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Coronavirus Bill

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 5:51 pm on 23rd March 2020.

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Photo of Ian Blackford Ian Blackford SNP Westminster Leader 5:51 pm, 23rd March 2020

That is the height of irresponsibility, and Amazon and anybody else who would behave in that way needs to think again. Of course there are companies that are engaging in best practice. I have had a number of complaints from people in the highlands about those who have not been doing the right thing, but let me thank Highland Experience Tours, which has suspended all its activities and sent its drivers home. Wes Streeting mentioned Sykes Cottages, and I have to disagree with what he said, because its behaviour has been absolutely reprehensible. Let me read to Members what Sykes Cottages sent to me on Saturday. It said, “Given concerns surrounding the current outbreak, it is understandable that people want to arrange private accommodation in more remote locations to distance themselves from larger towns and cities. The latest Government advice does not prohibit travel in the UK. We are continuing to provide a service for customers.” That is a service to customers to come from the urban areas; it is deliberately creating the circumstances whereby their customers should come to self-isolate in an area where we have limited public health capabilities. That simply is not good enough.

I am delighted to say that, under pressure, the site has now relented and is stopping new bookings in the highlands and islands over the next few weeks, but it has sent a considerable number of people up to the highlands who are there today. The site should be delivering immediate advice to all those guests that they should return home to their place of origin.

I give the same message to those with holiday homes and second homes in the highlands: “Do not come to the highlands. Do not put additional pressure on our public services. We will welcome tourists back to the highlands once this emergency is over, but do not threaten the health of our constituents.” In my district, like in many rural areas, 35% of the population is aged over 65. We have to think about the needs of those living in such areas.

In addition to the sites I have mentioned, Cottages.com is refusing to allow cottage owners to cancel bookings without a penalty, which is simply not good enough. As this is now in the public domain, I hope all these providers will now think about their responsibilities.

As I have mentioned, some providers are behaving more responsibly. HomeAway has guidance on its booking site for giving refunds to those who cancel, but I will read one last email from somebody living in the Lake district:

“My family and I were due to take up a holiday home rental from the 28th March. We will stay away and remain in the Lake District where we live.

However you might be interested to learn that the owner of this holiday home, let through HomeAway, is refusing (at present) to cancel my booking, refund my payment of £957 or move my reservation to next year. He maintains that Skye is an ideal place to self-isolate…and as the home is available he is refusing to refund the total of my booking fee.”

[Interruption.] I can hear an hon. Member shout, “Shocking.” Skye, or anywhere else in the west highlands, is no place for anyone to self-isolate, and I hope this cottage owner, and others who are behaving in such a reprehensible manner, changes their ways.

Of course, it is not just those who are providing accommodation. Everyone knows about the Harry Potter films and the attractions of the rail line from Fort William to Mallaig. The steam trains, which operate on a regular basis, are due to start on 6 April. What on earth is the Jacobite steam train company thinking? These train trips, along with every other visitor attraction in the west highlands, must close, and they must close today.

This is my message to anyone thinking of coming to the highlands: “You will be made welcome when this is over but, for the time being, stay at home. If you are in the highlands now, please go home. The Scottish Government have already announced that ferry traffic will be prohibited for those on non-essential journeys, but you have the ability to return home today. Please do so.”

This Bill includes badly needed powers to allow more health and social care workers to join the workforce. That includes removing barriers to allow recently retired NHS staff and social workers to return to work, as well as bringing back those on a career break and bringing in social work students to become temporary social workers. It has to be said that the number of doctors, nurses and carers already seeking to re-register to help in this emergency has been one of the most uplifting stories of this crisis. The Bill allows that process to become much easier. Its provisions also allow for the relaxation of regulatory requirements within existing legislation to ease the burden on staff who are on the frontline of our response.

The next few weeks and months need simply to be about saving as many lives as possible. Try as we might to save these lives, unfortunately the truth is that this virus will inevitably end up with many of our people dying before their time. That terrible reality is why it is right that this legislation includes special arrangements and provisions to manage an increase in the number of deceased persons with respect and dignity.

Finally, something my party has raised repeatedly since the early stage of this crisis is the economic interventions required to help our people though this emergency period. I note that the legislation includes provisions to support the economy, including on statutory sick pay, that are aimed at lessening the impact of covid-19 on small businesses. While we have welcomed many of the measures brought forward by the Chancellor, we have put it on record that more needs to be done. The self-employed and the unemployed, whom we talked about earlier, need to be considered. They are under pressure and they need to know that we have got their backs. They need the security of a guaranteed income. We now have an opportunity to overhaul and fix the universal credit system—ending the delays, uprating the level of support and scrapping the bedroom tax. If we are to fight this virus together, we must ensure that everyone is supported equally and that no one—no one—is left behind.

The emergency and extensive powers in this legislation have rightly raised questions and concerns, many of which we have heard this afternoon. The imposition of measures that will significantly alter individual liberties deserves full and frank scrutiny, no matter the context. We know that the Bill sunsets after two years. However, there are serious concerns over the two-year period and the scrutiny of this measure. I know that aspects of the Bill and amendments to it will be discussed at later stages. I hope that the Government will look carefully at the safeguards of regular reporting, review and renewal if it is required.