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Public Health

Volume 681: debated on Tuesday 6 October 2020

I beg to move,

That the Health Protection (Coronavirus, Restrictions) (No. 2) (England) (Amendment) (No. 4) Regulations 2020 (S.I., 2020, No. 986), dated 13 September 2020, a copy of which was laid before this House on 14 September, be approved.

I will start with a short summary of the social distancing regulations, as context for this debate. The Health Protection (Coronavirus, Restrictions) (England) Regulations 2020—the major lockdown regulations—were introduced on March 26. Those regulations outlined restrictions on gathering and required a number of businesses to close. The regulations were amended four times as we opened up the economy and allowed for technical clarifications. They were then revoked and replaced by the Health Protection (Coronavirus, Restrictions) (No. 2) (England) Regulations 2020. Those regulations had been amended three times prior to 13 September to allow more businesses to reopen, as the transmission of the virus was falling or stabilising. Unfortunately, as winter approaches, the picture has changed and we now need to introduce tighter restrictions to control the virus, protect the NHS and save lives.

The regulations were obviously made and brought into force ahead of the commitment that the Secretary of State made to the House last week. Given that the regulations that we are debating today cover the whole of England and are obviously of very great significance, will the Minister confirm that regulations of this nature would in future be covered by the Secretary of State’s commitment and would be brought to the House for debate and decision before they came into force? Would that also apply to, for example, the self-isolation regulations, which have not yet been debated by the House and which are also significant? I want to ensure that we are following through on the commitments that the Government made last week, and that the House will be able to debate measures that cover the whole country and are of great significance.

I thank my right hon. Friend for his point. Indeed, the Secretary of State has made a commitment that in the case of future changes to restrictions that would have national effect, we will do our very best to bring them to the House to a vote, although obviously we have to bear in mind that there are circumstances in which we need to act very quickly, because, as we have seen, things can move very quickly with the infection rate and the consequences of the pandemic.

The regulations that we are debating today amend the Health Protection (Coronavirus, Restrictions) (No. 2) (England) Regulations 2020 so that people may not participate in social gatherings in groups of more than six unless they are members of the same household or support bubble, or exemptions apply. The regulations were made under the emergency procedure in order to respond quickly to the serious and imminent threat to public health posed by coronavirus.

I think the Minister knows what I am going to ask. I asked it last Monday in the general debate and her colleague, the Under-Secretary of State for Health and Social Care, my hon. Friend the Member for Bury St Edmunds (Jo Churchill), chose not to respond in the wind-up, so I will ask it again: what is the rationale for including children under the age of those who have to wear masks in the rule of six? I am asking not about the fact that it is happening, but about the rationale.

If my hon. Friend allows me to make a little progress, I will pick up that point during the course of what I will say.

I appreciate that these national regulations have caused real disruption to people’s lives, placing restrictions on who people can see and what they can do. However, the evidence indicated that the covid-19 infection rate was rising across the country. It was therefore vital that the Government took decisive action to limit and slow the spread, to protect public health and to reduce the likelihood of a further national lockdown of the type that was necessary earlier this year.

Madam Deputy Speaker, I am aware that you, Mr Speaker and a number of Members have raised concerns about parliamentary scrutiny. As the Secretary of State for Health and Social Care outlined to the House last week, for significant national measures with an effect on the whole of England or UK-wide, the Government will consult the House of Commons whenever possible and hold votes before such regulations come into force.

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for indulging me a second time. The point of our arguing for that was insisting that Ministers had to set out their arguments and the evidence. I understand that one of the key ways of transmitting the virus is social contact, and that as the regulations have been in force for three weeks, they would lapse if this House did not debate and vote on them in the next four days, but what evidence is there that the measures are actually having an effect on reducing the rise in cases of the virus? Having looked at the data, I do not see any evidence that they are having any practical effect. We want to see action—yes—but we want the right action to be taken which will have the effect that we all wish to see.

I will answer my right hon. Friend’s question in a moment, if he lets me continue.

As the Health Secretary set out in his statement to the House on 1 October, this virus spreads through social contact, so we are having to take difficult decisions to suppress the virus while allowing people to socialise safely. The regulations we are debating today brought previous guidance into law while tightening and simplifying it. The rule of six means that people can now gather only in groups of six both indoors and outdoors. There are exceptions to that rule for households or support bubbles that are larger than six, as well as for areas including work, schools, weddings and organised sports activities.

The regulations also gave the police the powers to enforce those legal limits, including issuing fines of £100, doubling for further breaches up to a maximum of £3,200. The vast majority of the general public will do the right things and follow the rules, but to protect public health, it is important that the police have appropriate powers to deal with those who flout the rules. As the Prime Minister announced, these measures were not a second national lockdown but were aimed at preventing the need for one.

I would not want to say anything incorrect at the Dispatch Box, so let me make sure that I get back to my right hon. Friend with a detailed answer to that question.

After a period of reducing or stabilising the transmission of the virus, we have been seeing daily case numbers rise rapidly across most parts of the country. That is why the Government’s chief medical officer and chief scientific adviser jointly agreed the changes that we announced. We know from the science of what has sadly happened in other countries that are experiencing a second wave that an increase in infections will lead to increases in hospitalisations and deaths until we take action.

In introducing the changes, we noted that clear and easily understood information about the virus and how it spreads was likely to increase adherence to public health advice. Although the majority of people report that they understand social distancing rules, feedback from the public and Members of this House indicates that people would value simpler messaging. That is why we have moved to the rule of six—one number for all settings—and have tightened the regulations so that they exactly reflect the guidance rather than there being one set of numbers in the guidance and another set of numbers in the legal framework. The rules were simplified and strengthened, so that they were easier to understand and so that the police could identify and disperse illegal gatherings.

We have acted to get the virus under control and, in doing that, we want in due course to be able to make changes and, clearly, to be able to lift the restrictions. My hon. Friend the Member for Winchester (Steve Brine) asked specifically about children. The position on this is, as I have said, the need for a clear steer. We needed the guidance to be simple and absolutely clear to everybody. We wanted, on the one hand, to enable a level of socialising for the sake of people’s quality of life, while on the other hand to take steps to control the virus. That is why we took the position that the rule of six achieved that balance. I appreciate that colleagues would like a different position to have been taken, but that is the position based on the—

At that specific moment, I was doing my very best to answer the point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Winchester. I think I should make some progress, but I am happy, of course, to come back to this point if colleagues feel that they have not had all the answers that they need.

As I was asked about this a moment ago, I wish to move on to the impact of these measures. I note that they have been in place for only just over three weeks. We know that, because of the incubation period of the virus, it takes at least a couple of weeks for us to see the measures take effect. When social distancing measures were first introduced, we saw high understanding, high awareness and lots of concern about covid and high adherence to the rules. What we have seen over time, with an easing of restrictions and perhaps lower levels of public concern, is that people’s social contacts have increased. Since the introduction of this rule, levels of socialising have begun to decrease again, including specifically socialising in larger gatherings—we know that, sometimes, larger gatherings have been a factor in some outbreaks. Clearly, we are keeping a close eye on infection rates and absolute case numbers across the country.

I will now briefly talk through some further changes that have come into effect since the regulations were made.

I am grateful to the Minister for what she has said. What she seemed to be saying was that it is too soon to tell. It is very clear from the test and trace data that the primary location for infection is in people’s households and among visitors to households. Clearly, the rule of six may have an impact on visitors to households. May I ask her to make sure that the Government publish the data as they track it out each week?

The Minister also talked about compliance. The Government keep referring to how well people are complying with regulations—or not. They do not publish any data on that. Will the Government publish the compliance data to which they have access, so that we can all see the extent to which people are complying with the rules? There is no point making rules if no one is following them. That is an important matter for this House to be aware of when it is assenting to them.

My right hon. Friend makes two important points. He will be aware that the Government are publishing a large amount of data and seeking to be as transparent as possible with colleagues and, clearly, with the public, and we will continue to publish what we can. I will take away his specific requests for even further publication.

I am very grateful to the Minister for giving way. We are three weeks in and we know that a different model is being applied in Scotland. At what point would she expect to be able to form a judgment as to whether the Scottish approach, excluding young children from the rule of six, is less effective, as effective, or more effective than that in England?

I have a personal perspective, as I have a household of five and am therefore well aware that the rule of six can make socialising quite difficult for families. For instance, my own family now cannot get together either with both my parents or with my husband’s parents. I very much appreciate the difficulty of this restriction, although the majority of households are slightly smaller and are not finding it as difficult as my own or other larger households. We are keeping this and all measures under review. The Government clearly do not want to introduce restrictions if we do not need to do so. What is crucial is that restrictions are effective, so we are looking at all the evidence, including where and how the virus is being transmitted—whether that is in households, in people’s own homes, through meeting up with other households or in hospitality settings—and we will continue to do so. But in answer to my hon. Friend’s question, I cannot give a date or a specific “This will be the moment at which it would happen.”

I feel I have taken quite a number of interventions, so it is time I moved on, if that is all right.

Let me talk through some further changes that have come into effect since the regulations were made. On 21 September, following the advice of the four chief medical officers, the UK’s covid alert level was raised from 3 to 4, which is the second most serious stage, meaning that transmission is high or rising exponentially. The Prime Minister outlined to Parliament on 22 September that we were at a “perilous turning point”, and needed to act to save lives, protect the NHS and the most vulnerable, and shelter the economy from far sterner and more costly measures that would inevitably become necessary.

As a result, further restrictions came into effect from 24 September. These included rules on the closure of certain businesses selling food or drink between 10 pm and 5 am; measures to require hospitality venues to provide food and drink for consumption on the premises by table service only; the doubling of initial fines for individual breaches of the above measures; and new fines for businesses that do not adhere to the new requirements, starting at £1,000, up to a maximum of £10,000 for repeated breaches. The rules also change the exemptions to the six-person gathering limit to restrict attendance at wedding ceremonies, receptions and support groups to 15, and remove the exemption for stand-alone religious or belief-based life-cycle ceremonies and adult indoor sports apart from indoor disabled sports. We are working through the normal channels to schedule debates for these regulations as soon as possible.

I recognise that people have had to make significant sacrifices to suppress the first wave, and these restrictions are not measures that any Government would want to introduce, but the threat of the virus very much remains. With winter approaching, we must do whatever it takes to keep it under control and protect the NHS so that it can, in turn, look after us.

I am sorry, but I was closing my speech, not taking an intervention. That was the end of my speech. [Interruption.]

Order. The Minister has completed her speech. She is due to come back at the end of the debate, although Members who wish to speak must bear that in mind if they wish her to speak again, because this is just a 90-minute debate.

I thank the Minister for her introduction.

With 1 million people worldwide and over 42,000 people in the UK having now lost their lives to covid-19, the virus is still very much with us and the threat is clear. On Friday, the Government’s scientific and medical advisers reported that the R number in the UK could be as high as 1.6, and that it was highly likely that the virus was still growing exponentially. The spread of the disease is thought to be growing between 5% and 9% each day. There were another 12,500 new cases yesterday, and that is before we see the consequences of those missing cases, where contacts have not been identified and asked to isolate.

Just about every piece of data indicates that we are heading in the wrong direction, which is why new restrictions are required, but, three weeks into them, should we not be beginning to see a sign of progress?

More than 16 million people across the country are living under additional local restrictions, and we have further national measures, such as the 10 pm curfew, which we are not debating today, yet the progress of the virus continues unabated. Indeed, Members whose constituencies are directly affected will know that some of the heaviest increases in infection appear to be taking place in areas where additional restrictions are already in place. Today’s debate is important as it gives Members the opportunity to question how effective these interventions are, whether we need to go further, and what these regulations might mean for their constituents.

Before I turn to the regulations, I remind the House that Labour has been clear from the outset that we will do whatever we can to support the national effort by supporting whatever reasonable steps are necessary to protect the NHS and save lives. That does not mean, though, that we are giving the Government a free pass. We have been concerned by the months of mixed messages and confused communication from the Government. We welcome the intention behind the rule of six. It is a simple, easily understood message, although anyone who has read the 10 pages of regulations, the plethora of exceptions and the many laws that they amend will realise that the simple message has not survived the process of drafting the regulations.

Given that the Minister has pleaded simplicity for the rule of six, is it any less simple that the six should exclude children than that it should include them, or do we imagine that our constituents are stupid?

I certainly do not think my constituents are stupid, and I hope that the right hon. Gentleman does not either. A very important point has already been made about children, and I will return to that later. We have not yet had a convincing explanation why they are included in the six.

Even with the best of intentions, concerns and questions remain, not least about the way in which these regulations were introduced, how effective they are, how the Government communicated them and how they will be enforced. The timeline of these regulations is the perfect demonstration of the lack of transparency, strategy and accountability, which has been the hallmark of this Government. Following media briefings the night before, the Prime Minister made an announcement about the rule of six on 9 September, but not to this place, as it should have been, even though he was in the House that day to answer Prime Minister’s questions. I call that a discourtesy to this place, and I hope we see an end to it. It shows not only a lack of respect to all Members and our constituents, but a lack of confidence in what is being proposed and a lack of commitment to scrutiny. Most of all, the way that these regulations were introduced shows a lack of thought about the practicalities of enforcing them.

How can we expect anyone to adhere to the minutiae of these regulations if they appear for the first time only a quarter of an hour before they become law—at quarter to midnight on a Sunday evening? How were the police meant to enforce that? Are they supposed to google the regulations as they walk around on their beat? Brian Booth, the chair of the West Yorkshire Police Federation, said:

“Everybody is in the dark, it shouldn’t be like that…If the government says they’re going to infringe on people’s lives, they have to tell them how.”

Once again, there is no impact assessment for these regulations. Surely some thought was given to the practicalities, so what discussions did the Minister have with her counterparts in the Home Office and with police forces around the country prior to the introduction of the regulations?

The way that regulations are introduced matters. They are too important not to be debated and given full and timely parliamentary scrutiny before they become law. Since March, more than 70 health protection statutory instruments have been introduced in this way, with no debate and no vote before they come into force. We recognise that, in the early stages, there was a need to act quickly under the emergency procedures, and we acknowledge that that may still be the case at times, but more and more of the regulations that are being introduced do not meet the test of urgency. The Government have slipped into bad habits. They treat this place as an afterthought—an inconvenience, an optional extra—and not as the cornerstone of the democratic process that it should be. Surely they can do better than that. Do they not realise that scrutiny, debate and challenge in the making of our laws mean that, in the long run, laws are more robust, more effective and have greater public acceptance?

I repeat once again and for the record our offer to meet at short notice to debate and vote on regulations before they become law. I appreciate that that might be inconvenient for some, but, to be frank, we are in a pandemic so a bit of inconvenience should be the least that we have to put up with to ensure that democracy still functions.

On that point, can the hon. Gentleman tell the House of the present state of negotiations with the official Opposition about a debate on the 10 o’clock curfew? The suggestion was that there would be a debate tomorrow on the curfew, but it is not going to be about that—it is going to be about what is happening in the north. Can the hon. Gentleman tell the House what progress there has been?

Regrettably, I am not one of the business managers of the House, so I cannot advise on that, although I expect that we will have an answer during the business statement on Thursday. I note what Members have said about national regulations being debated on the Floor of the House before they become law, if possible—obviously, that will still be after the event, but we really need to start doing a lot better in that area.

There is rightly a concern across the House and among the population that we do not have control of the virus. A central part of regaining control is ensuring that there is robust scrutiny of the regulations and their effectiveness. The Government need to stop reacting to situations too late—that is how the virus has run out of control. They need to look ahead, plan, prepare and act now to get a grip on test and trace, to have a clear and consistent message on what the public need to do and to ensure that there is widespread compliance with the rules. The latter two go hand in hand and are very much connected to the regulations that we are debating today.

As we heard from the Minister, the regulations amend the Health Protection (Coronavirus, Restrictions) (No. 2) (England) Regulations for the fourth time. The regulations restrict social gatherings to six people, unless an exemption applies. We have heard a little about some of those exemptions, so I will not list them all, but they are where the good intentions behind the regulations depart from the clear and consistent messaging that we need. For example, there is an exemption in the regulations for gatherings of up to 30 persons for a marriage or civil partnership; as Members will already be aware, that has been reduced to 15. Yet again, as with a host of other restrictions, we are debating regulations that are, in part at least, out of date.

The wedding industry has been decimated this year; I do not know what repeatedly inviting and uninviting people to a wedding does for family relations—maybe people could ask everyone to wear tweed to the wedding and combine it with a grouse shoot so that they could keep numbers at 30. However, this is a health debate, so I will focus on the health aspects. To that end, I would like the Minister to spell out very clearly the rationale for this decision. The limit of 30 at a wedding lasted for just two weeks before it was reduced to 15. Either a specific piece of evidence emerged during that fortnight that required the limit to be reduced for weddings but not for funerals, or the limit should never have been 30 in the first place. Which one is it?

The regulations also provide that the restrictions in private dwellings in the regional lockdown regulations remain in place; it is notable that the rules for the rule of six vary across the devolved nations, as we have already heard. Far from us having an easy-to-remember set of rules that apply to everyone, it seems that the rule of six is the baseline for around only half the UK.

In Wales, as we have heard, primary-age children are not counted in the six. The Welsh Assembly took that decision on the basis of the evidence that it has, which shows that children are far less likely to have the most serious symptoms and are less likely to pass on the virus. The question, which has already been put today, is about how the Government have come to a different conclusion on that point. Why are younger children included in the rule of six in England, but not in Wales—or in Scotland, for that matter?

Should I infer from the hon. Gentleman’s points that the Labour party would like children to be excluded from the rule of six? I think that is what he is saying. Obviously, this motion today is unamendable. Is he joining some of us on the Conservative side of the House in saying to the Government that we would like them to come back with a further statutory instrument to amend the regulations, so that children are excluded if they are of primary school age?

What I am saying is that I would like to see the evidence. I would like to know what the difference is between this country and Wales and Scotland. The Children’s Commissioner, for one, would also like an answer. If we get the answer, we can take a position on it.

The question was asked and the answer was that it was for simplicity. It was not a question of evidence: the answer was that it was simpler to include children. Given that there is no evidence, will the hon. Gentleman reassess his answer to my hon. Friend the Member for Wycombe (Mr Baker)?

That is probably overstating things. Certainly, it is not what has been said in the other place about the reasons why children were included. We do need some more clarity from the Government on that.

In terms of clarity, we also need more data and evidence from the Minister about what is happening to reduce the transmission of the virus. We need her to commit to publishing evidence behind all these decisions. If there is no evidence, then so be it, but we need to see the basis on which decisions are being made. I was a little unsure whether she was saying that it was too early, or not, to establish the effectiveness of these regulations. She said at one point that it would take a couple of weeks to see whether the regulations are being effective, but of course we are already past that point. I hope that we can see some clarity on that.

I would be grateful if we could hear a bit more about why it is a rule of six, not seven, eight or five, for example. That is very important, because we are putting significant restrictions on people and those cannot be based on an arbitrary number. I raise this not because we want to pick holes in what the Government are saying but because the Transport Secretary, when asked why it was six, said there was no particular reason for that figure. Can anyone imagine a police officer going to hand out a fine to a group of seven people and, when asked why seven was an offence and six was not, saying, “Well, there’s no particular reason for that.”?

Could I suggest 10, and then we can count them on our fingers? That would be simple enough, wouldn’t it?

I thank the right hon. Gentleman for his intervention. I hope that the Government’s thought processes are rather more complex than that, but, again, we need to see what has actually been said in that respect.

When we debated the first lockdown regulations, I stated that as regulations changed, it was vital that the rules remain clear and consistent. That consistency not only carries across advice but carries across laws and all forms of official communication. It is very clear that that has not happened in this case. As we know, the Prime Minister and other Ministers have made contradictory statements and have been unable to answer simple questions regarding the new regulations in the media. As the Leader of the Opposition said, if the people responsible for making the rules do not understand them, how can we expect the rest of the country to understand and follow the rules?

I wonder whether the hon. Gentleman can help me out. I am looking at the provision on linked households, which is introduced on page 6. I have looked at the explanatory memorandum and I cannot find the explanation of what linked households means. Is he able to clearly explain, for the benefit of the nation, what this linked households provision is all about?

If we are going into pub quiz territory, then perhaps we can have a pint later on. I am afraid that we probably do not have time to go into that, because I know that a number of other Members wish to speak.

Compliance is a very important matter. The vast majority of people do comply with the rule of six, but where they have not, they will obviously get a fixed penalty notice, and we need to understand how realistic it is that that will be enforced. John Apter, the chair of the Police Federation, has called for the Government to start an effective information campaign. He said:

“For policing, these constant changes to legislation are becoming the norm. The pressures on policing have increased significantly over recent months, and this latest change will add to this pressure.”

Brian Booth, who I quoted earlier, said that officers

“simply can’t enforce”

the new restrictions, adding:

“We just don’t have the resources, the world has woken up again and it’s busy… Resources are outstripped with that demand, never mind adding on Mrs Miggins reporting that seven people are having a barbecue next door.”

I am not aware of any official figures for the total number of fines that have been issued for breaching the rule of six, or indeed whether Mrs Miggins has had a fine, but it is notable that three weeks down the line, it is reported that many police forces, including North Yorkshire police, who handed out the greatest number of fines in the original lockdown, had not issued any fines for breaches of these regulations.

Will the Minister update us on the number of fines that have actually been issued? The police have had an incredibly difficult job in this crisis, and we know the very real pressures on them due to the reductions in their numbers over the past decade. They simply cannot continue to be handed responsibilities if those responsibilities are not accompanied by sufficient resources to enable them to do their job. With the number of enforceable restrictions increasing, will the Minister set out what additional resources will be handed to the police to ensure compliance? On that point, we know that Halloween is coming up very soon. It is always a busy night for the police, but this year they will have the added burden of breaking up groups of children if they become too big. Given that those children have probably spent all day with the very same kids at school in groups far larger than six, I say good luck to the officer who tries to explain to them why their parents will get a fine for it. I would be grateful if the Minister could confirm that that is what is going to happen.

There will need to be a very clear public messaging campaign, or will there be an exception? After all, the Prime Minister hinted that the rule of six could be dropped for Christmas day. Of course everyone would like to see that, but how on earth is saying that on a particular day the rule of six will not apply at all consistent with the clear public health message that the rule of six is meant to be?

Will the Minister also clarify what the rule is in relation to mingling? Apparently, a person can be fined for mingling with an existing group of six, but there is no definition within the regulations of what constitutes a mingle. The debate would be absurd if the consequences were not so serious.

In respect of police powers, the right hon. Member for New Forest West (Sir Desmond Swayne) asked the Minister whether the police can go into people’s properties to enforce the law. My understanding is that they cannot. I do not know whether the Minister expects the police to stand outside people’s properties until six people come out and then take appropriate action.

On fines, will the Minister clarify whether there was an oversight in the regulations relating to who has committed an offence under them? I ask that because the regulations require event organisers to carry out a risk assessment in order to comply with the regulations, but there does not appear to be any penalty for them if they fail to do so. It seems that the fine in that situation would apply to the people attending the event. How can it be right that a person attending an event in good faith is liable only because the organiser has not done their job? I appreciate that subsequent regulations came into place a few days later, on 18 September, requiring hospitality venues to enforce the rule of six or face a fine of up to £4,000, but again, I do not believe that that applies to outdoor events. Can the Minister clarify whether that is the case? Are there any plans to introduce a penalty for the organisers of outdoor events who fail to comply with the regulations?

I am conscious that a number of people wish to speak, so I will conclude by confirming, as we have done on many occasions, that we want the Government to succeed in fighting the virus. However, let me be clear that the rise in infections we are seeing was not inevitable and the restrictions we are debating today were not inevitable. The Government cannot continue lurching from crisis to crisis. To take people with us, we need to see more transparency, the evidence behind the restrictions that are being introduced and better communication. We need new laws to be introduced after the democratic process has been completed.

How can we find ourselves, eight months into this pandemic, with confidence in the Government’s response draining away, rather than growing? How can we have one of the worst death rates in the world? How can we have a test and trace system so obviously failing to deliver the basics? The regulations might not have been necessary if the Government had fixed test and trace when the sun was shining. They wasted the summer. Let us hope that the price for that is not a very bitter winter.

There are eight people on the call list, and I will get everyone in if it kills me. To do so, I am introducing a rule of six. It is not an arbitrary figure; I have divided the time left by how many people want to speak. The rule of six could become the rule of five or the rule of four if there are a lot of interventions.

The logic of what the hon. Member for Ellesmere Port and Neston (Justin Madders) has just been saying is that the Opposition should be opposing the regulations and calling upon the Government to come back with a fresh set of regulations that overcome the shortcomings he has so articulately identified. I, for my part, certainly hope we will have an opportunity to test the will of the House on the regulations, because this is the first freedom we have been given on such regulations for months. I hope we can then get the Government to go back to the drawing board and come forward with regulations that are consistent with their other policies elsewhere in the country.

These are complex regulations. Big Brother Watch has quoted human rights barrister Adam Wagner, who said that these are

“the most complex and convoluted set of lockdown regulations on England yet.”

That is hardly simple regulation, is it? We know that the Home Secretary herself was caught out and unable to give a convincing answer to the question of what was defined as mingling.

In the time available, I am going to say that I agree absolutely with the criticisms that have been made about the definition of families and young people, but I want to concentrate on another big anomaly in these regulations, which is that they apply equally to gatherings inside and outside. Why do they do that, because that is completely inconsistent with the Government’s own advice to themselves? It is also inconsistent with the advice even coming from Professor Lockdown, who on the radio this morning was absolutely clear that the risks from the virus were much greater in an indoor setting than in an outdoor setting. So these regulations are arbitrary, unfair, unjustified by the evidence, unenforceable and counterproductive in undermining public confidence in Government and in the rule of law.

In the interview on the “Today” programme this morning with Professor Lockdown, he was asked about the contrast between what we are doing and what people are doing in Sweden. He said that, of course, there was not much difference in the issues about social distancing and compliance, but what was important was that in Sweden the people trusted the Government, and that is why they have been able to manage with far less in terms of regulation. If I had had the chance to speak to Professor Lockdown, I would have said that actually what he should have been saying was that our Government should be trusting the people. I think the Swedish Government are trusting the people and the people of Sweden are responding positively, enabling Sweden to have a much more thriving economy than ours because they have not got so many arbitrary restrictions imposed upon them. I hope the message that the Minister will take back is that we should be looking at this in terms of trusting the people and applying common sense, and a lot of these regulations manifestly do not achieve that objective.

These regulations were brought in on a whim. They must have been drafted over a period of weeks, I would suggest, but after the Prime Minister made his statement to a press conference on the Wednesday and the Secretary of State made a statement on the Thursday, I raised a point of order on the Friday to ask, “Where are these regulations, because they are coming into effect on Sunday evening?” In the end, they were not laid in this House until 10.30 am on the Monday morning. That is absolutely intolerable. The justification given in the letter that was sent, as all letters have to be sent by the Secretary of State if the Government are ignoring the rules of this House, by the Secretary of State for Health and Social Care was that these amendments were so urgent that he had not had time to bring them in earlier, but he said in the last paragraph, “I hope you understand why we proceeded in this way, and I look forward to working with you to strengthen parliamentary scrutiny of these measures in future.”

The Minister who has been charged with dealing with this debate, despite the fact that these regulations were actually—brought in by the Home Office the Home Secretary introduced them—could not answer my right hon. Friend the Member for New Forest West (Sir Desmond Swayne) as to whether there were going to be powers of entry, arrest and so on. I am sure a Home Office Minister would have been able to do so, but what that underlines is that we are talking about draconian powers that are restricting the liberty of the British citizen. We should not be introducing draconian powers without the strongest possible justification, and I do not think the Minister has set out any justification in her remarks.

I am sure the Minister really appreciated that warm welcome from her colleagues—so different from those horrid breakfast-time interviews that she is occasionally trapped in.

I would like to make three very quick points. I want to ask, first, about this rule of six. If it is a purely arbitrary figure and it has no scientific basis at all, does the Minister accept that she is being quite unfair to those with larger extended families, and how does she justify that?

Secondly, we need clarity on the question about police powers of entry. It is quite ridiculous for the Minister to come to the Dispatch Box and tell us that the police can levy fines and that they can do this or that enforcement, only for us to discover that, if they are standing outside a property where there is a party of 40, 50 or 60 going wild, they have no room to enter. It would be useful, if we are being asked to renew these powers, to know what powers the police have.

Finally, is there a numerical point of reference—an R number, say, or a number of cases—for when these restrictions will be revised in either direction? If that is the case, surely we should know, and surely the public should know.

The so-called rule of six, like the ban on household mingling in some parts of the country and, indeed, the original lockdown measures, was introduced under public health laws that were originally envisaged as a means of controlling the movement of infected people, not of whole populations and not for indefinite periods of time. The approach being taken is truly unprecedented. These rules are a massive intrusion into the liberty and private lives of the whole British people, and they are having a devastating economic effect, which will result in big job losses and masses of business failures.

The rule of six has only been in place for three weeks or so, but much of the country has been under additional restrictions for much longer. In Greater Manchester, for example, people have been banned from mixing with other households, including close family, since late July. It would be interesting to know what conclusions the Government have reached about the efficacy of these restrictions, given the 10 weeks of experience that we now have in those areas with greater restrictions.

Rates of positive testing in those areas have fluctuated over the summer months. In Trafford, rates were falling in July, when we were put into the additional restrictions, but rising a month later. After 10 weeks, the positive test figures in Trafford are roughly twice as high as they were in July. In the city of Manchester, the increase has been tenfold.

If I asked the Minister whether these restrictions are proving effective, I suspect that she would say, “But it might have been worse if we weren’t doing it.” If so, she needs to tell the House how long she would maintain a ban on household mingling or a rule of six in the event that test rates continued not to respond to the restrictions. Does she accept that there could be no exit from the policy?

Can the Minister share with the House her estimate of the efficacy of a rule of six, compared with that of a rule of eight, had that been introduced instead? Is a rule of six more or less effective than a ban on household mixing? What assessment have the Government made of the efficacy of the rule of six in England, and in Scotland and Wales, where young children are excluded from it? The Minister did not answer that question when I intervened earlier, and she would not say when such an assessment would be made, but it is a very important point. I would have thought that by the time a month has elapsed, it should be possible to see which is working better or whether they are interchangeable.

For the state to direct people whether or when they can see their families in their own homes or gardens is an extreme intervention, and this House should set the highest bar possible before approving it. If such an intrusion into people’s lives can be justified, Ministers need to be able to demonstrate that it works, they need to be able to reassure people that it will be temporary, and they need to set out the criteria under which the restrictions will be lifted. I hope the Minister will answer those questions today.

It is a strange place to be when I find myself in agreement today with so many Members on the Government side of the Chamber.

I feel it is important for me, on behalf of my Liberal Democrat colleagues, to emphasise two points that have been raised already. They are on the importance of evidence-based policy making, and on promoting and protecting the wellbeing and mental health of children.

Like many others, I have struggled to find the evidence for the rule of six. It has been reported that SAGE has recommended it, and from the start of the pandemic the Liberal Democrats have always said that we will follow the science. However, in order to build trust and to secure buy-in and compliance from the public, it is important to show your workings, so, as the hon. Member for Altrincham and Sale West (Sir Graham Brady) said, we need to know about the trade-offs involved. Why six? Why not seven? Why not eight? No SAGE minutes on the covid-19 response have been published since 30 September—at least I could not find any—and the published minutes do not include discussion about the rule of six, which was introduced on 9 September. Was there a subsequent meeting of SAGE on covid-19 measures between 3 and 9 September? Will the Government publish the minutes and show the workings behind the rule of six? We have yet to see that clear, robust scientific evidence in support of this decision, and in particular around the decision to include children under 12.

As we have heard, in Wales and Scotland children have been exempted. The Minister has said previously that children have been included in England for simplicity’s sake. To reiterate a point that was made earlier, does she think that people in Scotland and Wales are able to follow a slightly more complex message, as opposed to people in England, who need a simpler message about children?

Although the pandemic has had a terrible impact on the entire population, children and young people have too often been overlooked, as we saw in the decision to reopen pubs, restaurants and non-essential shops before schools. Anne Longfield, the Children’s Commissioner, has said:

“Children have fewer health risks from Covid-19 and yet they have suffered disproportionately from the nation’s efforts to contain the virus.”

I appreciate that we are learning all the time and that there is limited research available, but recent research in the Netherlands from the RIVM—the National Institute for Public Health and the Environment—has found:

“The novel coronavirus is mainly spread between adults and from adult family members to children. The spread of COVID-19 among children or from children to adults is less common. In general, the younger the children, the less significant the role they play in spreading the virus.”

If children were such a major part of the problem in terms of transmission, we would be hearing about far greater numbers of bubbles being sent home from school. I could not find data on that point, but I know from my constituency that very few bubbles have been sent home. Indeed, last week, in primary schools across the Richmond borough, there was a 93% attendance rate among primary school children. That suggests to me that children under 12 are playing a very minor role in transmission.

As has been said, the rule of six discriminates against large families and households, where a family of six or more cannot meet a relative or friend but a family of three, four or five can. That impacts on the grandparents more than the parents, as in larger families they are unable to see their grandchildren. We should also consider the fact that larger families with four or more children may fear being out in public, in case people think they are being rule-breakers.

In terms of children’s mental health and wellbeing, the importance to children of being able to socialise, interact and play outside the school setting with other children is crucial. A Barnardo’s poll of 4,000 children aged eight to 24 found that 68% said that not seeing their friends was the most difficult thing about the pandemic.

I appreciate that the Government have conceded the point on informal childcare, by exempting informal childcare from the rule of six, and I welcome that move, but I see no reason why two families with two children under 12 should not meet up in a playground. I declare an interest, as I have a two-year-old and a six-year old.

I very much hope that the Minister will give us a better explanation than “simplicity” in her concluding remarks. If it is about clarity of message, the constant chopping and changing of the guidance, the hugely complex rules in different parts of the country, and politicians and advisers wilfully breaking them are the reasons why messages have been undermined. We should not make up for poor communication and those errors on the backs of our children.

Frankly, we would not have to consider blunt measures at all if we had a functioning system to test, trace and isolate every case of the virus to keep people safe. Furthermore, we should backward-trace every outbreak to ensure that super-spreader events are cracked down on so that we can take a much more tailored and targeted approach until we have a vaccine.

It is welcome that we are having a debate, scrutiny and ultimately a vote in the House. For that, I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Altrincham and Sale West (Sir Graham Brady), but also the Government for listening to our plea that surely we can make better decisions. We can help the Government, but also own the decisions, take responsibility as Members, and provide the link with our constituents—the people who are impacted by the measures. That can only be good for democracy and decision making.

I will vote for what I believe is best for my constituents. When I cast my vote, I will look at whether what the Government seek to do is proportionate. Of course, I understand that it is the Government’s first requirement to protect the public and that measures must be introduced to protect people from covid. However, when those measures have other, detrimental impacts on health so that individuals do not go to hospital and get checked out when they could have a treatable cancer or they suffer from mental ill health, isolation and loneliness, and their livelihoods are at stake because of what is happening to our economy, we have to take that into account when we vote. That is what I intend to do.

I have great concerns about the rule of six because I do not see the evidence for how it will reduce covid rates. I do not understand the difference with what is happening in Scotland and Wales. There is also complexity. For example, this morning, with other Members, including the shadow Health Minister, the hon. Member for Ellesmere Port and Neston (Justin Madders), I played five-a-side outside. That is effectively 10 households mixing. It is good—it is sport and I am not saying that it should be banned; it should be allowed. However, on Sunday, when I was in Buckingham, I was unable to go with my sisters and children on a small horse-riding activity, solely because we would have been over a certain number. To me, that does not make sense. If one of the children had been left behind, and one of the adults gave covid to the other adult, that adult would have gone home and given it to the child who was left behind.

I hear the argument about simplicity, but when I was trying to work out whether horse-riding fitted within the definition of recreational organised sporting activity, I could not do it. I therefore do not believe that the current rules are simple. If I had been in Scotland, it would not have been an issue because of the rules on under-12s. If I had been in parts of Wales, it would not have been a problem because of the rules on under-11s. Also, in Wales, 30 people are allowed to gather outside, yet in England, the number is just six. There is no logic in that. I would like the Government to look at what other nations have done and the evidence there.

Ultimately, the measures have a huge impact on liberty, which affects people’s happiness and health. Twenty-eight per cent. of my constituents are over 65, whereas the national average is 17%. I therefore have a lot of elderly constituents who are unable to see their families. When they look at some of the other rules, such as that for five-a-side football, they just do not understand.

I say to Front Benchers: we rule by consent and we need people to come with us. People I speak to, who have been religious devotees of lockdown, now say, “I am just not going to do this any more.” The concern is that they will not follow some of the other rules, which make sense and should be in place. Professor Carl Heneghan, who is the leading scientist and director of the Centre for Evidence-Based Medicine at the University of Oxford, got it right when he said that

“the ‘rule of six’ could well be the policy that tips the British public over the edge. For it is a disturbing decision that has no scientific evidence to back it up”.

I look for that evidence, but I still do not see it. On that basis, I am afraid that I am unable to vote for the rule of six. I do not believe that it is proportionate and that it will do what the Government hope. I fear that it will do more harm than good.

I, too, am deeply concerned that the evidence for the rule of six is not extensive enough to demonstrate that it does more good than harm. I will wait to hear what the Minister says, and we will hopefully hear in days to come more of the evidence behind this rule. However, for all the reasons set out by my hon. Friend the Member for Twickenham (Munira Wilson), the hon. Member for Bexhill and Battle (Huw Merriman) and others, there is deep concern about undermining consent for the process.

In a sense, this is a mobile lockdown for families who may well be able to leave their homes and do various things but cannot mingle. I am very concerned—not least because of the growing presence in my inbox, in my phone surgeries and at the one or two physical surgeries that I have started again—about the serious growth in the volume of mental health-related cases, and specifically among younger people. They are heartbreaking individually and deeply alarming when we see the volume of them collected together. That is why we need to be very careful in understanding the complexities of human relationships and how important they are to our sense of wellbeing.

In relation to a four-nations approach, the First Minister of Wales has called on the Prime Minister to ask people in restricted areas in England not to travel into Wales. The Prime Minister has refused. The First Minister of Wales has now said that people living alone—including in my constituency, which is under restrictions—can bubble with one person within the county to help improve mental health. As the hon. Member for Bexhill and Battle (Huw Merriman) mentioned, groups of 30 can gather outside in Wales. Does the hon. Gentleman agree that, if we had a genuine four-nations approach to this, we could learn from decisions taken by the Welsh Government in the way that they can learn from ones taken by the UK Government? At the moment, there seems to be some sort of blockage to the four nations working together, and I put it to him that it is partially the Prime Minister and No. 10.

The hon. Gentleman makes a really good point. Any party in power anywhere would have been like a rabbit in the headlights over the last six months, given what has happened, so I am not making a particular partisan point. It could happen in any Administration with any combination of colours of party. I am always careful not to use the phrase “U-turn” as an insult or a barb, because it shows that someone was listening and has enough substance to take on board the fact that somebody else may have had a better idea. I always say that all my best ideas were somebody else’s first. It is critical that this is a learning and iterative process, so I take that point on board.

It is the mental health concerns that I have for families, and particularly younger people, that make me sceptical and lead me to ask questions about the lack of evidence behind this. Much as I want to support the Government in doing tough things that need to be done to control the virus until we can eradicate it through a vaccine, we need more evidence.

I think inconsistency is an issue for all of us, and certainly for most of us who are here today with a particular interest in this matter. If we stick to the rule of six, I do not see why multiples of six cannot be used as the building blocks of bigger events. At the moment, there is a limit of 15 people allowed at a wedding. It seems entirely possible to make that an event of 36 or 48 people with building blocks of six, if the venue is big enough. Up to 300 people are allowed at a non-league football match below the seventh tier, so if someone wants to get together with their mates, they can just turn up at the mighty Kendal Town on Saturday. Those things are possible, and that inconsistency makes it difficult for people to understand why the Government are doing it and why they should be obedient.

The impact on the wedding industry, the events industry and the leisure industry is huge, and it is adding to the economic hardship that many people are experiencing. It seems wrong for us to be unnecessarily forcing people through that hardship, particularly as we come to the end of furlough in a few weeks’ time, when an intelligent approach could allow us to restrict people’s behaviour and protect against the virus but not kill several industries in the process.

I will finish by focusing on something else that worries me deeply. Our ability to get people to comply with regulations that exist to keep them safe, save lives and protect the national health service depends upon the credibility of the rules to which we expect them to be obedient. That is why the evidence is here. The rules also need to be coherent and easy to understand, which the rule of six just about is—that is the best argument that I have heard for it so far. They also have to be consistent from week to week, and with other areas of application, as I mentioned.

If people are going to be expected to be obedient and to comply with restrictions that exist to protect themselves and others, they also have to be able to afford to comply. That is my great concern for the future. If the Government are looking at a traffic light system, which in itself is not a bad idea, that allows blanket closures of the hospitality, tourism and leisure sector in certain towns, boroughs or counties, we surely cannot expect those industries and employers to close down and for there to be no compensation, and no return to furlough for those areas or grant system for those businesses.

In Cumbria, hospitality and tourism is the biggest single employer. It is the fourth biggest in the country. We cannot, when the traffic light gets to red, expect those businesses to close down completely without compensation. People will not comply with the rules if they fear that they will be unable to pay their rent or mortgage or feed their kids in the process. Let us ensure that the rules that we have are credible, coherent and consistent, and that people can afford to obey them.

May I begin by thanking my hon. Friend the Minister, the other Ministers in the Department, and officials? They are obviously working extremely hard, and I completely accept their good faith in extremely difficult circumstances. I particularly want to pay tribute to the drafters of these very complex regulations. I know from my time as a Brexit Minister that when there are a lot of statutory instruments to do it is extremely hard work for them, and they do not get anything like enough thanks, so I want to put all that on the record.

It remains the case that this is a dangerous disease for people with risk factors, and I certainly see why the Government wish to introduce measures. My friend and constituent, the epidemiologist Dr Raghib Ali, has written in The Telegraph that both the REACT—real-time assessment of community transmission—and Office for National Statistics studies

“showed that the levels of infection have increased in all age groups, including the most vulnerable older age groups, and also in all regions, but with much larger increases in the North, Midlands and London.”

However, he goes on later in the article to state:

“They all show this is not a repeat of the first wave as infections are rising much more slowly, doubling roughly every 11 days now vs. three days then. And crucially, they also show that the rate of increase is slowing down significantly.”

He goes on, it has to be said, to say that the Government are getting it broadly right.

I have real concerns about the very high cost of the measures. The hon. Member for Westmorland and Lonsdale (Tim Farron) gave some examples, and the hon. Member for Twickenham (Munira Wilson) talked about the need for two families to meet, making eight, but what about two parents and three children? They can meet only one grandparent under the rules.

Elsewhere, we have other stories that are out of the scope of the statutory instrument. If I can get away with one anecdote, there was a story on the BBC website of a wife talking about springing her husband in his 80s out of the care home so that they can spend some time together at that late stage. People are bearing an absolutely appalling set of costs, and anecdotes of poor compliance are rising. Indeed, there seems to be a gap between people’s intentions to comply and what they actually do, as was revealed in the King’s College London research that the Government commissioned.

It is not clear now that the benefit of lockdown outweighs the costs. Although the report fell rather flat, The Telegraph covered some Department of Health and Social Care analysis that seemed to show that in quality-adjusted life years, adjusting for co-morbidities, the cost of the first lockdown was greater than the cost of the disease. In a spirit of good will, where we all mean to minimise harm and maximise human flourishing in the fullest sense, we have to ask whether this set of circumstances is really what we want.

Time and again in our own constituencies, and talking to colleagues in the Tea Room, we hear about people who are being destroyed by this lockdown. Strong, confident, outgoing, gregarious people are being destroyed and reduced to repeated episodes of tears on the phone—all around the House, people are agreeing with me about that. The situation is having a devastating social impact on our society. I believe people would make different choices were they able to take responsibility for themselves, so I have really quite deep concerns about this statutory instrument.

My hon. Friend is making the powerful point that there are other health issues and other effects of such draconian rules. Does he agree that the Government should now be publishing what those other effects are? Rather than just the bald figures on infection rates, hospital rates and deaths attributed to covid alone, there should be broader figures on mental health, cancer and all the other treatments, and the deaths that we are not seeing yet but are simply stocking up for the future.

I do agree. I call on Ministers to publish robust data about the balance of costs and benefits. I understand that there is no impact assessment to go with this statutory instrument—I was certainly told that when I picked it up. We really should now be looking extremely carefully at the balance of cost and benefit to overall human flourishing. I am certainly not currently persuaded that the benefit is net positive.

I pay tribute to 66 GPs, led by Dr Ellie Cannon, who have written to the Secretary of State to say that it is now time for him

“to consider non-covid harms and deaths with equal standing as the reported deaths from covid”.

They have suggested that there should be a GP on SAGE; I suggest that we should also have some economists on SAGE, and have made some other proposals about competitive scientific advice, devil’s advocates and other measures that could improve things. The letter from GPs is extremely important. It is time to listen to GPs.

As I reflect on this statutory instrument, I have to say that it is also time to start to think about another way. The Government’s strategy is clearly to suppress the virus, through instruments such as the one we are discussing, pending a vaccine. But what if a vaccine does not come? What if a vaccine, when it comes, does not achieve the ends aimed at? What if we still need some kind of measures alongside a vaccine? I have talked to specialists in this area, and it seems to me—with great sadness—to be pretty clear that we might be in those circumstances, in which case the Government will need a plan B.

For that reason, I was very glad to sign the Great Barrington declaration and to encourage parliamentarians of all parties and both Houses to sign it to show that there is political consensus in both Houses and across all parties for another way. This is plan B, authored by Dr Martin Kulldorff, Dr Sunetra Gupta and Dr Jay Bhattacharya and signed by 1,120 medical and public health scientists, 1,241 medical practitioners and more than 19,000 members of the public, including me. I commend it to the Government.

Before I call Mark Harper, I would like to say that if business does end early, I hope that David Linden and Richard Drax, who are presenting petitions, will not be far from the Chamber, and that Richard Holden, who has the Adjournment debate, and Ed Argar, the Minister who will respond to it, are not far away either. I should hate for them to miss their opportunities.

The good thing about this debate and your having put in place a firm time limit, Mr Deputy Speaker, is that the Minister will have a great deal of time at the end to answer the many questions. Having served as a Minister myself, I know that that will be a helpful opportunity to put to rest—hopefully—colleagues’ concerns.

At the beginning of the debate I raised a couple of other sets of regulations that we are not considering today, but I hope the Minister will confirm that they will be debated in the Chamber—on the Floor of the House—and that we will have the opportunity to vote on them. The first set is the Health Protection (Coronavirus, Restrictions) (No. 2) (England) (Amendment) (No. 5) Regulations 2020, to which she has referred. They bring into force the restrictions on the trading hours of licensed premises, which I know are of concern to many colleagues. It is very important that those regulations are debated on the Floor of the House: they affect the whole country and, in the spirit of the pledge given by the Secretary of State last week, we should have the opportunity to do so.

A number of colleagues are concerned about the police enforcement powers. In my reading of the regulations that these regulations we are debating amend, I could not find any reference to powers of entry, but there are powers of arrest and powers to use reasonable force. Those powers are not in the regulations that we are debating, but I give the Minister notice of this. There are measures in the self-isolation regulations—which I also hope will be debated on the Floor of the House—that give powers of reasonable force to police community support officers, to any person given those powers by the Secretary of State and to local government employees. As a former Home Office Minister, I am not comfortable with the powers to use reasonable force being given to people who do not have the training to use them. I have seen occasions where that has led to the loss of life, and I have to say to the Minister—as a former Chief Whip, I do not say this lightly—that if those regulations are not amended, I will vote against them. I am not voting to give powers to use reasonable force to people who are not trained to use those powers. If they use them incorrectly, it will lead to the deaths of adults and, potentially, children. The Minister should reflect on that and bring a revised set of regulations to the House, when I would be delighted to vote for the self-isolation part, which is very valuable.

Secondly, on the regulations before us today, I think that limiting the mixing of households is warranted in principle. It seems from the evidence from the test and trace system that household transmission, household visitors and visiting friends and relatives are very significant vectors of transmission—far more, cumulatively, than a whole range of leisure activities, which is where I think the 10 pm curfew is not very well evidenced. There is some merit behind these measures in general, but I pick up the points made by a number of colleagues.

The four nations of the United Kingdom have implemented this rule in different ways. The Minister should look at the evidence from different parts of the United Kingdom, and at some of the questions we have raised about whether children are included and the age of those children. A lady stopped me in the street last week. She had just had a new addition to her family, a small baby, which now means the family cannot meet both the grandparents. Given that the baby is not going to be an independent actor for some time, and so is not going anywhere independently of its parents, I fail to see how the inclusion of that baby, meaning the family are no longer able to see both the grandparents, is at all sensible. My constituent sees no merit in it at all.

I notice that my right hon. Friend is back on a time limit, so I take this opportunity to note that we are voting on these regulations retrospectively. For that reason, I am going to abstain tonight. If we were voting on them prospectively then, for the kinds of reasons he is giving, and indeed for the reasons I gave, I would have voted against them. I shall abstain tonight, because I realise they are in force. I would like to see them changed in the ways he is setting out.

I am grateful to my hon. Friend.

My hon. Friend the Member for Altrincham and Sale West (Sir Graham Brady) pressed the Minister on this: if the evidence is not available as to whether these regulations have been effective so far, perhaps she could give an indication of what sort of time period the Government are looking at. I think everyone in the House wants the Government to be successful in driving down the rate of infection, but I pick up the point raised by the hon. Member for Westmorland and Lonsdale (Tim Farron). If the Government bring in a measure because they think it is going to work and it simply does not—we are learning things about this virus all the time—it is not only not harmful but positively sensible for the Government to say, “This one didn’t work. We tried it. We are going to stop doing this, and we will take a different course that we think will be more successful.” That sort of attitude would secure a great deal of support from the House and, I think, from the public.

Perhaps the Minister could say a little about when we should see this kicking in. I raise this because tomorrow we will debate the specific local lockdown regulations for the north-west and the north-east. Mr Deputy Speaker, you have a particular interest in this matter, given the location of your constituency. Some of these regulations in some parts of the country have been in force for quite considerable periods of time, and, apart from in one place, there is no evidence that they are having an effect on bearing down on the virus. In that case, all they are doing is causing economic damage without actually delivering a health benefit. At that point, the Government should reflect on whether the regulations are working and think again.

I draw my remarks to a close. I hope for those reassurances about the other two sets of regulations I talked about. We will expect them to be debated on the Floor of the House if the Government remain true to the Secretary of State’s commitment last week, which I welcome. I welcome the fact that it is being brought into force tomorrow, as we debate the north-west and north-east regulations. I look forward to the Minister saying a little more about evidence. I am grateful for the fact that she will have around 12 minutes to do so, which gives us an opportunity to probe her a little further.

I thank all colleagues who have spoken in this debate, because I have been grateful for the thoughtful approach that many of them have taken. Just as I do in my role, Members have drawn on experiences from their own lives and, of course, on what they hear from constituents. The backdrop to this debate is the fact that the country is in the grip of a global pandemic. We are battling a highly infections and deadly disease, facing a challenge that this country has not faced since the second world war. As we have seen, this virus can spread through the population at an exponential rate, killing people as it goes. Only because of that have the Government brought in such restrictions to people’s lives, ones that clearly no Government would wish to bring in. The alternative—just allowing the virus to let rip—simply cannot be the right thing to do.

Nobody is suggesting that we let the virus rip; radical as I may be, I cited some supportive passages in my remarks. The Minister says that the virus is deadly. We all accept it is deadly for people who have prior risk factors, which raise the infection fatality rate, but is not the truth that for a great many people who are younger and without prior conditions this is not an especially deadly disease? We knew that at the beginning; we know it today. It is deadly for a certain section of our society, and it is them we are looking after. Can we please be honest about that?

I appreciate that my hon. Friend did not take the “let rip” position, but some have done so. The majority of those who have spoken this evening have absolutely supported the fact that we need to have restrictions in place, which is good to hear.

May I just finish responding to my the point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Wycombe (Mr Baker)? He says that for the vast majority this is a mild illness and that the deaths have particularly been among those with underlying health conditions. It is true to say that the majority of those who have died were older and with underlying health conditions, but, sadly, some have died who did not have known underlying health conditions and were younger. I well remember reading about a nurse not far from my constituency, in Kent, who had three young children and was only slightly younger than me but who died early in the pandemic. So it is not true to say that this affects only older and unwell people, although we should also mourn the older people whose lives have been taken before their time, many of whom were in receipt of care.

The other point is that among those who have had mild illness we are seeing increasing evidence of the condition known as “long covid”, where, sadly, there are long-term health consequences of covid. We are learning about those all the time; they are making it materially difficult for people to lead their lives some weeks and even months after they had the illness, even if they had it mildly in the first place.

I will make progress, as colleagues made a large number of points during their speeches that I am keen to respond to. I will take further interventions if there is time.

I just wanted to challenge the Minister on this “let it rip” point, as the Secretary of State has done that as well. I ask the Minister to take it from me that we all want the Government to be successful, but if every time somebody asks a question or posits a different strategy, we are accused of wanting to “let it rip” and kill tens of thousands of people, this debate will not remain good-tempered. Please accept that we are all trying to get this right. We are all willing to be generous, because, as the hon. Member for Westmorland and Lonsdale (Tim Farron) said, this is difficult, but I ask the Minister please not to say that Members of this House who suggest a different strategy in order to be successful want to let the disease rip and kill tens of thousands of people. We do not, and we will not be pleased if that is what we are accused of doing.

I absolutely hear my right hon. Friend’s point. I reiterate the response that I just gave, which is that I very much appreciate the support of colleagues in general for taking action to suppress the virus, and I think it is extremely valuable for us to be debating some of the measures, as we are this evening.

If my hon. Friend would allow me, I would like to make a little bit of progress, otherwise I will have remarkably little time left.

We have a clear strategy, which is to control and suppress the virus while doing all we can to protect the economy, people’s work, schools and the NHS, so that it, in turn, can care for us.

Let me turn to some of the points made by hon. Members. Various reasons have been suggested for the rapid introduction of the regulations. In fact, the shadow Minister made some suggestions. The Government have had to act fast. When we see the rates of increase—particularly when we take away the average across the country, and look at specific areas and parts of the population where the doubling rate can be going up really quickly—it is clear that we need to act fast. The alternative is to act slowly—and if we did that for several days, it would be inaction. That just means that the virus would be left to spread further and faster.

Colleagues have asked for further information about the impact and effectiveness of measures. I get the sense that some Members would like to hear, “If you do x, you get y,” in a very mathematical way. We are dealing with a new disease that simply is not known to the level of “A leads to B exactly.” We look at a huge amount of evidence, including at what is happening overseas, the difference made by local lockdowns and evidence from the test and trace system. All that evidence informs the decisions that are made. We know that social contact is a particular cause of the spread, so we must reduce social contact.

I am really sorry, but I have so little time.

We have seen reduced levels of socialising since introducing the rule of six, but that is against a backdrop of rates rising in particular parts of the country, which are now under further restrictions. We will continue to look at the evidence and ensure that we are putting in place effective interventions.

The measures that we are debating today are clearly coupled with the vital rules such as hands, face and space. We all have our part to play. We will continue to assess the effectiveness of the measures, but we need restrictions in place until covid rates come down.

I have only three minutes left, so I am keen to cover a few more points that have been made in the debate.

Colleagues have spoken about children and the rule of six. As I have said, I am acutely mindful of this point as I have a family of five. I am well aware that Wales and Scotland, where health is devolved, have made their own decisions, including a slightly different decision on this issue. Of course, we will learn from the other parts of the United Kingdom. There are regular conversations between the devolved authorities and the UK Government.

On the matter of extended families and larger households, there is an exemption for larger households—clearly, they can gather—but in some areas there has been a particularly rapid spread when larger households of extended families come together. That can be a particular source of the spread, so it is much harder for larger households wanting to socialise. This is a difficult balance to strike, but we want to ensure that we are suppressing the virus because it is such a cruel thing.

Let me turn to policing. The police approach is one of engage, explain, encourage and enforce. I can confirm that they do not have power of entry, but my understanding of the feedback that we have received from the police is that they feel that they do not need further powers to enforce these measures.

I would like to reiterate the Government’s commitment to working with Parliament and to debating regulations such as these and others. I should say that we absolutely recognise the impact of these restrictions on people’s lives, and that it is with great reluctance that we bring them in. None the less, as I have said, the alternative is not suppressing the rate of the virus, and, as I have mentioned, it is not always a mild illness. We are seeing cases of long covid. There is also a health impact on our hospitals: if they become too full treating people with covid, they will struggle to treat people with other illnesses. That has its own health implications, and cannot be the right strategy. The strategy has to be to control this virus and to suppress it with the rule of six and all the other things that we as individuals can do, including our own compliance with the social distancing measures. We must take this approach, and I thank everybody for all that they are doing. I know that the public face the implications of these restrictions day in, day out, as we do ourselves, but we must do it, because it is the way that we can get back to normal as soon as possible.

Question put.

The list of Members currently certified as eligible for a proxy vote, and of the Members nominated as their proxy, is published at the end of today’s debates.


That the Health Protection (Coronavirus, Restrictions) (No. 2) (England) (Amendment) (No. 4) Regulations 2020 (S.I., 2020, No. 986), dated 13 September 2020, a copy of which was laid before this House on 14 September, be approved.