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House of Commons Hansard
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Oral Answers to Questions
13 May 2020
Volume 676

Northern Ireland

The Secretary of State was asked—

EU Office: Belfast

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What discussions he has had with the Northern Ireland Executive on the EU’s request to establish an office in Belfast. [902570]

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I have regular discussions with the Executive on the protocol and wider matters, and I look forward to having further productive discussions with Ministers before the end of the transition period.

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I thank the Secretary of State for his answer. But given the dismissive attitude of some in his Government on this particular issue, how can we in Northern Ireland have any confidence that he will faithfully implement the Northern Ireland protocol? Given all that is happening right now, is it not surely the time to begin to agree to a transition period extension so that we can finally get a proper agreement on Brexit, which is, in our view, impossible to do at this time?

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There is no reason why the European Commission should be requiring a permanent presence in Belfast to monitor the implementation of the protocol. We are focused on our determination to ensure that we fulfil all of our obligations to deliver on the protocol. The best way we can give certainty and confidence for business is to follow through and deliver on our promise to make sure that we leave and have everything in place at the end of December this year.

Covid-19: Support for Businesses

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What steps he is taking to support businesses in Northern Ireland (a) during the covid-19 outbreak and (b) in preparation for the end of the transition period. [902572]

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What steps he is taking to support businesses in Northern Ireland (a) during the covid-19 outbreak and (b) in preparation for the end of the transition period. [902573]

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What steps the Government has taken to support (a) businesses and (b) the self-employed in Northern Ireland during the covid-19 outbreak. [902584]

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The UK Government are backing businesses in Northern Ireland through UK-wide measures including the coronavirus job retention scheme and the self-employed income support scheme. In preparation for the end of the transition period, we are committed to implementing the protocol. That includes unfettered access for goods moving from Northern Ireland to Great Britain.

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The Secretary of State will already be aware of the vital cross-border trade and employment dynamics that existed pre-covid between counties such as Derry, Tyrone and Fermanagh and neighbouring County Donegal. What planning is taking place with the devolved Administration in Belfast and the Irish Government to ensure that the emergence from lockdown promotes an urgent regeneration of the crucial cross-border economy?

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The hon. Gentleman makes a very good point. We are very focused on the whole economy of Northern Ireland. In fact, one of the biggest and most financially well-supported growth deals in the whole of the United Kingdom is the one in Northern Ireland dealing with exactly these economic issues. I can assure him that I have regular meetings with the First Minister and the Deputy First Minister, and also co-chair a fortnightly meeting with the Republic of Ireland’s Tánaiste, to be sure that we take, where appropriate and proper, a joined-up approach.

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The Secretary of State will value the importance of lifeline ferry services, and the news of potentially 1,000 job losses at P&O is devastating. What assessment has he made regarding the impact of a reduction or loss of the P&O Cairnryan to Larne service, and what discussions has he had with P&O and the trade unions on safeguarding this vital link between Scotland and Northern Ireland?

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I was pleased to be able to announce only a week or two ago the £17 million package that we put in place to protect the five ferry routes to ensure that we keep connectivity for Northern Ireland with the rest of the United Kingdom. I have had conversations with P&O and other ferry operators only in the past few days.

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Just as in my constituency of Aylesbury, small businesses and the self-employed are a vital part of the economy in Northern Ireland. As we move to the next stage of the coronavirus crisis, how will my right hon. Friend ensure that they have all the guidance and support that they need to regain lost trade and to flourish once more?

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My hon. Friend makes a really good and important point. Throughout the crisis, both I and the Minister of State, my hon. Friend the Member for Worcester (Mr Walker), have been in regular contact with businesses across Northern Ireland to ensure that we understand the pressures that they are facing, and to make sure that we can work with the Northern Ireland Executive to continue to focus on the economic recovery in the form that they need. He is quite right: wherever we are in the United Kingdom, including in Great Yarmouth, we have to make sure that we are focused on the small businesses that are often the heartbeat of our communities. We are also determined to make sure that we do that in partnership with the Northern Ireland Executive.

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We go across to Louise Haigh, who is standing in as the temporary shadow Secretary of State, and wish Tony Lloyd well.

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Thank you, Mr Speaker. Can I also send all our love and best wishes to my hon. Friend and predecessor, the Member for Rochdale (Tony Lloyd), who continues to make a recovery from covid-19?

The Secretary of State will regret, as I do, the disrespectful way in which the devolved nations were cut out of the Prime Minister’s announcement on Sunday and the confusion that reigned across the UK as a result. Will he commit to ensuring that the Northern Ireland Executive are fully consulted and informed on the next phase of lockdown and future changes to messaging?

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I would like to offer the hon. Lady a warm welcome to her new role. I look forward to working with her for the benefit of the people of Northern Ireland. If you will indulge me briefly, Mr Speaker, I want to pay tribute to the hon. Member for Rochdale (Tony Lloyd), who served in his post admirably for over two years and through three different Secretaries of State; I hope that the hon. Lady only deals with one Secretary of State in her time in office. I was hugely pleased to hear of his recovery, and I am glad that he has decided to continue to represent the people of Manchester as he recovers, as he has done over the last four decades.

We are working with the devolved authorities. They have Ministers sitting on all the committees that are discussing issues around how we deal with coronavirus, and all the devolved authorities were present and part of the decisions made at the Cobra meeting on Sunday, ahead of the Prime Minister’s announcement.

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I welcome the hon. Lady to her permanent position.

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Thank you, Mr Speaker; that was a very quick promotion.

As the Secretary of State said, not only is co-ordination across the UK important, but the unique situation in Northern Ireland means that co-operation with the Republic of Ireland is equally important. Can he explain why those in Northern Ireland who hold an Irish passport, as is their right under the Good Friday agreement, are still unable to check their eligibility for the self-employed support scheme, and can he commit to urgently rectify that problem before the scheme starts to pay out?

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We are aware of that issue, and I hope to be able to outline exactly how we are dealing with it very soon. It is something we are aware of and looking to rectify.

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Further to the question from the hon. Member for Sheffield, Heeley (Louise Haigh), it is also the case that Northern Ireland citizens who hold a Northern Ireland driving licence cannot use that document to verify their claim for support from the self-employed income support scheme. Clearly, that is entirely wrong. It means that self-employed people in my constituency are being disadvantaged and cannot make their claim or have it verified. Will the Secretary of State liaise with Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs and the Treasury to ensure that Northern Ireland driving licences are an acceptable document for the purposes of verification for the self-employed scheme?

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Yes, I am happy to work with the right hon. Gentleman to see whether we can find a logical, sensible and swift solution to that challenge.

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Can the Secretary of State advise us what additional funding he is seeking to support the Northern Ireland economy, as we hopefully emerge from lockdown over the next few weeks and months? He will be aware of the situation with our economy, as with the economy across the United Kingdom. We are all anxious to know what additional support might be available from the Treasury for the recovery of our economy in Northern Ireland.

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The right hon. Gentleman makes a good point. It is hugely important that we are ready, as we come out of lockdown, to not just recover from the economic situation with coronavirus but then turbocharge the economy across the United Kingdom, and particularly in Northern Ireland to see the economy flourish and grow. We have given £1.2 billion to the Northern Ireland Executive through the Barnett consequentials. That is on top of the UK-wide schemes, such as the job retention scheme. The Treasury and the Chancellor continue to look at everything we need to do to support businesses, people and every part of the United Kingdom as we come through this, and to ensure that we come out of it in a way that will allow our economy to re-flourish and grow in the future.

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With covid-19 consuming so much effort internationally, does the Secretary of State agree that the EU simply will not indulge further UK Government brinkmanship on transition? The resulting cliff edge will be a step too far for many Northern Irish businesses, so why are his Government pushing ahead with their reckless timetable, despite widespread support across the political divide for an extension?

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I do not recognise the hon. Lady’s reference to widespread support. The position of the British public, restated in December last year, is very clear—they want to see things done, so that we as a country can move forward. It is in both our interests and the EU’s interests to be ready to move forward in January 2021. The best certainty we can give business, which we are focused on, is unfettered access for Northern Ireland businesses to the rest of the UK, and we will do that through the Northern Ireland protocol.

Covid-19: Devolved Administrations

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What discussions he has had with his counterparts from the (a) devolved Administrations, (b) other administrations of the UK and (c) Republic of Ireland to facilitate (i) co-operation and (ii) mutual aid during the covid-19 outbreak. [902577]

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We are working closely with the devolved Administrations in our response to covid-19. As I have said, representatives from each Administration attend Cobra meetings, as well as the many detailed implementation groups that sit underneath the Cobra and Cabinet structure. The Tánaiste, the First Minister and Deputy First Minister and I also meet regularly, and we hope to do so again later this week. We agree that continued close contact and co-operation will rightly remain essential in the weeks and months ahead.

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The contact tracing app that the UK Government are developing is apparently different from the one that the Irish Government are advocating, which may create significant difficulties not only on the island of Ireland but in relation to travel to and from the rest of the UK via, for example, Welsh, Scottish and English ports. What discussions has the Secretary of State had with the Northern Ireland Executive and the Irish Government on the proposed app, and what would he advise people in Northern Ireland to do?

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The app offers a huge opportunity to be an important part of our work as we come through covid-19 into exiting from this in a sensible and logical way and with awareness of how the virus has spread across the UK. It is important that people take part. I give a huge thank you to those who have been involved in work on the app.

I have been in conversations with the Irish Government —I spoke to the Tanaiste on this issue only a few days ago—as well as with the Northern Ireland Executive, to ensure that all our experts and chief medical officers are working together to ensure that we have a joined-up approach where practical, sensible and appropriate so that we get things working in a way that is good for the health of all the people of Ireland. I am focused on ensuring that the people of Northern Ireland get the best possible care.

Covid-19: The Union

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What assessment he has made of the role of the Union in response to the covid-19 outbreak. [902578]

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What assessment he has made of the role of the Union in response to the covid-19 outbreak. [902580]

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. We are working, and will continue to work, closely with all the devolved Administrations, who are fully committed to suppressing the virus across the UK. Our response to covid-19 is a collective national effort. The Executive are following a science led path, doing what is best for the people of Northern Ireland, recognising the overall approach that we are taking across the UK to fight this pandemic.

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Does my right hon. Friend agree with most people in Dudley and with me that we are stronger as one United Kingdom in responding to coronavirus? Will he let the House know whether the devolved Administration has improved outcomes for people in ways that we can share across the United Kingdom?

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My hon. Friend makes a good point. The short answer is, yes. This is a good example of how the United Kingdom has been stronger than any single part of it, so we are stronger together as a family. As I have said, we will continue to work closely with all the devolved Administrations. I remain in close contact with both the First and Deputy First Ministers of Northern Ireland to co-ordinate the response and share information and insights. That approach has been effective, allowing us to work together on issues of common concern, including the provision of personal protective equipment, while allowing plans to be tailored to ensure that they address the particular local situations that we all face.

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Does the Secretary of State agree that whether in Bolton or Belfast our two time-tested institutions—the Union and the NHS—have exuded extraordinary heroism in the covid cataclysm that has swept the planet?

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Yes, and my hon. Friend’s language is spot on. We have all seen how the NHS has responded with heroism and agility. I thank all key workers across the United Kingdom for their professionalism and dedication to looking after people. We have seen fantastic co-operation between all political parties in Northern Ireland and across the UK, and the devolved Governments have worked together in a way that is good for all parts of the United Kingdom as we tackle this crisis.

Withdrawal Agreement: Ireland/Northern Ireland Protocol

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What progress he has made on the implementation of the Ireland/Northern Ireland Protocol in the Withdrawal Agreement. [902588]

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The Joint Committee met on 30 March and the Ireland/Northern Ireland Specialised Committee met on 30 April. The protocol has of course been part of those discussions. Our intention in implementing the protocol is to protect Northern Ireland’s place in our United Kingdom and cement the huge gains that we have all seen from the peace process. We believe that it will be necessary to support business and the wider population in understanding the protocol before it comes into effect.

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I thank the Secretary of State for that answer. He knows—he confirmed earlier in these exchanges—that Northern Ireland businesses will continue to have unfettered access to the rest of the United Kingdom. The Prime Minister has made a commitment that we will not check goods moving from Great Britain to Northern Ireland. Can the Secretary of State set out a bit more detail for the House about the progress that has been made in implementing both those important commitments?

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My right hon. Friend is right. I want to put this in the clearest possible terms: Northern Ireland businesses will have unfettered access to the market of the United Kingdom and across GB. This is something, as he rightly points out, that many of my Cabinet colleagues and I have not just commented on publicly but about which we feel strongly. We look forward to delivering on that before the end of the year —we will deliver on that promise.

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I heard what the Secretary of State said about the one-way unfettered access, but in 33 weeks Northern Ireland businesses will have to comply with EU customs and regulatory rules and two VAT systems. When will the Government let those businesses know exactly what they need to do to comply with the protocol in order to keep trading?

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We will ensure that businesses have plenty of time to be ready for January next year. One of the key parts of that is ensuring that we have unfettered access. We will not put borders down the Irish sea or anywhere else. Unfettered access is a hugely important part of respecting the Good Friday agreement, as well as the “New Decade, New Approach” deal. The best way for businesses to have fluidity of access to the market is to have unfettered access. That is what we are determined to deliver, and that is what we will do.

Legacy Issues

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What plans he has to bring forward legislative proposals to tackle Northern Ireland legacy issues; and whether those proposals will require cross-community support. [902594]

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I recently published a written ministerial statement setting out the way forward on the legacy of the past in Northern Ireland. We have begun engagement with the Northern Ireland parties, the Irish Government and other key stakeholders, with a firm focus on finding consensus on the detail of the proposals, which will allow us to move forward.

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The Victims’ Commissioner said:

“The aim of addressing the legacy of the past must be to build a better future”.

Why did the Secretary of State, in that spirit, not consult with key organisations such as the Commission for Victims and Survivors before publishing his statement on 18 March? Does he agree that victims must be at the heart of the proposal, and that any proposals must have their full support?

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Colleagues will appreciate that it was appropriate to lay the written ministerial statement before Parliament first. That is the process of how we work in this House, but I say to the hon. Lady that I have been engaging with victims groups, as has my Minister of State, and I will continue to do so. I have spoken directly to victims groups, which are an important part of the process. I gently say to the hon. Lady that the WMS very clearly references the importance of ensuring that we do the right thing for victims. They are absolutely at the heart of this, and it is important that they are.

Covid-19: Personal Protective Equipment

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What assessment he has made of the adequacy of the supply of personal protective equipment to Northern Ireland from the UK procurement system during the covid-19 outbreak. [902568]

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What assessment he has made of the adequacy of the supply of personal protective equipment to Northern Ireland from the UK procurement system during the covid-19 outbreak. [902591]

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The UK Government and the Executive have committed to ensuring that those on the frontline in responding to covid-19 are provided with the critical PPE that they need to do their job safely. As part of our UK-wide approach, the Government have allocated around 5.5 million items of PPE to Northern Ireland, which in turn has sent 250,000 gowns to the rest of the UK.

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Earlier this week, Moy Park, which is the largest manufacturing employer in Northern Ireland, sadly experienced the tragic covid-19-related death of a valuable worker, meat packer, Unite member and human being. Everyone should expect to return home safely after a day’s work. Given what the Minister just said, is he happy with the adequacy of the supply of PPE from the UK to Northern Ireland? Perhaps people in Northern Ireland are not. Also, when will resources be provided to ensure that all frontline workers in high-risk sectors, such as poultry and meat processing, will finally be safe at work?

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First, let me say that every death from covid-19 is a tragedy for the individuals and their families, so let me pass on my condolences to the family involved in this particular case. Of course, PPE is an important part of the equation, as are proper social distancing guidelines, and it is important that businesses such as Moy Park follow the social distancing guidelines, as I am assured that they have been.

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Like those in other parts of the UK, including my constituency, care homes in Northern Ireland have been overlooked, with PPE not sufficiently reaching them. What discussions has the Minister had with the Northern Ireland Executive on the distribution of PPE to ensure that our most vulnerable and frontline workers are protected in this crisis?

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The hon. Gentleman raises an important point. The Northern Ireland Executive has been distributing PPE to the care home sector. Part of the 5.5 million items of PPE that the UK Government have been making available to Northern Ireland has been deployed in that sector, but it is an absolute priority that we continue to get a grip on the issue of care homes. I know that that is a priority for the Executive as well as for the UK Government.

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I welcome back the Chair of the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee, Simon Hoare.

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The recent events of covid-19 have underscored the fragility of international supply chains, certainly with regards to PPE, when international demand is very high. Would my hon. Friend undertake at the appropriate time to discuss with his counterparts in Scotland, Wales and Westminster the opportunity to grow this important area of our economy, thereby creating future jobs and enabling us to produce enough PPE in this country with a UK badge?

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My hon. Friend, the Chair of the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee, makes an important point. Of course, it is vital that we work on the international procurement effort with the devolved Administrations, as we have been, but it is also essential that we maintain our domestic supply. I pay tribute to businesses in Northern Ireland, such as Denroy Plastics, which the Secretary of State spoke to yesterday, and O’Neills, which he visited just before the outbreak and which has switched over its production lines to producing vitally needed PPE and is making a huge contribution already.

Air Connectivity: Great Britain and Northern Ireland

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What steps his Department is taking to safeguard air passenger routes between Great Britain and Northern Ireland. [902569]

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What steps he is taking to ensure that air connectivity continues between Northern Ireland and Great Britain. [902582]

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The Government are committed to maintaining air connectivity between Great Britain and Northern Ireland during these unprecedented times. That is why we worked with the Executive to provide a £5.7 million financial support package to City of Derry and Belfast City Airports to ensure that services to and from London will continue.

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Does the Minister agree that the Government’s £5.7 million investment in maintaining air passenger flights is an important step in ensuring that that vital support link is maintained so that, post covid, we continue to strengthen the economic links between Northern Ireland and the rest of the United Kingdom?

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My hon. Friend is absolutely right. This support package is key to safeguarding vital connectivity, providing links to Northern Ireland’s key economic zones. As he knows, Northern Ireland benefits enormously from the Union with Great Britain, which is Northern Ireland’s main market for sales and tourism. We want to further strengthen these ties to support the movement of medical supplies and key workers and to assist with Northern Ireland’s economic recovery from this crisis.

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Given the integration between the Northern Ireland economy and the GB economy, air connectivity is vital to any recovery plan out of this health crisis, yet it has practically stopped at present. Will the Minister commit first to continue support for our airports, including Belfast International, secondly to work towards the abolition of air passenger duty, which adds substantially to costs, and thirdly to give every encouragement to present airlines and prospective carriers to open routes quickly again?

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The hon. Gentleman makes some excellent points. It is vital that we continue to prioritise connectivity. As he knows, we stepped in where necessary to protect connectivity that might otherwise have been lost. Ministers agree that at this stage Belfast International is financially stable, but we will certainly keep that under review and continue to work closely with the Executive on all those issues.

Ferry Crossings

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What steps the Government is taking to support the continuation of ferry crossings between Great Britain and Northern Ireland during the covid-19 outbreak. [902571]

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What steps the Government is taking to support the continuation of ferry crossings between Great Britain and Northern Ireland during the covid-19 outbreak. [902575]

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What steps the Government is taking to support the continuation of ferry crossings between Great Britain and Northern Ireland during the covid-19 outbreak. [902583]

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The Government have, together with the Northern Ireland Executive, made available a financial package of up to £17 million to keep critical freight routes open between Great Britain and Northern Ireland. This reflects the huge importance of these connections and ensures essential goods, such as food and medicines, will continue to flow.

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The Belfast-Liverpool ferry is vital to businesses in Wrexham. Does my hon. Friend agree that free-flowing trade between Northern Ireland and Great Britain is of great benefit to the Union, which is why the Government’s success in keeping Northern Ireland part of the UK customs union is beneficial to us all?

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I totally agree with my hon. Friend. This package helps ensure that we keep freight capacity between Northern Ireland and Great Britain. The funding will help to maintain the flow of critical goods across the Irish Sea and throughout the Union. And yes this underlines the importance of keeping Northern Ireland part of the UK customs union, so that goods needed in Northern Ireland and Great Britain can continue to flow freely.

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The Government have acted swiftly to protect ferry services between Northern Ireland and Great Britain, and I welcome the measures they have put in place. Many businesses here on Ynys Môn rely on goods coming to and from Northern Ireland and Liverpool. Will he continue to monitor the wider economic impact of services on north Wales, given its close proximity to Liverpool?

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Each route is integral to the supply of critical goods within the United Kingdom. Public service obligations are an established mechanism for supporting routes and are being used here to temporarily support routes affected by covid-19. The Government continue to engage closely with operators and ports on the Irish sea and we will continue to listen and take appropriate steps at the right time to protect critical supply routes, wherever they are.

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Can the Minister confirm that keeping these ferry routes open is sustaining the supply chain of food and medical supplies that are so vitally needed on both sides of the crossing, including in the Vale of Clwyd?

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Absolutely, yes, and I think the exchange of PPE that was referred to in earlier answers to questions is a good example of that, where both GB has benefited from those connections to Northern Ireland and Northern Ireland has benefited from those connections to Great Britain.

Prime Minister

The Prime Minister was asked—

Engagements

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If he will list his official engagements for Wednesday 13 May. [902618]

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Yesterday was International Nurses’ Day and I know that the whole House would want to thank the nurses, and also the care staff and key workers, for their tireless work in responding to the covid-19 pandemic. Sadly, 144 NHS workers’ and 131 social care workers’ deaths have been reported as involving covid-19. Our thoughts are with their families and friends. Yesterday, this House learnt of the tragic death of Belly Mujinga—the fact that she was abused for doing her job is utterly appalling. My thoughts, and I am sure the thoughts of the whole House, are with her family.

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

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Green investments generated the highest returns in the recovery from the 2008 financial crisis. As we restart our economy, will my right hon. Friend commit to prioritising investment in low-carbon infrastructure, such as the electric vehicle charge point network and renewable energy production, which will also help the UK to meet its net zero target by 2050?

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Yes, and to encourage the take-up of electric vehicles, we are putting a further £1 billion into EV infrastructure across the country to prevent range anxiety for those who use EVs.

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I join the Prime Minister in thanking our nurses and all those on the frontline, and send my condolences to all the families of those who have died of coronavirus, including Belly Mujinga, as the Prime Minister referenced—a ticket officer who we learnt this week died from covid-19 in awful circumstances.

In his speech on Sunday, the Prime Minister said that we need to rapidly reverse the awful epidemic in our care homes, but earlier this year, and until 12 March, the Government’s own official advice was—and I am quoting from it:

“It remains very unlikely that people receiving care in a care home…will become infected.”

Yesterday’s Office for National Statistics figures showed that at least 40% of all deaths from covid-19 were in care homes. Does the Prime Minister accept that the Government were too slow to protect people in care homes?

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No, Mr Speaker, and it was not true that the advice said that—and actually, we brought the lockdown in care homes ahead of the general lockdown, and what we have seen is a concerted action plan to tackle what has unquestionably been an appalling epidemic in care homes, and a huge exercise in testing is going on—a further £600 million, I can announce today, for infection control in care homes. Yes, it is absolutely true that the number of casualties has been too high, but I can tell the House, as I told the right hon. and learned Gentleman last week and, indeed, this week, that the number of outbreaks is down and the number of fatalities in care homes is now well down. There is much more to do, but we are making progress.

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I am surprised that the Prime Minister queries the advice of his own Government up until 12 March. I do, of course, welcome any fall in the recorded numbers, and he is right to reference that, but he must still recognise that the numbers are still very high.

This week, The Daily Telegraph carried the following quote from a cardiologist:

“We discharged known, suspected, and unknown cases into care homes which were unprepared, with no formal warning that the patients were infected, no testing available, and no PPE to prevent transmission. We actively seeded this into the very population that was most vulnerable.”

Does the Prime Minister accept that the cardiologist is right?

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I have the utmost respect for all our medical professionals, who are doing an extraordinary job in very difficult circumstances. I can tell the House that the number of discharges from hospitals into care homes actually went down in March and April, and we had a system of testing people going into care homes. That testing is now being ramped up across all 15,000 care homes in this country.

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I want to probe a little further the figures that the Prime Minister has given us. The Office for National Statistics records the average number of deaths in care homes each month. For the past five years, the average for April has been just over 8,000. This year, the number of deaths in care homes in April was a staggering 26,000. That is three times the average and an additional 18,000 deaths. Using the Government’s figures, only 8,000 are recorded as covid deaths, leaving 10,000 additional and unexplained care home deaths this April. I know that the Government must have looked into that, so can the Prime Minister give us the Government’s view on those unexplained deaths?

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The coronavirus is an appalling disease which afflicts some groups far more than others—I think the whole country understands that—in particular the elderly, and the right hon. and learned Gentleman is right to draw attention, as I have said, to the tragedy that has been taking place in care homes. The ONS is responsible for producing its data, and the Government have also produced data which shows not only that there has been, as I say, a terrible epidemic in care homes, but that since the care homes action plan began we are seeing an appreciable and substantial reduction not just in the number of outbreaks, but in the number of deaths. I stress to the House and to the country that solving the problem in care homes is going to be absolutely critical—getting the R down not just in care homes, but across the country—to our ability to move forward as a nation with the stepped programme that I announced on Sunday. We must fix it, and we will.

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The Prime Minister says that solving the problem in care homes is crucial, but that can happen only if the numbers are understood, so I was disappointed that he does not have an answer to the pretty obvious question: what are those 10,000 unexplained deaths?

The overall figure for those who have died from covid-19 given by the Government at yesterday’s press conference was 32,692—each one a tragedy. For many weeks, the Government have compared the UK number against other countries. Last week, I showed the Prime Minister his own slide showing that the UK now has the highest death total in Europe and the second highest in the world. A version of the slide has been shown at the No. 10 press conference every day since 30 March—that is seven weeks. Yesterday, the Government stopped publishing the international comparison, and the slide has gone. Why?

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As the right hon. and learned Gentleman knows very well, the UK has been going through an unprecedented, once-in-a-century epidemic. He seeks to make comparisons with other countries that I am advised are premature, because the correct and final way of making these comparisons will be when we have all the excess death totals for all the relevant countries. We do not yet have that data. Now, I am not going to try to pretend to the House that the figures, when they are finally confirmed, are anything other than stark and deeply, deeply horrifying. This has been an appalling epidemic.

What I can tell the House is that we are getting those numbers down: the number of deaths is coming down; the number of hospital admissions is coming down. Thanks to the hard work of the British people in reducing the R and reducing the number of fatalities, we are now in a position to make some small, modest steps to begin to come out of some of the very restrictive measures that we have had. I think that people do understand what we are trying to do as a country. As for the international comparisons that the right hon. and learned Gentleman seeks to draw now, he will have to contain his impatience.

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Well, I am baffled. It is not me seeking to draw the comparisons; these are the Government’s slides, which have been used for seven weeks to reassure the public. The problem with the Prime Minister’s answer is that it is pretty obvious that for seven weeks—when we did not have the highest number in Europe—the slides were used for comparison purposes, and as soon as we hit that unenviable place, they have been dropped. Last week the Prime Minister quoted, in defence, Professor Spiegelhalter. This is what Professor Spiegelhalter said at the weekend, and we need to think about it:

“we should…use other countries to try and learn why our numbers are high”.

Dropping the comparisons means dropping the learning, and that is the real risk.

Let me now ask the Prime Minister about the changes coming into effect today. A real concern for many people is childcare. I want to quote a mother of a young child. I apologise that the quotation is a little lengthy, but it reflects the queries that all Members of this House will have been getting. She says this: “As Boris said in his speech, people are encouraged to go back to work, meaning my partner, as he works in construction. My partner has explained to his boss this can’t happen because we’ve got no childcare. He also rang the nursery, but they’re not open. I work as well, but my boss is having none of it. I hope I can get some advice. Me and my partner have been so stressed all day.” What advice would the Prime Minister give her?

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On the right hon. and learned Gentleman’s earlier point about not learning from other countries—nothing could be further from the truth. We are watching intently what is happening in other countries, and it is very notable that in some other countries where relaxations have been introduced, there are signs of the R going up again. That is a very clear warning to us not to proceed too fast or too recklessly. I hope that the country does understand that.

On the specific point, which the right hon. and learned Gentleman rightly raises, about people’s anxieties about going back to work when they do not have adequate childcare, I think that I was very clear—both with him and with the House earlier in the week—that in so far as people may not be able to go back to work because they do not have the childcare that they need, their employers must be understanding. As I said, it is clearly an impediment and a barrier to people’s ability to go back to work if they do not have childcare. I would be very happy to look at the specific case that he raises to see if there is anything more that we can do to shed light on the matter.

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I am grateful to the Prime Minister for indicating that he will look into that particular case. It is, I think, one of very many.

The Prime Minister is asking the country to support decisions that will affect millions of lives. I recognise that these are not easy decisions; they are very difficult, balanced decisions that the Prime Minister and the Government have to make, and, after the confusion of the last few days, gaining public confidence in them is crucial. The Prime Minister says that his decisions were

“driven by the science, the data and public health”,

so, to give the public confidence in the decisions, can the Prime Minister commit to publishing the scientific advice on which they were based?

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All Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies advice is published in due course, as the right hon. and learned Gentleman knows. Let me be absolutely clear with the House that SAGE, our scientists and our medical officers have been involved in every stage of preparing this strategy. I remind the House that what we are doing is entirely conditional and provisional. The UK has made a huge amount of progress.

The people of this country have worked incredibly hard to get the R down, and we cannot now go back to square one. We cannot risk a second outbreak, and we will do everything to avoid that.

Actually, when people look at what we are advocating as the way forward, the stepped process that we have set out, I think they can see exactly what we are trying to do as a country, and they can see that everybody is still required to obey the social distancing rules. The common sense of the British people got us through that first phase of this disease: I am absolutely confident that they will get us through the next as well.

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My right hon. Friend the Prime Minister is well aware of the impact of air pollution on health outcomes, especially affecting those with respiratory diseases such as covid-19. Will he therefore reaffirm his commitment to tackling global emissions and the COP26 global climate conference to help to protect our people and our planet in future? [902622]

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I thank my right hon. Friend for what he does to champion the environment and the cause of reducing CO2 emissions. Alas, we have had to postpone the COP26 summit that was to have taken place, as he knows, in Glasgow at the end of this year. But our enthusiasm and determination to get to net zero by 2050 remains undiminished.

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May I begin by thanking all our nurses for their efforts in keeping us safe and looking after us, and applaud yesterday’s International Nurses Day?

Last week, the Prime Minister, in response to my questioning, noted the ability of the Governments of all four nations to come together and to deliver a very clear message for our people. Events on Sunday could not have been more disastrous from this Government. The Prime Minister has made confusion costly, devolved Administrations have been shut out, there is widespread confusion among the public and the Government have shown a total disregard for workers’ safety. Many, sadly, have seen the images of London buses being packed this morning. Will the Prime Minister accept that the clear message in Scotland is to stay home to protect the NHS and to save lives?

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Indeed, the message throughout the country is, of course, that you should stay at home if you can, unless the specific circumstances that we have outlined apply. But I must say that I do not accept the leader of the SNP’s characterisation of the co-operation that we have had across all four nations. In my experience, it has been intense and it has been has been going on for days and days and weeks and weeks, and actually if we look at the totality of the measures that we are taking as a country, there is much more that unites us than divides us. We will go forward together.

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The reality is that the Prime Minister has failed to deliver a clear message, and he did not address the point about London buses being packed this morning. The Prime Minister is threatening progress made against the spread of this virus by the general public who are following the advice to stay at home. The Prime Minister is putting workers’ safety at risk by calling on those who cannot work at home to go to their jobs without any guidance on health and safety.

Only last Monday, the Health Secretary launched the test and trace app trial. On Sunday, the Prime Minister appeared to leapfrog any success with that by announcing easing of restrictions. Before any lockdown easing and to avoid undermining the progress made so far, the Prime Minister must make sure that there are sufficient levels of testing available, and the ability to test, trace and isolate is fully in operation. Why is the Prime Minister throwing weeks of progress against the virus into jeopardy, undermining the work of our outstanding NHS?

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The right hon. Gentleman raises a point about London buses that is quite right, and I do not want to see crowding on mass-transit public transport in our capital or anywhere else. We are working actively with Transport for London to ensure that we have more capacity and discourage people from going to work during the peak, and that the operators, particularly TfL, lay on more tube trains in particular when they are necessary throughout the day. A huge amount of work is being done. We also want to see proper marshalling at stations to prevent crowded trains.

On the right hon. Gentleman’s point about test, track and trace, that is going to be a huge operation for the entire country. He should pay tribute to the work of all those hundreds of thousands of people who are now responsible for massively escalating our test, track and tracing operation. We now test more than virtually any other country in Europe. The rate of acceleration—the rate of increase—has been very sharp indeed, and we will go up to 200,000 by the end of the month. The right hon. Gentleman is absolutely right that the success of the programme is absolutely vital if we are to be able to move on to the second and third steps of our road map.

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More than 5,000 rough sleepers—90% of the homeless population in the UK—are now in temporary accommodation as a result of action taken by the Government at the start of this crisis. Will the Prime Minister commit to providing all funds necessary and taking all action needed to ensure that this positive way of dealing with the homelessness crisis can be made permanent and that each of those individuals can be given a long-term home? [902623]

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As my right hon. Friend knows, it is this Government’s ambition to end rough sleeping by 2024. It is great to see the progress that has been made even in this very difficult time—as he says, 90% of rough sleepers are now in accommodation or have been offered accommodation. We will be investing considerable sums to make sure that we build the housing and address the social issues to tackle that problem for good.

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I thank the Government for listening to representations from the Liberal Democrats and others on protecting jobs by extending the scheme yesterday. Will the Government now do the same for the self-employed? People such as cleaners, childminders, taxi drivers and hairdressers have all seen their incomes devastated and are only now able to apply for help for the past three months, but millions of these families now have no help in the future. Surely, self-employed people must have their support extended, too.

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I admire the right hon. Gentleman’s brilliant attempt to take the credit from my right hon. Friend the Chancellor for his extension of the coronavirus job retention scheme, which has been one of the most extraordinary features of this country’s—our collective—response to the crisis. The right hon. Gentleman is right to draw attention to the position of the self-employed; we are making sure that they get payments, over three months, of up to £7,500 as well.

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I congratulate the Prime Minister on being straight with the British people and spelling out a clear and cautious roadmap to the lifting of the lockdown measures in England. Unfortunately for my constituents in Bridgend, the Welsh Government have not set out any such plan or vision. Does he agree that the people of Wales deserve a Government who are honest and clear about the road ahead? [902628]

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I thank my hon. Friend very much, and I agree with him, but whatever the defects of the Labour Government in Wales, my experience is that we have been working very well together across all the four nations and will continue to do so. My honest view is that all those who talk about confusion or mixed messages are grossly overstating the position. The common sense of the British people is shining through this argument. They can see where we want to go and where we need to go.

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At the end of March, I asked the Prime Minister to help the thousands of our people stranded abroad, notably in south Asia and especially in the Punjab. Grudgingly, and much slower than other countries, the Foreign Office organised fights back, but many are still stranded. Furthermore, the FCO now seems to be washing its hands of those with indefinite leave to remain, even though they may have lived and worked here for years and are the husbands, wives, parents and grandparents of British citizens. Some have described it as another Windrush scandal waiting to happen. Will Prime Minister will sort this out? [902619]

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I thank the right hon. Gentleman for his question. He actually nabbed me behind the Speaker’s Chair after he last put it to me. I can tell him that we estimate that 1.3 million British nationals have now been returned. I know that he would like the RAF to be more involved, but I can also tell him that we have put £75 million into a charter arrangement, and a whole range of airlines have signed up to it. We are doing everything that we can to bring people back as fast as we can.

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Last week, the arrogant, incompetent and vindictive Electoral Commission suffered its final humiliation. For four long years, it has investigated and hounded four people from four different Leave organisations, making their lives and their families’ lives hell. Last week, the police said that they were totally innocent and had done nothing wrong. Prime Minister, for the sake of democracy, will you ensure that that politically corrupt, totally biased and morally bankrupt quango is abolished? [902629]

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As ever, I hear what my hon. Friend says about the Electoral Commission. What I can say is that, for the people who were investigated, I hope that all those who spent so much time, energy and effort drawing attention to their supposed guilt will now spend as much time and energy and ink and air time drawing attention to their genuine innocence.

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As we moved into lockdown, some of Glasgow’s vulnerable asylum seekers were moved from safe accommodation into city hotels where social distancing is harder to enforce. It is clear that the Home Office is not currently doing enough to protect and look after those who seek refuge in our city. Will the Prime Minister urgently trigger a full Home Office review into the support being provided to asylum seekers and ensure that they work with key partners in the council so that they are not left destitute once the lockdown is lifted? [902620]

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The hon. Gentleman draws attention to a very important issue. We will make sure that nobody in this country, let alone asylum seekers, is ill-treated. I shall certainly be investigating the matter to which he refers, but am happy to write to him.

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Next week should have seen the beginning of the Hay-on-Wye literary festival, but, as we are currently closed to visitors, Hay has shown true Welsh innovation by moving its festival online this year. Will the Prime Minister join me in thanking those tourist businesses that have acted in the national interest to protect public health and remind our visitors that, once the Welsh Government publish their exit plan, Brecon and Radnorshire will be able to welcome them back again very soon? [902631]

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I am sorry that the wonderful festival at Hay-on-Wye has had to be postponed this year. I thank my hon. Friend for what she is doing to promote it, and I congratulate the organisers on their typical Welsh ingenuity in making the festival online, turning it into Hay-on-Wifi.

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Both covid and Brexit are suppressing trade and damaging jobs and the economy and while we hope that, as covid ends, global trade will bounce back, there is no guarantee that that will happen quickly. The Prime Minister could mitigate some of this damage by seeking an extension to the Brexit transitional period. Will he explain to the House why he is being so negligent in not seeking that transitional extension now? [902621]

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As I have said, one of the most remarkable things about this crisis has been the way that the whole country has come together to deal with it. There has been a spirit of unity and sharing that we have not seen for a very long time. I do not think that a lot of people in this country want to see the Brexit argument reopened. They want to see it settled, they want to see it done, and that is what this Government intend to do.

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The hospitality and tourism businesses in my constituency of Clwyd South are vital for the health of the local economy, of which a very good example is the Llangollen steam railway. Will the Prime Minister join me in congratulating the railway on its current restructuring and fundraising campaign designed to see it through the coronavirus crisis? After the crisis is over, will he please hop on board one of its steam trains when he is next in Llangollen? [902632]

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I have a picture at home of myself and William Hague aboard the Llangollen steam railway, I am proud to say. I congratulate the group on what they are doing to raise funds. I have no doubt that they have a glorious future ahead with my hon. Friend’s support.

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I have a number of cases where employers are refusing to furlough staff, either because they do not understand or are unwilling to follow the guidance. Seventeen-year-old Ben Edgar has now found himself without a job or furlough support and is classed as ineligible for social security because of his age. The employer is refusing to engage with my correspondence. For such cases, will the Prime Minister consider a furlough appeals process to assist employees, ex-employees and employers to ensure that people are treated fairly, according to the guidance, to save unnecessary redundancies or hardship? [902625]

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The hon. Gentleman is making an excellent point. If he could send me details, we will be very happy to take up the case that he describes.

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In Burton and Uttoxeter, and across the country, we have seen the incredible dedication of our NHS workers in dealing with covid-19—dedication that has tragically cost some their lives. What steps is the Prime Minister taking to ensure that the NHS is adhering to Public Health England calls to risk-assess black, Asian and minority ethnic staff on the frontline and where possible to make appropriate arrangements to move them to non-patient facing roles?

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I think the question was about staff in the NHS.

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I thank my hon. Friend. I think I understood very clearly what she was saying. It is obvious from the data that coronavirus, as I said earlier, is falling disproportionately on certain groups, and not just the elderly. We need to examine exactly what is happening. We need to protect all the most vulnerable groups, and we will take steps to ensure that NHS staff and others are properly protected, advised and screened.

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Last week, climate experts reported that green economic recovery packages deliver far higher returns than conventional stimulus spending. They also warned that how we emerge from this coronavirus crisis must not be in a way that deepens the climate and nature emergencies. Does the Prime Minister agree? Will he commit to action that will help us to build back better, and start by confirming that any airline queuing up for a taxpayer handout must be required to meet robust climate goals? [902626]

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I think the best and shortest answer I can give to the hon. Lady is that we totally understand the situation with aviation. Clearly, inadvertently this year the planet will greatly reduce its carbon dioxide emissions, and she is absolutely right that we need to entrench those gains. I do not want to see us going back to an era of the same type of emissions as we have had in the past. Aviation, like every other sector, must keep its carbon lower. We are certainly working on technological solutions to ensure that we can do that.

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Will my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister join me in paying fulsome tribute to all the staff at Stepping Hill Hospital, particularly those caring for patients with covid-19? Does he recognise that many people have not been attending hospital as usual? How will he be assisting hospitals, such as Stepping Hill, in ensuring that my constituents can access healthcare as usual?

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I thank my hon. Friend. One of the most important features of the way this country responded to the epidemic was that we did protect the NHS. We maintained capacity in the NHS throughout. Nobody went without a ventilator. There was space in intensive care units throughout the crisis, but we have a situation now, as he rightly says, where too many people are not going to hospital or the doctor to seek the treatment they need and deserve. I certainly encourage people with conditions that need medical treatment to go and get that treatment now. That will help us to reduce deaths this year and throughout the crisis.