Private Notice Question
To ask Her Majesty’s Government, further to the letter from Baroness Vere of Norbiton to all Members on travel corridors and Spain, sent on 26 July, what support they will provide to those who have (1) visited, or (2) travelled through, Spain and are subsequently required to self-isolate on their return to the United Kingdom and are unable to fulfil work-related obligations as a result.
My Lords, we encourage employers to show flexibility by allowing employees who return from Spain to work from home where possible—[Inaudible.]
My Lords, we encourage employers to show flexibility by allowing employees who return from Spain to work from home where possible while self-isolating or offering paid leave. We expect that many employers will have their own policies for self-isolation. Some may continue to offer full pay for all or some of the isolation period. Those who need urgent support may be entitled to new-style employment and support allowance or universal credit.
My Lords, it was not any better the second time. The Government have failed to understand the practicalities and financial impact of self-isolation. The letter sent out by the noble Baroness only contained guidance for office workers if they were being forced to go back to work, saying that the Government were encouraging employers to be understanding and adding that staff could go to ACAS. That is not acceptable; it is totally irresponsible. She and I are working from home today, as is everybody else who is asking her a question on this issue, but for millions of people, usually in the lowest-paid jobs, that just is not possible. Even if their employers are understanding, their landlords and others may not be. Pricing people out of self-isolation is dangerous for all of us. Will she report back to the House tomorrow on what action Ministers are taking to provide financial support, including statutory sick pay, for those who the Government say must self-isolate?
My Lords, the Government have been absolutely clear: urgent support is available for those who need it. That may be the new-style employment and support allowance or it may be universal credit, depending on the individual circumstances. I will happily write to the noble Baroness with more detail of both those schemes. My letter to her was not intended to be comprehensive, but it set out many of the things that we are doing.
My Lords, this is a disaster for the self-employed and owners of small businesses. On Sunday, Dominic Raab told anyone who risked losing money to look at their insurance, among other things. Since March, there has been a general market failure in the provision of cover for all pandemic risk, including business interruption. There is no insurance policy available that covers loss of income in these circumstances. The Government are aware of this and, in response to Written Questions, have undertaken to engage with the insurance sector on this issue “in due course”. “In due course” is already too late. Will the Government undertake to engage with the sector, which wants to talk to them about this, now?
The noble Lord is quite right that the impact of the pandemic has been very significant both on those who are employed by companies and on those who are self-employed. We are doing what we can to offer support where needed. As for engaging with the insurance industry, that work is ongoing.
My Lords, I accept that the Minister’s answer today might be different from the one she might give if I asked the same question tomorrow, because yesterday the Government’s advice changed within the day. For the moment, will she tell us whether this sudden imposition of quarantine—it has provided a sharp shock to the tourism and transport industries, which were painfully trying to restart their businesses—will be accompanied by additional support from the Government to those industries to help them to withstand the impact of this sudden government stop advice? Will she agree that it is time that the Government encouraged people back on to our own trains and buses so that they can have some holiday in the UK?
My Lords, the Government will be criticised whichever way they turn on this one. The noble Baroness, Lady Randerson, is now accusing us of acting too quickly, while under other circumstances it might be too slowly. It was absolutely essential, when we got the risk assessment from the Joint Biosecurity Centre, that we put in place these measures to protect public health. We put them in place for the Spanish mainland first and, once further consideration had been given, we added the Canaries and the Balearics. The noble Baroness will also know that we are encouraging people to travel on public transport if they can do so safely.
As we are living through these uncertain times with the coronavirus pandemic, it is unfortunately inevitable that all plans for foreign travel have some risk involved. Quite understandably, the Government need to be nimble in updating advice and prescribing precautionary measures. As we have seen over the weekend, advice can change at very short notice. Does the Minister agree that all people looking to escape in the coming weeks to sunny holiday destinations need to bear this in mind and be prepared for a change in arrangements?
My noble friend is absolutely right: travelling nowadays is not the same as it was before. I implore all people looking to go abroad to check their travel insurance. Many travel operators are now offering flexible packages, including packages that can be cancelled with a refund if they need to be. I encourage people to look around the market. The travel industry is responding and, although travel is not the same, it should be possible for at least some people to get away this summer.
My Lords, other European nations with large tourism in Spain did not adopt this Government’s abruptly introduced self-isolation rule. How many, if any, have done so since the weekend? What differing scientific, economic or other factors have the Government identified which led to this major difference of judgment and action and which those who might lose pay or even their job through self-isolation can explain to their employer?
The Government obviously looked at their own advice and that from the Joint Biosecurity Centre, but it is the case that Norway has pretty much the same requirements as the UK. Belgium, France and, I understand, Germany have also put in place some restrictions on all or parts of Spain.
My Lords, it is not only holidaymakers and travel firms that are suffering. Luton Borough Council, in my diocese, owns Luton Airport. As a result of the lockdown, it has a significant hole in its finances, affecting every person living in the borough. It is surely in the interest of every country to find a better way to provide travel corridors based on regions rather than simply designating entire countries. What consideration are Her Majesty’s Government giving to the idea of having regional travel corridors?
The right reverend Prelate raises a very important point. For the time being, we are taking the approach by country for border measures, but we could put them in place for regions in the future. We are not there yet, but we are certainly looking at it, because it is an appropriate consideration.
My Lords, it is absolutely right that our Government should take action for the safety of our people, despite what any other nation might say. My concern, however, is that many of the Government’s decisions relating to the Wuhan virus seem to be kneejerk and have a scattergun effect. It is not at all clear that policy is joined up across Whitehall. In early July, I was in France; on return, government policy, after some indecision, was for self-isolation for two weeks. This advice changed the day after my return and nobody officially took any notice of my whereabouts. While I believe that people should use their common sense, will the Minister tell us what mechanism has been put in place to ensure that the two-week self-isolation for those returning from Spain is being complied with?
The noble Lord is right that there are enforcement measures in place for people returning from Spain or elsewhere, where a self-isolation period of 14 days is required. PHE is undertaking spot checks as part of the enforcement approach and there is a possibility of a £1,000 fixed penalty notice for those people who are not self-isolating.
My Lords, have the Government thought through what happens when someone returns from Spain to go back to work the next day? The Minister talks glibly of financial support, but if travellers are required to self-isolate, will they actually have a job to go back to? The Minister’s letter says that travellers who are there can continue their trip, so that does not seem to be too urgent. Would not the correct procedure be to give two weeks’ notice of the restriction to allow travellers, including the sun-tanned Transport Secretary, time to return without quarantine?
My Lords, the reason why we had to remove the travel corridor from Spain is that the infection rate for Covid cases increased at an alarming rate. There was a massive acceleration at the end of last week. We therefore did not have the luxury of a two-week period of grace in which we could warn people in advance. It was absolutely essential that we put in place the measures that we did in order to keep our public safe.
My Lords, it is extraordinary and wrong that this Question has warranted the status of a PNQ. The trouble with Labour and the Liberal Democrats is that they love spending other people’s money. They complain about austerity and then want to spend yet more of taxpayers’ money on people who have chosen to take risks by travelling mostly for pleasure in the middle of a worldwide pandemic. Perhaps we should change the word “pandemic” to “plague”, like Tim Smit. Is it not time for everyone to stop treating people as if they were incapable of taking proportionate risks and accepting the consequences? Will the Minister reassure her colleagues that they are doing absolutely the right thing in very difficult and ever-changing circumstances?
I thank my noble friend for her comments. Of course, to a certain extent, she is right. Whenever one travels during a pandemic or otherwise, there are always risks that are simply not present when one is at home. At the moment, with the pandemic, the risks are certainly much higher, but they can be mitigated, as I set out earlier, by travel insurance and by looking at those travel providers that offer travellers flexibility.
My Lords, with a second spike being a racing certainty and with an evolving and differing set of guidelines on the continent, what assurances are being sought by Border Force to ensure that passengers are correctly stating their original departure point and not abusing open Schengen borders by travelling via a transit airport? By the by, with pets now seemingly threatened with Covid, is an embargo anticipated on pets entering the UK?
My Lords, I understand that there is now a European-approved 40-minute test, which can allow the Government to negotiate secure testing sites at airports, whether in Spain or other countries. That would help to avoid unnecessary self-isolation on return and the associated loss of earnings. Would the Minister be willing to look at these schemes?
I reassure my noble friend that we are already looking at a range of different options. For the time being, the position remains unchanged: there is a 14-day self-isolation period. However, we are considering options on how to manage the risk of imported cases. We are looking at ways of testing people on certain days, but we must understand that testing people on arrival is sometimes inappropriate because of the longer incubation period of the virus, which means that it does not show up in the tests. Again, I reassure my noble friend that we are looking at all eventualities, because obviously we would like to decrease the number of days in self-isolation if we possibly can.
The impact of this will be further job losses and hardship not only for an already shrinking travel industry but also for those individuals who find that on their return they have to self-isolate. Not everyone has the luxury of working from home and they will face financial stress. As has been pointed out, they may not be entitled to statutory sick pay. This will not be the last time that our country has to face this kind of enforcement. We need an urgent response in this instance and I agree wholeheartedly with my noble friend Lady Smith of Basildon that the Government must act to ensure that the harms to families and businesses are minimised. What will the Government do to mitigate the financial stresses on those who are confined? Will they be tested and tracked and how will they be monitored for compliance?
As I mentioned to the noble Baroness, Lady Smith of Basildon, we have in place urgent support for those people who are desperately in need. I have committed to write to her with more details and I will certainly make sure that the noble Baroness, Lady Uddin, also receives a copy of that letter.