Considered in Grand Committee
That the Grand Committee do consider the Coronavirus Act 2020 (Early Expiry) Regulations 2021.
Relevant document: 1st Report from the Secondary Legislation Scrutiny Committee
My Lords, the one-year status report of the Coronavirus Act, which was laid in Parliament on 22 March, recommended the expiry of 12 provisions, and the suspension of a further two provisions and two parts of a third provision. I am sure noble Lords will join me in recognising that this is testament to the hard work and sacrifice that has helped us to get to this point. The regulations were laid under the draft affirmative procedure to allow noble Lords this opportunity to scrutinise the Act, as we have always committed to.
Having helped bring this Act through Parliament last year, I am enormously pleased to speak in support of this draft statutory instrument. Taking steps towards returning to normal and being able to switch off some of the temporary emergency powers in this Act is very much in line with the direction our country is moving in and fulfils the commitments the Government made from the Dispatch Box at the time.
The Coronavirus Act was introduced to enable the Government to support and protect as many people as possible during the pandemic. It has been, and continues to be, an essential tool in our toolkit, helping to mitigate transmission in our communities, enabling crucial financial support, and protecting and supporting the NHS and other public services. Ultimately, it has helped to save lives.
The Act ensures that the NHS has the capacity to deal with peaks of the virus by allowing the temporary registration of nurses and other healthcare professionals. It protects critical societal functions—for example, providing courts with the ability to use video technology—and allows us to provide effective support packages to individuals and businesses, such as the Coronavirus Job Retention Scheme and the Self-employment Income Support Scheme.
Now to the matter in hand. The Government conducted in-depth assessment of all the Act’s provisions as part of the one-year review. Today we are debating 12 provisions that we propose to expire early. I thank colleagues in the devolved Administrations for their engagement, support and consent in expiring the relevant provisions that apply to them. Eleven of these powers will be expired for all the nations they extend to—for example, Sections 8 and 9, which across all four nations were never needed thanks to the extraordinary alternative arrangements put in place. I firmly believe that this highlights our desire to remain aligned as a United Kingdom as we move to the next phase of our response.
On the specific provisions, we are expiring Sections 8 and 9, which facilitated emergency volunteering leave and compensation leave for emergency volunteers. Thanks to the fantastic effort by the NHS, these provisions were not needed. Other measures, such as NHS Professionals, other agency and bank staff, and the Bring Back Staff scheme, have been more appropriate to address the need for trained clinical staff.
Section 15 allowed local authorities to ease some responsibilities under the Care Act so that they could continue to meet the most urgent and acute needs in the face of Covid-19 by streamlining assessment and charging for care retrospectively. In England, only eight authorities used these powers—and none since 20 June 2020. There is strong support for expiring the provision, as the social care workforce has remained resilient under pressure and able to continue to deliver its duties. Expiry of this provision shows just how much progress we have made through the resilience of the health and care system.
We are also expiring Section 24, which allowed biometric data held for national security purposes to be retained for additional time; five provisions that required information for businesses and people involved in the food supply chain; Section 71, which allowed a single Treasury Minister to sign on behalf of all Treasury Commissioners; Section 79, which extended arrangements for business improvement districts; and Section 84, which allowed for the postponement of General Synod elections. We also suspended a further three provisions in the Act when, on 21 April, the Coronavirus Act 2020 (Suspension: Temporary Judicial Commissioners, Urgent Warrants, and Disposal of Bodies) Regulations 2021 came into force.
I have always been clear that these powers should not be in place any longer than needed. That is the approach we have sought throughout. All powers in the Act have been kept under continuous and close review. The powers we are debating are not required anymore; we have taken steps to remove them through this instrument.
The Government recognise the vital importance of parliamentary scrutiny. We heard and responded to the calls from this House, and we built rigorous checks and balances into the very fabric of the Act. Arrangements to facilitate accountability and transparency include conducting two-monthly status reports on the non-devolved provisions, as well as a one-year status report. Under Section 98 of the Act, the temporary provisions are also subject to a six-monthly review and renewal vote in the House of Commons. The first and second of these were held on 30 September 2020 and 25 March 2021 respectively, in which Parliament agreed to the continuation of the temporary provisions in the Act. We will lay a report covering the next six-monthly review before the end of September. The third six-monthly debate and renewal vote will take place shortly after; this will provide the opportunity, as previously, to debate the provisions in detail and consider their continued application based on the latest evidence.
The remaining provisions in the Act serve three core purposes: shoring up capacity in the health and care system; ensuring the delivery of essential public services, such as enabling virtual court proceedings; and providing financial and other support to businesses and individuals. While the period of the pandemic remains, so does the need for the Act. However, the six-monthly review process concluding in September will assess each of the temporary provisions rigorously, and we will expire all those deemed no longer necessary and proportionate to the response.
People and businesses need certainty. They, and we, want to see restrictions being lifted. This is the direction we are looking towards, and this is the direction we are taking. We have come a long way, and we should look ahead to the next six months as a chance to focus on the positives, on recovery and on reaching the next milestone in our road map. I beg to move.
My Lords, I thank the Minister for his explanation of these regulations. Clearly it is a good thing that the provisions are no longer considered necessary.
I want to ask the Minister about the impact where the provisions were in fact used. First, the Church of England measures allowed the postponement of the dissolution of the General Synod to 31 July 2021 and the continuation of members of the synod in office. Would the Minister care to tell me what impact that had on the running of the affairs of the Church of England? As a Minister of the Crown in a country where the Church of England is the established Church and Her Majesty the Queen is its Supreme Governor, I am sure he is on top of this matter.
I also want to ask the Minister about the Care Act provisions, which, as he explained, enabled local authorities to relax some duties on them, enabling them basically to prioritise the most serious and urgent cases by not conducting a full needs assessment or delaying some assessments. Eight local authorities used these powers between April and June 2020 but none did so after then, as the Minister said. Has he made any assessment of the impact of the use of those powers by those eight authorities? Also, have we learned anything? For instance, have we found a way potentially to streamline the assessment process?
Of course, the care sector has been under considerable pressure for some years. The pandemic brought huge challenges with it, and we still await a plan for its long-term sustainability. In joining my noble friend in congratulating the NHS on the hugely deserved award of the GC today, I am sure that we should also acknowledge the tremendous efforts of so many in the care sector in these past 15 months.
My Lords, at the one-year review of the Act, we pushed for it not to be reviewed. It would have been really useful to understand why there has been such a delay. I remind the Minister that we were concerned over some of the civil liberties issues in the Act, such as on policing, protests and fines—we know the fines did not hold up when applied in practice—and over transparencies. We have raised repeated concerns about the transparency on the dashboard. We were also concerned about people not understanding the rules. Famously, where guidance versus the law happened, it was interesting to watch the Government having to retreat very fast when they realised that they were telling people in Greater Manchester that something was covered by the law, yet the people in Greater Manchester were clearly able to show that it was guidance.
There are also concerns about the enormous blank-cheque powers that this legislation has provided. I am grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Bethell, for saying earlier that the expiry of these provisions was announced on 25 March. His exact words then were:
“We made a promise to Parliament that we would not keep any provision in place for longer than was necessary, and we have made good on that promise.”—[Official Report, 25/3/21; col. 985.]
It has been 14 weeks since the Government decided that they did not need the provisions, and they have not yet removed them. They are still in place until this SI comes into force.
We also had particular concerns about the provision of social care. Part 1 of Schedule 12 and Section 15 enabled local authorities to divert resources to care and support from other duties. This was used eight times and not since 29 June 2020. We were really concerned about this provision because those who needed support for care suddenly found it was removed. The parents of disabled children who needed 24-hour care had found that their entire support mechanisms were removed from them. On the Disabled Children’s Partnership website today, one mother has been saying that the lack of that support has meant that she and her husband have had no more than two hours of consecutive sleep in over a year, because they have had to try to manage it. They are both utterly exhausted and extremely concerned that they might be making mistakes. That is because of the loss of this diversion support. What is particularly worrying is that most local authorities have not yet reinstated it.
Because we still do not know when this SI will come in, it is a little difficult to approve it until we also know the exact details about the level of Covid in our communities and its effect on the NHS. The Prime Minister famously talked about “data, not dates”, but the dialogue in recent weeks has become entirely the other way around, with cheery communications about the mask mandate being about to go. It is very noticeable that people have taken that as a signal that they can stop wearing masks already. Yet just over a year ago in June, when we lifted that first lockdown, cases were down to around 1,000 a day. This last week, it was around 25,000 new cases per day with hospitalizations increasing, even if at a lower rate, and certainly—thank goodness—ICU occupancy at a lower rate. However, GPs, doctors and nurses in hospitals all report that the NHS is nowhere near going back to being normal.
Today on LBC, a member of ICU staff at a hospital called in to say: “They can keep the medal and just get everyone to keep wearing masks, if they truly care about NHS staff”. I am with her on that one. Also today Chloe Smith, the Constitution Minister, said that some people more susceptible to infection than others may wish to carry on using a face mask. She cited her recent cancer, saying that she sympathises with those who want to carry on taking precautions.
As the Minister knows from my repeated raising of this issue, for some people this is not a matter of choice. That is so for at least 1 million people in the country: the clinically extremely vulnerable. Current government guidance to the CEV, which came out on 21 June, says:
“We are also advising clinically extremely vulnerable people to … follow the practical steps described below to minimise your risk of exposure … close contact with friends and family will be a personal choice, but you are encouraged to exercise caution”.
They were advised to work from home but, if they could not, to get their employer to make their workspace Covid-safe—I am paraphrasing because the guidance goes on at some length—and otherwise to get advice from professionals. It also says that the furlough scheme will end in September.
In addition, from 1 April there was no longer any SSP for clinically extremely vulnerable people who could not work from home. It is really important that provision is made to avoid clinically extremely vulnerable people having to go to work. Will the Government now take this up? Losing the mask mandate and lifting regulations mean that this group in our society and their immediate carers are put at risk.
I also note that the clinically extremely vulnerable advice says that pupils should be back in schools but the Department for Education lifted the mask mandate for schools some time ago. These children are still at high risk of Covid, which could indeed—
I remind the noble Baroness that the speaking limit for Back-Benchers is five minutes.
Thank you. I have finished.
My Lords, as the noble Baroness, Lady Brinton, implied, no issue is more important to the process of the easing of restrictions nor more conducive to ensuring public support than consistency in the application or expiry of regulations. In referring to Section 15 of the Coronavirus Act on local authorities, I will cite one example which is so important to the motivation behind this SI, which I support. Without consistency in interpreting the rules and guidance relating to the road map out of lockdown, we are in danger of creating a public backlash.
The approach taken by Bath and North East Somerset Council makes little sense in the context of holding graduation ceremonies at the University of Bath—ceremonies which generate so much revenue and create numerous service and supply jobs in the town; and which, with appropriate controls confirmed only last Thursday, led the university authorities to announce that they could deliver safe, socially distanced experiences in line with all the restrictions currently in place. On Friday, with only a few weeks’ notice, they were arbitrarily cancelled with nothing in their place. This last-minute decision, apparently to stop people coming to Bath, leaves many students and families who have already booked non-refundable accommodation stranded. Some are already quarantined in town.
The recent decision by the director of public health of Bath and North East Somerset Council—made despite the UK government guidance allowing for distanced graduation ceremonies, which have been safely carried out by Cambridge and other universities across the UK—makes no sense.
I have a son who is graduating this year from that university, but his experience pales into insignificance when considered alongside that of Wasif Anam, who on Saturday wrote, when adding his name to a petition presented to the university and the council:
“I came here all the way from Bangladesh along with my parents only for this reason. They have had to go through so much trouble with all the paperwork and all and we’ve had to spend over £3000 just on hotel quarantine. It’s a once in a lifetime occasion for all the graduates. They can’t just postpone it like that 3 weeks before the event. Should’ve at least informed us 2 months ago if they were planning to take such a big decision.”
Other students wrote:
“The graduation would be carried out within the strictest of Covid guidelines. I feel if this event cannot go ahead then the council must consider that tourism is a risk therefore need to close all tourist attractions in the city to make this decision fair and equal.”
Inevitably, the mental health of students has been kicked down the road for too long this past year. They have been asked to make sacrifices for the vulnerable and elderly in society, which they have done with remarkable understanding, particularly since they are the least likely to suffer from Covid. Many have been asymptomatic yet have correctly isolated during 18 months in which their university experience has been decimated by Covid. Many are emerging into one of the toughest employment markets on record, with exams and interviews on Zoom, overseas study years cancelled, and undergraduate sporting and social events deleted from their experience and exchanged for the scant comfort and isolation of their digs—while the financial costs they face have remained high.
Worse, the cancellation of graduations conflicts with government guidelines. With 60,000 people in Wembley on consecutive nights this week and bars full, it is tough and unacceptable to give only three weeks’ notice to all students, particularly international students such as Wasif Anam, who bear the cost and the pain, which are neither shared with the rest of the population nor consistently applied.
Here, unusually, I ask the noble Lord, Lord Scriven, as a seasoned local government leader who is sensitive to the relationship—in his case between Sheffield City Council and the university, where significant advance notice was given to students, as well as virtual graduation ceremonies—to speak to his colleagues who control Bath and North East Somerset Council. I also ask the equally excellent and experienced politician, the noble Baroness, Lady Greengross, who is respected across the House, to talk to her colleagues and ask them to think again.
I ask my noble friend the Minister to ensure that there is consistency in the easing of restrictions in the statutory instrument before us, for without consistency how can we expect public support to remain strong—especially the support of the young people of this country, including the thousands of schoolchildren who are isolating at the moment? We need to be resolute as we emerge from this crisis together—and always in step. It is right to move to personal responsibility but we must look to government and local authorities to provide leadership and consistency if we are to win public confidence.
The noble Baroness, Lady Greengross, has withdrawn, so I call the noble Baroness, Lady Fox.
My Lords, although I welcome the early expiry of 12 temporary provisions, it is concerning that these were the only sections removed from the Coronavirus Act. Despite the Government claiming that, as part of the one-year review of the Act in March, they had combed the legislation to ensure that what remained was necessary or proportionate, and that there was robust justification for retaining all the provisions, no details were divulged, no criteria published, and no cost-benefit analysis made available. It is worrying if this was it.
When MPs voted to extend the wide-ranging powers for another six months to the end of September, the then Health Secretary stressed that legislation had been a crucial part of the Government’s strategy. Indeed, legislation has almost become a substitute for strategy, and what the noble and learned Baroness, Lady Hale, described as a “bewildering flurry” brought in in haste. I note that it is harder to remove than install provisions. There seems no hurry to get rid of them. Matt Hancock also said that, although the Act was essential,
“we have always said that we will only retain powers as long as they are necessary.”—[Official Report, Commons, 25/3/21; col. 1115.]
Are these remaining powers necessary now? With a new Secretary of State for Health, can the Minister explain whether there is any reason why, after 19 July, any element of the Coronavirus Act will be retained? Will the new review date of 30 September be brought forward? If not, why not?
It is interesting to look at these 12 specific provisions because they tell of a mindset in drawing up the original legislation: one of a worst-case scenario, deploying the precautionary principle and therefore making laws that would perhaps have been better suited to informal arrangements. Sections 8 and 9 on emergency volunteering were intended to come into force should the delivery of health services be at risk because of the pandemic. Despite significant workforce pressure, the NHS never faced that crisis, but I know many qualified former health workers who volunteered but were never called upon. They were demoralised and felt demobilised. Maybe it is worth looking to them again for the huge backlog in the NHS. The point I am making is that the voluntary instinct was not utilised enough.
Looking at Sections 25 to 29 on food supply, it was assumed that draconian powers would be needed to force those connected with the food supply to share information, when in reality the food industry collaborated and shared data voluntarily. The law assumed the worst, and perhaps politicians should have mobilised positive solidarity rather than using the law as a coercive tool.
One reason why I mentioned the change of personnel at the Department of Health is because, despite the Minister telling me last week that the different tone and messaging on regulations has been driven by data, it feels more like a philosophical shift in emphasis from coercion to trust. The former Health Secretary spoke about the laws with a certain inflexible zealotry, once infamously responding to the Derbyshire police’s over-the-top fining of two women for merely meeting for a walk and a coffee with the quip that
“every time you try to flex the rules that could be fatal”.
This seems rather different from the new position, to quote Sajid Javid:
“We owe it to the British people … to restore their freedoms as quickly as we possibly can”.—[Official Report, Commons, 28/6/21; col. 46.]
Hear, hear to that. Indeed, the Secretary of State noted in an article this weekend not only the economic costs of continuing lockdown measures but the health costs—a helpful antidote to those who seem sometimes oblivious to the non-Covid harms caused by the virus. I accept the moving account given by the noble Lord, Lord Moynihan, of those non-measurable harms that will potentially last far longer than the virus itself.
I also note the damage that has been wreaked on democracy over the past 16 months, during which freedom has been treated as a privilege, not a right. We cannot assume that democratic norms will simply spring back to the pre-March 2020 level once 19 July happens. History tells us to be wary of the dangerous precedent set. Considering the lack of scrutiny and abuse of the legislative process, which has had enormous negative consequences for every aspect of our public and private lives, we need to avoid complacency. Following on from the comments of the noble Baroness, Lady Brinton, on civil liberties, that is why it is the responsibility of everyone in this House and in the other place to use even such rubber-stamping exercises as this in this Room to demand that every emergency measure brought in since March is expired and deemed as unnecessary as those in the regulations we are discussing. It is time to move on.
My Lords, I declare my interests as set out in the register. I thank my noble friend for setting out the early expiry regulations, which I support. As we have heard, these regulations provide for the early expiry of 12 temporary provisions. I note that nine of them are devolved matters and that the Secretary of State has obtained the necessary consent on behalf of Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland. These regulations are multifaceted, applying to matters as diverse as the retention of DNA and fingerprints, food safety, emergency volunteering and General Synod elections. As we note the lack of need for emergency volunteers in these expiring regulations, I note the great resilience of our NHS and its staff as we mark its 73-year anniversary and its merited award of the George Cross by Her Majesty yesterday. Like many others, I hope that the efforts of NHS and care staff are recognised by the pay review process.
The varied nature of these regulations also illustrates the broad canvas that my noble friend is expected to cover—indeed, does cover—every day in this House. I commend him for his Trojan work effort. On that subject, I wish to stretch his reach and possibly his patience a little further. These regulations do not renew the provisions relating to tenancies, so there are limited opportunities to raise these matters. I have given my noble friend advance notice that I would raise this issue, but if he does not have all the detail to hand, I would appreciate a response in writing.
Until the end of May 2021, there were restrictions, quite justifiably, on the eviction of tenants unable to pay their rent because of the Covid pandemic. This meant that for many tenants housing rent arrears were piling up. The debt was still due but could not be enforced in that period, quite understandably. That came to an end at the end of May. Thus, from the start of June, the possibility of eviction arises again. This will not mean that the tenant has the money to pay the rent, so the landlord enforcing the provision will not necessarily—probably will not—get the rent. It prejudices the tenant in a dreadful way, and it undermines the landlord/tenant market in general. This is only going to get worse as we enter the summer now that evictions can happen again.
This problem has been highlighted on many occasions in your Lordships’ House, as well as in the other place. I have done so, and many others have too, including, outside your Lordships’ House, the National Residential Landlords Association, which has pressed for interest-free hardship loans for tenants to pay-off their Covid-related rent arrears. This would help landlords and tenants and would help preserve the important landlord and tenant market so essential to the country’s housing needs. I press this upon my noble friend.
My Lords, after the sacrifices and deaths of the past 16 months, the Government must not throw away the hard-earned actions of the British public. Ideology over epidemiology will not beat the virus. As we move into the endemic phase, as worldwide vaccination rates are low, new variants will emerge, as will resistance to vaccines, and the shadow of long Covid is hanging over many people. That means that some mitigation and proportionate measures will still be needed. This is not about just personal responsibility. It has to be tied in with social responsibility. This virus is not about “I”, it is about “we” as a society, and therefore there has to be government action as well as personal responsibility.
Therefore, it is not honest to—the Government are not being honest with the British people when they—talk about “irreversible” change or “freedom day”. Rather, we will need to have “mitigation day”, and unforeseen issues will arise. For some time, the country will have to balance personal freedoms with social measures; this is the context in which we should address these SIs and the next phase of the lifting of restrictions.
Regulation 2(2) sets out an extension to the retention of DNA and fingerprints until September 2021. Can the Minister tell us how many DNA samples and fingerprints will be retained? How many individuals, and cases, will that affect? What evidence is there that these need to be retained until September 2021?
I note that there is still no date on the front of this statutory instrument. When do the Government intend for it to come into force? I assume that there will have to be at least one amendment, since under paragraph 15.3 of the Explanatory Memorandum the former Secretary of State’s signature is on the SI. As I have said, we need to ensure as we go forward that epidemiology, not ideology, is at the forefront. I suggest three areas to the Government and the Minister where forward thinking rather than emergency legislation will be needed.
The first is on face coverings. I take the example of Israel, which is ahead of us on vaccinations and stopped the use of face coverings—but, within five days, face coverings had to be reintroduced. What epidemiological evidence do the Government have that, in not using face coverings, this country will somehow be different from Israel and people here will be safer? What epidemiological evidence is there for that?
The Government have allocated £37 billion to test and trace. Localised tracing will be vital as vaccine leakage potentially arises with new variants. To do that, you need to know where people are, where they have been and who they have been with or near. What evidence is there that stopping people pinging in to pubs, bars, et cetera, will improve the test and trace system in this country? What evidence is there for that? Again, ideology will not win against the virus. Good scientific evidence will help us to be safer. Why is this issue potentially being brought forward by the Government?
These Benches have talked for a long time about support for isolation—again, a mitigation issue. What evidence has arisen from the pilots that have been done on isolation and isolation support? Do the Minister and the Government now accept that isolation payments will probably have to be increased, both to encourage people to come forward and get tested, particularly locally, and to self-isolate for the whole period of their isolation?
Long Covid will be with us for a long time, so vaccination is not just about saving people from death, as vital as that is. It is also about ensuring that many young people do not face the spectre of long Covid and disability, and all that will do to their lives for quite a long period of time. Can the Minister tell us about the latest evidence on long Covid, in particular as regards “freedom day”?
All these issues matter in the endemic phase. Given the other issues that are around, the Government cannot continue to say that we are safe because of the vaccine. It is important for the Government to mitigate, and to put in place proportionate restrictions. I hope that the Minister and Government will listen to this rather than be driven by ideology.
I thank the Minister for introducing the regulations and explaining the reasons for them. We certainly welcome this statutory instrument, which removes provisions that enabled local authorities to divert resources to care and support from other duties as stipulated in the Care Act 2014.
As has been acknowledged in the debate, the pandemic has been exceptionally difficult for everybody, while the most vulnerable have seen disproportionately high death rates and a profound impact on the level and quality of their care. With regard to that, I join my noble friend Lord Hunt of Kings Heath in paying tribute to those in the care sector, both paid and unpaid.
According to the guidance issued to local authorities, the easements were meant to be activated only when they were necessary to ensure safety. They were intended to be temporary, kept under review and used as narrowly as possible. An open letter of 19 March 2021, signed by at least 27 disabled people’s organisations, highlighted concerns. It said:
“At such a strained and worrying time for everyone, this unnecessary power that no Council is even using hangs over the heads of disabled people, causing only anxiety.”
Many of the people most vulnerable to the virus simultaneously faced a reduction in essential care and support. By the middle of 2020, seven in 10 people with learning disabilities had had their social care cut or significantly reduced, and 79% of family members were forced to take on further unpaid caring duties in the face of cuts. Just eight of the 151 English councils with social services responsibility made use of the easements during the first wave, and only two of these—Derbyshire and Solihull—used it to cease meeting needs that they were required to meet. According to the CQC, by July, all had stopped.
We continue to know of the loss and long-term closure of day care centres, group activities, travel training and at-home support. There is also little clarity on how local authorities will catch up on reduced assessments or deal with retroactive demands for payment. The catch-all phrase “cancelled because of Covid” remains, and there are concerns that this so-called explanation will continue to linger. Does the Minister accept that the social care easements do not appear to have eased the burden for anybody?
Of course, there is a much bigger issue here: the chronic underfunding and devaluing of the social care sector, of which the fleeting emergence of the social care easements was but a symptom. We have been waiting almost two years to see the clear plan for social care that the Prime Minister claimed to have prepared, and all we heard in the Queen’s Speech was just nine words. Does the Minister agree that a better future for our country cannot be built after Covid-19 without transforming social care? We need the Government to make a firm commitment to reforming and presenting plans to Parliament as soon as possible.
Looking forward, the emergency Coronavirus Act gave Ministers sweeping powers, many of which have yet to be used. The priority must be to use the Act and other regulations related to health protection to bring us out of restrictions safely, support the NHS in recovering from the crisis, ensure that there are measures in place to restart the economy effectively, and enable those who need to self-isolate in future to do so. Nobody wants these regulations in place for any longer than is needed but we have to make sure that this is the last lockdown.
It seems that guidance and reliance on personal choice are set to be the order of the day, with the final stage of the four-step plan out of lockdown imminent. This is despite coronavirus cases rising to their highest level since January. Does the Minister share my concern that letting cases rise with no corresponding actions means further pressure on the NHS, more sickness and more disruption to education, and risks a new variant emerging with a selection advantage?
The new Health Secretary used the weekend press to emphasise that we must learn to live with the virus as we have done with flu. Can the Minister advise the Committee what level of mortality and cases of long Covid he considers acceptable? Will he outline the measures that the Government will introduce, such as ventilation support for buildings and sick pay for isolation, to push cases down? As we know, coronavirus does not impact people and communities equally. What support will be in place for the most deprived areas, where cases are highest and vaccination rates lowest?
My Lords, I am enormously grateful to noble Lords for their thoughtful and perceptive comments. I will try to answer some of the points made in this important debate directly.
The noble Lord, Lord Hunt, asked about the synod. I assure him that this provision allowed Her Majesty the Queen, by Order in Council and at the request of the most reverend Primates the Archbishops of Canterbury and York, to postpone the dissolution of the synod of the Church of England and so to postpone the election that had been due to take place in the summer of 2020. The Church of England agreed that the provision had served its purpose and may be expired, with elections being held online this year.
For the noble Lord, Lord Hunt, the noble Baroness, Lady Merron, and the other noble Lords who asked about the Care Act, I will spend a moment providing some reassurance on the easements that we are expiring. The Care Act easements were a temporary measure to help local authorities to continue to meet urgent needs in the face of Covid when they were expecting extraordinary pressures. Following our review of the provision in March 2021, which included consultations with stakeholders across the adult care sector, the decision was made to expire the provisions as they had not been used since 29 June 2020. I emphasise that point to any noble Lords who may be unclear on it: the provisions have not been used since then.
There was strong support to expire the provision from groups representing people with care and support needs. Local authorities were in a better position in terms of planning, support and the use of mutual aid than they were when the easements provision was first introduced. No local authorities have operated easements since 29 June. Only eight local authorities out of 151 operated easements before then. A report by ADASS showed that local authorities used easements in very limited ways, such as using streamlined templates for assessments, conducting virtual assessments and postponing reviews and rescheduling them to a later date. No council moved from Care Act eligibility to a human rights threshold.
I want to address the anecdotes raised by the noble Baroness, Lady Brinton. Let me be absolutely clear that no support was necessarily removed as a result of these easements. The department has worked with Think Local Act Personal—TLAP—and the Association of Directors of Adult Social Services to understand the impact on individuals. Across this research, there have been no concerns that the councils that enacted easements ceased to support people, nor data to suggest that any groups were adversely affected by the easements.
However, we noted that, due to poor communications, some people reported feeling that they were impacted by easements even in areas where easements were not operated. We have commissioned research via the National Institute for Health Research to explore the impact of easements on individuals. The outcome of this research will be published over the next year. Anyone who feels that they have not had the care and support they should have had should first place a complaint with their local authority.
I will now move on to the impact of Section 24 and the regulations made on it, since that was raised by a number of noble Lords. On 29 April 2021, the independent Biometrics and Surveillance Camera Commissioner published a statement on the regulations made under Section 24. It sets out that almost 1,500 individual biometric profiles have had their ordinary statutory retention deadline extended as a result of the regulations, thereby protecting against the loss of biometrics of individuals assessed as presenting a risk to national security. The commissioner commented that he is
“satisfied that the section 24 power has been used in a responsible and proportionate manner and only when scarcity of resources or time limitations meant that the biometrics of individuals assessed as presenting a real risk to national security might otherwise have been lost.”
He also stated that he has
“seen nothing to indicate that the police have applied the provisions in anything other than the manner intended: necessarily, temporarily and proportionately.”
Section 24 is a regulation-making power; no further regulations are being made under it. This is because the mitigations put in place by CT policing mean that it is confident that, despite the ongoing effects of the pandemic, no extension will be required.
On the question asked by my noble friend Lord Moynihan, I express massive sympathy for all those missing out on important rites of passage, such as graduation, and other important events in the calendar, particularly for our young people. There cannot be a noble Lord in this proceeding who does not have an anecdote of this nature from their own friends and family group. We look forward to the day when we can change these arrangements; that day is drawing closer every moment.
I will say a word about tenants and residential tenancy to my noble friend Lord Bourne. On 12 May, a statutory instrument was laid that extended longer notice periods for residential tenancies until 30 September. My noble friend asked about the possibility of further financial support for tenants; I will take his questions back to the department and write to him accordingly.
In response to question from the noble Lord, Lord Scriven, about when the regulations will come into force, I assure him that they will come into force as soon as possible, once approved by both Houses of Parliament, and will be signed by a different Minister in the department.
The noble Baroness, Lady Brinton, asked about provisions for CEV individuals. I assure her that these have not been publicly announced and that the Secretary of State’s statement, which will occur in another place shortly, will provide some information on that.
On my noble friend Lord Moynihan’s point about Wembley, these events are part of the events research programme, which is why they are allowed to have large crowds. They are essential to our understanding of Covid transmission.
The noble Baroness, Lady Fox, asked whether we can go further and faster with the expiry of the Act. I can confirm that the next six-monthly review of the Act will take place in September; we are certainly assessing the remaining powers with this in mind. It is too early for me to make further proclamations on the decisions to be taken in September or in advance of the next review date for step 4 of the road map. Noble Lords will have listened to my Statement last week on the review of the data. We have to be cautious in our journey along the road map but we have reason to be optimistic about the future. More and more people are receiving the vaccine and giving us greater protection.
I thank everyone for participating in this debate and for their sacrifices throughout the pandemic.
The Grand Committee stands adjourned until 4.55 pm. I remind Members to sanitise their desks and chairs before leaving the Room.