With your permission, Mr Speaker, I will update the House on our response to covid.
The patience and hard work of the British people have combined with the success of the vaccination programme to reduce deaths and hospitalisations to their lowest levels since last July and, from Monday, England will ease lockdown restrictions in line with step 3 of our road map. This will amount to the single biggest step of our journey back towards normality. But after everything we have endured, we must be vigilant, because the threat of this virus remains real and new variants—including the one first identified in India, which is of increasing concern here in the UK—pose a potentially lethal danger. Caution has to be our watchword.
Our country, like every country, has found itself in the teeth of the gravest pandemic for a century, which has imposed heartbreaking sorrow on families around the world, with more than 127,000 lives lost in the United Kingdom alone. Our grief would have been still greater without the daily heroism of the men and women of our national health service, the protection of our vaccines—already in the arms of more than two thirds of adults across the UK—and the dedication of everyone who has followed the rules and sacrificed so much that we cherish.
Amid such tragedy, the state has an obligation to examine its actions as rigorously and as candidly as possible and to learn every lesson for the future, which is why I have always said that, when the time is right, there should be a full and independent inquiry. I can confirm today that the Government will establish an independent public inquiry on a statutory basis, with full powers under the Inquiries Act 2005, including the ability to compel the production of all relevant materials and take oral evidence in public under oath.
In establishing the inquiry, we will work closely with the devolved Administrations, as we have done throughout our pandemic response. My right hon. Friend the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster has this morning spoken to the First Ministers of Scotland and Wales, and the First and Deputy First Ministers of Northern Ireland, to begin those conversations.
Every part of our United Kingdom has suffered the ravages of this virus, and every part of the state has pulled together to do battle against it. If we are to recover as one Team UK, as we must, then we should also learn lessons together in the same spirit. We will consult the devolved Administrations before finalising the scope and detailed arrangements, so that this inquiry can consider all key aspects of the UK response.
This process will place the state’s actions under the microscope, and we should be mindful of the scale of that undertaking and the resources required to do it properly. The exercise of identifying and disclosing all relevant information, the months of preparation and retrospective analysis, and the time that people will have to spend testifying in public—in some cases for days—will place a significant burden on our NHS, on the whole of Government, on our scientific advisers, and on many others. We must not inadvertently divert or distract the very people on whom we all depend in the heat of our struggle against this disease. The end of the lockdown is not the end of the pandemic. The World Health Organisation has said that the pandemic has now reached its global peak and will last throughout this year. Our own scientific advisers judge that, although more positive data is coming in and the outlook is improving, there could still be another resurgence in hospitalisations and deaths.
We also face the persistent threat of new variants, and should those prove highly transmissible and elude the protection of our vaccines they would have the potential to cause even greater suffering than we endured in January. In any case, there is a high likelihood of a surge this winter when the weather assists the transmission of all respiratory diseases and the pressure on our NHS is most acute.
I expect that the right moment for the inquiry to begin is at the end of this period, in spring 2022. I know that some in this Chamber and many bereaved families will be anxious for this inquiry to begin sooner, so let me reassure the House that we are fully committed to learning lessons at every stage of this crisis. We have already subjected our response to independent scrutiny, including 17 reports by the independent National Audit Office and 50 parliamentary inquiries, and we will continue to do so—we will continue to learn lessons, as we have done throughout the pandemic. None the less, no public inquiry could take place fast enough to assist in the very difficult judgments that will remain necessary throughout the rest of this year and the remainder of the pandemic. We must not weigh down the efforts of those engaged in protecting us every day and thereby risk endangering further lives.
Instead this inquiry must be able to look at the events of the past year in the cold light of day and identify the key issues that will make a difference for the future. It will be free to scrutinise every document, to hear from all the key players, and to analyse and learn from the breadth of our response. That is the right way, I think, to get the answers that the people of this country deserve, and to ensure that our United Kingdom is better prepared for any future pandemic.
Entirely separately from the inquiry, there is a solemn duty on our whole United Kingdom to come together and cherish the memories of those who have been lost. Like many across the Chamber, I was deeply moved when I visited the covid memorial wall opposite Parliament, and I wholeheartedly support the plan for a memorial in St Paul’s cathedral, which will provide a fitting place of reflection in the heart of our capital.
I also know that communities across the whole country will want to find ways of commemorating what we have all been through, so the Government will support their efforts by establishing a UK commission on covid commemoration. This national endeavour, above party politics, will remember the loved ones we have lost, honour the heroism of those who have saved lives and the courage of frontline workers who have kept our country going, celebrate the genius of those who created the vaccines, and commemorate the small acts of kindness and the daily sacrifice of millions who stayed at home, buying time for our scientists to come to our rescue. We will set out the commission membership and terms of reference in due course.
In telling the whole story of this era in our history, we will work, again, across our United Kingdom, together with the devolved Administrations, to preserve the spirit that has sustained us in the gravest crisis since the second world war, resolving to go forwards together and to build back better. I commend this statement to the House.
May I thank the Prime Minister for advance sight of his statement? I clearly welcome the independent inquiry into the pandemic and the establishing of a UK commission on covid commemoration. Both are necessary; both will play an important part in learning the lessons and commemorating those we have lost.
Let me speak first for the families grieving the loss of a loved one. I, too, attended the covid memorial wall that the Prime Minister spoke of, opposite Parliament. It is moving. Everybody who has been there knows it is moving—thousands of hearts on the wall, stretching from one bridge to the next, and rightly facing this place. But I have also taken time to meet the grieving and bereaved families on a number of occasions, and to talk to them and with them about their experience. Those meetings have been among the most difficult I have ever had in my life, and the same goes for the staff who came with me and the other members of my team who were in those meetings, because what those families described was not just the loved one they have lost—the dad, the mum, the sister, the brother—and something about those individuals, nor was it just the fact that they had passed away. The hardest bit was the details. They told me about not being able to say goodbye in the way they wanted, whether that was in a hospital or elsewhere, and not being able to have a funeral in the way they wanted.
It was very hard to hear some of those stories, and lots of those families have searing questions about what happened—the decisions; what went wrong; why what happened happened to their families. So it is good that the Government are consulting the devolved authorities, of course it is, but the Government must also consult the families, because this inquiry will only work if it has the support and confidence of the families. I urge the Prime Minister and the Government to consult the families at the earliest possible moment.
The Government should also consult those on the frontline, who have done so much, whether in the NHS or social care or on other frontlines that we have seen, because they, too, deserve answers to the very many questions that they have, and they have done so much in this pandemic.
The next question is timing. The principle is that the inquiry should be as soon as possible. I understand that a statutory inquiry will take time to set up—of course it will—but why can it not be later this year? Why can it not start earlier? I want to press the Prime Minister on one particular point. The Prime Minister says the inquiry will start in spring 2022. Is that the inquiry opening and beginning to take of evidence in spring 2022, or is that starting work in setting up the inquiry? They are two very different things, and if it is the latter, the inquiry will not then be for many months afterwards, so if it is to formally open and start taking evidence in spring 2022, I would be really grateful if the Prime Minister made that clear.
Then there is the question of the terms of reference. Obviously, that will take time. There will have to be consultation with the devolved Administrations and, again, with the families and those on the frontline, but crucially with this Parliament. This House needs to be involved in the question of what the terms of reference should be. There will be different views across the House and they need to be heard, because this has to have the confidence of all in this Chamber.
All relevant questions must be asked and answered. That must of course include the decisions made in the last 14 or 15 months—all the decisions made—but there are wider questions of preparedness and resilience, particularly of our public services, that need to be asked. There are reasons why the pandemic hit those in overcrowded houses and insecure work the hardest. They need to be addressed as well, and no inquiry that does not address those questions will give the answers that many deserve.
Finally, there is the question of who chairs the inquiry. Again this is too early, but the wider the engagement on that question the wider the likely support for the inquiry. We need an independent inquiry that has the full support of everybody, so that its conclusions bear real authority. That will be achieved with the widest embracing of the terms of reference and the chair of the inquiry.
Let me be clear: I welcome this inquiry and we will play whatever part we can to ensure that it works well and gets the answers to the questions. Again, we support the commemoration commission and will work on a cross-party basis to ensure that that is fully the sort of commemoration that the families, and others who have lost through this pandemic, feel is appropriate. That should, of course, be on a cross-party basis. It is above politics, and rightly so.
I thank the right hon. and learned Gentleman for his support for both the measures announced today: the commemoration commission and the inquiry. He asked some entirely justifiable questions about engagement with the bereaved and those who have been on the frontline about the areas in which the inquiry will want to focus—all the background to the growth of the pandemic. I have no doubt that when it is set up the inquiry will certainly look at all of those, and we will make sure to have the widest possible consultation and engagement.
The House should understand that I feel personally very strongly that this country has been through a trauma like no other. It is vital for the sake of the bereaved, and for the sake of the whole country, that we should understand exactly what happened and learn the lessons. Obviously we have been learning lessons throughout, but we need to have a very clear understanding of what took place over the past 14 months.
We owe it to the country to have as much transparency as we can, and to produce answers within a reasonable timescale. I am sure the House will want to see that as well. Clearly that will be a matter for the chair of the inquiry and the terms of reference, when they are set up, but it is my strong view that the country wants to see a proper, full and above all independent inquiry into the pandemic of last year.
I must repeat to the right hon. and learned Gentleman that I think the timing that we have set out is the right timing. I think that it would be wrong to consecrate huge amounts of official time and public health workers’ time to an inquiry when they may very well still be in the middle of the pandemic, but clearly, to clarify the point that he raises, the steps taken to set out the terms of reference and establish the chair of the inquiry will happen before the spring of next year. We will be getting it under way and taking some key decisions, but I think that the House will agree that it would not be right to devote the time of people who are looking after us and saving lives to an inquiry before we can be much more certain than we are now that the pandemic is behind us. I hope that that carries the approval of the House.
Primary care networks have done an incredible job of rolling out the vaccine, but GPs and practice nurses need to return to their surgeries and their patients. As my right hon. Friend said, we have to anticipate a difficult autumn and winter. What reassurance can he give that there will be capacity in the system for second jabs, potentially booster jabs in the autumn and the annual roll-out of the flu jab?
My right hon. Friend raises a very important point, particularly about the flu jab. As she will know, there was not much of a flu pandemic over the last winter period. We are worried about people’s levels of resistance to flu, but we have the capacity, and we will also have the capacity for the booster jabs.
I thank the Prime Minister for an advance copy of his statement. I was interested to hear him commit to an inquiry. He will be aware that the First Minister has already committed to that; of course, the devolved Administrations have tailored their decisions to their needs.
I think all of us can feel a sense of optimism: the feeling that, after such a difficult year, things are edging towards some normality. The simplest of things—hugging a loved one—have never felt so important, after a year of restrictions in which we have never seen people suffer so much. The vaccines have generated the hope that people are feeling, and that hope is within touching distance—but just as the hope is fragile, so is the economic recovery.
The Prime Minister spoke of lessons, answers and timing, but this morning’s Office for National Statistics figures demonstrate the depth of the plummet that has been experienced by the economy and, equally, the scale of the recovery needed. That is why the glaring omission of an employment Bill from yesterday’s Queen’s Speech was so shocking—a clear signal of a UK Government with no recovery plan.
Let me ask the Prime Minister three questions on concrete measures that would kickstart the economy and help those still in need. First, will his Government reverse their rigid plan to suddenly end the furlough scheme in September, which will result in a damaging cliff edge for millions of workers? Secondly, there is another damaging cliff edge due in September, with the planned Tory cut to the lifeline of the £20 universal credit uplift. Is he really still planning to rip that lifeline away from the most vulnerable when they most need it? Finally, as people re-enter the workplace, will the Prime Minister commit to supporting legislation, led by my hon. Friend the Member for Paisley and Renfrewshire North (Gavin Newlands), that would finally ban the disgraceful practice of firing and rehiring workers?
The entire programme of this Government is dedicated to ensuring that we go from jabs, jabs, jabs to jobs, jobs, jobs, as I said yesterday in the Chamber. The hon. Member talks about kickstarting an employment recovery. As she knows, for young people we have the £2 billion kickstart programme to get 18 to 24-year-olds into work, and we have the restart programme for those who are long-term unemployed.
Our campaign and our mission is to use the resources of the state, as we have done throughout the pandemic, to get people into work. Because of the unusual, extraordinary circumstances that we faced, we had to use the resources of the state to keep people out of work. We are now going through a massive programme of investment in infrastructure across the whole United Kingdom to get people into work, and I hope that she will support that.
The whole House will welcome the tone and content of what the Prime Minister has said today, and in particular his proper commitment to the transparency of the inquiry, learning everything we can from the past. There are 3,500 people across my constituency who are involved in the hospitality sector, and many businesses have invested their own money in making covid adaptations to ensure the safety of their customers when they return. Given the very sensible road map that he has outlined, will he emphasise the increasing role of personal judgment and common sense, rather than Government fiat, as greater normality returns, and with it our hugely valued and much cherished civil liberties?
As my right hon. Friend knows, the hospitality sector in Sutton Coldfield, which I know from my own experience to be wonderful, will, like the rest of the hospitality sector across the country, be able to open up in full on Monday, including indoors. As we go forward, we hope, and I cannot see any evidence to contradict this, that we will be able to open up fully from 21 June—although people will still clearly need to exercise caution and common sense in the way they go about their lives, because the virus, I am afraid, is still going to be present in our lives for a long time to come.
The public inquiry is very welcome and desperately needed so that the public can understand why the UK has suffered one of the highest death tolls in the world. It is critically important that this inquiry is properly independent and has the confidence of the public, including the bereaved families of the over 127,000 people who so tragically lost their lives. Consulting those families once the inquiry has started is too late. Will the Prime Minister today commit to urgently meeting representatives of Covid-19 Bereaved Families for Justice to consult them on both the chair and the terms of reference for the inquiry?
I can certainly reassure the hon. Lady that the inquiry will be fully independent and that the bereaved and other groups will be consulted on the way it is set up. I meet representatives of the bereaved and indeed bereaved families regularly, and will continue to do so.
I welcome the announcement on the public inquiry and the timings. The Prime Minister will know that the Science and Technology Committee and the Health and Social Care Committee are doing their own inquiry that is hoping to report in July, so the Government will have an early chance to learn immediate lessons.
However, it would be crazy to ask Ministers and officials to spend time with lawyers going through emails, texts and WhatsApps when we want their entire focus to be on the pandemic. As we seek to support the NHS going forward, the pledges on an additional 50,000 nurses are very welcome, but does the Prime Minister know that we also have shortages in nearly every single specialty for doctors? Is now not the moment to overhaul our long-term workforce planning for the NHS so that we can give the public confidence that we really are training enough doctors for the future?
Yes, absolutely. The distinguished former Health Secretary will, I am sure, know that there are now 50,000 more people working in the NHS this year than there were at the same time last year, including about 11,000 more nurses, already, and 6,700 more doctors, but we are going to get even more.
I thank the Prime Minister for his statement, particularly for those who have lost family members; I am very conscious of my wife losing her mum, and we all grieve for her especially.
The involvement of the Northern Ireland Assembly in the inquiry to look back at this is very important, and I welcome it. Will the Prime Minister outline what discussion has taken place between the devolved regions to ensure parity of travel restrictions so that every area of the UK can be accessed safely? Will he confirm that help will be made available to make travel affordable and encourage people to go to Northern Ireland over the summer so that people can make the most of the great British summer staycation throughout every area of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland?
I thank the hon. Gentleman for his excellent question. We of course regularly consult all the devolved Administrations about making sure that travel can continue to flow freely through our United Kingdom. He makes a superb point about the attractions of Northern Ireland as a holiday destination and I hope people take him up on it.
May I thank the Prime Minister for coming to visit the good residents of Stourbridge last week? Cars stopped, horns were honked and people came out in their droves to say thank you for the success of the vaccine roll-out.
Last week, voters made it clear right here in Stourbridge that they want the focus to be on their priorities, not political games, as demonstrated by the fact that I now have Conservative councils in the traditional Labour bastions of Quarry Bank, Lye and Cradley, with more voters coming out than ever before to say this. Does the Prime Minister share my hope that Labour Members will now act constructively with this Government so that they can deliver on those people’s priorities as we build back better?
I much enjoyed my trip to Stourbridge, and my hon. Friend is entirely right in what she says. To return to the point I made to the hon. Lady from the Scottish nationalist party—the Scottish National party—the hon. Member for East Renfrewshire (Kirsten Oswald), we have the right agenda for the country: this is the right time to build back better with the colossal programme that we have and the investments we are making, but we must also learn the lessons from the pandemic and that is why we are setting up the inquiry in the way that we are.
I welcome the Prime Minister’s statement, particularly his commitment to an inquiry at the appropriate time. On that, terminology really does count, so can the Prime Minister confirm that it will be not just independent and judge-led, but a statutory public inquiry under the Inquiries Act 2005, with powers to compel witnesses under oath? Most importantly, will bereaved families have a role in setting the terms of the inquiry and be given the full opportunity to give evidence at it?
I would not like to accuse the hon. Gentleman, whom I admire greatly, of having missed my opening statement, but of course it will be a full public independent inquiry under the terms of the 2005 Act, and of course it is right that the bereaved, along with many other groups, should be consulted about the terms of reference.
I welcome the Prime Minister’s statement, and especially that the inquiry will be independent. Without wishing to prejudge the inquiry, I am anxious about institutions such as Public Health England and how they responded early on to key workers. I hope the inquiry will also congratulate the fantastic doctors, nurses and volunteers who helped roll out over 1.5 million vaccines in Sussex; I am incredibly grateful to all the staff in Uckfield, Crowborough and Hailsham.
The Prime Minister can do two things immediately for the care homes in my constituency. First, those who want to reside in a care home currently have to spend 14 days isolated in their room. Will the Prime Minister look again at that isolation period because it impacts so greatly on the physical and mental health of residents? Secondly, the care homes have taken such a big hit, so can we consider putting in place a short financial package to support them so they can support our loved ones throughout this period?
My hon. Friend is totally right to raise the work of care homes, and we have put in repeated investments; I think another £1 billion went into supporting care homes throughout the pandemic. She is also right to raise the very painful questions of visiting and the ability of care home residents to leave their care home safely, and in that we have to balance the risks to them as well. We tried to increase the number of visitors they can have, and we hope very soon that greater freedoms will be possible.
Can the Prime Minister reassure the House that the terms of reference of this inquiry will include those suffering from long covid and the diagnosis, treatment and support for those who will no doubt be suffering for the foreseeable future?
The Prime Minister has talked powerfully about the importance of economic recovery, and it is incumbent on those of us who supported the lockdown to get behind that however we can; if we get it wrong, we will pay the costs of the pandemic twice over.
Tomorrow a report will be published describing the opportunities of geothermal investment for our economy, potentially creating over 1,000 new jobs with £100 million of investment by 2025. New jobs, new technologies: that is the key to getting our economic recovery on track. Will the Prime Minister give the report his personal attention and agree to meet me and other MPs who are getting behind this important new industry?
I am very excited by and interested in my hon. Friend’s geothermal plans: they sound good to me, and we are certainly investing in that kind of technology. With £22 billion going into pure R&D, we are putting in record sums for this country, and I am sure that geothermal could be part of the mix of our green industrial revolution.
Does the Prime Minister agree that the inquiry will have to look at the original decision-making process, which failed to control borders and delayed the lockdown while talking about herd immunity, look at the appointment process for Dido Harding to head up the track and trace system and also look at the billions of pounds’ worth of PPE contracts awarded to Tory chums and friends? Will he confirm that the inquiry will have the powers to call for all electronic communications between Government Ministers and their Tory chums who got contracts?
I congratulate the Prime Minister on his statement and on his announcement that step 3 of our road map to recovery will go ahead as scheduled on 17 May. Like many across Stoke-on-Trent North, Kidsgrove and Talke, I have enjoyed a pint at the Millrace in Milton and another at the Bulls Head in Burslem, as pubs were able to open outdoors under step 2 of our road map. However, not every publican has been able to open their doors yet, and both they and excellent local brewers such as Titanic Brewery in Burslem have faced a very hard time throughout this pandemic. Will my right hon. Friend create a new draught beer duty rate to provide targeted support for breweries and pubs throughout the UK, which is only possible since leaving the European Union, recognising the important role that pubs play in our local communities?
I thank my hon. Friend for pointing out another of the advantages of leaving the European Union. Although we have consulted publicans and brewers on the potential for a differential duty rate on draught beer, we are awaiting the responses from the Treasury, and the Treasury will reply in due course.
An 11-year-old girl called Mary caught covid in December 2020. Her family used to describe her as bouncing off the walls and full of energy. She loved sport and was excited about starting secondary school in September. Now she is fatigued and lethargic, she walks with a stick and she can only attend school part time. The doctors are baffled because she had no underlying health condition and she seems unable to recover. Please can the Prime Minister help me find for the family the expert advice and support that Mary needs, and provide urgent resources for children suffering with long covid in Hull and East Riding?
I thank the hon. Member for raising the case of Mary, and I am very sorry to hear about her suffering. If the hon. Member would be kind enough to write to me about her I will see what I can do to make sure that we get the right answers from the Government and see what we can do to get her the medical help she needs.
I warmly welcome the Prime Minister’s statement today. I know from speaking to Carshalton and Wallington residents that they are particularly concerned, as we emerge from the pandemic, about backlogs in elective surgery, cancer treatments and looking after the mental health of those who have struggled in lockdown. Can my right hon. Friend assure me that these will be front and centre of our plans for the NHS as we emerge from the pandemic?
My hon. Friend is quite right to raise that issue, and I can tell him that we have already invested considerably in mental health, with mental health support and the mental health youth ambassador, but we will continue to do more. As I think I said in the press conference on Monday, this is Mental Health Awareness Week, and people who have been struggling during the pandemic really should not hesitate to seek help.
To the best of my knowledge, everybody is getting the jabs when they are asked to come forward. If the hon. Member has particular cases where people are worried about the time when they are going to get a jab—whether it is AstraZeneca, Pfizer, Moderna or another one—I would be very grateful if he would send me the details, and we will see what we can do to sort it out.
My hon. Friend makes a very good point about the rates of infection of the B.1.617.2 variant, as we should probably call it. At the moment the cases look as though they are about 860 or so, but there may be more. It may be more transmissible—it may be considerably more transmissible. We are looking at all the potential solutions for the surges we are seeing in Bolton and elsewhere, including the one that he describes, though that is not top of the list at the moment.
The Prime Minister said in his statement that the public inquiry, which I certainly welcome,
“will place the state’s actions under the microscope.”
The Prime Minister is, of course, First Lord of the Treasury, and he has said many times before that this Government have put their arms around people financially. Can he tell us why, therefore, people on legacy benefits did not get the £20 uplift that people on universal credit got?
This country has done everything it can to support people throughout the pandemic, with the increasing of universal credit, with a furlough scheme, and with loans, credits and grants, which I think most people around the world would consider among the most generous, if not the single most generous regime that any country put in place. I think that was the right thing to do, and we will continue to support people for as long as the pandemic endures.
Reference has already been made to the unfortunate impact that the lockdown had on treatment for other medical conditions. Has the Prime Minister seen the Stroke Association’s report, “Stroke recoveries at risk”? That demonstrates starkly how, unhappily, every aspect of stroke aftercare and rehabilitation has been impacted by the lockdown. As we emerge and build back, will he undertake not only that we will make it a top priority to ensure that stroke and related therapies are restored to pre-pandemic levels as a matter of urgency, but that we will invest to ensure that we are able consistently to meet clinical guidelines for the amount of therapy given, which we have been struggling to do up until now in any event?
My hon. Friend is absolutely right to stress the backlog that we now face in the NHS, and the stroke care and stroke services that need to be addressed. The weight of work is enormous, but we will make sure that we fund it and we get it done. It is vital that people who have conditions and need treatment—stroke patients and others—come forward now to get the treatment they need.
The Government’s own figures suggest that since March we have built up a stockpile of about 12 million vaccines. During that period, we in London were told that supplies were down and that the vaccination rate would not be as fast as it had been. Can the Prime Minister explain that? What can he do to ensure that we get those vaccines into people’s arms and that the stockpile does not continue to grow?
That is a misunderstanding, I believe. We have been vaccinating and continue to vaccinate at a steady rate and as fast as we possibly can. We are secure in our supply, but obviously we do not want to get to the stage where we run out. We are confident that we will be able to offer everybody in this country—every adult in this country—a vaccination before the end of July.
I congratulate and thank my right hon. Friend for the success of the vaccination programme and the road map, which has provided certainty and stability, especially to those planning for the easing of restrictions. My constituents often ask me what the new normal will be like beyond 21 June. Of course, much depends on the outcome of the reviews—those into social distancing and others—which will have a far-ranging impact on what our society will be like for months to come. While we eagerly await their conclusions, can my right hon. Friend assure me that we will have a chance to debate the recommendations before they are implemented?
If this inquiry is to achieve everything that we would want of it, then it must be the pre-eminent vehicle by which the voice of those who have lost loved ones in this pandemic will be heard. I am pretty certain that Ministers, officials, health professionals, business interests and others will all have good-quality legal representation in that, many paid out of the public purse. Can the Prime Minister give me some commitment today that bereaved families will also get the necessary support to ensure that they have the same quality of representation, so that their voices will be properly heard?
Yes. I believe that is vital, because the inquiry must learn from the direct experiences of the bereaved who have suffered so much. They will provide invaluable evidence for the inquiry. It is also, plainly, a matter of justice and fairness. I fully accept the point that the right hon. Gentleman raises.
I would like to start by thanking everyone across Radcliffe, Prestwich and Whitefield for their work on the vaccine roll-out, which is allowing us to go through the road map and reopen the economy. There are those who are still asking a few questions, in particular those who are about to get married. That should be the best day of their lives, but they are still worried about what the guidance will say, when they can get married from next week. Will my right hon. Friend commit to publishing it, so that we know what social distancing guidance will look like moving forward and they can fully enjoy that best day of their lives?
I am sure the Prime Minister will want to warmly welcome the newly elected metro Mayors Nik Johnson, Dan Norris and, of course, my hon. Friend the Member for Batley and Spen (Tracy Brabin). As the Prime Minister well knows, serving as a Mayor is an immense privilege, but as covid has proved it is not without its frustrations. May I urge the Prime Minister to use this moment to reset the relationship with the English Mayors, and work more collaboratively and closely with us as we emerge from the pandemic?
Yes, I certainly can. I believe the Mayors and the mayoral authorities should also have their say. In my experience there are two types of Mayor. I think the mayoral project is a great one, but it tends to produce either Mayors who champion their area, get on and take responsibility for their area, or people who whinge and blame central Government for things. I much prefer type A to type B.
While across the country people have retreated to the safety of their own homes, our retail workers have had to roll up their sleeves and get on with it, ensuring we had what we needed and that our shopping spaces were safe. Disgustingly and shockingly, the number of assaults on our retail workers is through the roof. Will the Prime Minister join me in thanking our retail workers for their exceptional service to our communities, and ensure we are doing everything we can to protect them and tackle those who would do them harm?
I totally share my hon. Friend’s disgust at attacks on retail workers and anybody doing their job. It is very important that we work with the retail sector to drive down this type of crime, show zero tolerance for it, and, in the case of serious violence and assault, have appropriate penalties.
My father-in-law died at the beginning of the pandemic. Our children were not able to go to their grandfather’s funeral. Our grief remains raw. Let me welcome the commitment to the families and a memorial.
May I draw the Prime Minister’s attention to the scope of the inquiry? We know, do we not, that the fracturing of social care, running the NHS at 90% capacity, and the lessons from the 2014 flu pandemic strategy and from Exercise Cygnus all forewarned of much of what has happened? Those of us who have worked in emergency planning were shocked by the initial responses. Can the Prime Minister assure us that the scope of the inquiry will go beyond the 14 months that I think he alluded to in one of his previous statements?
I am so sorry to hear about the hon. Member’s own loss. I assure her that, of course, I cannot imagine that there will be any chair of the inquiry or any terms of reference that we could devise that would not include looking back at the state of preparedness before covid struck this country.
Cleethorpes, like other resorts, is heavily reliant on the coach industry to bring tourists into the resort. Although the support for the industry has been very welcome, there have been one or two anomalies. Some coach operators in my constituency and elsewhere have been designated as tourism operators rather than coach operators, which meant that they did not qualify for some of the financial support. Will my right hon. Friend look again at this issue and perhaps arrange for me and representatives from the industry in my constituency to meet the Transport Secretary so that we can see whether any additional help is available?
Nurseries are a vital part of community infrastructure, helping our youngest to get a better chance of a good start to life and making it easier for parents to go to work. Given that over 300 shut their doors for good in February and March, will the Prime Minister publish a covid recovery plan for nurseries and early years providers to help to get them back on their feet?
I welcome today’s announcements of both an inquiry and the memorial, but may I also welcome the extraordinary progress that has been made that has allowed us further to lift restrictions? However, there are many individuals, charities, organisations and businesses that are still not confident to commit to further public events. Will my right hon. Friend therefore consider a covid indemnity scheme that will cover the costs of any last-minute cancellations that may occur due to ongoing restrictions to allow the planning of events to continue to avoid a second year of cancellations?
I thank my hon. Friend for raising this point; I understand exactly why he says it. The best thing I can tell him is that we want to proceed with the caution and certainty with which we have done so far. All the evidence I have seen at the moment suggests that we will be able to continue with our reopenings, and that the businesses that have done so much to get ready should be able to plan on that basis.
I welcome much of the Prime Minister’s statement, although I concur with my right hon. and learned Friend the Leader of the Opposition; the sooner we can get the terms of reference and invite evidence from those who are able to give it, the better. The Prime Minister said that the end of the lockdown is not the end of the pandemic, and he is absolutely right. Some sectors of the economy will suffer from a longer time lag: travel and tourism; aviation; and, therefore, aerospace manufacturing. May I urge the Government to give support to these sectors in the longer term, because they will be affected long after the rest of us are trying to get back to normal?
The hon. Member is making an important point, but my strong view is that the best thing possible for all those sectors, including aviation, is to try, cautiously, to make sure that we get through the road map and allow their businesses to grow again. That is the single best long-term and medium-term solution.
I warmly welcome the Prime Minister’s statement and the inquiry. As our fantastic vaccination programme continues to be rolled out and our vaccination continues to be effective against all mutant strains, and as other countries catch up, will the Prime Minister look at widening the green list of countries to which travel is permitted? Will he ensure that the airports have the border control and digitisation resources to deal with more passengers? Can he also warmly encourage President Biden, when he sees him next month in Cornwall, that other Americans would like to come over to this great country and, indeed, we would like to go over to theirs?
My hon. Friend makes a good point about the United States of America. We are on that issue with our American friends, but people have to recognise that we are still at risk of importing new variants into this country. We have seen the arrival of B1.617.2 and we must be cautious. On that basis, the green list—as my hon. Friend knows, some counties are already on that list, and they are very attractive-looking destinations, as far as I can see—will be subject to review every three weeks.
Last summer, covid was almost fully suppressed in Scotland, and on current trends it looks like we are heading, cautiously, in that direction again. However, as international travel reopens, many in my constituency are very concerned about new strains entering the country. Although our First Minister has welcomed the UK Government’s current cautious approach to travel, she will not sign up to any plans that might put Scotland’s progress at risk, so will the Prime Minister confirm today what will happen in the event that the devolved nations’ strategic ambitions are at odds with the UK Government’s? In that scenario, how is compromise reached, rather than it simply being England’s way or the highway?
Actually, I think that, in spite of the differences that are sometimes accentuated or emphasised for whatever reason, the levels of co-operation have been amazing. What is happening in Scotland today is very close to what is happening in the rest of the UK; that is the level of co-operation that we are showing together.
Right at the end of his statement, the Prime Minister echoed the words of his predecessor, Sir Winston Churchill, who said,
“let us go forward together”.—[Official Report, 13 May 1940; Vol. 360, c. 1502.]
Of course, precisely 80 years ago, on 12 May 1941, my right hon. Friend’s predecessor was standing in this devastated Chamber when he committed us to freedoms in the future. In that spirit, may I ask a practical question about the future? We had compulsory ID cards in the war, and they worked so successfully. Does the Prime Minister acknowledge that, if we had them now, the whole test and trace system would have worked superbly? They could be made to work in future—for instance, it could be made clear on a person’s smartphone that they had been vaccinated or whether they had been in touch with infections. It is all very interesting for the future. My right hon. Friend cannot give a definitive answer now, but will he at least have an open mind on how we can deal with future pandemics?
I am a long-standing admirer of the libertarian school of thought that I have generally associated with my right hon. Friend. He makes an interesting point about data and the importance of being able to access it fast to help people. Perhaps the idea of ID cards is slightly different, if I may respectfully suggest that to my right hon. Friend, and I think we are still some way off that solution.
As has been acknowledged already, it is Mental Health Awareness Week, and it is right that we note the huge impact of the covid pandemic on the mental health of our young people in particular and on their education. Will the Prime Minister reconsider whether imposing a summer of cramming is really the wisest thing to force on students and teachers? Instead, will he look at outdoor education centres—many of which are based in Cumbria, of course—which have been hit worse than pretty much any other part of the entire economy? Will he agree not only to save outdoor education centres but to deploy outdoor education by commissioning professionals from the sector to run an ambitious programme in schools and in outdoor settings, to re-engage young people with a love of learning and help to tackle the mental health crisis?
I do not think that “a summer of cramming” is exactly how I would describe our programme for educational recovery. It is generous and broad based and is intended to help students, pupils and kids across the whole spectrum of abilities to make up the detriment to their learning. May I say how warmly I welcome Cumbria’s outdoor education approach? The al fresco learning that the hon. Gentleman supports sounds magnificent to me and should be replicated throughout the entire country. I look forward to hearing more about it.
I can tell the Prime Minister that other venues are available and that the Forest of Dean would be fantastically keen to offer itself as a place for outdoor education for children across the United Kingdom.
I welcome what the Prime Minister said about being able to say more at the end of this month about relaxing all restrictions by 21 June, and he will know that I will welcome that, but may I take him to what he said in his statement about the winter? It is inevitable, I think, that, as with other respiratory viruses, we will see an increase in covid, and that there will be some increase in hospitalisations and deaths, although, because of our incredible vaccination roll-out and the effectiveness of our vaccines, that will be at a much lower level and will not overwhelm the national health service. So can he confirm that work is under way in Government to make sure that, even with that small increase— because of the success of our vaccinations—we will learn to live with the consequences of covid, as we do with flu, and that we will not need to shut down the country again in the winter?
There is plainly a difference, as my right hon. Friend understands very well, between a disease such as flu, which, every year, sadly causes a number—perhaps thousands—of hospitalisations and deaths, and a disease that has the potential to spread exponentially and to overwhelm the NHS. We need to be absolutely certain that we are right in thinking that we have broken the connection between covid transmission and hospitalisation, or serious illness and death, and that is still the question that we need to establish in the weeks and months ahead. I am optimistic about it, but that is the key issue.
I just want to make one point that I should have said earlier to my hon. Friend the Member for Bury South (Christian Wakeford) about weddings. It is very important that, for the purposes of the banns, we will be making an announcement within 28 days of 21 June.
The Israeli Government made the decision not to vaccinate more than 4.5 million Palestinian citizens in Gaza and the west bank, leaving this responsibility to the occupied territories’ under-resourced healthcare system. Only several thousand Palestinians have been vaccinated, in contrast to the 4.2 million Israelis. In the light of the shocking and appalling scenes in Jerusalem, where Israeli forces attacked worshippers, the holy al-Aqsa mosque and the healthcare units, will the Prime Minister outline what steps the Government are taking to provide assistance to the Palestinians at this difficult time, and will he condemn the actions of the Israeli forces and accept that the only way forward is a two-state solution to ensure peace, health equality and protection of human rights?
Yes, Mr Speaker. The hon. Gentleman makes a fair point about the situation in Israel. I am deeply concerned by the scenes we are seeing, as is everyone in this House. We all want to see urgent de-escalation by both sides. Let me tell him that the position of this Government is firmly behind his in that we continue to believe that a two-state solution is the best way forward.
I welcome the Prime Minister’s announcement about a public inquiry. When covid first rolled into Barrow and Furness, we had a disproportionate impact from it due to a toxic mix of underlying health conditions. With that in mind, can he confirm that the inquiry will take a look at not just the actions that the Government did or did not take, but what we need to do to make sure that we can build back healthier after this pandemic?
My hon. Friend makes an extremely good point—it is a very important point. I hope that this is what they call a big teachable moment for the entire country about our obesity, our fitness levels and disparities across public provision not just between affluent areas, but within regions of the country. Levelling up needs to take place, and that is the ambition of this Government.
I welcome the Prime Minister’s announcement of an inquiry. It is important because of the number of people who died and also because of the millions of people who will live with the consequences of the policies adopted by Ministers on the advice of their chief medical officers. Many people lost their lives because hospitals and surgeries were closed, people’s businesses were wrecked because of stop-go lockdowns, and children’s education has been disrupted, affecting their life chances. At the same time, there were many credible experts who questioned the modelling on which those policies were based, the impact that this had on the poor, and the appropriateness and the consistency of the actions. Can the Prime Minister assure us that the inquiry will include examining and listening to the views of those experts and the issues that they raised?
The right hon. Gentleman’s excellent points serve only to underline the extreme difficulty of the decisions that Governments in this country and around the world were forced to make and the terrible balances we had to strike. I am sure that the considerations he raises will be looked at by the inquiry.
I congratulate my right hon. Friend on the huge success of the vaccine roll-out. The economy in central London is hurting, partly because of the lack of commuters and partly because of the lack of international visitors. Can he confirm that the plan is to lift the work-at-home guidance as of 21 June, provided that we stay on track?
That is certainly our intention, provided that we stay on track, but I want to be sure that people wait until we are able to say that with more clarity a bit later on, because we must be guided by what is happening with the pandemic. My hon. Friend is so right about the dynamism of London. Indeed, London and our other great cities depend on people having the confidence to go to work. I think it will come back, and I think it could come back remarkably quickly, but it does depend on keeping the virus down.
On 22 February, the Prime Minister told the House that the PPE contracts
“are there on the record for everybody to see”.—[Official Report, 22 February 2021; Vol. 689, c. 638.]
He also said that
“all the details are on the record”.—[Official Report, 22 February 2021; Vol. 689, c. 634.]
What the Prime Minister told Parliament was not true. A large number of contracts were neither there for everybody to see nor on the record, including a £23 million contract to Bunzl, which was not published until 8 March. The ministerial code states:
“It is of paramount importance that Ministers give accurate and truthful information to Parliament, correcting any inadvertent error at the earliest opportunity.”
So will the Prime Minister finally apologise to the House and the country for this misleading statement, and ensure that the Government’s procurement practices during the pandemic are in the scope of the covid inquiry?
As life continues to return towards normality and attention turns to how we can learn lessons from the pandemic, there remains an urgent need to tackle this country’s problem with obesity. Following the Queen’s Speech, what reassurances can my right hon. Friend give me that the Government will continue to pursue that agenda with vigour?
I can give my hon. Friend, who is a doctor, every possible assurance. This is a struggle that many of us face. I am afraid that we are one of the fattest countries in Europe, if not the fattest, and that has medical consequences. It is extremely costly, both medically and financially.
In November, in response to my question on funding for charities throughout covid-19, the Prime Minister said in this Chamber:
“We will be doing much more over the winter to support the voluntary sector”.—[Official Report, 2 November 2020; Vol. 683, c. 41.]
He has delivered nothing—absolutely nothing—over the winter. Now, £10 billion in debt and with tens of thousands of jobs gone, charities are scaling back and closing, and our communities are suffering, so will he tell the House why he made that empty promise and what he will not just say but do to support our charities now, at this critical time?
We have had huge support for businesses of all kinds—premises, cuts in business rates, cuts in VAT and furloughing. The single best thing that we can do for charities is getting non-essential retail opened again, as we did, and allowing our economy to come back. The British people give huge amounts to charity. We are one of the most generous countries in the world. I have no doubt that that instinct has been there throughout this pandemic and will continue.
The NHS in Kirklees has now given over 50% of people who have been vaccinated their second dose. Will the Prime Minister join me in thanking our local NHS, GPs, community pharmacies and the wonderful volunteers at my local Honley vaccination centre, who have all played a magnificent part in this superb effort, which now means that we can proceed to the next step of the road map on Monday?
The Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Committee published a report last September that recommended that
“the Government should announce the inquiry into the response to the coronavirus immediately to allow time to set up the secretariat and other administrative functions which should mean it could start taking evidence early next year.”
That was eight months ago, so I support the comments made by my right hon. and learned Friend the Leader of the Opposition that the statutory public inquiry should be set up as soon as possible, before spring 2022. I also seek assurances from the Prime Minister that a key element of the terms of reference will be to investigate why there was a disproportionate impact on our black, Asian and minority ethnic communities, and that any chair of the inquiry will have an expert reference panel that is diverse and has community leaders involved.
I agree totally about the need to establish those facts: the impact on black and minority ethnic groups, what was driving it, and what could have been done to mitigate it. I am sure that the inquiry will be suitably set up to address that, among many other issues.
My right hon. Friend will be well aware of the tremendous success of the vaccine programme in Harrow; indeed, he visited The Hive vaccination centre very early on during the vaccination programme. What message does he have now for younger people who will be approaching the position where they will be called for their vaccination, so that we can ensure that all adults are vaccinated by the end of July?
I thank my hon. Friend because he is totally right. That is one of the key messages that all of us in this House should be transmitting to adults, who are getting younger and younger now in the groups that we are reaching: “Come forward when you are asked. Get your vaccine. You won’t feel a thing. It is absolutely vital. It is not just good for you; it is good for the whole country, so get it done.”
Earlier, the Chair of the Health and Social Care Committee, the right hon. Member for South West Surrey (Jeremy Hunt), raised the question of the recruitment and retention of medical staff. Throughout the entire health and social care sectors we could be about to see a big increase in the numbers of staff leaving, either because they delayed their retirement in order to stay on and help until the worst of the crisis was over or, in some cases, because they are simply burnt out with the stress that they have been working under for so long. What specific plans do the Government have to increase the recruitment and retention of staff across the entire spectrum of the health and social care professions?
We actually have 60,000 nurses in training. I am reading every day about the enthusiasm with which people now want to go into that wonderful profession. We have, I think, 11,000 more nurses this year than last year, and we are investing massively in social care to ensure that our older people are looked after properly. One of the reasons we will be bringing forward plans for reform of social care is that I want to see proper join-up between health and social care. At the moment, we do not have that as a country, and we need it.
The Times reported at the weekend that there are 120,000 people who are immunocompromised—for instance, those having treatment for cancer. For them, the effectiveness of the vaccine is still unknown. What safety reassurances can my right hon. Friend give to those worried and anxious—the clinically extremely vulnerable—as we continue to unlock?
My hon. Friend is totally right to raise the immunocompromised and their continuing anxiety. The risks continue to diminish, as he knows—I think, today, one in 1,340 are estimated to have the virus. The number is going down at the moment quite steeply. As I said earlier to the House, it is much lower than at any time since last summer, or even before. But plainly those who are anxious, who are immuno-compromised, should continue, as I have said, to exercise caution and common sense in the way they go about their lives for some time to come.
Covid has left tens of thousands of people in this country with problems that are remarkably similar to a brain injury. They are going to need long-term neurorehabilitation. When we add them to the 1.4 million people who, before covid came along, had suffered from a brain injury—from carbon monoxide poisoning, concussion in sport, stroke, a traumatic brain injury or foetal alcohol syndrome—that is a phenomenal financial and medical need. I urge the Prime Minister—there still is not anybody in this country who takes sole charge of this area of brain injury. It is a hidden pandemic, because someone cannot often see that the person across the other side of the room is affected. Maybe the Prime Minister should meet a group of us to talk about it, because it affects every single Department of Government and I really want him to take it on, so that all these people get the support that they need.
I am really grateful to the hon. Gentleman. I know that he was going to raise him with me yesterday and I hope that he forgives for me not allowing him to intervene, entirely inadvertently. He has raised an extremely important point. I believe that not only brain injury—he is right to raise the 1.4 million people—but brain cancer is an area that is too often neglected in our system and may fall through the cracks. I certainly undertake to get him the meeting that he needs, whether it is with me or the relevant Minister. I cannot currently promise that, but he will get the meeting he needs.
Almost every human crisis produces advances in human innovation, and the covid crisis has been no exception. We have seen in the UK what collaboration between academia and the private sector has done in terms of vaccine production. The mRNA vaccines may turn out to be as important as antibiotics in dealing with global disease outbreaks. As soon as we are able to identify the genome of a virus, we will be able to move to rapid vaccine production—something we were unable to do before. What can we in the UK do with our leadership of the G7 and our membership of the G20 and other international organisations to determine global protocols to enable us to be able to move forward in any future pandemic in a less chaotic way than we did on this occasion and to be able to develop global capacity for vaccine productions? Surely if anything is a long-term and valuable legacy of global Britain, it will be this.
My right hon. Friend, who is also a doctor, is completely right: necessity is the mother of invention. We have been driven by the pandemic to great, great feats of scientific genius, producing, as he rightly says, the mRNA vaccines at incredible speed—the AstraZeneca vaccine—and the pandemic has meant that the abilities of this country alone to cope have hugely increased. We are now capable of producing a vaccine through the fill and finish plants. We have the new Vaccines Manufacturing and Innovation Centre. We have invested in bioreactors across the country. We are much, much more resilient than we were, but we are also leading across the world in making sure that countries co-ordinate and work together on spotting zoonotic diseases earlier, with the research hubs, and making sure that we co-ordinate data and share data much earlier. We are also making sure that there are not the barriers that have, sadly, sprung up between countries to the sharing of supplies and vaccines, so that we have secure supply chains around the world. So what the UK is doing is not only spending £548 million on COVAX, investing in vaccines around the world—I think that the UK has so far given 40 million vaccine doses to 117 countries—but working on a global response to pandemics. That will be one of the things we will do together at the G7, and it is supported by all the partner countries. So that is what we will be doing.