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Omicron Variant: Support for Key Services

Volume 706: debated on Thursday 13 January 2022

2. What support he is providing to businesses and the voluntary sector to support key services affected by the omicron variant. (904973)

12. What support he is providing to businesses and the voluntary sector to support key services affected by the omicron variant. (904987)

14. What support he is providing to businesses and the voluntary sector to support key services affected by the omicron variant. (904989)

15. What support he is providing to businesses and the voluntary sector to support key services affected by the omicron variant. (904992)

The most important thing to support businesses in the voluntary sector is to come out of the covid restrictions and reopen our economy. Boosters remain the best way to save lives, reduce the pressure on our NHS and keep our country safe. It is a great tribute to those working in our NHS that almost eight out of 10 eligible adults in England are now boosted.

A year ago, Phil Grant of the DVLA tragically died of coronavirus. He was a man in his 60s with a heart condition who had previously been allowed to work from home during the first lockdown and was forced to go to work. A year on, just pre last Christmas, unions and management agreed that, after 700 cases of coronavirus at the DVLA, there should be new arrangements for people to work from home and a rota system to allow safety. The Government intervened and stopped that from being instated on the grounds that omicron was not as dangerous. Since then, we now have a cumulative figure of 1,700 coronavirus cases at the DVLA. Will the Minister intervene to enable the scheme agreed by both unions and management to be implemented for at least a couple of months and meet me urgently so that the safety of workers and their families can be protected?

I recognise the seriousness of the case. On behalf of all colleagues in the House, I am sure, I express our sympathy for the family concerned. As he will know, it is difficult to comment on individual cases. He will also be aware that under plan B, employees are encouraged to work from home where possible. I am happy to flag the case to my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Transport, who oversees the body concerned. My right hon. Friend is balancing the need to address those employment issues with the importance of getting testing boosted when it comes to HGVs, cars and others. But he will pick up the case and I will raise it with him.

During the pandemic, charities have played a hugely important part in supporting people, particularly those in need of help and more vulnerable older people. Does not the Minister agree that it would have been better to have involved those charities in the planning right from the start? Can we learn that lesson for the future?

The hon. Lady is absolutely right about the importance of charities, including in the pandemic response more widely. That is why we have had a package of £750 million of support for charities, which indicates their importance and how they have been involved throughout the pandemic.

Ealing food bank in my constituency is doing tremendous work feeding those struggling the most. Those in greatest need already cannot afford to feed themselves and their families even while in work. If the Government move to charging for testing, will the Minister commit to funding lateral flow tests for the most vulnerable to prevent unwanted covid-19 outbreaks?

The reality as we meet today is that we continue to offer universal free testing. Actually, the UK is an outlier both in terms of the sheer quantum of testing that we have delivered—more than any other country in Europe—and the fact that we have not charged to do so. Testing has played a key role in our response, along with the booster campaign, but we need to balance that with value for money and the cost, which is very significant.

MAKE, based in Fratton, is an amazing, award-winning service that is supporting men struggling with their mental health during the pandemic through its Breakfast OK project, which provides a safe space for them to share their experiences with others with similar issues. What specifically is the Minister doing to support Portsmouth social enterprises to flourish and succeed at a time of rising demand and lengthening waiting times for vital mental health services?

I will have to pick up on the specific organisation the hon. Member references, but as I said in my answer a moment ago, we have had a package of £750 million of support. We have worked with a number of organisations, including our school sector with holiday clubs and other support that has been offered. I am very happy to look at the specific case he highlights to the House.

At every twist and turn during this pandemic, the Government have dangerously dithered and delayed instead of being ready and resilient. The reality is that Labour brought in the Civil Contingencies Act in 2004, but the Conservatives have deprioritised and underfunded vital emergencies infrastructure since 2010. While I welcome the temporary funding for local resilience forums announced last year, it is just a meagre £7.5 million. It is tiny sum in the grand scheme of resilience needs, and it runs out in three months’ time. This leaves us unprepared to face the omicron variant, and potential future variants and emergencies, so will the Minister commit to properly and sustainably funding local resilience forums and ensure they are never again left without the resources they need to keep us all safe?

The hon. Lady is right on the importance of local resilience forums, but she is not right to say that the Government have not responded. There has been over £400 billion of support from the Government as part of our pandemic response. On specific measures, I refer her to the statement by my right hon. Friend the Chancellor on 21 December 2021 announcing further measures. I will not run through the full quantum of them, but just to take one, there are the one-off grants of up to £6,000 per premises to support the hospitality and leisure sector. We have also taken wider measures to support businesses, such as reducing the isolation period, the daily contact testing and addressing issues within specific sectors—whether that is in social care or in the transport sector. There has been a whole range of measures from the Government, including the funding support, and as she mentioned in her question, much of that is continuing until the end of March.