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Public Services: Update

Volume 803: debated on Wednesday 29 April 2020

Statement

The Statement was made in a Virtual Proceeding via video call.

My Lords, with the leave of the House, I will now repeat a Statement made yesterday in the other place by my right honourable friend the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster:

“With your permission, Mr Speaker, I would like to make a Statement on the work this Government have undertaken over recent weeks to support and steer our critical public services through the coronavirus pandemic. I would like, first, to thank all those on the front line of our public services for the spirit of selflessness and commitment to others that they have demonstrated in dealing with this pandemic—nurses, doctors, porters, cleaners, paramedics, pharmacists, care home staff, prison and police officers, teachers, social workers, those preparing and delivering food, collecting our refuse and administering the welfare system. They deserve our gratitude, they need our support and they are in all our minds. They are the very best of us.

I am sure that everyone in this House observed that one-minute silence at 11 o’clock, as we reflected on sacrifices being made by so many on our behalf. This pandemic has claimed more than 20,000 lives and left every community across the country grieving. Our thoughts, and prayers, are with all those who have suffered loss in the humble knowledge that every life is precious.

As the Prime Minister said on his welcome return to work yesterday, we are dealing with

“the biggest single challenge this country has faced since the war”.

Like him, I want to thank the British people for their forbearance and solidarity as we have all had to abide by the guidance on social distancing, which restricts cherished liberties but protects precious lives.

The challenges that the pandemic is presenting us with require an unprecedented response from the Government. For this reason, as the House will know, on 17 March we established four ministerial implementation groups to lead the Government’s response to the pandemic. The Health Secretary chairs one group, co-ordinating work on the NHS and social care. The Chancellor chairs the group considering how to support business and the economy, and the Foreign Secretary chairs the group co-ordinating our international response. I chair the general public sector group which looks at how we support the delivery of public services beyond the NHS and social care, working with Ministers from across the UK Government and Ministers from the Scottish Executive, the Welsh Government and the Northern Ireland Executive. I am very grateful to colleagues from the devolved Administrations for their participation and their constructive contributions to all our discussions. These have helped us to understand how the virus has affected every part of our United Kingdom, enabling us to take action that meets the needs of people across all our nations.

The ministerial implementation group has now met 30 times, and we have considered the impact of the pandemic on schools and children’s services, the police and the Prison and Probation Service, the courts, the food supply chain, the welfare system, charities and support for the most vulnerable. With my colleague the Environment Secretary, we have been working to address the shortfall in the agricultural workforce to protect our domestic food supply, working closely with industry to launch the “Pick for Britain” campaign. Working with the Education Secretary, we have established the free school meal voucher scheme to make sure that children who need it can continue to access food despite school closures. The scheme has seen 15,500 schools place orders for those vouchers, of which £29 million have been redeemed. We were able to ensure that more than 60% of schools were open every day over the Easter holidays to provide places for the children of critical workers and vulnerable children. In addition, we have launched the Oak National Academy, providing 180 video lessons each week. We have committed £100 million to ensure that remote education is accessible for all, including by providing laptops, tablets and routers to disadvantaged children. Since the end of March, 90% of rough sleepers known to councils have been made an offer of accommodation, ensuring that some of the most vulnerable people in our society can stay safe during this pandemic.

Of course, we recognise that this is not just a national crisis; it is also a local one in communities across the country. We have deployed dedicated military planning support to every local resilience forum. Some 156 military planners are embedded across the country, helping the resilience fora to co-ordinate and protect local services and supplies, with additional support from senior Whitehall officials and named resilience advisers in regional knowledge hubs. Of course, this crisis has put our existing services under huge strain. To bolster this, we have worked with the MoD to mobilise a Covid support force of over 19,060 strong, of whom 2,948 personnel are now committed, supporting a total of 79 military assistances to civil authority tasks nationwide.

Our police have been working hard to keep people safe while enforcing the new measures the Prime Minister put in place just over a month ago. Between 27 March and 13 April, they issued 3,203 fines to those flouting the social distancing rules, and that number will have increased considerably since then—this is all dedicated to helping to save lives and to protect the NHS. We have tested over 150,000 key workers and their families for coronavirus, allowing those who do not have it to go back to work and protecting those who do. We have also made sure the Civil Service and wider public sector are resourced to operate under the considerable new pressures imposed by this virus. We have worked to fill around 1,300 Covid-19 roles through Civil Service redeployments, with over 400 civil servants now moving to the Department of Health and Social Care.

We also recognise that there are people who have developed new needs as a result of coronavirus, as well as individuals whose pre-existing needs are now more acute or more complex. The Government are undertaking a programme of work to support those who have not been identified as shielded but are still vulnerable. We know that many local community organisations have stepped forward to help their friends and neighbours at this time. The Government want to support this activity and we welcome the important role that volunteers, charities and local authorities are playing throughout this crisis. Over 750,000 people have signed up to the NHS volunteer responders programme, and over 600,000 have had their ID verified to start helping with tasks such as collecting shopping, providing telephone support, transporting patients and helping with supplies for the NHS.

To support this effort, and to make sure people know where to turn, we have been working to signpost people to existing and available support—whether local, national or voluntary—through the website address www.gov.uk/find-coronavirus-support. This service has supported over 35,000 people since its launch on 10 April. We are working with supermarkets as well to ensure that a greater number of online delivery slots are made available explicitly to those most in need. We have also been working to understand and identify where there are gaps in provision and what government, working with local and voluntary partners, can do to address this. A notable example of that is the Home Office’s announcement of an additional £2 million of funding to immediately bolster domestic abuse helplines and online support for those at risk.

There will, of course, be further challenges ahead. I do not shirk from acknowledging that, as a Government, we will not have got every judgment right. Indeed, I know that many people, including the honourable Member for Leeds West, have asked fair questions about the Government’s response in a constructive spirit. I and my colleagues will do our best at all times to respond to these questions and challenges, because we owe it to our public sector workers to work collaboratively and harness all available resources in the fight against this virus. And in this fight, it is important that all of us recognise just how much we owe to the stoicism and steadfastness, the hard work and heroism, the compassion and commitment of those working on the front line of public service. We owe them so much, and we in the Government will do everything we can to support them. It is in that spirit that I commend this Statement to the House.”

My Lords, that concludes the Statement.

My Lords, I thank the Minister for repeating yesterday’s Statement. He will know that we share the Government’s aim to save lives and rebuild our economy and well-being. In this context, there is much in the Statement that we applaud, particularly its acknowledgment of the role of volunteers, the health service, food growers and retailers, pharmacists, care workers, educators, charities, the police and the military. I would also add the BBC and indeed Ministers and civil servants, who have had to respond to previously unimaginable demands.

Unlike anything we have ever seen, this crisis has literally involved every single one of us. It is a national challenge like no other. We therefore have a population who are part and parcel of the country’s response and, in return, we owe it to them to be honest and transparent about the risks, the difficult trade-offs, the certainties and uncertainties, the data, and what the Government are actually doing, and planning to do. The Prime Minister, on his return to Downing Street from Chequers, pledged to act with “maximum possible transparency”. We therefore hope that we will soon have reliable data on the rate of BAME infections and deaths—an issue of major concern to our Caribbean and Asian communities.

We very much welcome that, from today, the statistics will include deaths in care homes and in the community, as well as those in hospitals. This is right in itself, but it is particularly important because of the numbers involved—perhaps 19,000 Covid-related deaths; a near tripling of the number of deaths in care homes over three weeks—and because of the failure to ensure that these people in society’s care, and the staff who look after them, were properly protected with equipment and testing. This is no time to look backwards and consider why that was, but it is time to look forward and ensure that the situation is remedied. This is especially true as it looks as if the UK’s overall coronavirus death rate could outstrip that of Italy, France and Spain, and may even be the highest in Europe.

We need the Government to take all necessary steps, and that includes heeding the very wise words “to underpromise and overdeliver, rather than overpromise and underdeliver”—as we saw, I am afraid, with PPE and testing. The Cabinet Office has a key role in this, not just on procurement, as mentioned quite rightly by the Minister, but on cross-departmental working and liaison, ensuring that lessons are learned as speedily as they are in the medical world, where advances in treatment of the virus in one week are disseminated around the health service profession by the following Monday. The Cabinet Office has a similar role in ensuring that everyone knows the lessons being learned elsewhere.

The Cabinet Office also has a role to ensure that all our citizens are fully informed about what is happening and what is being discussed. In that context, could the Minister explain why, if the Welsh, Scottish and indeed other Governments can ensure that signers are available and on-screen in daily press conferences, somehow No. 10 cannot quite arrange this? It can easily be done at a distance and so not break social distancing rules. Our deaf communities feel very strongly that they are being excluded from daily updates.

Going forward, plans to test and trace will affect all sectors of society, including those with a disability, and we will need every agency to help inform, encourage, test, safeguard and trace. That is a real cross-government task, involving local government, devolved authorities, charities—especially those working with the vulnerable—service providers, civic society, businesses and trade unions.

Until now, there have been some forgotten groups in all this, such as those who receive care in their own homes and domiciliary care staff. All these people must get the PPE that they need, and social care must be properly funded to deal with the extra costs of the pandemic.

These are some of the “here and now” issues, but we also need a viable and sustainable national recovery plan, which I assume will be Cabinet Office-led. For these next decisions, involvement across the piece is needed, not simply to help craft those plans, but to ensure that businesses, schools and other organisations have time to prepare, such that the infection rates do not increase again. Transparency and consultation will be vital, so will the Government publish their next- steps framework?

We stand ready to help—it is in the national interest—to ensure that the NHS, public services, businesses, workers, families and communities recover and become more resilient. But we need to understand, and contribute to, the Government’s thinking, so we ask that there is that involvement. Will the Government agree to hold talks with teachers, trade unions, businesses, charities and local authorities on how their forward strategy can be developed and implemented to rebuild the economy and jobs?

I, too, welcome this Statement and the remarkable change of tone it contains about public sector workers used by Conservative Ministers and advisers until a few weeks ago. Last December’s Conservative manifesto, and even more the writings of Conservative advisers such as Dominic Cummings and Rachel Wolf, condemned the Civil Service as “incompetent” and wasteful, as ignorant about science and looking after their own interests rather than the public as a whole.

Happily, Ministers have now realised that civil servants and others across the public sector believe in the concept of public service, which right-wing libertarians and public choice economists have rubbished for so long. Across our entire public service, from the NHS to the police and military to Whitehall and local authorities, we have seen people rising to the challenge, moving jobs to help others, and working all hours. Many of them, we should also recognise, are far more modestly paid than their equivalents in the private sector, but they have shown their commitment and their loyalty to the communities they serve.

I am glad to see the reference to local resilience forums, and the recognition that this is a series of local crises across the country as well as a national crisis. I hope that this will persuade the Government to reverse their marginalisation of local authorities and to recognise the vital contribution that effective local government makes to a thriving democracy. I was struck when I read the section on democracy and political reform in last December’s Conservative manifesto that it contained no reference at all to local democracy. I hope that the Minister will argue for its inclusion in the agenda for the constitution, democracy and human rights commission which the Government have promised to set up this year.

The Statement expresses gratitude to

“to colleagues from the devolved Administrations for their participation and their constructive contributions to all our discussions. Those discussions have helped us to understand how the virus has affected every part of our United Kingdom.”

Can the Minister tell the House how the Government have ensured that they have understood the impact on every part of the UK, given that the large majority of the UK’s population lives in England and that there appears to have been no visible mechanism for consultation with the English regions or even with the city mayors from outside London?

The Minister mentioned that the military has now been brought in to help out with logistics but also with expanding testing for the virus. The Statement does not explain why the initial programme of testing was contracted out to a large private consultancy firm: a contract which, the Daily Telegraph has reported, was awarded without the normal tendering process. Was that because of an instinctive Conservative assumption that the private sector is always better than the public sector? The underutilisation of the first testing centres, reported and repeated difficulties with the booking system, and the apparent assumption that all care and health workers had access to their own cars and had time to drive up to 50 miles to be tested all show this to have been one of the weakest aspects of the response to the epidemic. I am glad that the military have now been brought in to expand testing. Why were they not brought in at the outset? My own experience in government, dealing with the digitisation of Whitehall, suggested that outside consultancies often charge more and deliver less.

The Statement refers also to the redeployment of a large number of civil servants across Whitehall to cope with the crisis. What other tasks of government have had to be put on hold as a result? I understand, for example, that the Government’s promised White Paper on data strategy, for which the Minister is responsible to the Lords, is now several months behind schedule, since officials had been transferred; first, to help with preparation for Brexit and now to respond to the epidemic. I understand that officials working on the Brexit negotiations have also been redeployed in response to the epidemic. Will the Minister commit to informing the House in the near future whether the team negotiating Brexit is still sufficiently staffed to handle the complex negotiations that we are engaged in or whether the demands of this emergency will enforce a change of pace if we are to avoid confusion or failure?

Finally, I welcome very warmly the Government’s tribute to

“the stoicism and steadfastness, the hard work and heroism, the compassion and commitment of those working at the front line of public service.”

We all make that tribute, and long may the Government’s change of tone continue.

My Lords, perhaps I may begin by congratulating the Prime Minister and Carrie Symonds on the birth of their son. It is a story of movement from near death to new life in a few weeks. I am sure that that is what we all avidly pray for for this economy and this nation as we look ahead to a way out of this crisis and to new hope.

I thank the noble Lord and the noble Baroness for their responses to the Statement and the constructive way in which they put forward their points of view, many of which I share. I endorse their admiration for all that is being done in the NHS, social care, the public services and the private sector in the face of this crisis. Naturally, I add my own respect and prayers for those people and their families who have given, literally, all they had to give. None of us, as the nation showed at 11 o’clock yesterday, will forget them.

Everyone across the land, which includes central government and, yes, local government, is doing the best they can, as fast as they can, and the most they can in these difficult times. As the noble Baroness said, there has been an extraordinary response from the public in the coming-together across the land, and long may it last.

We must not forget that some remarkable things have been achieved. I acknowledge to both the noble Baroness and the noble Lord that there have also been things that have not gone as well in every detail as all would hope. I think that it was General Moltke who said that no plan extends with certainty beyond first contact with the main force of the enemy, and Covid is a new, hidden, mutable and invisible enemy with characteristics not met before. However, I assure the House that the Government and all their agencies are working night and day to ensure that our front-line health and social care staff have the equipment they need to tackle this virus, and we have delivered more than 1,000 million items of PPE since the outbreak began, including 36 million to care homes.

I agree with the noble Baroness that transparency is important. As she acknowledged, we are moving today to bring together the different strands of statistics in relation to care homes, which will give full and proper transparency on that. Her point on BAME is very important. Work on that is under way, as the scientists have said at the daily briefings. I cannot give her a date for an outcome to the work.

Care homes are obviously a sector of enormous importance, and they have been of concern to the Government all the way through. As I have said, 36 million items of PPE have already been delivered to care homes, but it is a vulnerable section of the community where I acknowledge the need always to strive to do better.

On communications, I will take up the noble Baroness’s point; I understand it very well. I acknowledge her point on the need for the broadest co-operation if and when we move into test and trace. On publishing frameworks, I think that the noble Baroness and the House know that the Government’s position is that we have first to keep on with the effort that that public are making to contain this virus and to meet the five tests before we move forward to any release from the current lockdown provisions. As the Prime Minister acknowledged when he came back to work, over the next few days, the Government will continue to examine carefully all these issues.

On the points made by the noble Lord, Lord Wallace of Saltaire, I do not need any reminder of the need to commend the Civil Service. I have always had the highest respect for it and have worked with it through my life. The ideal of public service is one that I personally consider to be of the highest importance, and it is something to which I have always aspired. I assure the noble Lord that that is shared widely, if not universally, across the Government. On the importance of local authorities, I referred to the local resilience fora. Local authorities are making a great contribution. We will continue to work to improve and maintain communications with them and with agencies right across England, as the noble Lord rightly said.

I welcome what the noble Lord said about the military. Its role has been extraordinary. The Armed Forces have made a great difference and perhaps have not had as much attention in the media as they might have done, but I was grateful for what he said on that score.

So far as the redeployment of civil servants and the delay of business is concerned, there has been an impact on some aspects of government business, of course. It is right that full priority should be given to confronting this crisis, but on the noble Lord’s concerns about the negotiations towards the transition on 31 December, I assure him that a very effective team with a large number of civil servants is at work there, as was said in the recent Statement. Indeed, if he read Monsieur Barnier’s statement, he will have seen how Monsieur Barnier himself commented on the professionalism of David Frost and his team in carrying forward those negotiations. I believe that we can have confidence in that.

I hope that I have answered most of the points made. If not, I will write to noble Lords.

My Lords, I welcome my noble friend’s Statement. I join in the expressions of deep gratitude to all those who have kept public services running. We owe them a huge debt.

Does my noble friend agree that, while we understand the entirely fair and legitimate questions and concerns about, for example, the delivery of some equipment to the front line—notwithstanding the burning desire of some in the media to produce a so-called gotcha moment—one of the most important features of this pandemic is that, unlike in some other countries, our National Health Service has not been overwhelmed and has coped brilliantly with the extra demands placed on it? For this, both our fantastic health service workers and those in government deserve credit.

My Lords, I thank my noble friend. Of course, I wholly endorse what he said about the great achievement of the National Health Service, with all the support that it has received from others, in providing its services and in maintaining a safe distance between being overwhelmed and offering the outstanding-quality service that it does. I agree that a little more attention might sometimes be given to some of the remarkable and unprecedented things that have been achieved over the past few weeks.

It is right that there should be scrutiny. It is right that questions should be asked, above all in Parliament but also by the media. The country has demonstrated that it has the will to go forward and triumph over this virus. To win, one has to travel with hope and encouragement, as well as with humility and honesty. It behoves us all, both those who report and those who perform, to keep that spirit of hope and encouragement alive.

My Lords, the Minister brings a vast range of experience to this subject, so he will recall that after the banking crisis of 2008 there followed 10 years of austerity and during those years, local authorities experienced an increase in demand for services and major cuts in their budgets. As a result, as we look back, in relative terms the most vulnerable sometimes paid the highest price because they had no margins and the services they needed were restricted or removed. We are now told that borrowing is at an unprecedented level, so I hope the Minister will agree that it would be timely, among all the other things that have to be done, for a robust plan of action to be put in place to ensure that as we go forward, the most vulnerable and the services they need are properly protected.

My Lords, I am not going to follow the noble Lord into considering history; otherwise, one could go back further and further into how we got into the 2008 crisis and so on. The thing we must do now is to go forward and look forward. I cannot at this virtual Dispatch Box anticipate what the Chancellor will do in managing the economy as and when we come out of this crisis, but it is this Government’s firm resolve to level up, as the Prime Minister has repeatedly stated. Indeed, in in this crisis, as we know, additional resources have been given to local authorities and the social care sector. Of course, I understand, accept and share the spirit of the noble Lord’s remarks, if not following him in every detail.

My Lords, I, too, welcome the Statement and join in the expression of appreciation of everyone who is working so hard during this unprecedented public health challenge. However, I want to raise a question about the future of the acquisition and delivery of PPE. We are very aware that in the past few weeks, this has not been conducted as efficiently and effectively as everybody would like, including Ministers. However, we know that with the Spanish flu there were two further peaks. Can the Government assure us that by this autumn, we will have sufficient and robust supplies of PPE that meet the right standards from the HSE’s perspective? Looking at the Statement and the four teams that are working together, many people, including me, do not quite understand where the noble Lord, Lord Deighton, who is co-ordinating the manufacture and distribution of PPE locally, will link in with those four teams. We could, of course, become completely self-reliant as a country on PPE, which may be something we want to think about in the longer term. I would be very happy to have a virtual meeting to discuss this further if it is appropriate.

PPE is of course of fundamental importance. If anybody in the country did not realise it at the start of this crisis, it is fully understood now. Ministers have always understood it. We had a large stockpile. Great efforts will continue to be made to ensure that our front line has sufficient equipment. I note the points that the noble Baroness made about the experience of Spanish flu, and I would certainly be interested in talking to her about it on another occasion, but I must reiterate that the Government are 100% committed to securing a stable and safe supply of PPE now and in the future.

Following on from the noble Lord, Lord Laming, I want to explore the needs of local authorities a bit further. Councils of all political persuasions are very concerned about the considerable shortfall in the funding they need—for example, to prevent the failure of private sector social care provision. Will the Minister join me in urging the Government to meet this large and urgent need for additional funding—over and above, I have to say, what has already been provided to local government during this crisis?

My Lords, I might be new in the game, but I am afraid that I cannot urge the Government because I am no longer on the Back Benches. I can say that the Government understand the critical importance of local authorities in confronting this problem. I will certainly make sure that the noble Baroness’s points are heard and understood by the Chancellor. As I said, I cannot anticipate what financial provision he will make for the future.

My Lords, given the latest Public Health England advice that quarantining of new and at-risk prisoners should be in place for the rest of this year, can my noble friend advise us of the Government’s planning for the resumption of prisoners’ family visits and the progress on making virtual visits widely available?

My Lords, my noble friend raises a very important point. Prisoners are a vulnerable part of the community and mental health is important for everyone, not least prisoners. I assure him that although this is at an initial stage, action has already been taken to ensure that locked mobile telephones can be given to prisoners in settings where there is no access to call boxes. Provision is being made to bring in the kinds of virtual conferences and meetings that he describes. I cannot give him an exact figure on the number of settings, or the timing, but I assure him that the Government are aware of the issue and addressing it.

My Lords, I thank the Government for agreeing the £60,000 award for health and social care workers who have died, but I ask them to extend this to other workers who have died on the coronavirus front line. Will the Government please ensure that bereaved families of those who have died on the front line but who are not in the NHS Pension Scheme get the same benefits, including a monthly allowance for dependants?

My Lords, my honourable friend the Minister for Health has said that he will consider the details of the scheme further. I am glad that it was welcomed by the noble Baroness and I will ensure that he is aware of the important points she raised.

I would like to say first how impressed I am by the work of the Department for Work and Pensions, which has the responsibility for meeting the needs of the most needy people in our country. Also, can the Minister tell me the effects of the present restrictions on the criminal and civil courts in our country?

My Lords, I am grateful for what my noble and learned friend said about the Department for Work and Pensions. It is an important area when it comes to confronting this crisis. Helping the most vulnerable is absolutely key, as well as those whose jobs are suddenly insecure. On the courts, there has been an impact, particularly in the case of the county courts. Virtual proceedings are continuing where it is possible to do so. I believe that court proceedings are continuing in 159 settings—I cannot remember the exact figure off the top of my head but if it is wrong, I will write to my noble and learned friend. That has also obviously had an impact on magistrates’ courts, where the throughput of cases is considerably down from the normal level. This matter receives the constant attention of the Ministry of Justice, which is monitoring the situation closely.

As the Government have recognised clearly and appropriately in the Statement, front-line workers from overseas have been essential to managing the Covid-19 epidemic, and have done so at risk to themselves and their families. Will the Government give credit for this in applications for UK residency and citizenship and urgently revise the criteria, and in the process, are the costs of their visas being waived?

My Lords, I cannot answer the detail on the last point; I will advise the noble Baroness on that point. Obviously she will know that the NHS visa scheme will be ongoing as an important part of the Government’s plans. On the other aspects of her question, I agree that the significance and importance of workers in the NHS who come from overseas is hugely recognised and valued; that has been made publicly clear several times by my right honourable friend the Minister for Health, and I endorse that. I will pass on to him all the remarks the noble Baroness made, and I am grateful for what she said.

My Lords, I thank my noble friend for his comments, particularly on schools. Reopening schools as soon as possible must be a top priority. Since most pupils and teachers will have had a very long Easter break—unexpected and unwelcome—and since it will not be possible for anyone to go away on holiday this August, will the Government therefore consider and instruct all schools to stay open throughout the usual summer holiday period, apart from a couple of weeks’ break, in order for pupils to catch up?

My Lords, obviously, education is of critical importance. As my noble friend will know, some schools have stayed open to provide support for the children of key workers—I express our gratitude to them. It is right that we should congratulate and commend the professionals who have done that in the circumstances. I understand the aspiration to return to school, whether it comes from children or from parents and grandparents. I remind the House of the five tests —so far I have not—which are vital if we are to sustain the fight against Covid. Those have not all been met, but obviously, as the Prime Minister said when he came out of hospital, consideration is being given to the future. The key task currently is to protect the NHS, save lives and protect lives, and, as the Prime Minister put it, this is a moment of maximum risk, as well as of maximum opportunity. I understand what my noble friend said and I assure him that the Government are well aware of many people’s aspirations. However, for the moment we must keep on with social distancing.

My Lords, I have strong solidarity with all public sector workers. What are the plans for the post-Covid economic strategy, and when will we have sight of them? Perhaps the Minister could ask his colleague the Chancellor about them.

I thank the noble Baroness. It is of course in the hands of the Chancellor. I am sure the noble Baroness would agree that his massive response to this crisis, helping businesses and families, and supporting those in need, has been unprecedented and striking. We are obviously still in the middle of these circumstances and do not know how long this is going to continue. The noble Baroness will understand if I cannot anticipate what will happen in the weeks and months ahead, but I assure her that the Chancellor is vividly aware of the impact of the present crisis on the economy, and what it means for real people whogo out to work to make the resources that the country needs.

Our National Health Service may be wonderful, but it has a very sclerotic decision-making process, rather like the former Soviet Union. I live in Cambridge, where our local hospital has almost 400 empty beds. Cancer radiotherapy and cancer operations have stopped. The cardiology department has almost stopped and there are no face-to-face appointments available. When the hospital is questioned, it says that it is waiting for guidance; when the Minister is questioned, we are told that it is up to the hospitals. Will someone try to shake this up, because although we have to combat Covid-19 we must also remember that many very ill people in the community are not being looked after?

My Lords, the fact that my noble friend points to—the indirect impact on people and their health in the Covid crisis—has been repeatedly stressed by the Chief Medical Officer in the press conferences over recent weeks. That is understood. I take the point that he makes about spare capacity, which is obviously a result of what was a necessary response to the crisis. Yesterday in the press conference, my right honourable friend the Minister for Health spoke—I cannot remember the exact phrase— about reopening the NHS to normal business. That is probably not the phrase but it was something of that sort. I assure my noble friend that consideration is being given to this.

My Lords, I listened in vain for reference in the Statement to public transport or to the freight transport industries. Our economy sits on the shoulders on those industries, so while the Government have announced assistance for transport in its various forms, does the Minister agree that we owe a debt of gratitude to all public transport workers during this crisis? Sadly, many of them have died, particularly bus drivers, because they come into close and regular contact with the public. What are the Government doing to ensure that those workers, and other rail and bus workers, are given much better protection from the virus?

My Lords, I totally agree with the noble Baroness about those who work in public transport. I am a public transport user myself; I do not drive a car in normal times. I know every day how important it is, as is the work which public service workers on transport have done. Albeit that it is less used, the Government recognise—as I think the whole nation recognises—the risk that they run. As the testing provision extends, more and more key workers will have access to this kind of provision. I fully take on board the points that she makes; these are vital and much valued members of the public services.

My Lords, following the question from the noble Lord, Lord Blencathra, does the Minister accept the urgent need to prevent a blighted generation of young people, with all the issues that will present, including mental health issues? Many students and pupils will want to know when they can fully resume their education. What will the Minister say to them?

My Lords, I share that aspiration and I know that the Government do, but the need to protect the safety of the public and to save lives is still paramount; the five tests have not yet been met. But I repeat what I said in an earlier answer: that aspiration is clearly understood, and the Government have invested heavily in trying to support distance learning. That is a great thing, as I am sure a virtual Parliament is, but a virtual Parliament is no substitute for the real thing, and I hope that in due time virtual learning will be taken over by a return to a more normal life. But I am afraid that the time is not now.

My Lords, I am grateful for the Minister’s comments about the support from the voluntary sector—it is terribly important—but I do not know whether he is aware that the hospitality sector is failing quite dramatically. An awful lot of employees are on zero-hours contracts, and there are reports of them having to sleep rough in London and many other places because they cannot afford their rent. The problem is that there are no hotels, shops, restaurants or cafés open that might give them some food, there is nowhere for them to stay because they cannot afford the rent, and of course the public toilets are shut—so it is very different. Of course, these people do not always know the normal way in which local rough sleepers go about things. Could the Minister talk to local authorities and try to instruct them to open public toilets, encourage the voluntary sector and get the day centres open so that these people can at least survive until there is a better chance of getting a new job?

My Lords, I certainly take into consideration what the noble Lord says. As I said earlier, through the help of local authorities and the truly outstanding agencies that work in the area of assisting homeless people, the Government believe that we have reached some 90% of those we wish to. But I hear what the noble Lord says and will pass on his remarks to colleagues.

I congratulate my noble friend and his department on the work they are doing on domestic food supply. Now that we have left the European Union, can my noble friend the Minister explain what steps are being taken to encourage schools, hospitals, prisons and councils to source their meat from domestic production at this time? Will he be mindful of the overnight loss of a huge part of the dairy production market, leaving 2,000 farmers possibly destitute and potentially leading to a mass slaughter of their cows?

My Lords, I regret that the sound was not very good for my noble friend’s question. I certainly caught her concern for farmers, and I take that point; my right honourable friend George Eustice has been addressing that matter. I am sorry that could not catch the other parts of her question, but I will ensure that she gets a written reply.

My Lords, that concludes Back-Bench questions on the Statement. The day’s Virtual Proceedings are now complete and are adjourned.

Virtual Proceeding adjourned at 1.58 pm.