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Covid-19: Strategy

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 3:44 pm on 11th May 2020.

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Photo of Keir Starmer Keir Starmer Leader of Her Majesty's Official Opposition, Leader of the Labour Party 3:44 pm, 11th May 2020

I thank the Prime Minister for the advance copy of his statement, and for the advance copy of the Command Paper that his office sent through an hour or so ago. I also thank him for taking time to speak to me and to other Opposition leaders yesterday before his speech.

I start by acknowledging just how difficult are the decisions that now fall to be taken. We do recognise how difficult they are. At this time, the country needs clarity and reassurance, and both are in pretty short supply. The heart of the problem, it seems, is that the Prime Minister made a statement last night before the plan was written, or at least before it was finalised, and that has caused considerable confusion.

Yesterday afternoon, a No. 10 press release said:

“Anyone who can’t work from home, for instance those in construction and manufacturing, should be actively encouraged to go to work”.

It was understood from that that today was the start date, and that that was for construction and manufacturing. A few hours later, the Prime Minister made his statement, and there was no express reference to timeframe. Today, page 25 of the Command Paper states that these policy changes apply from Wednesday, and the list has been expanded from construction and manufacturing to other sectors. Now we have a start date of Wednesday and a wider range of sectors to go back to work on Wednesday; so far, so good.

One of the key issues is whether there will be guidelines in place to ensure the safety of the workforce. Those guidelines were being consulted on last Sunday, but they were vague and had big gaps. Under protective equipment, it just said, “To be inserted” or, “To be added”. The document that I have now seen says that

“workplaces should follow the new ‘COVID-19 Secure’
guidelines”,

which I assume are the same guidelines, as “soon as practicable”, but on page 22 the document states that they will be released later this week.

So, we know that some people are going back to work on Wednesday, but the guidelines have not been published and they will apparently be released later this week. I ask the Prime Minister: will the safety guidelines be ready for Wednesday? Realistically, that means tomorrow, if workplaces are to be ready for Wednesday morning. If not, is he seriously asking people to go back to work without the guidelines? Have the guidelines been agreed with businesses and trade unions, as was being attempted a week ago on Sunday, and do they apply only in England?

I turn to getting to work, which has been another issue of some concern. The Prime Minister said last night that people should not rely on public transport. The Command Paper, at page 26, says that

“the Government is working with public transport providers to bring services back towards pre-COVID-19 levels as quickly as possible”— bringing services back to their old levels—and it says:

“Social distancing guidance on public transport must be followed rigorously”.

That means ramping up the service, with new guidelines for social distancing, but we learn from page 26 that unfortunately those guidelines are not ready; they are coming later in the week. Are they coming tomorrow, to be ready for Wednesday, or are they coming later in the week? If it is the latter, people will be using public transport and operators will be required to operate to guidelines that do not yet exist. Will that be for England only, and have those guidelines been agreed with the transport providers and the relevant trade unions?

I have one other point about work. There is a real concern, which the Prime Minister might be able to clarify, for those who have childcare responsibilities. With schools not going back until June—I understand the conditionality behind that—should those people go back to work on Wednesday, or not? They are in a quandary as to what to do.

I turn to international travel. Last night, the Prime Minister said in his speech that he proposed to impose quarantine on people coming into the country by air. Given that 100,000 people have arrived in the UK since the start of lockdown, why is that only being introduced now? Is it only for those arriving by air? The Command Paper now says that it is for “all international arrivals”. Does that mean all ports, and, again, is that for England or the UK? The Command Paper goes on to say that these “international travel measures”—the quarantine—will not come into force on Wednesday, unlike the other policy changes,

“but will be introduced as soon as possible”.

When is that going to be?

The Prime Minister said that we would be

“driven by the science, the data and public health.”

What is the scientific evidence for the public health basis behind the measures that have been announced and the “Stay Alert” message?

Finally, the Prime Minister will know that there is not consensus on messaging or policy between the UK Government and those in Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland. I know that is not something he wanted to see, but we are now in that position. That raises serious concerns and a real danger of divergence. Again, this is clear from the document that he provided to me an hour or so ago. Page 27 says that travel to outdoor spaces is now permitted “irrespective of distance”, but that we must

“respect the”— different—

“rules in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland”.

Does that mean one could travel to the border but not, presumably, beyond it, where there are differences? That makes enforcement extremely difficult and clarity really difficult, so what can we do—what can he do—to make sure that we exit lockdown as one United Kingdom, just as we entered it?

There are lots of questions, but so far precious few answers. The country does need clarity on this and people need reassurance above all else. They need it in the next 48 hours, so can the Prime Minister now please provide that clarity?