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Covid-19: Discussions with Scottish Government

Volume 676: debated on Wednesday 20 May 2020

I regularly attend cross-Government meetings, which include the devolved Administrations, to discuss how to minimise the impact of covid-19. There is a high level of co-operation between all Administrations and there will continue to be. We are committed to a UK-wide approach, as we have been from the start.

What justification does the Secretary of State have for ignoring the Scottish Government guidelines to stay home, protect the NHS and save lives, by undertaking an almost 700-mile round trip to Westminster when he could safely have worked from home today virtually? What kind of message does that send to the Scottish people? Will the Secretary of State be self-isolating on his return to his constituency?

To be absolutely clear, first, as the hon. Gentleman’s colleague, the hon. Member for Perth and North Perthshire (Pete Wishart), has made clear, Members of Parliament are key workers. More importantly, as a Cabinet Minister and a Secretary of State, it is right that I should be here in the Chamber so that I can be properly scrutinised and answer these questions. I came down at the weekend and travelled on a train very safely. I will return safely and I will be isolating myself when I do, but that is solely because I go back to family. I do not see why we cannot have proper scrutiny of Parliament when we have the virtual proceedings, which work for some, but for me it is absolutely about being here, being scrutinised and being at the Dispatch Box.

At last week’s Scottish Affairs Committee sitting, the Secretary of State made the welcome admission that the Prime Minister’s announcement on exiting lockdown did cause confusion, given that the advice applied only to England. The crystal-clear message in Scotland remains to stay at home, protect the NHS and save lives. In that same spirit, will the Secretary of State accept that prematurely ending the modern ways in which we are currently working in Parliament would disregard Scotland’s clear public health guidance, increase infection in our communities and put our constituents at risk by forcing people to travel hundreds of miles back and forth to London?

I have already given the answer on the first point. On the messaging, the messaging in Scotland is different to that in England, which is fine, but the “stay alert” message in England is that people should stay at home and work from home if they can work from home, but if they cannot, they can go to work. That is very clear. In going to work, they stay alert, wash their hands and socially distance themselves—they do all those things. If Scottish Members of Parliament do not want to come back to be scrutinised or to scrutinise Ministers, that will be a matter for them, but at some point we will have to move to a stage where Parliament is operating on a virtual and covid-safe basis, and that is exactly as it should be.

I welcome the shadow Secretary of State for the first of his two questions from the Front Bench.

That is very kind of you, Mr Speaker; thank you very much indeed.

The Secretary of State will be aware of the February outbreak of covid-19 at an international Nike conference in central Edinburgh. In a catastrophic error of judgment, the Scottish Government decided that the Scottish public would not be informed, despite that being contrary to Scottish public health legislation. The public could have helped with the tracing and used their own common sense, as the Prime Minister has said, to make choices about attending large events and gatherings. A BBC documentary reported that a lockdown then could have saved 2,000 Scottish lives. Will the Secretary of State tell the House whether the UK Government were informed; why the public were not told, given the subsequent disinfecting and closure of Nike outlets all over the UK; and how many UK lives could have been saved as a result?

I welcome the hon. Gentleman back to his rightful place on the Opposition Front Bench. I fear he spent far too long in the wilderness that was the previous regime’s Back Benches. That said, I must pay tribute to his predecessor, the hon. Member for Rochdale (Tony Lloyd), who I am pleased is making good progress in recovering from a very nasty bout of coronavirus.

On the shadow Secretary of State’s question, I believe that maximum transparency is important when it comes to matters of public health, because it is important that we treat the public as adults. To that end, I wish to make it clear that the Scottish Government informed Public Health England—an agency, as Members know—of one case of covid-19 on 2 March and two further cases on 4 March. I should also make it absolutely clear at the Dispatch Box that the chief medical officers of the four nations agreed, before there were any confirmed cases, that each Administration would announce their own cases and take their own decisions about what was appropriate to release and when they released it, so it is a matter for the Scottish Government and how they handled it.

I accept that response from the Secretary of State, but the UK Government did have a responsibility, given that Nike outlets across the United Kingdom were closed and disinfected.

I thank the Secretary of State for his welcome and for what he said about my hon. Friend the Member for Rochdale (Tony Lloyd), whom I spoke to shortly after being appointed; he is back and fit, with his old sense of humour—he has not lost that, thankfully. My hon. Friend the Member for Ogmore (Chris Elmore) and I will work closely with the Government when they agree with us, but we will be a ferocious Opposition when we disagree. We should work collaboratively when we agree, but we will be ferocious when we do not.

In advance of a vaccine, the only way to ease lockdown measures is to test, trace, track and isolate. The key to that process is mass testing. Given that the UK Government consistently fail to hit their 100,000 a day target, and Scotland has one of the worst testing rates in the whole world, we need mobilisation of both Governments to have testing centres everywhere—mobile, workplace, home testing, in airports and so on—to make this strategy work. A “go it alone” policy, encouraged by the Prime Minister’s clumsy announcements, is counterproductive. What work is going on across both Governments to ensure not only that the capacity of testing is exponentially increased, but that there is a system in place for effectively testing and retesting the majority of the population, starting in our care homes?

The hon. Gentleman makes a good point. The testing capacity in Scotland is 12,000 tests a day. On Monday, they only used 4,559 of those. That is a matter for the Scottish Government, because health is devolved, and they determine what tests are undertaken. I want to make it clear that the UK Government have funded for the Scottish Government five operating drive-through test centres in Edinburgh, Glasgow, Aberdeen, Inverness and Perth. The Ministry of Defence is operating 30 pop-up units across Scotland. Again, they can go at the behest of the Scottish Government. There is plenty of capacity there. It is not being used. It should have been used more in care homes; I agree with him on that. There is a firm line between the Scottish Government being cautious and being slow, when in fact, they could be less cautious about easing the lockdown if they had been a lot quicker on testing.

I welcome the shadow Secretary of State, the hon. Member for Edinburgh South (Ian Murray), to his position. Given that England has decided to ease lockdown measures earlier than the other three nations of the UK, can the Secretary of State give assurances that the citizens of the devolved nations will still have access to the UK furlough scheme for as long as lockdown must continue in the devolved nations?

This is the first time that the hon. Lady and I have met, in virtual circumstances, and I welcome her to her role. The answer is one for the Chancellor. That is a matter for the Treasury.

If this Parliament insists on following a policy of England’s way or no way and does not leave any leeway for the devolved nations, will the Secretary of State, as Scotland’s representative in Government, lobby the Prime Minister for the devolution of the fiscal powers necessary for the Scottish Government to implement their own furlough scheme?

This is not the time for the Scottish fiscal framework to be opened up and looked at again. The UK Government have given huge support to the whole United Kingdom through the furlough scheme, the self-employed scheme, the bounce-back loans and the coronavirus business interruption loan scheme. There has been a huge package of measures to keep money in people’s pockets and to keep the economy as strong as it can be when we return to something near normal. Have I argued Scotland’s case? Yes, I have. We have an extension coming on 1 August, running to 31 October. I hope that we can get people back to work over that period and get the economy up and running, to save people’s livelihoods. While we are very focused on saving people’s lives, we must remember that after that comes saving their livelihoods.

It is so disappointing to see the Secretary of State and his “better together” shadow in the House of Commons in London today. Their Government are telling them to stay at home and not to travel unnecessarily, but there they are in the House of Commons today. The Secretary of State is right that virtual proceedings allow Scottish Members of Parliament to work from home, so why are the Government pulling the plug on the virtual proceedings today? He is the voice of Scots in the Cabinet. What is he doing to ensure that Scots’ voices continue to be heard in the House of Commons on behalf of our constituents and to allow us to do our work?

The hon. Gentleman might be jumping the gun on that, because discussions are ongoing between the Whips Office and the House authorities. I want to make it clear to him that we are not going to put anyone at risk. However, we have to recognise that if we are asking schools to go back and the public to go back to work, we should lead by example, and we should return to a covid-safe—I emphasise that: covid-safe—working environment.