deaths it unleashed across the world led to a very real fear that our NHS would be overwhelmed and that we might see here some of the horrifying scenes we have seen in Italy. Therefore, the public rightly demanded action—action to keep them safe and to save their jobs. The Government have responded, quite rightly, in huge measure, unveiling a package of support of all types that has addressed almost every area of national life. Thanks to that massive effort to shield the NHS, we have avoided that uncontrollable, catastrophic epidemic, where the reasonable worst-case scenario was 500,000 deaths.
Yet, it remains the case that what has had to be done is quite extraordinary in two respects: we have seen an extraordinary suspension of normal personal liberties and extraordinary measures by means of which the state is intervening in the economy. I want to make the case today that every Member of this House should be drawing attention over and over again to how truly extraordinary these measures are.
It says something for the respect in which the country’s institutions are held that there has been such wide acceptance. The police are trusted, and the bobby is seen as our friend. There is not the suspicion here that we often see in other countries—even democratic ones. That speaks of a country whose structures are mature, stable and secure, but I confess that I am, in some ways, slightly disturbed by the extent to which these restrictions have been accepted. Overwhelmingly, of course, that is down to a desire to do our bit—to be seen to be in every way the equal of our grandparents as we face a very different challenge—and some of it, of course, is fear. However, that does not mean that we should be complacent, and that complacency would be shown by starting to accept these restrictions as normal, rather than stressing over and over again how truly exceptional they are.
I will be absolutely clear: I have total faith in the Government’s good intentions. They have done what they had to do to save lives and jobs, and I support them wholeheartedly, but it is not this Government I am concerned about. What I want us to do is to guard against a change in the national mood music and to prevent a ratchet effect, such that we become used to restrictions we never would have tolerated in normal times, not least because there will always be some who argue we should do more.
We can see how the acceptance of restrictions has an effect long after their intended period in the economic sphere. When I was my son’s age—he is three now—Margaret Thatcher was beginning the huge task of dismantling the vast socialist edifice that had dominated the UK since the war. What is not always appreciated is that that edifice was not just the result of Labour party manifestos from 1945 onwards, but was essentially the basis of a command economy set up during the second world war. In essence, that wartime command economy was not dismantled until the 1980s, despite there being Conservative Governments during that time. There was a Butskellite consensus that did not challenge the basic premise that the state owned and controlled the essential parts of the economy. Why were Conservative MP so complicit? There were many reasons for that, but one was that the level of state control had become something people were comfortable with—something they were used to—and they failed to question it. That state control had been the new norm.
We are now in a world in which huge amounts of workers’ wages are being paid by the state, and I wholly support the action taken and the reason for it. It was right to protect the economy in the short term to enable it to bounce back in the medium to long term, but that does not mean that we ought to tire of pointing out how unusual these measures are and that we have no intention of allowing them to continue for the long term. This applies to these regulations as much as to the economic effects. If not, we will see that those on the left who want to see a bigger state anyway will find an excuse to say, “Well, that wasn’t so bad, was it?”, so the ratchet cranks up another notch. We will see arguments for things such as universal basic incomes and all the failed ideology of the state finding a specious pretext for an unwelcome return. What we Government Members have to do is to tirelessly make the case that economic liberalism put us in a good place to meet this crisis, and it is to economic liberalism that we must return. That starts by pointing out how unusual and, in the long term, undesirable the current restrictions are.
The police have been given powers that are in some ways greater than the Emergency Powers (Defence) Act 1939—a raft of powers that they are now trying to make sense of and apply in a practical way. As constituency MPs, we have all been inundated over the last few weeks with requests by the public to help them to understand what they are and are not allowed to do.
I am indeed, Madam Deputy Speaker. I am very grateful for the efforts that the police have made in very difficult circumstances. I simply ask that all Members of the House keep vigilant at all times as to the effect of the regulations that we are currently supporting.
It is a great pleasure to follow my hon. Friend the Member for Witney (Robert Courts) and relatively close geographic neighbour, because what I want to stay chimes with the sentiments that he has just set out. I fully support the regulations in front of the House, but it is worth emphasising what an enormous restriction on our liberty they are—the greatest restriction on our liberty that there has been in British history. That restriction is there for a very good reason, but in a democratic country such as ours, where we have to have consent, it is the Government’s task each time they bring forward such regulations to remake the case as to why we are doing it. It is also worth saying that with each of the review periods, it is not for others to justify the regulations going away; the Government must rejustify why they have to remain in place so we do not consider that they become the new norm.
In that spirit, and I hope that the Minister will address this when he winds up, I request that before any changes to these regulations come into force —indeed, there has already been one set of amendments—any amended regulations are brought forward and debated and decided on by the House. I understand why that did not take place when the regulations were first brought in, but any subsequent amendments should be debated by the House. I was pleased that the Opposition have taken that view. I would prefer the process to remain consensual, but it will only if the Government behave in that way. Scrutiny is important because, as we have already seen with the current regulations, there has been confusion and debate about the guidance that the Government set out and the meaning of the regulations—that is, the law and what has therefore been interpreted by the police.
The Prime Minister confirmed last week, when he addressed the nation on his return to Downing Street, that he was in favour of the greatest transparency as we debate these measures. I therefore say to the Minister that it was disappointing that the seven documents that have been created to set out safe ways of working—the guidance for employers—have reached the public domain, whether that was through leaks or briefing. I think that those documents should have been published by the Government. They could have been published in draft form for discussion. That would have been a better way of conducting the debate than to have those documents reach the public in the way that they have. If we want to take the public with us, the more open and transparent we are about the trade-offs and the difficult decisions that we have to take, the better.
The final point that I want to make is about this House. When I spoke in the House last week, I said that we should pay great tribute to Mr Speaker, the House staff and those who have supported the ability to get the House up and running in this virtual way. It is clearly better to have the House back in virtual form than not at all, but we do lose something. Ministers are not under the same pressure or same level of scrutiny that they are when we are in the Chamber—[Interruption.] I can see that the Minister is laughing in his seat. The sooner that we can work out ways to enable the House to function with more of us physically present, albeit in a more socially distant way, the better. I urge the Government to consider ways in which we can do that.
The Prime Minister has set a decision point this week: for the regulations that we are debating today to be considered, and for the Government to take decisions about whether they wish to continue with them in force or to make changes. Either decision—keeping them in force unchanged, or making changes—is very significant, and has an impact on everyone in the country and on businesses around the country. I think that that statement should be made in Parliament so that Members of Parliament can ask questions, not our own behalf, but on behalf of all those whom we represent. I hope that the Government will bear that in mind when they are making those decisions.
It is a pleasure to follow my right hon. Friend the Member for Forest of Dean (Mr Harper). It is right that these regulations have been debated today on the Floor of the House of Commons—and, indeed, on my own living room floor.
Like many other Members, I praise the general adherence by the population to these difficult and restrictive measures. I know that they have caused pain, heartache and financial hardship for many, but I recognise from the evidence that I have heard on the Science and Technology Committee that they are working both here and abroad, and that that compliance has been higher than was originally estimated for the models—although, of course, such estimates were necessarily cautious, because nothing like this has been necessary for over a century.
The only true route out of our present predicament is a vaccine. On that note, I was greatly encouraged by my visit to Cobra Biologics in my constituency last week. It is part of the consortium that will produce the Oxford vaccine that is currently in clinical trials. I ask the Government to ensure that we put all the finance necessary for future production in place as soon as possible, putting some investment at risk—making a bet, if you like—on the basis that the potential prize is so valuable.
In the meantime, I support these regulations as a proportionate and time-limited response. As we all recall, their stated purpose was to prevent the NHS from being overwhelmed, and the evidence is that we have succeeded, not least in the mercifully light use of the Nightingale hospitals. I do, however, have some concerns about aspects of the implementation of the regulations, and about the possibility of their extension over a prolonged period.
These regulations are the law—no more and no less—and we police by consent in this country, so it is of concern to me, as it has been to other Members, that some police forces, doubtless with the best of intentions, have read into them words that are not there. I stress that my criticism is emphatically not aimed at Staffordshire police, whose response, in my experience, has been balanced and proportionate. Under subsection (2)(a) of regulation 6, people can buy luxuries such as Easter eggs, a bottle of wine or even custard tarts, if they are out of the house to obtain basic necessities such as food. We should not be in the business of deciding which types of food are necessary. Under subsection (2)(b)—my hon. Friend the Member for Wycombe (Mr Baker) made this point earlier—people can travel to take exercise, including by car, if reasonable. Indeed, in many urban areas that might be sensible—although I do, of course, hear and understand the concerns of my colleagues in national parks and tourist hotspots.
The biggest national misunderstanding, judging by my inbox, is over subsection (2)(f) of regulation 6. People can travel to work if the travel is essential; it is not about whether we deem the work itself to be essential. We are not trying to shut the entire private economy. Housebuilders, factories and distribution centres can and should operate, although, of course, they should all practise social distancing and good hygiene. If the scientific advice had been that we needed to close those businesses too, doubtless the Government would have followed it, but the evidence shows that the measures we have taken have reduced the famous R0—the reproduction ratio—to below one.
Talking about science brings me to my second, more philosophical point. Politics and Government are about trade-offs. That is always true because resources are not unlimited, but a crisis like this highlights it more starkly than ever. Science and its epidemiological models do not, by design, always capture all elements of those trade-offs. They can show us specific consequences of specific measures, but they cannot consider every dimension of the choices politicians must make.
There is the obvious trade-off between health and the economy, which is represented most clearly by the businesses that we have asked to close, though of course, in the long run, we can have a strong NHS and good public health only with a strong economy.
As Professor Whitty said in his evidence to the Science and Technology Committee, there is also a more direct trade-off between health and health: the direct health implications of coronavirus versus the damage to people’s mental health, the tragic increase in domestic violence and the risk of cancers and other conditions going undetected as people put off visiting the doctor, even virtually. I urge anyone with such concerns to seek the appropriate professional support.
Finally, there is the trade-off between health and liberty. As I have made clear, I support the regulations as a proportionate, time-limited response to a generational challenge, but the purpose of life is not simply the extension and preservation of life itself, though, of course, that is a prerequisite. Life is for living, for adventures and journeys, for taking chances, for learning lessons, for falling in love, for being entertained and for being with friends and family. In considering the ongoing nature of the regulations and the restrictions, any future calculus needs to recognise properly all the costs of lockdown: health, economic and social. I call on the Government to consider that point carefully as they review the current situation and lead the nation through these difficult days.
I am pleased to follow so many of my colleagues on the Government Benches in this important debate. I completely agree with my hon. Friend the Member for Wycombe (Mr Baker) who emphasised the vital role of Parliament in overseeing the extraordinary measures that are being taken. Only we in Parliament can supply legal and democratic legitimacy to the difficult decisions that need to be made in this crisis. In that context, I regret several aspects of today’s debate.
First, I regret the fact that we are discussing only now, on 4 May, regulations to which our citizens have been subject since 26 March. I am afraid that, by some distance, the House could not be said to be debating them at the first possible opportunity. Secondly, I regret the fact that matters of such importance were not dealt with by primary legislation, given that the House was able to pass the Coronavirus Bill when it met before the Easter recess on 23 March. Thirdly, even today, only two hours have been given over to debating what the Minister acknowledged to be extraordinary measures of a kind never seen before in peacetime. I note that, for whatever reason, fewer than 3% of Members are participating in a debate on a subject of such magnitude, which may have consequences for the liberty of the individual for generations to come.
It was utterly foreseeable to anyone who has experienced an event much larger than the average parish fête that over-zealous police officers and public officials would jump into the ambiguous space between legislation and guidance. I exclude from my remarks, and indeed would like to praise Sussex police under the leadership of Police and Crime Commissioner Bourne and Chief Constable Giles York for avoiding many of the excesses we have seen elsewhere. However, there is a type of personality who, if given a high-vis jacket, a uniform or an official title, relishes dishing out prohibitions to their fellow citizens. Such a minority—we must be clear that that is what they are—are ignorant of and usually untroubled by the limits of the law unless they are specifically drilled into them in a way that time has not allowed to happen here.
I would like to propose to the Minister what I believe to be a reasonable notion. When the police or public authorities purport to issue guidance or spend taxpayers’ money on paid-for advertising, it should contain footnotes indicating the clear basis in law for that guidance. It was Hayek who wrote:
“Nothing distinguishes more clearly conditions in a free country from those in a country under arbitrary government than the observance in the former of the great principles known as the Rule of Law.”
In the UK, the rule of law was central to the great charter of freedoms, described by Lord Denning as
“the greatest constitutional document of all times”—
Members may recall that the Earl of Arundel was one of the 25 barons tasked to hold the King to account, however uncomfortable a position that may have been. Today, as the Member of Parliament for Arundel and South Downs, I am pleased to support the Government and believe that they have done an exceptional job in difficult circumstances, but it is hard to argue that a touch more parliamentary scrutiny would not have exposed, and therefore narrowed sooner, the gaps between legislation and guidance.
Today we have had in this Chamber a very important debate on regulations that, while absolutely necessary to help beat covid-19, are having a profound effect on people’s lives and businesses. Despite that necessity, it is equally necessary that we uphold the hard-won rights we have in this country: the rule of law and the right and duty of this House to scrutinise and question the Government—something that Members have done with determination and, indeed, enthusiasm today.
In the course of the debate Members have raised a number of important points, to which I will endeavour to respond as fully as I can in the time allowed to me. First, the hon. Member for Ellesmere Port and Neston (Justin Madders) raised a number of key points. He talked about the need for clarity around an exit strategy and how it develops and the importance of taking the British people into our confidence, because in this country we govern and police by consent, and therefore it is important that it is a shared endeavour, where we take the British people with us.
As I mentioned in my opening remarks, the Prime Minister said last Thursday that the Government will set out a comprehensive plan this week, which will explain how we will get our economy moving while continuing to suppress the disease, seeking to get life back to normal for as many people as we can as quickly and, importantly—this goes to a point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Altrincham and Sale West (Sir Graham Brady)—as fairly across our society as we can, while continuing to protect the NHS.
The hon. Member for Ellesmere Port and Neston was right: that needs to involve a conversation and a dialogue. As he alluded to, that dialogue on where things may go in the future has already begun, which is a positive step forward. I am grateful for his typically reasonable and measured tone, and I want to put on record once again my gratitude to him and to the shadow Secretary of State, the hon. Member for Leicester South (Jonathan Ashworth), my constituency neighbour. He, too, has adopted a constructive and reasonable tone throughout this, and I am grateful to them and Members across the House for the tone they have adopted.
I turn to other points that have been raised. If I miss anything, the shadow Minister is welcome to come back to me privately, and I am happy to write to him to fill in any gaps in my answers. My hon. Friend the Member for Altrincham and Sale West mentioned the importance of scrutiny, as did many Members, and that is absolutely right. It is important that we remember that these regulations are born out of necessity, but they are exceptional and should only be kept as long as the exceptional circumstances necessitate. He, too, mentioned the importance of a route map and giving the UK a route out of the current restrictions as quickly as we can when we can do so safely; he is right. Sadly, the necessity of the time means that we are not there yet, but it is important that that dialogue with the British people continues and is open, including in this House.
I am grateful to the hon. Member for Westmorland and Lonsdale and my hon. Friend the Member for North Devon (Selaine Saxby) for the tone of their remarks and their support for the necessity of what we are doing. They highlighted the impact—the hon. Gentleman in respect of the south lakes area and my hon. Friend in respect of rural north Devon—of these necessary regulations on the hospitality and tourism industries that play such a huge part in their local communities and economy. That is why it is absolutely right that my right hon. Friend the Chancellor of the Exchequer is looking carefully at the matter and has put together a package designed to do everything that he can to support industry and businesses in this country. Nevertheless, I hear what they say, and I know that my right hon. Friend the Chancellor will have heard it as well.
My hon. Friend the Member for Broxbourne (Sir Charles Walker) was the Chair of the first Select Committee that I served on after I became a Member of this House in 2015, and back then he emphasised to me that the key Committee to get on was the Procedure Committee, because by learning how this place works a person will not go too badly wrong. I do not know whether it has yet been long enough for me to have proven or disproven that, but he is right, and he is a doughty champion of the rights of this House and the importance of scrutiny and due process. He is also right to emphasise that just as we must ensure that we protect the NHS and protect people’s health, we must also recognise the need to support and protect our economy, because it is indeed a vibrant economy that pays for the NHS that we all rely on. My hon. Friend highlighted the need for openness, and his contribution was typically decent and insightful.
The hon. Member for Carmarthen East and Dinefwr (Jonathan Edwards) was right to emphasise the importance of the four nations working together and taking a co-ordinated approach. I again re-emphasise my gratitude and the Government’s gratitude to the devolved Administrations for the spirit of genuine partnership in which we have all been working in recent weeks. The hon. Gentleman talked about whether the fixed-penalty notice amount was an adequate deterrent; it is arguable that the far more effective penalty is, rather than the penalty imposed, the sense of common national endeavour in this country and everyone wishing to do the right thing because it is the right thing to do.
My hon. Friend the Member for Wycombe (Mr Baker) is not only an hon. Friend but a friend, and a good and decent man. He has long been a champion, inside and outside the House, of due process, the rule of law and the need, despite the safeguards in this country, always to be vigilant and protect the hard-won freedoms that we enjoy. Such voices as his are absolutely vital to the health of a vibrant democracy such as ours. He was right to emphasise the difference between guidance and law. As I said in my opening remarks, what is in the regulations is the law; guidance may be helpful but it is not the law. My hon. Friend drew on the highway code to make a point about the difference between “must” and “should” in the way we communicate these things. That is a good and valid point that my hon. Friend the Member for Witney (Robert Courts), who is not able to be present today, has made to me in the past.
My hon. Friend the Member for Wycombe also asked whether the regulations might or might not be ultra vires. I will say only a few more words on the issue, because I am conscious that, if the press reports are to be believed, there is a possibility that some may be considering legal cases on this issue and I would not wish to stray into that territory, save to reiterate what I said in my opening remarks: the Government believe that section 45C of the Public Health (Control of Disease) Act 1984 does give sufficient authority to Ministers and to the Government to implement the regulations.
The hon. Member for Oxford West and Abingdon (Layla Moran) was right to highlight the challenge posed in some businesses—she highlighted the experience of call-centre staff—and the need for businesses to do everything in their power, if people are working in a job that they cannot do from home, to ensure that their workers are supported and protected and that appropriate social-distancing measures are in place to protect workers who are fulfilling important roles to help everyone else in our society.
My hon. Friend the Member for Yeovil (Mr Fysh) and my right hon. Friend the Member for Wokingham (John Redwood) both highlighted the importance of reassuring the British public and this House about the need for openness and for scrutiny. They highlighted the fact that we must always treat liberty as a precious thing, protect it, and ensure that we do not see it whittled away: I reassure my hon. Friend the Member for Yeovil that there is no intention to do any such thing.
My right hon. Friend the Member for Wokingham also touched on the need to be open about the science. He spoke with a degree of erudition and knowledge that I will not seek to emulate, but he is right to say that we must interrogate the science carefully when making the decisions on where to go in future with these regulations.
Turning to the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon), we are, as ever, very grateful for his support and for his contribution to this debate. He is always a strong voice for his constituents. Among a number of points that he made, he was quite right to highlight the importance of doing what we can to ensure that people’s mental health is supported and protected at what is a very difficult time for many, many people. He also alluded to human rights implications. I reassure him that the Government are clear that these measures are fully compliant with the Human Rights Act 1998.
My right hon. Friend the Member for Ludlow (Philip Dunne) and a number of other colleagues, including my hon. Friend the Member for Witney, my right hon. Friend the Member for Forest of Dean (Mr Harper) and my hon. Friend the Member for Newcastle-under-Lyme (Aaron Bell), made the point, as have other hon. Members, that these regulations, while necessary, should be in force only for as long as they are absolutely necessary, highlighting not only the health impact but the broader impacts on society and on the economy. I reassure them that we are absolutely clear about that. These measures are a necessity at the moment, but the Government have always been clear that they will be retained only for so long as they are a necessity to tackle this disease.
My right hon. Friend the Member for Ludlow was right about the importance of testing, and also right to highlight the work of the Secretary of State in this respect. The Secretary of State has always been very clear in saying that it is a team effort that has got us to reaching the target, last week, of 100,000 tests per day. I would say, however, that in a team, leadership is important. He has shown that leadership in this very important matter, and I pay tribute to him for that.
My hon. Friend the Member for Arundel and South Downs (Andrew Griffith) was absolutely right to highlight the importance of consent. Consent comes from us following due process and adhering to the rule of law through this Chamber—through this House. We will always bear that very much in mind. The shadow Minister and others made the point very clearly that they would expect this House to be very much involved, as swiftly as possible, in any further decisions or changes. I know that will have been heard by my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister in Downing Street.
I conclude with my thanks—and indeed, I suspect, all of our thanks—to NHS and care staff and key workers around this country, all of whom are doing so much for all of us. These are exceptional measures that we should only maintain for as long as necessary, but at the moment, regrettably, they do remain necessary. Therefore, I also thank the British people for their incredible spirit and support for these measures. The fight against covid-19 is a tough one that has brought forth a national effort in this country. I am convinced that we will beat it, for when this great country comes together, it is unbeatable. I commend these regulations to the House.
Question put and agreed to.
That the Health Protection (Coronavirus, Restrictions) (England) Regulations 2020 (S.I., 2020, No. 350), dated 26 March 2020, a copy of which was laid before this House on 26 March, be approved.
That the Health Protection (Coronavirus, Restrictions) (England) (Amendment) Regulations 2020 (S.I., 2020, No. 447), dated 21 April 2020, a copy of which was laid before this House on 22 April, be approved.—(Edward Argar.)
We have concluded this session a few minutes earlier than expected—not through bad arithmetical calculation, I would like the House to know, but because a few people who had indicated that they wished to speak and had been on the list to speak decided at the last minute not to. I therefore suspend the House for rather more than 30 minutes, until 7.30 pm.
Sitting suspended (Order, this day.)