Public Services

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 12:32 pm on 28th April 2020.

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Photo of Michael Gove Michael Gove Minister for the Cabinet Office and Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster 12:32 pm, 28th April 2020

With your permission, Mr Speaker, I will make a statement on the work the Government have undertaken over recent weeks to support and steer our critical public services through the coronavirus pandemic. First, I thank all those on the frontline 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 and those preparing and delivering food, collecting our refuse and administering the welfare system. They deserve our gratitude; they need our support. They are in all our minds. They are the very best of us. I am sure that everyone in the House observed that one-minute silence at 11 o’clock today, as we reflected on the sacrifices being made by so many on our behalf.

This pandemic has claimed more than 20,000 lives and has 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 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 confronts us with require an unprecedented response from Government. For that reason, as the House will know, on 17 March, we established four ministerial implementation groups to lead the Government’s response to this 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 colleagues from across the UK Government and Ministers from the Scottish Government, Welsh Government and Northern Ireland Executive. I am very grateful 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, 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; 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, in order to protect our domestic food supply, working closely with the 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. That scheme has seen 15,500 schools place orders for vouchers, of which £29 million has 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. There are 156 military planners embedded across the country, helping the LRFs 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 existing services under huge strain. To bolster them, we have worked with the Ministry of Defence to mobilise a covid support force of 19,060 strong, of whom 2,948 personnel are now committed, supporting a total of 79 military assistants to the 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. They have issued 3,203 fines between 27 March and 13 April to those who have flouted social distancing rules, and this number will have increased considerably since then—this is all dedicated to helping to save lives and protect the NHS. We have tested more than 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 have it. We have also made sure that the civil service and the wider public sector are resourced to operate under the considerable new pressures imposed by this virus. We have worked to fill about 1,300 covid-19 roles through civil service redeployments, with more than 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 who 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 that activity, and we welcome the important role that volunteers, charities and local authorities are playing throughout this crisis. More than 750,000 people have signed up to the NHS volunteer responders programme, and more than 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 that 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 more than 35,000 people since its launch on 10 April. In addition, we are working with supermarkets 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 that. A notable example of that is the Home Office’s announcement of an initial £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, and I do not shirk from acknowledging that we as a Government will not have got every judgment right. Indeed, many people, including Rachel Reeves 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 those questions and challenges, because we owe it to our public sector workers to work collaboratively, and to harness all available resources in the fight against this virus. In that light, it is important to recognise just how much we all owe to the stoicism and steadfastness, hard work and heroism, compassion and commitment of those working on the front line of public service. We owe them so much, and we in Government will do everything we can to support them. It is in that spirit that I commend this statement to the House.