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Covid-19 Update

Volume 802: debated on Tuesday 17 March 2020


My Lords, with the leave of the House, I shall now repeat a Statement delivered in the other place by my right honourable friend the Foreign Secretary on Covid-19. The Statement is as follows:

“Thank you, Mr Speaker. As the Prime Minister has said, the coronavirus pandemic is the worst public health crisis for a generation. It is an unsettling time for families up and down the country, so we need a united effort to tackle Covid-19 effectively and come through this challenge, as I am confident we can and we will.

Following on from, and consistent with, the domestic measures announced by the Prime Minister yesterday, and based on the fast-changing international circumstances, today I am announcing changes to the FCO travel advice. UK travellers abroad now face widespread international border restrictions and lockdowns in various countries. The FCO will always consider the safety and security of British nationals. So, with immediate effect, I have taken the decision to advise British nationals against non-essential travel globally for an initial period of 30 days, subject to review.

This decision has been taken based on the domestic measures introduced here in the United Kingdom, along with the changes to border and a range of other restrictions that are now being taken by countries around the world. The speed and range of those measures across other countries is unprecedented. Some of those decisions are being made without notice. In some countries, even in countries or particular areas where cases of Covid-19 have not yet been reported, local authorities are none the less imposing restriction on movement and are doing so with little or no notice at all. In the light of these circumstances, we want to reduce the risk of leaving vulnerable British tourists and visitors stranded overseas. We will of course keep this advice under review and amend it as soon as the situation responsibly allows.

The Government are keenly aware that international freight services such as shipping and haulage are vital for ensuring the continuity of the supply of essential food, goods and material to the UK. We regard this kind of travel as essential, and we will work with industry to ensure detailed advice that maintains the flow of goods while also protecting the well-being of staff working on those routes. The Department for Transport will be leading this work with the freight sector, with the objective of minimising disruption to those routes as far as possible.

At the same time, FCO consular teams are working around the clock to provide the best and most up-to-date information that we can possibly provide to UK nationals. In the last week alone we have made more than 430 changes to FCO travel advice, and obviously we will continue to keep that advice under close and constant review.

We are providing support to British nationals who have been impacted by coronavirus while travelling. During the initial outbreak or containment phrase, we arranged the repatriation of more than 200 vulnerable British nationals from China between 31 January and 9 February. We took that action to support British nationals and control the return of those possibly exposed to Covid-19 at the earliest point in the crisis, when it appeared that the virus might be contained in China.

In other cases, such as that of the British nationals affected by Covid-19 infection in a hotel in Tenerife, we worked with travel companies and airlines to ensure that those concerned were safely brought home. We have also changed our travel advice to advise people over 70 or with underlying health conditions against travelling on cruises, to protect those who are most at risk from coronavirus.

We have arranged repatriation from cruise ships, including most recently the 131 UK nationals returned from the “Grand Princess”, docked in California, who arrived home last Wednesday. We have been working intensively with the Cuban authorities and Fred. Olsen Cruise Lines to ensure that all British nationals are able to return quickly and safely to the UK, in relation of course to the “Braemar” cruise liner. We are doing all that we can to ensure that they return to the UK on flights from José Martí airport in Havana within the next 48 hours. The Foreign Secretary spoke with the Cuban Foreign Minister twice over the weekend, and we are very grateful to Foreign Minister Rodríguez Parrilla and the Cuban Government for swiftly enabling this operation, and for their close co-operation in making sure that it could be successful.

As well as those repatriations, UK consular teams are working with those affected by difficult quarantine conditions, the closure of tourist resorts—for example, in Europe and north Africa—or new regulations introduced in various countries where UK nationals are visiting. We will do everything in our power to get those British nationals affected the care, support and practical advice that they need.

We also need to be clear about our capacity to repatriate people from abroad, given the scale of the numbers. We have taken action where necessary, but no one should be under any illusions: it is costly and complicated to co-ordinate, so government-supported repatriations have been undertaken only in exceptional circumstances. Ultimately the primary responsibility for managing outbreaks of Covid-19 and quarantine measures must rest with the country in which the outbreak has occurred.

FCO teams around the world are working urgently to ensure that Governments have sensible plans to enable the return of British and other travellers, and, crucially, to keep borders open for a sufficient period of time to enable returns to take place on commercial flights wherever possible. Following today’s change in travel advice, British nationals who decide that they still need to travel abroad should be fully aware of the increased risk of doing so. That includes the risk that they may not be able to get home if travel restrictions are put in place. So we urge anyone still considering travel to be realistic about the level of disruption that they are willing and able to endure, and to make decisions in light of the unprecedented conditions that we now face.

Today’s travel guidance follows the domestic measures announced yesterday. It forms part of our national effort to meet the international challenge presented by coronavirus—a challenge that we will rise to as a Government and as a country. I commend this Statement to the House.”

My Lords, I thank the Minister for repeating the Statement by the Foreign Secretary. Perhaps I may first express my appreciation for the extraordinarily hard work of all the FCO staff who, I know from comments made in the other place, have been working tirelessly over the weekend and throughout the night to support their fellow citizens.

I will turn first to international freight services, such as shipping and haulage. As the Statement said, they are

“vital for ensuring the continuity of supply of essential food, goods and materials to the United Kingdom.”

The Government, rightly, view this kind of travel as essential and say that they will work with the industry to issue detailed advice to maintain the flow of goods, while protecting the well-being of staff working on those routes. Can the Minister assure the House that the Department for Transport, which will be leading on this work with the freight sector, will consult those most directly affected—the workers in the sector—and ensure that trade unions are also properly consulted? It is vital that we get the co-operation of all sides of society in the battle against this virus.

What assessment have the Government made of the impact, particularly in the food and agriculture industry, of people naturally wishing to leave and return to their home country? What sort of cross-government co-ordination is there on that?

As we heard from MPs in the other place, this is clearly a time of immense concern for tens of thousands of people. We have heard about individual examples of young people stranded without the resources to make decisions about how to come back. The Foreign Secretary constantly referred to clear and practical advice. I strongly believe that this is one of the rare occasions when people want to be told what to do. It is not just advice; people need to be absolutely clear about the consequences if they have to make difficult decisions—for instance, if a parent is ill in a foreign country. This applies to my own husband; we were due to fly next week. People need a clear statement of what to do.

The other place heard the example of Morocco, which unexpectedly closed its air and sea borders, causing particular problems. I was hoping to hear from the Foreign Secretary that his department had been in touch with the French and Spanish authorities, which have many nationals there as well, to try to create a more co-operative and international response, especially in assisting people to get back home. Morocco will surely be joined by other countries making similar announcements. Can the Minister confirm that we are making representations to Governments—in co-operation with our EU partners, because many of our citizens are travelling to similar places—to ensure that those Governments who are contemplating similar action give us information in advance so that we can be prepared to give appropriate advice to our citizens?

The Foreign Secretary also referred to liaising with the civil aviation authorities and airlines. This is an example of action being taken before the Government’s advice has been issued. Can the Minister assure the House that airlines which halted flights had reassured the Government that they had made provision to enable customers to return immediately or early?

Finally, this is a difficult situation and we are focused on the immediate need for a response. However, whatever we do today, we need to ensure that we learn lessons. We do not know what is around the corner: in the 1980s it was AIDS, and we saw the response of the Lord Speaker at the time. Whatever immediate action we take in responding now, we need to learn the lessons that ensure we are better prepared next time something like this happens.

My Lords, I also thank the Minister for repeating the Statement and associate myself and my noble friends with the expressions of appreciation of the efforts of those in the Foreign and Commonwealth Office and other government departments. What is contained in the Statement is generally acceptable. It may seem draconian to advise against travel globally, but in the febrile atmosphere of many countries, restrictions will often be placed without warning. I have no doubt that the repatriations to which the Minister referred were most welcome. It shows the benefit of co-operation that this was able to be done by the relevant authorities in Tenerife and Cuba.

One matter that sticks out in the Statement is the observation that the ultimate responsibility for these matters rests with foreign Governments. What if such Governments have neither the inclination, capacity nor resources to assist British citizens? Would that be regarded as exceptional and therefore justifying government repatriation? Similarly, what if the considerable efforts of Foreign Office officials are unsuccessful? Would that count as exceptional circumstances, or would we leave our citizens—forgive the slang—“twisting in the wind”?

My Lords, I thank the noble Lords, Lord Collins and Lord Campbell, for their words of support. I will take those, and the level of unity in your Lordships’ House, back to the Foreign Office and to all departments in Her Majesty’s Government—particularly the Department for International Development, which is playing a leading role in such unprecedented circumstances. I am sure that the sentiments which both noble Lords aired are reflected across your Lordships’ House.

One of the final points made by the noble Lord, Lord Campbell, was about my mention, in the Statement, of responsibility. That reflected the responsibility of the Government in question for the measures in place for controlling the spread of Covid-19 in sovereign states. We are working with international partners and providing international support. We have already allocated over £241 million in support of other countries that need assistance and we are providing financial assistance to the World Health Organization. That is also intended to provide support where the measures being put in place may not yet be of the standard one would hope for. This is about sharing expertise and insights. What we have seen from the spread of coronavirus, from where it started in China to where it is today, and what we have seen not too far from here in Italy, shows the global challenge that we are facing and the importance of sharing research and insight. On the point made by the noble Lord, Lord Collins, about ensuring lessons are learnt, we have also allocated a further £65 million for research into the spread of the virus.

The noble Lord, Lord Collins, was right to point out that the Department for Transport is leading on the issue of freight services. He made important points; I support them and will share them. We should be talking to all representative bodies, whether of employers or employees, who may be on the front line and performing difficult tasks in supply chains, and ensure that they are given the support they require.

The Government are also stressing the importance of airlines continuing their services. We are talking to airline operators and ensuring that commercial routes are kept open. While airlines are, understandably, rationalising certain routes, we are imploring them, and working constructively with them, to ensure that the commercial routes continue to be operational, so that British nationals who seek to return to the UK can do so as early as possible.

I also pay tribute to those working in our ports and airports. They are often on the front line and not always given the acknowledgment they deserve. I declare a personal interest, as my elder brother works on the operations side for British Airways at T5. I know only too well from the stories that he is sharing about the challenges that staff are facing, often with passengers who are returning ill and clearly needing support, while ensuring that they fulfil their duties as well. I am sure the whole House will join me in paying tribute to those who are playing important roles on the front line.

The noble Lord, Lord Collins, also raised the important point about how we ensure the repatriation of British citizens, as did the noble Lord, Lord Campbell. To show you what we are up against, over the weekend, just in my patch, which is south Asia, we made 220 changes to travel advice just on Saturday and Sunday. The noble Lord, Lord Campbell, was right to point out that, as far as possible, this should be done with advance notice, but, as we have seen with near neighbours in Europe, countries are taking action.

The noble Lord described changing our travel advice to only essential travel as draconian. We need only cast our eye across the channel to see what other measures are being taken. It has not been the Government’s approach to impose, and we are working in a structured way. Nevertheless, as circumstances change, as the announcements made by the Prime Minister yesterday indicated, we are responding to what is a fluid and ever-changing set of circumstances, not just nationally but internationally.

The noble Lord, Lord Collins, made specific reference to Morocco and working in co-ordination with other partners. As he will be aware, my right honourable friend the Prime Minister took part in a G7 meeting with representatives of our European partners participating in the call, as well as other nations and the European Commission. His point is absolutely valid, and I assure him that we are working closely with partners. I and my noble friend Lady Sugg were involved in the repatriation over one weekend of one set of passengers. Every repatriation where we have had to engage directly with charter flights organised by Her Majesty’s Government has involved opening channels to other European countries, if so required, and we have sought to facilitate that.

That underlines the point that international co-operation is taking place—in certain circumstances, between countries that would not normally be talking to each other. Again, in my patch of south Asia, countries which have normally been challenged in their bilateral relations by international circumstances have come together because everyone recognises that this is a global challenge and needs global solutions.

My Lords, I want to ask my noble friend a question on those visitors who have come from outside Europe, have a visa to be here, fall sick with the virus, then cannot travel back and their visa may have expired. What position do those visitors have, and how do we protect them from fear that they will then be penalised for a visa overstay because they are sick?

My Lords, first, my noble friend will recognise from her experience as a Minister that, if someone is ill and needs urgent treatment and support, they will be provided with that in the United Kingdom. She makes an important point—bearing in mind the travel restrictions that have been put in place by other countries—on citizens seeking to return to their respective countries from across the world. In our discussion with other countries, the return of nationals to their own borders is still very much accepted because, ultimately, we are all responsible for our own nationals. On the issue she raises about visitor visas that may expire for foreign nationals because of cancellation of flights or, as she pointed out, specific illnesses, I will come back to her specifically, because these are live discussions, reflective of our own change in advice and on how we have looked at particular visa situations. That is in the domain of the Home Office, but she raises a practical issue. If I may, I shall come back to her on it.

My Lords, returning to Europe, I think that the Minister will be aware that continuity of supply, particularly of food, is of particular concern to those who have been asked to stay indoors for long periods. He will also be aware that several EU countries have closed their borders in the past 24 hours or so, even within the Schengen zone. For example, where food supplies are coming from southern Italy, the borders to Switzerland, Austria and Germany have been closed. What conversations are the Government having with supermarkets and food retailers as to whether food supply through road transport will be allowed to continue through those closed borders, or whether they are having conversations with airlines as to whether they need to transport food supplies by air freight instead?

My Lords, the noble Baroness raises an important point about the free movement of goods. Earlier, I alluded to the issue of essential travel, and I reiterate that essential travel includes the need to retain supply chains, particularly when it comes to the delivery of goods. On our discussions with our European Union partners, the President of the European Commission discussed with all G7 partners the actions that the EU would be taking. The fact that the European Commission has acted in the manner it now has reflects the fact that individual countries within the EU were taking separate action. It has acted to ensure consistency and address the very concerns that she raised. From our perspective, it is important to ensure that supply channels remain open. That is why our advice recognises the importance of ensuring that supply lines, including for the delivery of goods, remain open.

I will ask the Minister another practical question. Many students are in this country just now. I give an example that we have had to deal with at the International Bar Association’s Human Rights Institute. One of our interns received a notice that India was closing down the border, even for Indian nationals who are abroad. They were given until the 18th to return, so we have had to expedite her return and assist her financially to do so—to get a different air ticket. People will be caught. This picks up on a question asked earlier: how will the Government deal with that, because some young people who have not completed their educational courses are full of anxiety about whether they will be locked out of their own countries and then be in breach of the basis on which they can stay in this country?

On her first point, as I am the Minister responsible for our bilateral relations with India, perhaps the noble Baroness would share that information with me and I will take it up with the Indian high commission. From talking to the Indian authorities, my understanding is that the restrictions apply to foreign nationals and those who hold passports with overseas Indian status but that Indian nationals could return if they chose to. However, if a particular issue has arisen, particularly with a student studying here, my understanding is that they should continue with their study. Coming back to the point raised earlier by my noble friend Lady Verma, providing that there is no reason for them to be unable to travel, and if flights continue—as they currently are—they should be able to return to India, in this case, or any other country as would be fit because, ultimately, nationals should not be stopped from entering their countries.

I say that, but 24 hours in this crisis is a long time, and I am minded to add the caveat that things are changing drastically. I do not envisage flights stopping and, as I said in response to a previous question by the noble Lord, Lord Collins, we are imploring commercial operators to continue to operate their flights, but as commercial decisions are taken about flights—understandably, they seek not to fly empty planes—an added challenge will be imposed on us globally to face up to. However, as I said, I am happy to look into the specific issue that the noble Baroness raised.

My Lords, I have a question about the diaspora and the ambassadorial corps. This morning, I was able to meet the Pakistan high commissioner, Mohammad Zakaria, who was concerned—as we all are—about the spread of coronavirus and the implications for his community; other ambassadors and high commissioners will be thinking the same. What are we doing to ensure that the corps as a whole receives information directly? How are we using it to reach the diaspora in this country, especially where there are linguistic difficulties and people are not getting the information they need?

The noble Lord raises an important point. I assure him that I am certainly engaging directly with high commissioners from across south Asia, particularly those with large diaspora communities. We are mindful of ensuring that they are cognisant of the announcements the Government are making and that, if there is a need for that to be understood more effectively because of a lack of language skills or understanding, that is taken up.

I have been really heartened by the response we have seen from not just responsible citizens but organisations from different communities. As I was coming into your Lordships’ House, I noticed that the most reverend Primate the Archbishop of Canterbury has just put out a statement about congregational prayers. Equally, we have seen a very responsible attitude by other faith leaders, including in the Muslim community. As noble Lords will know, Friday constitutes an important day of gathering for the Friday prayer. I think of the actions we have seen in other parts of the world. I noticed that the Kuwaitis were encouraging people to remain at home through the call to prayer. These are the nuanced approaches that we should take on board for all communities in the United Kingdom. We should also ensure that we can share positive experiences we have here in the UK internationally.

My Lords, there have been reports in the last few days that, given the shortages of key medical supplies, the European Union might restrict exports outside the EU of certain supplies and equipment in short supply. Do the Government know if that is happening? If so, would the UK be treated as within the European Union area? In this country, we produce only a small number of ventilators, for example.

My Lords, on the specific issue of ventilators, I am sure the noble Lord followed the announcement. We have had a very positive response from various manufacturers in the UK on the issue of addressing any shortfall of ventilators that may occur. He raises an important point on the new restrictions imposed by the European Union. The Commission President has clearly indicated, for example, that medical staff should be able to travel freely into the UK, as are transporters of goods. She has also made clear that UK travellers will not be affected by the measures imposed. We certainly believe that supplies will continue without hindrance. However, there are challenges domestically for each country in the European Union, as we have found here in the UK, and there will undoubtedly be challenges that are taken together on issues of supplies reaching people as efficiently as they are.

I draw an analogy with the challenge we have had in certain supermarkets up and down the country, which has actually been caused not by a certain shortage of food but by people’s practices. Supply chains are set up to cater for a delivery of a certain quantity to a certain place. If a person is going in and buying 10 things instead of one, that has an implication in the supply chain. That is why the Government have implored everyone not to be panicked by this, to be responsible and to look out for each other. Ultimately, if I have one piece of advice to share from the Dispatch Box, it is exactly that: we need to ensure that we look in front of us, behind us and to our left and right to ensure that we are equally looking after those around us, as well as ourselves.

My Lords, I work externally for dispensing doctors. They have put to me that there is a shortage among front-line medical staff—both doctors and nurses—of personal protective equipment, or PPE. There is a fear that this is being exported and not made available to local staff. Can my noble friend look into that and also give the House an assurance that medical supplies coming from countries such as the United States will be completely accessible going forward? Obviously, there will be no transatlantic flights. Is any information available on Eurostar journeys and what the advice is on Eurostar?

My Lords, transatlantic flights are continuing. As I said, certain airlines have made certain decisions to rationalise routes, but those routes continue to operate. The importance of international collaboration and ensuring that we work together as one was discussed at the G7. The noble Baroness asked about health services and staff at the front line. I will take that back to the Department of Health, but I assure her that, having had occasion to attend specific COBRA meetings, I know that this is very much a one-HMG effort, although, as we have seen, it includes the Chief Scientific Adviser, the Chief Medical Officer and representatives of NHS England—we have very much adopted an inclusive approach.

The Minister has spoken extensively about UK citizens needing to return from overseas, but many UK citizens here live and work abroad. Will the FCO be in a position to try to help them, bearing in mind that some of them will have no home base here in which to reside for the quarantine period?

My Lords, if I understand the noble Duke’s question correctly, the first port of call for British citizens who work and live abroad should be to contact the British high commission or embassy. If they are residents of another country, I am sure that they are being updated in accordance with the measures that that country is taking. If they are British citizens and they wish to return home here, that is a choice for them to make and we will, as far as possible, seek to facilitate that return. When this Statement was made in the other place, specific cases were raised about British citizens around the world. The first advice that we offer them is to contact their representatives at the UK embassy or high commission to see what support can be given to them on the ground. I repeat that we are seeking to ensure that commercial air routes continue to operate. As for specific assistance for UK residents from elsewhere in the world, this would be a decision for them to make. They would, of course, get whatever support is offered to any other UK citizen resident in the UK.

Does the Minister agree that, while this virus poses a real threat to life here, in developing countries it is just one added threat to life, where people already face terrific threats and where health services are much poorer than those in Europe and the United Kingdom in particular? Is DfID undertaking something special to help developing countries to deal with this and to assist the excellent health NGO workers who are out there in their efforts? Finally, will he join me in thanking Dr David Nabarro, a former health adviser at DfID, for the excellent work that he is doing as an adviser to the WHO on this virus?

The three quick answers to the noble Lord are yes, yes and yes. He is quite right about DfID support and I am proud of DfID’s role—after the most recent reshuffle, I am also a Minister at that department. As I said, we have been working with G7 and G20 partners in this regard. We have allocated a £241 million aid envelope on exactly the points that the noble Lord raised. We are also providing £150 million to the International Monetary Fund, £10 million to the World Health Organization and—he mentioned NGOs—£5 million to the Red Cross international federation and another £5 million to UNICEF in our immediate response.

Will my noble friend address a medium-term issue? I join the Front Benches in their comments and sentiments about the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, including its staff, who have played a tremendous role at the front line in dealing with this. Is there any thinking at the Foreign Office and across the wider Government about Britain’s exit from the European Union? At a time when we face unprecedented challenges, both in movement of people and the economy, will there be some thinking about the circumstances in which we find ourselves and the backdrop against which we will be negotiating these deals?

My Lords, my noble friend asks quite a specific question. This crisis has made everyone think very carefully about our place in the world, the relationships that we have and the importance of connectivity. A virus knows no frontiers and no boundaries. It does not matter whether you are in the European Union or outside it, in the African Union or anywhere else in the world. It is important that we share experiences, insights, expertise and good practice. If we are learning anything from this, it is that the best response is a collective response from humanity. If there is one lesson to be learned, I hope it is exactly that. The negotiations that we will have with our European Union partners are a matter of detail and will be taken forward, but I am sure that our experiences during this crisis, which is far from over, will also feed into discussions with not just our European partners but other partners across the world.

My Lords, arising from Brexit and the change in exchange rates between the euro and the pound sterling, it is estimated that shoppers from the Republic of Ireland spent £500 million in Northern Ireland last year. Can the Minister assure us that any controls by the European Union on borders with non-EU nations will not apply to the United Kingdom and the Republic of Ireland, and that the common travel area will be maintained?

I have already addressed that in part. The announcement made by the European Commission does not apply to the United Kingdom. As the noble Lord will be aware from his own insights and expertise, the restrictions that the Republic of Ireland has also imposed do not apply to Northern Ireland.

I hesitate to add to the Minister’s burden of taking matters to his friends at the Department of Health, but there are extreme shortages of things such as Calpol, thermometers and epinephrine autoinjectors, such as EpiPen and Auvi-Q. I hope that, despite all the Government’s assurances, Ministers and others will bear in mind that this is very important equipment and medicine, particularly for the young and vulnerable.

I will certainly take that back to the Department of Health. Not being a medical expert, I will not repeat every medicine mentioned by the noble Baroness but, as a father, I get Calpol. We will ensure that our medicines are appropriately stocked.