As we approach the third anniversary, this coming Sunday, of the Grenfell Tower tragedy, I know that the whole House would wish to join me in sending our heartfelt sympathies and thoughts to the families and friends of the 72 people who lost their lives and to the survivors. Across Government, we remain committed to ensuring that such a tragedy can never happen again.
Members from across the House will want to join me in offering our very best wishes to His Royal Highness the Duke of Edinburgh on his 99th birthday. [Hon. Members: “Hear, hear.”] I am sure the whole House will also want to join me in wishing you, Mr Speaker, a very happy birthday.
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.
As a shielded person, I am grateful to once again contribute to Parliament. Many shielded people have contacted me, worried about Government guidance on going for walks. They want a “safe hour” walk for shielded people similar to that adopted in many other countries. Will the Prime Minister do that? They also want more transparency on the shielding list, with each category named and risks published. Will he provide that? Finally, will he agree to review the furlough scheme so shielded people, in the future, are not penalised?
Yes, I can tell the hon. Lady that we certainly will be doing as much as we can in the near future to ensure shielded people get guidance about how they can come out of their shielded environment safely, in a way that is covid secure. Her point about furlough is a very important one, and clearly newly shielded people may be asking themselves whether they will be entitled to furlough funds. I have been made aware of the issue very recently. I can assure her that we will be addressing it forthwith.
Perhaps it would be helpful in advance of any consultation paper if I just set out my own broad position, and stress that I am a Sinophile. I believe that we must continue to work with this great and rising power on climate change or trade or whatever it happens to be, but when we have serious concerns as a country—whether it is over the origins of covid or the protection of our critical national infrastructure or, indeed, what is happening in Hong Kong—we must feel absolutely free to raise those issues loud and clear with Beijing, and that is what we will continue to do.
May I join the Prime Minister in his comments on Grenfell—that dreadful night—in his comments on the Duke of Edinburgh and, of course in his best wishes to you, Mr Speaker? May I also say that I listened carefully to what the Prime Minister just said on furlough for those newly shielding, which I welcome? That has been something we have been concerned about. We will look at the proposal when it is put on the table, but I am grateful that he has listened to that and for what he has said this morning.
The Prime Minister on Monday said that feelings of black and minority ethnic groups about discrimination are “founded on a cold reality”, and I agree with him about that. There have been at least seven reports into racial inequality in the past three years alone, but precious little action. For example, most of the recommendations in the Lammy report into inequality in the criminal justice system have yet to be implemented, three years after the report was published. Similarly, the long-delayed and damning report by Wendy Williams into the Windrush scandal has yet to be implemented.
I spoke last night to black community leaders, and they had a very clear message for the Prime Minister: “Implement the reports you’ve already got.” Will the Prime Minister now turbocharge the Government’s responses and tell us when he will implement in full the Lammy report and the Windrush recommendations?
I am grateful to the right hon. and learned Gentleman, and of course I understand, as I said, the very strong and legitimate feelings of people in this country at the death of George Floyd. Of course I agree that black lives matter. We are getting on with the implementation, not just of the Lammy report but also of the report into Windrush. For instance, on the Lammy report, which this Government commissioned, and for which I thank the right hon. Member for Tottenham (Mr Lammy), we are increasing already the number of black and minority ethnic people in the Prison Service, as he recommended. We are increasing the use of body-worn cameras, and we are trying to ensure, among other things, that young BME people are not immediately prosecuted as a result of the trouble they find themselves in. We try to make sure that we give people a chance, but I must stress that on the Lammy report and all these matters, it is absolutely vital at the same time that we keep our streets safe and that we back our police, and that is what we are going to do.
I welcome what the Prime Minister says about implementing the reports, and obviously we will hold him to it. He will appreciate that people do notice when recommendations are made and then not implemented, so it is very important that they are implemented in accordance with those reports. The latest report is the Public Health England report on the disproportionate impact of covid-19. That report concluded that death rates are
“highest among people of Black and Asian ethnic groups.”
It went on to say—this was the important bit—that
“it is already clear that relevant guidance…and key policies should be adapted”
to mitigate the risk. If it is already clear that guidance and policy need to be changed, why have the Government not already acted?
Not only is it already clear, but we are already acting. I can tell the right hon. and learned Gentleman that as a result of the report by Professor Fenton, which again we commissioned, we are looking at the particular exposure of black and minority ethnic groups to coronavirus. We should be in no doubt that they have been at the forefront of the struggle against coronavirus, whether that is in the NHS or in public transport. Some 44% of the NHS workforce in London are black and minority ethnic workers. That is why what we are doing first and most directly is ensuring that those high-contact professions get expanded and targeted testing now, and that is what I have agreed with Dido Harding from NHS Test and Trace. I think that is the first and most practical step we can take as a result of Professor Fenton’s report.
The Prime Minister, I know, understands the frustration of those most at risk when they see a report like that and they know action is needed. Action is needed now, not in a few weeks or months, so can I ask for the Prime Minister’s complete—[Interruption.] Well, perhaps the Prime Minister will indicate whether that is all the action or whether there is more action. This is a serious issue, and we can make progress together, but it is important that it is done swiftly for those most at risk.
I want to turn to the overall numbers of those who have tragically died from covid-19, because those overall numbers haunt us. Since the last Prime Minister’s questions, the Government’s daily total figure for those who have died from coronavirus has gone past 40,000. The Office for National Statistics figure, which records cases where coronavirus is on the death certificate, stands at just over 50,000. The number of excess deaths, which is an awful phrase, stands at over 63,000. Those are among the highest numbers anywhere in the world. Last week the Prime Minister said he was proud of the Government’s record, but there is no pride in those figures, is there?
Let me just say that on the death figures for this country, we mourn every one; we grieve for their relatives and their friends. But I must also tell the right hon. and learned Gentleman—he has raised this point repeatedly across the Dispatch Box—that the best scientific evidence and advice is that we must wait until the epidemic has been through its whole cycle in order to draw the relevant international comparisons. I simply must repeat that point to him.
As for what this country did to fight the epidemic, I must say I strongly disagree with the way he characterised it. I think it was an astonishing achievement of the NHS to build the Nightingale hospitals. I think it was an astonishing thing that this country came together to drive down the curve—to follow the social distancing rules, in spite of all the doubt that was cast on the advice, to follow those rules, to get the number of deaths down, to get the epidemic under control in the way that we have. This Government announced a plan, on 11 May, to get our country back on to its feet, and that is what we are going to do. We have a plan, we are following it and we are going to stick to it.
It just does not wash to say that we can’t compare these figures with other countries. Everybody can see those figures and see the disparity, and we need to learn from those other countries—what did they do more quickly than us, what did they do differently? We can learn those lessons and ensure that the numbers come down. It is little solace to the families that have lost someone to simply be told, “It is too early to compare, and to learn from other countries.” And of course there will be long-term consequences of the Government’s approach.
I want to turn now to another aspect of Government policy, and that is school reopening. We all want as many children back into school as soon as it is possible and as soon as it is safe. What was required for that to happen was a robust national plan, consensus among all key stakeholders and strong leadership from the top. All three are missing. The current arrangements lie in tatters; parents have lost confidence in the Government’s approach. Millions of children will miss six months’ worth of schooling and inequality will now go up.
Several weeks ago, I suggested to the Prime Minister that we set up a national taskforce, so that everybody could put their shoulder to the wheel. It is not too late. Will the Prime Minister take me up on that?
As I told the House before, I have been in contact with the right hon. and learned Gentleman by a modern device called the telephone, on which we have tried to agree a way forward, which he then seemed to deviate from later on. Last week—[Interruption.] Last week he was telling the House that it was not yet safe for kids to go back to school; this week he is saying that not enough kids are going back to school. I really think he needs to make up his mind.
Since he is so fond of these international comparisons, he should know that there are some countries in the EU—in Europe—where no primary school kids are going back to school, I think. We are being extremely cautious in our approach; we are following the plan that we set out, and I think that the people of this country will want to follow it. All the evidence—97% of the schools that have submitted data are now seeing kids come back to school. I think what we would like to hear from the right hon. and learned Gentleman is a bit of support for that, and a bit of encouragement to pupils, and perhaps even encouragement to some of his friends in the left-wing trade unions, to help get our schools ready.
Let us just have this out. The Prime Minister and I have never discussed our letter in any phone call; he knows it, and I know it. The taskforce has never been the subject of a conversation between him and me, one-to-one or in any other circumstance on the telephone; he knows it, so please drop that.
Secondly—he mentions other countries—plenty of other comparable countries are getting their children back to school. Wales is an example; across Europe there are other examples. We are the outlier on this. And it is no good the Prime Minister flailing around, trying to blame others. [Interruption.]
I was saying it is no good the Prime Minister flailing around, trying to blame others. A month ago today—a month ago today—he made the announcement about schools, without consulting relevant parties, without warning about the dates and without any scientific backing for his proposals. It is time he took responsibility for his own failures. This mess was completely avoidable. The consequences are stark. The Children’s Commissioner has warned of
“a deepening education disadvantage gap”
And she spoke yesterday of, “an emerging picture, which doesn’t give confidence that there’s a strategic plan.”. She called for the Government to scale up their response and said, “It must have occurred to the Government that space would be a problem; that there would be a need for temporary accommodation and classrooms.” The Government built the Nightingale hospitals; why are they only starting on schools now?
The right hon. and learned Gentleman still cannot work out whether he is saying that schools are not safe enough or that we should be going back more quickly. He cannot have it both ways. It is one brief on one day and another brief on the next. I understand how the legal profession works, but what the public want to have is some consistency. I hope he will agree that it is a good thing that 37% of kids in year 6 in our primary schools are now coming back, and that is increasing the whole time. I think the message that teachers want to hear across the country is that all parliamentarians in this House of Commons support the return of kids to school and, furthermore, that they are encouraging kids to come back to school because it is safe. Will he now say that?
I want as many children to go back to school as possible, as soon as possible, as quickly as possible—when it is safe. I have been saying that like a broken record for weeks on end. I know that the Prime Minister has rehearsed attack lines, but he should look at what I said in the letter and what I have been saying consistently.
One way in which the Government could help those worst affected would be to extend the national voucher scheme. Because child poverty numbers are so high in this country, 1.3 million children in low-income families rely on those vouchers. They mean that children who cannot go to school because of coronavirus restrictions still get free meals. The Labour Government in Wales have said that they will continue to fund those meals through the summer. Yesterday, the Education Secretary said that will not be the case in England. That is just wrong, and it will lead to further inequality, so may I urge the Prime Minister to reconsider on that point?
Of course, we do not normally continue with free school meals over the summer holidays, and I am sure that is right, but we are aware of the particular difficulties faced by vulnerable families. That is why we are announcing a further £63 million of local welfare assistance to be used by local authorities at their discretion to help the most vulnerable families. This Government have put their arms around the people of this country throughout this crisis and done their absolute best to help—[Interruption.] I may say that this is not helped by the wobbling and tergiversation of the Labour party and the right hon. and learned Gentleman. Last week he said that it is not safe; this week he says we are not going fast enough. We protected the NHS, we provided huge numbers of ventilated beds and we are now getting the disease under control, but we will do it in a cautious and contingent way.
Today I will be announcing further measures to open up and unlock our society, but only because of the huge efforts and sacrifice that this country has made. We are sticking to our plan of 11 May. It is a plan that is working and will continue to work, with or without the assistance of the right hon. and learned Gentleman.
Yes, and I thank my hon. Friend; he is absolutely right. We will be funding the Advanced Research Projects Agency to the tune of £800 million, and it will be tasked with supporting really revolutionary breakthroughs in this country. It is the UK—from the splitting of the atom to the jet engine to the internet—that has led the world in scientific research, and under this Government we intend to continue.
May I associate myself with the remarks of the Prime Minister on Grenfell, and on the birthdays of both the Duke of Edinburgh and yourself, Mr Speaker?
The Prime Minister told the Liaison Committee:
“I do not actually read the scientific papers”.
It is no wonder, then, that it took the UK so long to act on quarantine measures. The Prime Minister’s scientific advisory group was not even asked for advice on this significant policy. This has been a complete shambles: too little, too late. We cannot risk ignoring the experts once again. Can the Prime Minister confirm what scientific papers he has read on the 2 metre social distancing rule?
I must say that I disagree with the right hon. Gentleman. I have read a huge amount about a disease that affects our entire nation. I have actually read many papers on the social distancing rule, and it is a very interesting point. Members across the House of Commons will want to understand that I believe that those measures—the 2 metre rule—need now to be kept under review. As we drive this disease down and get the incidence down, working together, I want to make sure that we keep the 2 metre rule under constant review, because, as I think the right hon. Gentleman indicates, there is all sorts of scientific advice about that particular matter.
Of course, we know that the Cabinet has discussed reducing the 2 metre social distancing rule, but that is not the experts’ advice right now. SAGE reported that being exposed to the virus for six seconds at 1 metre is the same as being exposed for one minute at 2 metres. That is a significant increase in risk. The last time that Professor Whitty was allowed to attend the daily press briefing, he stressed that the 2 metre rule was going to be necessary for as long as the pandemic continues.
People are losing confidence in this Government: a U-turn on schools; a shambolic roll-out of quarantine measures; and now looking to reduce the 2 metre rule far too soon. Will the Prime Minister continue to ignore the experts, or will he start following the advice of those who have actually read the scientific papers?
Actually, the people of this country are overwhelmingly following the guidance that the Government give. Tomorrow the House will be hearing a bit more about what has happened with NHS Test and Trace, and they will find that there is an extraordinary degree of natural compliance and understanding by the British people.
In spite of all the obscurantism and myth making that we have heard from the Opposition parties, I can tell the right hon. Gentleman that there are all sorts of views about the 2 metre rule. He is absolutely correct in what he says about the SAGE advice, but, clearly, as the incidence of the disease comes down—I think members of SAGE would confirm this—the statistical likelihood of being infected, no matter how close or far people are from somebody who may or may not have coronavirus, goes down.
My hon. Friend is absolutely right. We want to reopen hospitality as quickly as we possibly can. The House will remember that, according to the road map, we were going to open outdoor hospitality no earlier than 4 July. That is still our plan, and we are sticking to it. Guidance is now being developed for such hospitality. What we do not want to see is a roiling, Bacchanalian mass of people who can spread the disease, so it is very important that people understand the continuing risks that this country faces.
The Prime Minister will be aware that the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland has today published the guidelines for the special payment scheme for severely injured victims linked to the troubles in Northern Ireland. The Prime Minister will also know that this House passed legislation that excludes those injured by their own hand. But the innocent victims have not yet been able to benefit from this scheme, not least because of the actions of Sinn Féin, who are blocking the next steps to implementation. Will the Prime Minister and his Government now commit to doing all they can to move this matter forward so that our most vulnerable of innocent victims can receive this pension?
Yes indeed. I think the scheme provides a fair, balanced and proportionate way of helping all those who have suffered most during the troubles. It is very important that Sinn Féin, along with all other parties, allow the scheme to go forward as soon as possible.
I thank my right hon. Friend. I completely agree with the need for all political leaders to promote these issues—to recognise how important they are in people’s hearts. I am very proud of what I did as Mayor to encourage the promotion of young BAME officers in our Metropolitan police; we had a system to move them up. I want to see that kind of activity across the government of this country. It is the right way forward for the UK.
I renew what I have said many times; it is important for the House to hear it again. Yes, black lives matter, and yes, the death of George Floyd was absolutely appalling. As for the qualities of Mr Trump, let me say that, among many other things, he is President of the United States, which is our most important ally in the world today. Whatever people may say about it—whatever those on the left may say about it—the United States is a bastion of peace and freedom and has been for most of my lifetime.
It is very important that stop-and-search is carried out sensitively in accordance with the law. The fact that we now have body-worn cameras has made a great difference to the way it happens. I must say that section 60 powers can be very important in fighting violent crime. I am afraid that what has been happening in London with knife crime has been completely unacceptable, and I do believe that stop-and-search, among many other things, can be a very important utensil for fighting knife crime. It does work. It worked for us when I was running London and it must work now. I am not saying it is the whole answer—the right hon. Gentleman is right; it is not the whole answer—but it is part of the mix.
What I can say is that we will unite and level up with infrastructure projects across our country. I congratulate my hon. Friend on his lobbying for that particular scheme and can tell him that last year we put £31 million into the Preston western distributor scheme, which is a new dual carriageway that will reduce congestion in Preston and lead directly to the creation of 3,000 houses and more than 500 jobs. As for further expansion of the M55, my hon. Friend will have to wait, but there will be further announcements in due course.
Yes, of course, statutory sick pay is an important part of the way we tackle the problems of self-isolation and all the issues faced by people facing coronavirus, but people also receive additional funds. Anybody looking impartially at what we are doing to support the people of this country throughout this epidemic will concede that the UK has done more than virtually any other country on earth to look after the people of this country, whether through the furloughing scheme, the bounce-back loans or anything else. Having listened to the hon. Gentleman, I should say I have also pledged that we are going to put in gigabit broadband across the whole of the UK, so that he can be heard more clearly in future.
Yes, which is why I am encouraged by NHS Test and Trace and the progress that it is making. With the help of the joint biosecurity centre, we are now able to identify hotspots, to do whack-a-mole and to stamp out outbreaks of the epidemic where they occur.
Not only will we protect animal welfare standards but, on leaving the EU, as we have, we will be able to increase our animal welfare standards. We will be able to ban the treatment of farrowing sows that is currently legal in the EU, and we will be able to ban the shipment of live animals, which currently we cannot ban in the UK. We will be able to go further and better, and I hope that the hon. Gentleman supports that. By the way, I also hope that he will tell all his friends in the—SNP, is it?—SNP that that is one of the reasons why their plan to take Scotland back into the EU would be completely contrary to the instincts of the British people.
Because I think the British public, with their overwhelming common sense, have ignored some of the propaganda that we have been hearing from the Opposition about our advice. They have ignored the negativity and the attempts to confuse and they are overwhelmingly following advice, and indeed, they are complying with NHS Test and Trace—which is the way forward—which will enable us to defeat this virus both locally and nationally.
Pre-covid, the Prime Minister made a firm commitment to reaching out to some of the most deprived areas and levelling up the country. This is needed now more than ever. Will he make a firm commitment—and re-commit—to Whitmore Reans, Chapel Ash, Penn Fields and the rest of Wolverhampton, so that they will not just survive but thrive?
Yes, I certainly will. I congratulate my hon. Friend on the way he represents Wolverhampton and the many campaigns he fights for that great city. I can tell him just for starters that Wolverhampton will benefit from around £217 million of the growth deal funding across the Black Country, which aims to create 5,000 jobs, 1,400 new homes and £310 million in public and private investment—just for starters.
The hon. Lady is absolutely right. This country is going through a very difficult crisis—a public health crisis, an economic crisis—and of course, it has put many families to great hardship. I think the Government have done a huge amount to look after families across the country. We have, as she knows, put £3.2 billion more into local government. I announced earlier today—just now—that we are also putting another £63 million into extra welfare support for particularly disadvantaged families to help with meals throughout the summer period. She is entirely right. We face a huge economic problem. That is why we need to get moving, get this country going forward together, and work as parliamentarians and politicians to communicate to the public jointly what we are doing.