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Volume 676: debated on Wednesday 13 May 2020

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.

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?

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.

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 learned 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?

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.

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?

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.

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?

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.

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?

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.

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?

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.

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?

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.

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)

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 remain undiminished.

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?

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.

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?

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.

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)

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.

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.

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.

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)

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.

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)

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.

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)

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.

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 of 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)

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.

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)

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.

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 of the Brexit transitional period. Will he explain to the House why he is being so negligent in not seeking that transitional extension now? (902621)

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.

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)

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.

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)

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.

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?

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.

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)

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.

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?

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.