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Volume 676: debated on Wednesday 20 May 2020

One hundred and eighty-one NHS and 131 social care workers’ deaths have sadly been reported involving covid-19. I know that the thoughts of the whole House are with their families and friends.

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

The Government keep saying that this virus does not discriminate, but that is not true. Office for National Statistics figures show that black people, African and African Caribbean people are four times more likely to die from covid-19. The figure is also disproportionately high for Bangladeshi, Pakistani or Indian communities. What is the Prime Minister going to do now about this, and will he act now to ensure that African, Asian and minority ethnic communities in Leicester East and across the country are supported in the next phase of this virus?

Yes. As the hon. Lady may know, we are looking at all the comorbidities associated with the coronavirus and all the reasons why people might be disproportionately affected. A rapid review is now being conducted by Professor Fenton, who will report at the end of the month about particularly vulnerable groups. We will take steps to ensure that they are protected where that is appropriate.

Today I submitted a formal expression of interest for a new rail line between Consett and the Metrocentre, connecting my constituency to the heart of the north-east in Newcastle. As part of the levelling-up agenda, may I ask the Prime Minister for his support for this scheme, as my constituents have supported him and me? (902885)

I congratulate my hon. Friend on his imagination and his plan for a new railway. It is entirely in keeping with our infrastructure revolution, and I can assure him that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Transport will be getting back to him. I note that Nexus has already identified several possible extensions of the Tyne and Wear Metro scheme, which may be of advantage to his constituents.

Last Friday, the Health Secretary said:

“Right from the start we’ve tried to throw a protective ring around our care homes.”

That caused quite a reaction. Yesterday, it was flatly contradicted by the chief executive of Care England. He was giving evidence to the Select Committee on Health and Social Care, and he said that we should have been focusing on care homes from the start and that despite what is being said, there were cases of people who either did not have a covid status or were symptomatic who were discharged into our care homes. The Government advice from 2 to 15 April was:

“Negative tests are not required prior to transfers/admissions into”

care homes. What is protective about that?

As the right hon. and learned Gentleman knows full well—of course he is right to draw attention to what has happened in our care homes, and we mourn the loss of every victim—no one was discharged into a care home this year without the express authorisation of a clinician, and they have the interests of those patients at heart. As I said to him last week—he does not seem to have remembered—actually, the number of patients discharged from hospitals into care homes was 40% down in March on January. The guidance was changed to reflect the change in the epidemic, and that guidance was made available to care homes—and, of course, since the care homes action plan began, we have seen a sharp reduction in the number of deaths in care homes. Indeed, since I last stood before the House, the number of deaths in care homes has come down by 31%. I think he should pay tribute to all those who have helped to fight that epidemic across the NHS and across our local services.

I think the Prime Minister rather missed the point. The question was whether people were tested going back into care homes. The chief executive of Care England says that because they were not, people who had no covid-19 status or who were symptomatic were discharged into care homes. That is a very serious issue that requires an answer.

Yesterday, the chief executive of Care England, in his evidence, was also asked when routine testing would start in care homes. This is the answer he gave yesterday: “I think the short answer is that we’ve had the announcement, but what we haven’t had is delivery, and we are not really clear when that will arrive.” This is the chief executive of Care England in his evidence. Even the Government’s Command Paper, published last week and introduced by the Prime Minister to this House, says within it—[Interruption.] The Health Secretary says, “He’s wrong.” I am quoting the Government’s paper. It says that

“every care home for the over 65s will have been offered testing for residents and staff”

by 6 June.

That is from the Prime Minister’s Command Paper. That is over two weeks away. What is causing the continued delay in routine testing in our care homes?

I am afraid the right hon. and learned Gentleman is simply in ignorance of the facts. The reality is that already 125,000 care home staff have been tested, 118,000—[Interruption.] Perhaps he did know that. One hundred and eighteen thousand care home workers have been tested, and we are absolutely confident that we will be able to increase our testing, not just in care homes but across the whole of the community. Thanks to the hard work of my right hon. Friend the Health Secretary and his teams, we will get up to 200,000 tests in this country by the end of this month. The right hon. and learned Gentleman may know this—perhaps it is one of those international comparisons he hesitates to make—but actually this country is now testing more than virtually any other country in Europe.

Again, the question was when would routine testing start, and the chief executive of Care England, who knows what he is talking about, gave evidence yesterday that it has not. [Interruption.] If the Prime Minister is disputing the evidence to the Select Committee, that is his own business. [Interruption.]

Order. Secretary of State for Health, please. I do not mind you advising the Prime Minister, but you do not need to advise the Opposition during this. [Interruption.] Sorry, do you want to leave the Chamber? We are at maximum numbers. If you want to give way to somebody else, I am more than happy.

To assure the Prime Minister, I am not expressing my own view; I am putting to him the evidence of experts to Committees yesterday.

Testing was referred to by the Prime Minister. That on its own is obviously not enough. What is needed is testing, tracing and isolation. At yesterday’s press conference, the deputy chief scientific adviser said that we could draw particular lessons from Germany and South Korea, which have both had intensive testing and tracing. The number of covid-19 deaths in Germany stands at around 8,000. In South Korea, it is under 300. In contrast, in the United Kingdom, despite 2 million tests having been carried out, there has been no effective tracing in place since 12 March, when tracing was abandoned. That is nearly 10 weeks in a critical period without effective tracing. That is a huge hole in our defences, isn’t it, Prime Minister?

I must say that I find it peculiar, because I have given the right hon. and learned Gentleman repeated briefings on this matter. He is perfectly aware of the situation in the UK as regards testing and tracing in early March. It has been explained many times to him and to the House. I think his feigned ignorance does not come very well. However, I can tell him that today I am confident that we will have a test and trace operation that will enable us, if all the other conditions are satisfied—it is entirely provisional—to make progress. I can also tell him that we have already recruited 24,000 trackers, and by 1 June we will have 25,000. They will be capable of tracking the contacts of 10,000 new cases a day. To understand the importance of that statistic, I remind the right hon. and learned Gentleman that today the new cases stand at 2,400. We are making vast progress in testing and tracing and I have great confidence that by 1 June, we will have a system that will help us greatly to defeat this disease and move the country forward. I therefore hope that he will abandon his slightly negative tone and support it.

Thirty-four thousand deaths is negative. Of course I am going to ask about that, and quite right too. The Prime Minister says “feigned ignorance”, but he knows that for 10 weeks there has been no tracing, unlike in Germany and South Korea. Tracing is critical—there is no getting away from that. The Prime Minister knows it is vital—he made a great deal of it in his speech to the nation a week ago last Sunday. He said,

“we cannot move forward unless we satisfy”

the tests that he has set, one of which is a “world-beating” test and trace system. World-beating. Leaving aside the rhetoric—“effective” will do—there now appears to be some doubt about when the system will be ready. This is the last Prime Minister’s questions for two weeks. Can the Prime Minister indicate that an effective test, trace and isolate system will be in place by 1 June—Monday week?

The right hon. and learned Gentleman seems to be in the unhappy position of having rehearsed his third or fourth question but not listened to my previous answer, brilliant forensic mind though he has. He has heard that we have growing confidence that we will have a test, track and trace operation that will be world-beating, and yes, it will be in place by 1 June.

To repeat the figures, since the right hon. and learned Gentleman has invited me to do so, there will be 25,000 trackers, who will be able to cope with 10,000 new cases a day. That is very important because currently new cases are running at about 2,500 a day. They will be able to trace the contacts of those new cases and stop the disease spreading. I hope very much, notwithstanding the occasional difficulty of these exchanges—and I totally appreciate the role that the right hon. and learned Gentleman has to fulfil—that he will support us as we go forward, that he will be positive about the test, track and trace operation and that we can work together to use it to take our country forward. That is what the people of this country want to see.

I am very happy to work with the Prime Minister on that. He knows that from our previous exchanges.

Every Thursday, we go out and clap for our carers. Many of them are risking their lives for the sake of all of us. Does the Prime Minister think it is right that care workers coming from abroad and working on our frontline should have to pay a surcharge of hundreds, sometimes thousands of pounds to use the NHS themselves?

I have thought a great deal about this, and I accept and understand the difficulties faced by our amazing NHS staff. Like the right hon. and learned Gentleman, I have been a personal beneficiary of carers who have come from abroad and frankly saved my life. I know exactly the importance of what he asks. On the other hand, we must look at the realities. This is a great national service—it is a national institution—that needs funding, and those contributions help us to raise about £900 million. It is very difficult in the current circumstances to find alternative sources, so with great respect for the right hon. and learned Gentleman’s point, I think it is the right way forward.

I am disappointed, because the Prime Minister knows how raw this is. The fee in question, the immigration health surcharge, is currently £400 a year. From October, that goes up to £624 a year. For a care worker on the national living wage, that will require working for 70 hours to pay off the fee.

The Doctors Association and a number of medical groups wrote to the Home Secretary this week, and they set it out this way:

“At a time when we are mourning colleagues, your steadfast refusal to reconsider the deeply unfair immigration health surcharge is a gross insult to all”—

of us—

“who are serving this country at its time of greatest need.”

We agree, and Labour will table amendments to the immigration Bill to exempt NHS and care workers from this charge. Can I urge the Prime Minister to reconsider his view as we go through this crisis?

I have given my answer, but what I will say is that I think that it is important that we support our NHS and that we invest massively in our NHS. This Government—this one nation Conservative Government—are determined to invest more in our NHS than at any time in modern memory. We have already begun that, and we will want to see our fantastic frontline workers paid properly. That is, I think, the best way forward. I want to see our NHS staff paid properly, our NHS supported, and I want to continue our programme of not just building 40 more hospitals, but recruiting 50,000 more nurses and investing hugely in our NHS, and I believe that will be warmly welcomed across the whole of our establishment of our fantastic NHS.

Looking at the economic recovery process, I am sure the Prime Minister will join me in thanking SELRAP—the Skipton and East Lancs Rail Action Partnership—for the continuing campaign to reopen the Skipton to Colne railway line, on which it has been confirmed that plans will be moving forward. It is also great news that the potential of the freight terminal is being considered, but can the Prime Minister assure me that Hyndburn and Haslingden will continue to be supported by potential investment in our town centres, business and the transport links that we so desperately need? (902891)

Indeed I can, and I am grateful to my hon. Friend. Hyndburn and Haslingden will indeed continue to receive funding for their town centres—indeed, the high streets taskforce will be increasing that support—in addition to 118 km of safe new green cycleways thanks to the Lancashire local growth fund, for which I know she has also campaigned.

Our thoughts this morning are with the communities in India and Bangladesh dealing with the landfall of super cyclone Amphan. I am sure the Government will be monitoring the situation and will seek to give all necessary support.

Every week, members of this Government applaud our truly heroic NHS and care staff, who have been on the frontline of this pandemic, regardless of whether they were born here or elsewhere. Indeed, the Prime Minister has thanked the nurses who cared for him, who were from New Zealand and from Portugal. The UK has the highest number of deaths in Europe, and without their sacrifice, we would be facing something much worse. I know the Leader of the Opposition has already asked the Prime Minister about overseas careworkers, but on Monday the Prime Minister ordered his MPs to vote for an immigration Bill that defines many in the NHS and care sector as low-skilled workers. Given their sacrifice, is the Prime Minister not embarrassed that this is how his Government choose to treat NHS and care workers?

This is a Government who value immensely the work of everybody in our national health service and our care workers across the whole community. I can tell the right hon. Gentleman that the reason for having an immigration Bill of the kind that we are is not to keep out people who can help in our NHS; on the contrary, we want an immigration system that works for the people of this country and works for our NHS. I think what the people of this country want to see is an immigration system where we control it, we understand it and we are able to direct it according to the needs of our NHS and the needs of our economy, and that is what we are putting in place.

I know it is rejected by the right hon. and learned Member for Holborn and St Pancras (Keir Starmer), and indeed by the right hon. Gentleman himself, but it is the right way forward.

The harsh reality is that the Prime Minister does not even pay NHS and care staff the real living wage and wants to block many of them from working here at all. We need an immigration system that is fit for purpose. The Home Secretary and the Prime Minister seem hell-bent on implementing a purely ideological immigration policy with no basis in fairness or economics. The Government have talked about giving back to our NHS and care staff. It is time for him to deliver. People migrating to these nations and choosing to work in our NHS and care sector must have the Government’s cruel NHS surcharge removed immediately. Will he make that pledge today, or will he clap on Thursday, hoping that no one really notices that he is giving with one hand and raking it in with the other?

First, the right hon. Gentleman mentions the living wage. This is the party and Government who instituted the living wage and have just increased it by a massive amount. Secondly, this is the party that is putting £34 billion into the NHS—the biggest investment in modern times—and believe me we will continue with that investment. He talks about discriminatory policies at the border. The logic of his policy is to have a border at Berwick.

The Defence Committee heard recently that France is conducting a root-and-branch review of its defence supply chain following concerns that China is buying up defence-related companies that are going bust during the pandemic. Does my right hon. Friend think it might be wise to consider doing the same thing here in addition to rowing back from his plans to allow Huawei to roll out 5G?

I am sure there is a legal term for imputing to me a policy that I have not yet announced, but my hon. Friend is right to be concerned about the buying up of UK technology now by countries that may have ulterior motives, and we are certainly introducing measures to protect our technological base. He will be hearing a lot more about that in the next few weeks.

In Ireland, both jurisdictions are working hard to organise contact tracing on a north-south basis, but the Prime Minister’s obsession with avoiding a Brexit transition extension means we risk crashing out without a data-sharing framework, which will critically undermine our ability to protect people from covid-19. When will he put the lives of people in our community above petty, narrow Brexiteer politics?

I must respectfully disagree with the hon. Gentleman. We are working very closely not just with our colleagues in the Government in Northern Ireland but with our colleagues in Dublin. I had a very good conversation with Leo Varadkar the other day and we saw eye to eye on the way forward. There is a huge amount shared between the UK and Ireland, and it will continue to be so.

As a stunning coastal destination built on hospitality and tourism sectors hard hit by the impact of the virus, Eastbourne is none the less looking to bounce back when it is safe to do so and is part of work on a covid-secure kitemark to inspire public confidence. Does my right hon. Friend see merit in this, and when the coast is clear, will he visit?

I am sure the coast is always clear in Eastbourne. I will do my utmost to get there as soon as I can within the social distancing rules that we must all observe. We will look at the kitemark idea. The best I can say is that my hon. Friend is a fantastic champion for Eastbourne and its attractions, and I look forward to supporting her in any way I can.

Women make up the vast majority of the workforce in our NHS, social care sector and schools. However, there is only a handful of women on the SAGE committee and only one woman in the Cabinet has led the Downing Street briefing in the past eight weeks on very few occasions. Does the Prime Minister agree with me, as the chair of the largest group of female MPs in the House, that we need a change of tone and more female voices at the top of Government to reflect the majority of the UK population, almost 52% of whom are women? If not, why not? (902884)

Actually, I think that the hon. Lady has an extremely important point, and I have taken dramatic action, even before a reshuffle. The most important appointment that we have made recently, after Lord Deighton doing the personal protective equipment, was Dido. One of the reasons we are making such fast progress, I think, now on test and trace is that Dido Harding has come on board, and Kate Bingham is leading the national effort to co-ordinate our search for a vaccine with other countries.

I am very grateful for my right hon. Friend’s hard work, and in particular, his commitment to doing whatever it takes to help people to make ends meet during this pandemic, but in West Dorset I have many constituents who were employed before 19 March who are not eligible to be furloughed under the job retention scheme—particularly those who have changed jobs. Will he look at this area again to see, please, what he can do to help those who have slipped through the net and those who have no financial support at this time?

Yes. We have pushed back the cut-off date in order to help people, but we are also looking to support people who are in difficulties with some temporary measures on welfare, as he knows—the significant £1,040 increase in universal credit standard allowance and the working tax credit basic element. If there are particularly hard cases, and there will be hard cases, I say what I have said before to the House: I am happy to take them up on my hon. Friend’s behalf.

Will the Prime Minister condemn or condone the reckless behaviour of the Secretary of State for Scotland in making a round trip of almost 700 miles to be physically in the Chamber today, in clear breach of the guidance from the Scottish Government to stay home, protect the NHS and save lives, when he could easily have taken part in the proceedings virtually from the safety of his home? Condemn or condone, Prime Minister? (902886)

All I can say is, no, I will not, and I think that the Secretary of State for Scotland does an admirable job.

My constituent, Elizabeth Gull, has proposed the creation of a medal for NHS workers and others to recognise their distinguished service in their work against coronavirus. I think that this idea has merit. Will my right hon. Friend consider a medal or other accolade in the fullness of time for those who have gone above and beyond in the last few months?

As I am sure the whole House can imagine, we are indeed looking at the excellent suggestion made by my hon. Friend’s constituent, Elizabeth. We are thinking how to recognise the work of healthcare staff, carers and many others, and we are engaging with staff and employers at the present time.

A senior Government figure told a reporter for The Sunday Times that the UK Government will end the job retention scheme even if the Scottish Government decide to continue with the lockdown to save lives in Scotland. This would be an act from the UK Government that undermined devolution and the Scottish Parliament by slashing incomes to force Scots back to work when it is potentially unsafe. Will the Prime Minister agree to extend the job retention scheme in Scotland for the length of time that Scotland’s Government and Parliament deem a lockdown necessary? (902887)

Perhaps I can just say that I continue to be very happy with the level of co-operation, in spite of what we sometimes hear in this Chamber, between the Governments of all four nations, particularly Scotland. I just remind the hon. Lady, of course, that Scotland has benefited from about £1 billion of coronavirus funding in the last period and will get about £3 billion overall, which is perhaps a material consideration on which she might like to reflect.

Unemployment in the under-24 age group has already doubled in Telford compared with this time last year, and it is clear that the aftermath of the pandemic will hit our young people hardest, with disruption to education and training, as well as job losses. I know that my right hon. Friend is passionate about opportunities for young people, particularly in areas such as Telford, which has suffered disproportionately in previous recessions. Will he ensure that the recovery strategy focuses on young people and equipping them with the skills they need to survive in a post-pandemic economy and, indeed, thrive in the longer term?

My hon. Friend is absolutely right to speak up for the young people of Telford and their immense potential, and that is why we will be supporting her and them with a new national skills fund worth £2.5 billion, so that young people can be at the very forefront of our effort to come out of this epidemic.

That is the end of PMQs. Before the urgent question, I should say that I plan to allow a statement by the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster on the UK’s approach to Northern Ireland protocol as part of the scrutiny proceedings. I will allow less time for the urgent question and the business statement as a consequence.

We now come to the urgent question to the Leader of the House. I will end the urgent question at 12.55. I call the Leader of the House, Mr Jacob Rees-Mogg, to answer the urgent question from Alistair Carmichael. The Leader of the House should speak for no more than three minutes.