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Oral Answers to Questions

Volume 688: debated on Wednesday 27 January 2021


The Secretary of State was asked—

Covid-19 Vaccine Roll-out

What assessment his Department has made of progress on the roll-out of the covid-19 vaccine in Scotland. (911209)

What assessment his Department has made of progress on the roll-out of the covid-19 vaccine in Scotland. (911212)

What assessment his Department has made of progress on the roll-out of the covid-19 vaccine in Scotland. (911214)

The Government are procuring vaccines on behalf of all parts of the United Kingdom and supplying them to the devolved Administrations. It is for the Scottish Government to manage the roll-out of the vaccines in Scotland. However, our British armed forces are supporting the NHS in Scotland in this vital task.

The vaccine roll-out has been excellent, with the United Kingdom again having among the strongest responses in the world. As there are varying degrees of success in the four different parts of the Union, will my right hon. Friend confirm what discussions he has had with the vaccines Minister—the Under-Secretary of State for Health and Social Care, my hon. Friend the Member for Stratford-on-Avon (Nadhim Zahawi)—in order to guarantee that the four constituent parts of the UK will receive sufficient vaccinations to hit their targets of the first four groups by the middle of February?

The devolved Administrations are receiving their shares of vaccine based on population, and the schedule of deliveries will fully support vaccinations of the first four priority cohorts by 15 February. All parts of the United Kingdom therefore have an equal chance of meeting that mid-February target.

Throughout this pandemic, we have seen the incredible work done by the armed forces to support us up and down the country, and in my constituency and across Lancashire, that has been help with testing. We know that in Scotland, the armed forces are now supporting vaccination centres, ensuring that life-saving treatment can get to those who need it. Does my right hon. Friend agree that this shows the strength of the United Kingdom family, with help and assistance ready to be sent to any corner of it?

I am absolutely delighted to echo my hon. Friend’s comments. Our British armed forces have played a number of essential roles in Scotland during the pandemic. They have airlifted patients to mainland hospitals from islands. They have delivered personal protective equipment. They have run mobile testing centres in rural areas and, at present, as he alluded to, the Royal Scots Dragoon Guards are setting up 80 vaccination centres across Scotland.

The most recent statistics for the number of covid-19 vaccination doses administered per 100 people stand at 11.4 for England, 9.8 for Northern Ireland, 9.2 for Wales and 8.1 for Scotland. Does my right hon. Friend agree that directly comparable statistics across the UK can be incredibly helpful to drive up performance in the NHS, and will he outline the plans that he has to pursue this agenda further?

Government Ministers in both the UK and the devolved Administrations are committed to transparency around the numbers of people who have been vaccinated. There are also a number of mechanisms for sharing best practice between Ministers and officials of all Administrations. The faster we can vaccinate, the more lives we can protect and the quicker we can return to normal.

May I start by thanking the GPs and other NHS staff across the Scottish borders, who have been working incredibly hard over the last few weeks to get vaccines into people’s arms? I have been speaking to GP practices across my constituency. One of them said:

“Our English counterparts over the border seem to have access to a lot more vaccines than us and that is causing a lot of unrest within the community.”

She went on to say that

“if we could have a guarantee of a definite amount of vaccines”

from the Scottish Government, it would make it a much easier job to plan and administer. What assistance can the UK Government provide to ensure that vaccines are delivered to GPs more quickly and efficiently across Scotland?

The UK Government are ensuring that NHS Scotland gets an equitable share of those vaccines. How it is distributed is a matter for NHS Scotland and, rightly, as health is devolved, that is a matter for the Scottish Government. If my hon. Friend’s constituents are concerned about any aspects of distribution, the best thing for them would be to take up their concerns with the Scottish Government.

Strength of the Union

Scotland benefits greatly from being part of a strong United Kingdom. The most obvious recent examples are the unprecedented economic support offered to people and businesses in Scotland and the rapid supply of vaccinations to all parts of the United Kingdom currently taking place. Neither of these would have been possible if Scotland was not part of the United Kingdom.

Finland, a small independent country in the EU with a population comparable to Scotland, right throughout the pandemic has been paying workers’ benefits equivalent to their full pay if they are required to self-isolate. If tiny little Finland can pay people their full wage, what does it say about the strength of the Union that we pay Scots a measly £95 a week?

There has been unprecedented support. The sort of support that the United Kingdom has delivered through the furlough scheme, the self-employment income support scheme, the coronavirus business interruption loan scheme, business grants and the £8.6 billion delivered to the Scottish Government to help with the pandemic has not been delivered anywhere else within the European Union.

Does my right hon. Friend share my concern that, at a time when my constituency has its highest ever level of coronavirus infections, rather than focusing solely on beating this pandemic and planning for a recovery, Nicola Sturgeon and the Scottish Government are prioritising another independence referendum and breaking up the United Kingdom?

I absolutely agree with my right hon. Friend. People in Scotland want to see politicians across the United Kingdom working in partnership to focus on defeating the coronavirus. That remains the top priority of the UK Government, who have supported jobs and businesses across the United Kingdom through the pandemic —as I say, there has been unprecedented support—and now more than ever, we should be pulling together to strengthen our country, instead of trying to separate it.

On this Holocaust Memorial Day, let us remember those who were persecuted and those who are persecuted now, and never forget the horrors that can happen when bigotry goes unchallenged.

I do not remember that same sense of responsibility when Brexit was being bulldozed through during the same pandemic that the Secretary of State has just mentioned. If he is so sure of the strength of the Union, why is he so afraid to test that strength in another independence referendum?

First, I align myself with the remarks that the hon. Lady made about the holocaust.

The referendum took place in 2014. We respect that; it was a democratic outcome. The hon. Lady mentioned Brexit: that referendum took place in 2016, and again, it was a democratic outcome. We are the party that respects democracy.

I know the Secretary of State is aware that a lot has changed since 2014. Scotland has been taken out of the EU against its will; we have had three Tory Prime Ministers we never voted for; and now, 20 consecutive polls have shown that a majority of people in Scotland now support independence. Given that he is the defender of democracy, I ask him how, with that in mind, can the people of Scotland secure that preferred choice of independence?

Scotland receives over £1,600 more in support per man, woman and child than the UK average—that is incredibly important. Added to that is the £8.6 billion of extra coronavirus support, and on top of that, the furlough support. An independent Scotland would have the largest deficit in the European Union, and it would break member state rules. I remind the hon. Lady of what the SNP’s own economic adviser, Andrew Wilson, said: that an independent Scotland would face austerity like it had never been seen before, with increases in taxation and cuts in public spending. I believe that as we focus on coming out of the pandemic, all being in the rowing boat together and pulling on the oars in these choppy waters is the best place for Scotland and for the United Kingdom.

Thank you very much, Mr Speaker; I will share it with you when we come back to Westminster.

As we have just heard from the SNP spokesperson, the hon. Member for Paisley and Renfrewshire South (Mhairi Black), the SNP would rather obsess over another independence referendum than focus on Scotland’s recovery from covid-19. Does the Secretary of State agree that this once again demonstrates that the nationalists’ priorities are all wrong, because right now, people want us to focus on vaccine roll-out, defeating covid-19 and rebuilding our economy?

I wish my hon. Friend many happy returns, and my birthday present to him is to say that I could not agree with him more. Rather than waste time on a divisive separatist agenda, the Scottish Government should be working with us to defeat the pandemic and to recover our economy.

I did not quite detect an answer to my hon. Friend the Member for Paisley and Renfrewshire South (Mhairi Black) when she asked how the Scottish people could now secure a referendum on independence. We can dispute the merits of that, and I am sure we will, but does the Secretary of State accept that this is now what the Scottish people want? Twenty opinion polls in a row indicate that, so how do the Scottish people democratically acquire the right to have what they want in a referendum?

I say again: now is not the time. Now is the time for us to focus on rebuilding our economy and protecting jobs. I see the hon. Gentleman up there with his gold disc behind him, and I have to say that, from Scottish questions to Scottish questions, he is beginning to sound like a broken record.

The UK now officially has the highest covid mortality rate anywhere in the world, and we know from the in-field accuracy of lateral flow tests that they have a 50% chance of being wrong. As the Prime Minister and his entourage are relying on such inaccurate test results, and given the PM’s disastrous handling of the pandemic, why is the Secretary of State risking lives by backing his futile Union-Jackery trip to Scotland against public health advice when he knows that the PM has the ability to insult our intelligence from London?

That is ridiculous. The Prime Minister is the Prime Minister of the United Kingdom, and wherever he needs to go in his vital work against this pandemic, he will go.

Seed Potato Industry

What recent discussions he has had with Cabinet colleagues on support for the Scottish seed potato industry. (911211)

Ministers and officials from my Department are in regular contact with counterparts from the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs and the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office. The UK has applied for third country equivalency to overcome the ban on the export of seed potatoes to the European Union. We believe we have a strong case as British standards currently match the EU’s, and Scotland in particular has world-leading plant health provenance.

I thank the Secretary of State for that optimism. Even businesses in my constituency of North Norfolk are affected by the ban on exporting seed potatoes into the EU. It is wonderful to have a deal, but in my part of the world agriculture is an enormous way of life, so can he assure me that everything is being done to obtain an agreement on seed potatoes for Scotland and all of the UK, to give food security and flexibility to the sector and to protect our farmers and growers?

I know this is an important issue for my hon. Friend’s constituency, as it is for many farmers in Scotland, and I can confirm that absolutely everything is being done to find a solution.

Trade Deals

What discussions he has had with Cabinet colleagues on the opportunities for Scotland arising from the signing of trade deals with other countries. (911213)

We regularly discuss opportunities for Scotland arising from the signing of trade deals. This Government have already struck deals worth £217 billion a year with more than 63 countries around the world, including Canada, Japan and Singapore, and with many more to come. This will create new markets for Scotland’s exporters.

For the first time in my life, we will be in control of our trade policy, which will allow us to strike ambitious trade deals, allowing us to level up all of our United Kingdom. Does the Minister agree that this will help to benefit exporters, particularly in the Scottish food and drink industries, who will be able to take advantage of new markets?

I fully agree with my hon. Friend. The new free trade agreements we strike, such as those we are currently negotiating with the US, Australia and New Zealand, on top of the ones we have already done, will grow our GDP, increase our trade with the rest of the world and create new opportunities for our exporters. This is particularly true for the Scottish food and drink sector.

Today is Holocaust Memorial Day, as we have heard, and we should use this day to remember the horrors of the holocaust by lighting a candle in our windows at 8 pm tonight, as the Holocaust Memorial Day Trust has asked us to do. I am sure that the Secretary of State will join us in that. Also, I wonder if I may just wish my fellow shadow Scotland Minister, my hon. Friend the Member for Ogmore (Chris Elmore), all the best, as his wife is due to have a baby in the next seven days.

One of the jewels in the crown of the Scottish economy is the Scotch whisky industry, and distillers are deeply angry that they continue to pay the price for a trade dispute with the United States that is not of their making. They are losing £30 million a month in trade with the imposition of tariffs, and that is on top of the collapse of their markets due to covid. No progress has been made, so can the Minister guarantee that the Government are fully singing from the same hymn sheet to end tariffs on Scotch whisky?

First, may I associate myself with the hon. Gentleman’s remarks on the holocaust?

On whisky, I absolutely agree with the hon. Gentleman that this is a vital industry for Scotland’s economy and the tariffs are hurting. Britain unilaterally made a bold and generous offer to the US to try to break its impasse with the EU. Unfortunately, we were not able to secure a deal with President Trump before he left office, but I spoke to my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for International Trade yesterday, and she reassured me that it will be her top priority in engaging with the new Biden Administration.

The UK has taken all the tariffs off US products but there are still tariffs on Scottish products, so I hope they are able to resolve this soon. Of course, trade deals with other countries will not make up for what we have lost by leaving the EU. Day after day, we see chaos at our ports, exporters being overwhelmed by paperwork and, as a result, Scottish businesses being damaged. This Government’s lack of planning and no provision for services, matched with growing bureaucracy at our borders, is severely hampering our industries. The Prime Minister said on Christmas eve that the EU Brexit deal would mean

“no non-tariff barriers to trade”.

That is demonstrably false. Will the Minister take this opportunity to apologise to Scottish exporters, who are completely hampered by the very non-tariff barriers to trade that the Prime Minister said would not exist? What are the Government doing to resolve these issues today?

First, on the US point, there was an impasse with the EU, and we decided it was the right move to make a unilateral offer to try to break that impasse. I hope the new Biden Administration will engage positively with us on that.

Secondly, I do not think it is fair to paint a picture of chaos and tailbacks at the ports. The traffic is flowing freely at most ports. There have been some short-term issues with paperwork, and any new system has some short-term bumps, but we are engaging directly with the exporters affected. We are providing compensation, where necessary, and what we need is some confidence across all sectors.

Covid-19 Vaccination Programme

What recent discussions he has had with Scottish Ministers on the covid-19 vaccination programme in Scotland. (911215)

I was sorry to hear that the hon. Gentleman had contracted coronavirus at Christmas, and I hope he is making a full and speedy recovery.

I and other UK Government Ministers are in frequent contact with Scottish Ministers on all aspects of the response to covid, including the vaccination programme. The virus will be combated most effectively by the UK Government and all the devolved Administrations working together as closely as possible.

I thank the Minister for his kind words, and I assure him that I am in rude health.

The Minister will be aware that Scotland’s over-80s population has been left more vulnerable than those in England due to far fewer being vaccinated. If the rate of over-80s vaccination in Scotland were equivalent to that in England, 28,875 of the most elderly people in Scotland would now have been vaccinated. What steps can the Minister take to ensure that the Scottish Government get on with protecting the most vulnerable?

I am delighted that the hon. Gentleman is very much on the path to recovery. As my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State said a few moments ago, the supply of vaccines is done equitably across all parts of the UK, but the administration is a matter for the Scottish Government. We have already provided many practical measures to help combat covid in Scotland, and we stand ready to supply any additional help that the Scottish Government may require.

UK-EU Agreement: Scottish Exports

What discussions he has had with (a) Cabinet colleagues and (b) industry leaders on the effect of the UK-EU trade and co-operation agreement on Scottish exports. (911216)

We regularly speak to ministerial colleagues and industry leaders on this matter. We are beginning a new chapter in our national story, one of great opportunity. This is an unparalleled chance for us to do things differently and better, increasing businesses’ access to new markets and boosting our national prosperity.

Scottish exporters need clarity and certainty on how long it will take the UK Government to resolve the calamitous situation that has been created at the UK-EU border, so my question to the Minister is: has anyone in the Scotland Office worked out how long a piece of string is yet?

I repeat to the hon. Gentleman the reply I gave a few moments ago: we are engaging directly and providing very practical support to exporters who have encountered some short-term difficulties as they adjust to the new system. In the case of the fish and seafood sector, we have provided them with compensation for any losses that they encountered.

The Minister will be fully aware of the chaos that Scottish fishing exports have been thrown into over the past few weeks because of his Government’s broken promises on Brexit to the industry. I understand he has already said that the Department has announced an injection of funding for the hardest hit, but this is about timing and reputation as well, so how is he working with potential buyers of these world-class fishing exports to promote the sector? How is he ensuring that extra support reaches those hardest hit as quickly as possible, given the absolute devastation that these businesses have faced in this year so far?

First, may I wish the hon. Gentleman and his family every success and good fortune in the arrival of the new addition to their family?

As I have said, we are providing very practical support. This is not affecting the whole industry. The industry faces many challenges at the moment, not least the loss of some of its markets because top-end restaurants, at home and abroad, are having to close because of covid. In addition to that short-term compensation, we are providing a £100 million fund to grow and boost the capacity of our seafood sector. We have not broken promises to it. We were taking back control of our waters. We are out of the common fisheries policy and British fishermen will land more stocks year on year.

The EU is still our closest and most important trading partner, but Scottish businesses are suffering because of this disastrous Brexit we did not vote for, and the inability and unwillingness of the Minister’s Government to effectively use the transition period. Will he now push for the grace period that businesses are urgently calling for? If not, why not? What is his answer to them?

As I have said repeatedly, we are engaging with all sectors to help them prepare for this transition. I respectfully point out to the hon. Lady that she voted for a no-deal Brexit, and she and her fellow separatists want to impose additional trade barriers within Britain.

UK-EU Agreement: Scottish Economy

What assessment his Department has made of the effect of the UK-EU trade and co-operation agreement on the Scottish economy. (911219)

We have agreed a deal with the EU that fully delivers for Scotland and the rest of the UK. Our deal provides Scottish businesses with exceptional access to the EU’s market: it is the first time the EU has ever agreed a zero-tariffs, zero-quota deal. But of course we also now have the freedom to strike new deals with the fastest-growing parts of the global economy.

But almost one in six jobs in Scotland is based in the financial and business services sector, which is dependent on the UK Government negotiating a trade in services agreement with the EU, having failed to do so before the end of last year. What progress have the Secretary of State and his Cabinet colleagues made since leaving the transition arrangements in this area? What further steps is he taking to ensure that these jobs are secure for the future?

Alongside the agreement, we agreed a joint declaration on regulatory co-operation in the area of financial services. The parties will codify that in a memorandum of understanding by March.


What discussions he has had with Cabinet colleagues on the opportunities for Scotland arising from COP26. (911222)

I have frequent discussions with colleagues about the opportunities that COP26 offers for Scotland and the whole of the UK. The Government are committed to delivering an all-UK COP26 event in Glasgow. This will bring significant economic benefits to the community in Glasgow and those across Britain.

My constituents in Guildford take a keen interest in environmental concerns and, along with me, are delighted that Glasgow is hosting COP26 this year. Does my hon. Friend agree that we are better placed to tackle climate change as a strong Union of nations?

My hon. Friend is absolutely right. I should also point out that it is disgraceful that, while we will be showcasing our global leadership on climate change and the world’s gaze will be on Glasgow, the SNP would rather be pitting community against community in another divisive referendum.

Prime Minister

The Prime Minister was asked—


Today, on Holocaust Memorial Day, I know that the whole House will want to join me in solemnly remembering the 6 million Jewish men, women and children murdered during the holocaust, and all other victims of Nazi persecution. Last week, I had the privilege of hearing from holocaust survivor Renee Salt and from Ian Forsyth, one of the last living British servicemen who liberated the camp at Bergen-Belsen. Their courage to share their testimonies must inspire us all never to forget the holocaust and the fight against all forms of hatred and prejudice, wherever they are found.

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.

I associate myself entirely with all that the Prime Minister said.

I thank the Prime Minister and the Government for all their hard work in these difficult and challenging times with regard to the delivery of the covid-19 vaccination. However, my constituents in Gillingham and Rainham and the wider-Medway towns would like me, as their Member of Parliament, to raise their concerns with regard to the availability of the vaccine in our local towns. I have constituents who are in their 80s and 90s who have not yet had the vaccination. Medway was one of the hardest-hit areas in the country, the mutant variant was discovered in Kent, and North Kent has some of the highest health inequalities in the country. Will the Prime Minister please ensure that we have a mass vaccination centre in Medway?

I share my hon. Friend’s sense of frustration about the pace of the vaccine roll-out. In spite of the fact that we have the fastest roll-out anywhere in Europe, it is entirely right that a constituency MP should want to see more done as fast as possible. I can tell my hon. Friend that we have vaccinated more than 80% of those over 80 across the country, and we are certainly looking at establishing a large-scale vaccination centre near him. In his immediate vicinity, we have done 127,000 vaccines already, providing the hope of long-term immunity for the people of Medway and Gillingham and Rainham.

May I begin by joining the Prime Minister in his remarks about Holocaust Memorial Day? This evening, I will be joining the UK ceremony and lighting a candle to remember the 6 million Jews murdered in the holocaust, along with, of course, the other genocides and persecutions that have taken place around the world.

Yesterday, we passed the tragic milestone of 100,000 covid deaths in the United Kingdom. That is not just a statistic: behind every death is a grieving family—a mum, a dad, a sister, a brother, a friend, a colleague, a neighbour. The question on everyone’s lips this morning is: why? The Prime Minister must have thought about that question a lot, so will he tell us why he thinks that the United Kingdom has ended up with a death toll of 100,000—the highest number in Europe?

Like the right hon. and learned Gentleman, I mourn every death in this pandemic and we share the grief of all those who have been bereaved. Let him and the House be in no doubt that I and the Government take full responsibility for all the actions that we have taken during this pandemic to fight this disease. Yes, there will indeed be a time when we must learn the lessons of what has happened, reflect on them and prepare. I do not think that moment is now, when we are in the throes of fighting this wave of the new variant, when 37,000 people are struggling with covid in our hospitals. What the country wants is for us to come together as a Parliament and as politicians and to work to keep the virus under control, as we are, and to continue to roll out the fastest vaccination programme in Europe. That is where the minds of the public are fixed.

I am sure that the Prime Minister regrets the fact that 100,000 people have lost their lives. The question is: why—why has the United Kingdom the highest number of deaths in Europe? Why has the United Kingdom a death rate that is higher than almost anywhere in the world? The Prime Minister is going to have to answer that question one day and he should have the decency to answer it today. A few days ago, the chief scientific officer said, and this was his view: prepare to give it now. The lesson, he said, is:

“You’ve got to go hard, early and broader if you’re going to get on top of this. Waiting and watching simply doesn’t work.”

Does the Prime Minister agree with that?

Mr Speaker, when you have a new virus and, indeed, when you have a new variant of that virus of the kind that we have in this country, and when you have dilemmas as hard and as heavy as this Government have had to face over the last year, I must tell the right hon. and learned Gentleman that there are no easy answers. A perpetual lockdown is no answer, but we will continue to do, as I have said to the House and to you, Mr Speaker, everything we can to roll out our vaccine programme to give the public the protection that they want and deserve. As I speak to you today, Mr Speaker, 6.9 million people in our country have had the vaccine. We are on target, if we can get the supplies, to deliver the target of the Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation on groups 1 to 4, the most vulnerable groups, by 15 February. I hope very much to set out in the next few weeks in much more detail how this country can exit now from the pandemic.

The problem with the Prime Minister avoiding the question of why is that vital lessons will not be learned. The reality is this: the Prime Minister was slow into the first lockdown last March; slow in getting protective equipment to the frontline; slow to protect our care homes; slow on testing and tracing; slow into the second lockdown in the autumn; slow to change the Christmas-mixing rules; and slow again into this third lockdown, delaying 13 days from 22 December before implementing it. I fear that he still has not learned that lesson. The latest example is the continued delay in securing our borders. We have known about the variants to the virus since early December, when it was announced in the House of Commons. We know some of those variants are coming from abroad, but we do not know the route. Surely the Prime Minister can see that what is required now is that everybody coming into the country from anywhere in the world should be tested and subject to quarantine in a hotel. Why can that not be put in place today?

Throughout this pandemic, it has been the habit of the Opposition first to support one approach and then to attack it and to twist and to turn. It was only recently that the shadow Transport Secretary was saying that quarantine measures should be relaxed. We have one of the toughest regimes in the world. We ask people to test 72 hours before they fly. They have to produce a passenger locator form, otherwise they are kicked off the flight. They already have to quarantine for 10 days and my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary will be setting out later today, if the right hon. and learned Gentlemen cares to wait for that, even tougher measures for those red list countries where we are particularly concerned about new variants. Again, what the people of this country want us now to do is to come together as a Government, as a Parliament, and to get this thing done.

The Prime Minister complains about the Opposition, but the greatest criticism of the Prime Minister at the moment in relation to borders is coming from his own Home Secretary. She is busy telling anyone who will listen that the Prime Minister did not do enough in relation to the borders last year. I fear that the Prime Minister is repeating the same mistake in relation to the new variants of the virus.

Let me turn to schools. Everybody agrees that reopening our schools should be a national priority, but that requires a plan, and the Prime Minister has not got a plan. So as a first step—as a first step—does he agree with me that, once the first four categories of the most vulnerable have been vaccinated by mid-February, he should bring forward the vaccination of key workers and use the window of the February half-term to vaccinate all teachers and all school staff?

Of course it follows that all teachers in JCVI groups 1 to 9 will be vaccinated as a matter of priority. I pay tribute, by the way, to the huge efforts that parents are making across the country struggling to educate their kids. I know how deeply frustrating it is: the extra burden that we have placed on families by closing the schools. No one has worked harder than my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Education to keep schools open. We all want to open schools. I think what we want to hear from the Leader of the Opposition is that he will say loudly and clearly what he has refused to say so many times and what the public need to hear—that schools are safe. It is absolutly critical that he says that.

I am sorry, but I am none the wiser as to whether the Prime Minister agrees with me that school teachers and school staff should be vaccinated, taking advantage of the February half-term. That is two or three weeks away. It is a fantastic opportunity, and I am no wiser as to whether the Prime Minister thinks that is a good idea or a bad idea.

In the meantime, the Government have a duty to ensure that every single child can learn from home. Without access to a laptop, a computer or the internet, that cannot happen. The Government were challenged on this last summer; they were challenged on it last autumn; and here we are, nearly at the end of January—the best part of a year into this pandemic—and a third of families say they do not have enough laptops or home computers, and over 400,000 children still cannot get online at home. Does the Prime Minister realise how angry many families are that he still has not got to grips with this?

As I said just now, I do fully understand the frustration and impatience of families across the country who are educating their kids at home. I know how difficult it is. I know how frustrated teachers are with educating through remote learning as well. That is why we have provided 1.3 million laptops. That is why we have provided a £1 billion catch-up fund. I will be making a statement in the House in just a few minutes setting out what more we propose to do with the reopening of schools and the way forward with schools, and what more we propose to do by way of supporting pupils and teachers and parents, if the right hon. and learned Gentleman will just wait a few minutes. But he has missed his opportunity, once again, to say what I think people need to hear if we are to get schools to reopen, because that is the best thing for pupils and the best thing for families across the country. I would like to hear from the Leader of the Opposition, in defiance of his union paymasters, that schools are safe.

Every week the Prime Minister comes with his pre-prepared lines. I think when 100,000 people have died he should take the time to answer the question. When one in three families are saying that they do not have enough laptops or computers, his answers are simply not good enough. We are nearly a year into this pandemic—this has not happened in the last few weeks—and one and three families say they do not have the wherewithal to do home teaching. Those children are going without home schooling. That is the question that the Prime Minister should be answering. The UK is the first country in Europe to record 100,000 covid deaths. We also have the deepest recession of any major economy. Our schools are closed and our borders are open. My biggest concern is that the Prime Minister still has not learned the lessons of last year. I fear that as a result we will see more tragedy and more grim milestones.

This afternoon, I will be speaking to families who have lost loved ones to covid. The last time I did that, I asked the Prime Minister what he would like me to say to them on his behalf. He replied with a pre-prepared, childish gag. I can tell the Prime Minister just how badly that went down with those families when I spoke to them later that afternoon. I ask him again—I hope that this time he will have the decency to answer them properly—what would he like me to say to those bereaved families on his behalf this afternoon?

I am grateful to the right hon. and learned Gentleman for meeting the families of the bereaved, as I have done and I know Members of the House have done throughout the pandemic. It is important that we do that. The message that I would give those families is the same that I have given everybody I have met: I of course deeply personally regret the loss of life and the suffering of their families, but I think the best thing that we can do to honour the memory of those who have died and to honour those who are currently grieving is to work together to bring this virus down and to keep it under control in the way that we are. Throughout this pandemic, I am sad to say that the Leader of the Opposition has never failed in his efforts to try to score political points when he could be doing just that. He has twisted, and he has turned. One week, he calls for tougher border measures after the shadow Transport Secretary called for a looser quarantine. He calls for schools to go back, but he will not even say this morning that schools are safe. He tries to associate himself now with the vaccine programme, because he senses that that may be going well, but he stood on a manifesto to unbundle the pharmaceutical companies—the big pharma—that made those vaccines possible.

I know you want me to sit down, Mr Speaker, but I want to make this point, because I tried to make it last week. The right hon. and learned Gentleman even attacked the vaccine taskforce for spending £675,000 on an effort to discover whether hard-to-reach groups would take a vaccine. I really cannot think of a better investment right now of public funds, and I hope that later on this afternoon, he might think of apologising for what he did and for that attack on the vaccine taskforce. The Opposition and the right hon. and learned Gentleman can go on making their party political points. We will go on, with or without his help, in taking this country forward, fighting the pandemic and getting coronavirus down.

The importance of levelling up to constituencies like mine is critical as we look to build back better from covid. With that in mind, can the Prime Minister commit to delivering the eastern leg of HS2 in full, creating 150,000 jobs and billions of pounds of investment in the midlands and the north, as well as unlocking the capacity for local transport schemes in Derbyshire, in which cycling and walking must play a crucial part? (911440)

My hon. Friend is absolutely right, and she is right to be militating for the eastern leg of HS2. We will be publishing the integrated rail plan early this year, and I am delighted that the £161 million from the transforming cities fund for Nottingham and Derby includes £10 million for a new cycle route between Nottingham, Derby and East Midlands airport. I look forward to cycling it with my hon. Friend.

May I associate myself with the Prime Minister’s remarks on the holocaust? We all remember the 6 million Jews who lost their lives and those terrible crimes against humanity. We should never forget that, nor, indeed, those who have sadly followed them in genocides around the world.

Last night, the Prime Minister claimed that

“we truly did everything we could”

to avoid the deaths of 100,000 people across the UK from covid-19, but we all know that that is simply not true. The UK Government response has been defined by a lack of leadership, last-minute U-turns, mixed messaging and devastating policies. All of this has had an effect on the scale of the pandemic. Professor Linda Bauld has said that nearly a quarter of all deaths we have seen have occurred in the last month. Since the start of the pandemic, the Prime Minister has promised to always follow the advice of scientists. This morning, scientists have said that this Government are responsible for a “legacy of poor decisions” during the pandemic. Does the Prime Minister still agree with the scientists?

We have throughout followed scientific advice and done everything we can to minimise disease and suffering throughout the country. The right hon. Gentleman will have heard my answer to the Leader of the Opposition: there are no easy solutions when we are facing dilemmas as tragic as the ones being confronted by countries around the world. But I think that everywhere in the UK can be proud of the efforts now being made by the NHS, by the Army, by volunteers and by pharmacists to roll out the fastest vaccination programme in Europe. That is something that the Government must do, can do, are doing and will do.

I must respectfully say that this is not about apportioning blame for honest mistakes; it is about learning lessons from a Prime Minister who has repeatedly ignored the scientific advice. When we called on the Prime Minister to introduce tough border controls last spring, he refused. When we told the Prime Minister it was a mistake to end lockdown prematurely and push millions of workers back to the office, he ignored us. When we said that tough restrictions and full furlough support were still needed, he dithered, delayed and left it too late. People have been asked to make huge sacrifices by his Government. They at least now deserve financial certainty. Tell people straight, Prime Minister: will this UK Government extend furlough, maintain the universal credit uplift and finally offer support to the 3 million excluded, or will he leave families struggling with the uncertainty while he dithers and delays?

On the subject of dithering and delaying, I am delighted that the British Army is helping the Scottish National party Government to roll out the vaccine faster. That is extremely important and one of the benefits of the Union of the UK.

On the right hon. Gentleman’s point about the support for people and families across this country, I do not think anybody could seriously deny that this Government have given absolutely unprecedented—and unequalled, by global standards—support throughout the pandemic. We will continue to put our arms around people across the whole UK throughout this crisis.

The Government have put in place an extensive system of support to help employers and employees through the pandemic. However, a group that has been overlooked, many of whom are now really struggling, are those self- employed who set up their own businesses after April 2019 and were unable to submit a complete tax return. Ten months on, that obstacle to providing support no longer applies. To assist them, will the Prime Minister emulate the Northern Ireland Government’s newly self-employed support scheme, which is subject to straight- forward criteria and guards against fraud? (911443)

My hon. Friend is right to raise those concerns, because there are some people in the self-employed group whom it has been hard to reach and to support in the way that we want. They are fewer in number than is sometimes suggested in this House, and I can tell him that 2.7 million self-employed people have received support totalling over £18.5 billion. But the ideas that he suggests will, I know, be taken up by my right hon. Friend the Chancellor, and he can expect to hear more on 3 March.

There is a yawning gulf between the Government’s green rhetoric and their action. Hot on the heels of sanctioning the first deep coalmine in 30 years, Ministers have broken yet another election manifesto promise and will keep sending plastic waste to developing countries, where they are regularly dumped or burnt. Nine-year-old schoolgirl Lizzie knows that this is wrong, and she has a simple message for the Prime Minister: protect our oceans and people living in poorer countries by banning these dirty plastic exports now. Will he listen to Lizzie and to the 90,000 signatories to her petition and stop this damaging and unethical practice—yes or no? (911441)

First of all, I must absolutely contest and deny what the hon. Member has said about action. She talks about coalmines, and she may not know that in 1970—I was alive; she may not have been alive—this country got 90% of its energy from fossil fuels, from coal, and we now get 5%. That is thanks to the green, active, technologically optimistic policies driven by Conservative Governments, and I am very proud of it. I am also proud of what we are doing to ban plastic and ban the export of plastic waste around the world, which is in our Conservative party manifesto, which we will fulfil.

My constituent David Hopkins lives with grade 4 glioblastoma. The pioneering immunotherapy treatment he needs is not yet available in the UK. He and his wife Nicki continue to fundraise for his treatments in Germany, and I know that the wonderful people of Scunthorpe have been incredibly supportive in this. Will the Prime Minister join me in wishing the Hopkins family well, and will he work with me and the Brain Tumour Charity to improve research and treatments for patients like David? (911444)

Yes, indeed. I thank my hon. Friend for what she is doing to campaign for such an excellent charity and, indeed, for her constituent David. I can tell her that the Department of Health is working with Tessa Jowell’s Brain Cancer Mission, announcing £40 million over five years on brain tumours of the type that she describes. I would encourage my hon. Friend to continue the excellent work that she is doing in this area.

Can I associate myself and the Liberal Democrats with the Prime Minister’s comments on the holocaust?A year ago next week, in a speech at Greenwich, the Prime Minister said that it was “high time” that the US“cut their punitive tariffs on Scotch whisky.”Since then, the industry has lost half a billion pounds in exports to the US, and the Government have failed to reach a deal to have the 25% tariff on single malt removed. So will the Prime Minister commit to working urgently with the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy to comply with the World Trade Organisation rules that led to the issue, and can he promise that in the Budget his Government will take steps to support this vital industry and employer? (911442)

I do not want to anticipate the Budget, but I know that my right hon. Friend the Chancellor habitually does things to support fantastic industries such as Scotch whisky. But one of the reasons for leaving the EU is that we will be able to do a free trade deal with the US and to obviate tariffs of the kind that the hon. Member describes, which would be there in perpetuity if the Scottish nationalist party were to get its way and to take Scotland back into the EU.

This week, Kent’s first covid mass vaccination centre opened in Folkestone, and is working now along with our three GP-led hubs in Folkestone, Hythe and Lydd. As we accelerate the delivery of this protection against the virus, does my right hon. Friend agree with the vaccines Minister that we need greater sharing of data at local level so that we can target the resources of the largest vaccination programme in our history at both hard-to-reach groups of individuals and the most vulnerable communities? (911447)

My hon. Friend makes a very important point, and I know that it is something that everybody wants to see across this House—the sharing of data at local levels. There are particular problems, obviously, with sharing medical records—detailed medical records—with local government, but what we are doing is giving public health officials at local level all the information we can give them, without breaching that confidentiality, to find those hard-to-reach groups, and to get them and encourage them to take vaccines. Wonderful work is being done to get people to take vaccines. I encourage all Members, in your constituencies, to get your constituents to take up this offer.

Almost four years on from the Grenfell tragedy, Government inaction on the cladding crisis means that hundreds of thousands of leaseholders, including my constituents, remain trapped in unsafe, unsellable blocks. Ministers have promised at least 15 times that leaseholders will not have to pay unfair costs, but, as ever with this Government, there have been a lot of promises not matched by delivery. So will the Prime Minister finally act, end this injustice and come forward with a plan to fix the cladding crisis that does not burden leaseholders with the cost? (911445)

Of course we will, and my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Housing, Communities and Local Government will be bringing forward a plan very shortly. It is also important that mortgage companies do not unreasonably refuse mortgages on properties that are perfectly safe.

This has been an extraordinarily difficult year for both the Prime Minister and the people of this country, since the coronavirus was first detected, and their fortitude is being severely tested. People need to know when they can get their children back to school and businesses can start to reopen. Will my right hon. Friend assure the House that when he announces his comprehensive plan in mid-February, it will deal with how we lift every area out of its tier, and with the long- term problems with covid with which we will have to live? Furthermore, can we try to avoid making changes in future with 24 hours’ notice, so that at long last the people of this country can start to plan their daily lives? (911448)

In a few moments, later this afternoon, I will set out in more detail what my hon. Friend would like to know about our approach to schools, and in the course of the next few weeks, assuming that the vaccine roll-out continues well, and assuming that we do not find new variants of concern or have to change our calculations, I will be setting out a broader roadmap for a way forward for the whole country, of a kind that I think my hon. Friend and his constituents would appreciate.

My grand- mother received a war widow’s pension for 67 years. My mother received one for 49 years. Two of my nephews are veterans, and a veterans’ network operates in my constituency. They would agree that a pension should be paid at UK rates, wherever a veteran, or any pensioner, lives in the world. When will 96-year-old Anne Puckridge, a world war two veteran who lives in Canada, and 60,000 other veterans who served their country courageously and live abroad, stop being treated as second-class veterans and get the full pension they deserve? Will the Prime Minister commit to ending that injustice, and agree to meet representatives from the End Frozen Pensions campaign? As a start, that is the very least that a British Prime Minister could do for Britain’s greatest generation. (911446)

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for raising that issue. I have come across this problem before, but the case he describes is obviously acute and I will ensure that he gets the meeting he desires with the relevant Minister.

In my constituency, Chapman’s of Rye is acting as an export hub for consignments of local fish going across the English channel, but it is proving extremely challenging, expensive, and time consuming. Mr Chapman is creating an opportunity to develop Rye as a vital export hub for Kent and Sussex fishermen, but he is burdened with red tape. What steps is my right hon. Friend taking to support opportunities such as those in Rye to make exporting easier? Would he accept an invitation to visit that fantastic enterprise? (911450)

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for raising that, because in the last few weeks this has been an issue for many fishing businesses and communities. There has been too much red tape, and we are providing an immediate £23 million to help businesses with the problems they are encountering through no fault of their own. We are also investing £100 million in a long-term programme for the UK fishing industry, to help with equipment and processing, and to enable this country to be in a position to take advantage of the incredible access to our fisheries that we will have as the years go by.

Will the Prime Minister now do the right thing and commit to making the £20 a week uplift to universal credit permanent, or will he be responsible for pushing thousands of Scottish families further into an income crisis? (911449)

I repeat what I have said before: we will continue to look after the people of this country throughout this pandemic, and it is a feature of the strength of the UK Treasury that we can continue to do this.

I commend the Prime Minister for reaffirming his commitment to levelling up the nation. The best way to level up is through a good local education. The town of Radcliffe in my constituency has been without a high school since 2014. As the bidding process for free schools remains in the final stages, will my right hon. Friend help by supporting my campaign, alongside the people of Radcliffe, for the new school that the town desperately needs? (911451)

I thank my hon. Friend, who is a fantastic campaigner for his constituents. I can tell him that we are indeed looking at expanding the free school programme—wave 14 of free schools will be announced very shortly—and I hope that he will not have too long to wait.

Alison Powell’s tax return showed that she was paid £10 more as an employee than her earnings in self- employment. As a result, she did not qualify, and still does not qualify, for any financial support. It is no good the Prime Minister saying that his Government have done “whatever it takes”. As the Institute for Fiscal Studies said just today, 1.8 million self-employed people and 700,000 owner-managers have not had financial support. When are the Government going to start supporting those who have been financially excluded so that Alison Powell and millions of people like her can afford to stay at home and play their part in restricting this virus while the vaccine is rolled out? (911453)

I am conscious that, as the hon. Gentleman says, there have been difficult cases with self-employed people who have not qualified for some of the support that we have offered. I would invite him to send the details of Alison’s case to us and we will see what we can do, but I must remind the House that we have spent about £18 billion supporting self-employed people throughout this pandemic and, as I say, we will continue to put our arms around the British people for the duration of the crisis.

My constituents recognise the need for lockdown but are increasingly concerned about their mental health. Many of them asked me to raise this today. On Monday, more than 20 Peterborough schoolchildren told me how it was affecting them. They had organised their own mental health summit with me and the local clinical commissioning group. Does the Prime Minister agree that the country’s mental health is suffering and should be a factor in deciding when to end specific restrictions? (911452)

I know the stress that people are under—not just school pupils, whom my hon. Friend is right to raise, but particularly NHS workers—during this current wave of the pandemic. It has been really gruelling the last few weeks and months. We are investing hugely in mental health support; on top of the £13.3 billion in 2019-20, we will see a further £2.3 billion a year by 2023-24, and that will support 380,000 adults and 345,000 children.

Given that the Prime Minister has already said today that he will take full responsibility for all the actions his Government have taken during the pandemic, will he confirm that that will include the woeful and reckless management of the covid outbreak at the Driver and Vehicle Licensing Agency sites—Government sites—in my constituency? Will he also ensure that his Transport Secretary is held accountable for the inexcusable damage and devastation that that has caused?

I thank the hon. Lady for raising that question with me. May I offer her, by the way, my condolences on the death her father? I can tell her that we have been working flat out on the problem at the DVLA. All staff who can work from home are doing so, measures have been taken to minimise the number of people on the site at any one time, and more than 2,000 tests have been carried out by the DVLA in the last fortnight alone, with all the results so far coming back negative.

I am suspending the House to enable the necessary arrangements to be made for the next business.

Sitting suspended.