I beg to move,
That the Health Protection (Coronavirus, Restrictions) (England) (Amendment) (No. 3) Regulations 2020 (S.I, 2020, No. 558), dated
The amending regulations we are discussing today were made by the Secretary of State on
I thank my hon. Friend for giving way at this early point. I can inform you, Madam Deputy Speaker, that I do not intend to inflict a speech on the House later and will be withdrawing from our proceedings. May I just ask the Minister briefly why the Government have chosen to use the urgent procedure with regard to the regulations?
I thank my hon. Friend for that. If he will allow me to go through what I wanted to say, I hope it will be clear why we have used that procedure.
The rapid and frequent amendments to the regulations have been critical to ensuring that the Government can respond to the threat from the pandemic and its impact. The use of the emergency procedure has enabled us to respond quickly, begin a cautious return to normality and reopen the economy as soon as possible. I recognise that there may be frustrations that we have had to run parliamentary process in parallel during these unprecedented times, but I believe that we have demonstrated the advantages of our flexible constitution. I wish to make it clear that these are extraordinary times and measures, and we are definitely not setting a precedent for how the Government engage with Parliament on other matters and in more usual times. I am very grateful to all hon. Members for their patience and continued support during these difficult times.
May I just pick the Minister up on the point made by my hon. Friend Mr Wragg? The thrust of the amendment No. 4 regulations—I accept, if you will give me a little latitude, Madam Deputy Speaker, that they are not the ones that we are debating, but I think the Minister referred to them in her remarks—was announced on Tuesday or Wednesday last week. I do not see what would have prevented a draft of those regulations being laid for debate on Thursday, so that the House could have taken a decision on them before they came into force. Would that not have been better, particularly because they are legally quite complicated in how family support structures are translated into law? That would have been better for our legislative process.
I thank my right hon. Friend for those remarks. I will certainly take that back and feed it in, because I know that he is not alone in feeling that we could improve the time sequencing slightly, in order that we get to a place where these matters are debated fully. I reiterate, however, that these are unprecedented times, and being able to debate complex differences between the timings needs to be thought about.
If my hon. Friend will forgive me, I am going to make a little progress and then I will of course take another intervention.
All over the world we are seeing the devastating impact of this disease. It has already radically altered our way of life, and it has, very sadly, taken loved ones away. That is why the Government put in place social distancing measures to slow the spread of the virus and protect our NHS, in order to save lives, and they have been successful. Despite the tragic loss of life, the UK has slowed the spread of coronavirus. Our health system was not overwhelmed and it retained sufficient hospital beds, ventilators and NHS capacity. I am extremely grateful to the public for their continued compliance with these measures, which have been instrumental in us reaching this point.
Now we must begin to recover and slowly rebuild our way of life. The Government’s objective is to return to our way of life as soon as possible, restarting our economy in a safe and measured way that continues to protect lives and support the NHS. On
I am extremely grateful to my hon. Friend the Minister, to whom I pay full tribute for her incredibly hard work, for indulging me with this intervention. Would it not be possible for the Government to at least lay a written statement on their reasoning as to why some measures have been relaxed and others have not?
If my hon. Friend will indulge me as I go through my opening speech, I will address that in my concluding remarks. There is transparency in relation to the SAGE minutes, which are readily available and give a clear example of why decisions are being made and the scientific basis for them.
We are very aware of the burdens that these regulations have placed on society and on individuals. The
I will now outline the changes made on
I have looked at the regulations. Am I right in thinking that people are still prevented from staying over at a friend’s house or a partner’s house, or has that been amended as well?
It is my belief that they can stay over if they are within the guidelines of the social bubble—that is, if they are a single person. There are several distinct areas and I am happy to discuss them with my hon. Friend, or to write to him to clarify them. They are clearly laid out in the regulation of what is or is not applicable.
The Government continue to work on the process of gently easing restrictions as it is safe to do so, in line with the ambition set out in the road map. Working alongside scientists and experts, we must act swiftly to respond to current infection levels and our assessment of the five tests that have been set out previously. I am sure that we all support the aim to protect and restore livelihoods by only keeping in place restrictions that are proportionate and necessary. We of course remain ready to reimpose restrictions if the need emerges in the future, although we all hope that that will not be the case.
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for giving way. In asking her a question, may I respond to my hon. Friend Sir Charles Walker? The reason for the confusion goes back to the point that I just made. My hon. Friend asked about what has been called the “bubbling” of households, the putting of households together, which was announced at one of the press conferences last week. It has been turned into legislation, which was laid before this House on Friday, but we are not yet debating it. So we are debating one set of amendments, but a new set has already come into force and the reason for the confusion is that we are not yet debating it. I think that rather proves my point that we should really have debated that legislation in advance of it coming into force. I hope that my hon. Friend’s confusion, and he is not a man easily confused, demonstrates the point about why that is important.
I thank my right hon. Friend Mr Harper for the clarity with which he put that.
I have already noted that further amendments were made on
Today marks 12 weeks since the country went into lockdown and we saw the biggest peacetime restrictions ever. Over the past 12 weeks, the public have made huge sacrifices. The vast majority of them supported and adhered to the lockdown, and it is right that we take a moment to acknowledge the sacrifices they have made in the interests of public health—the business that faces an uncertain future, the child who has missed out on crucial social and educational opportunities, and the grandparents who just want to give their grandchildren a hug. We know it has been hard, and we thank them for doing their bit.
We also thank those in the NHS and other parts of the public sector, in social care and of course the millions of other people who have made their own contributions in the collective fight against the virus. When we have seen over the weekend images that represent the worst of this country, let us not forget that many, many more have in recent months shown us what the very best of this country can look like.
It is also right to take a moment to remember the more than 41,000 lives that have been lost to the virus, each one a tragic loss. We mourn them all.
We are here today to consider the third iteration of the regulations, just as further relaxations come into force to allow non-essential shops to open for the first time. Those measures are probably the single largest relaxation since lockdown was introduced—but we are not here to debate those changes. In our view, we ought to be, but instead we are here to debate the changes that came into force two weeks ago, on
Changes should be debated and have democratic consent before they are introduced. I thank the Minister for acknowledging Opposition concern in respect of that, and I understand why urgent action is needed, but it should be perfectly possible for us to debate regulations at short notice. We in the Opposition stand ready to co-operate with whatever is necessary to make that happen.
Considering that Government have one job, and one job alone right now, which is keeping us safe and preparing for the days ahead, is it not inexcusable that they are not able to keep Parliament up to date at the same speed as they announce things to the media?
I will come on to the discourteous way in which the Prime Minister has been announcing these things to press conferences instead of this Chamber.
It is important that this Chamber has a role because these are not minor or consequential changes that can be nodded through without debate. They affect millions of people’s lives, and we know that if we get it wrong, the consequences will be devastating. Debating them weeks after the event, and in some cases when they have been superseded by the next set of regulations, demeans parliamentary democracy. Changes such as these should always be accompanied by a statement to Parliament, not just showcased at Downing Street press conferences. We are not merely a rubber-stamping exercise to create the veneer of a democratic process. We should not be debating these measures late, and we should not be debating them without seeing the full extent of the information on which the Government based their decisions. We know that the next review of the regulations must take place on or before
The reviews, which are legally required to happen under the regulations, took place on
They are far-reaching, and it is a pretty poor reflection on this Chamber that it is empty. It is probably only a third full, even with the social distancing rules in place. Where are our colleagues getting upset about the removal of people’s civil liberties? Neither side here has a great story to tell.
If these regulations were actually going to be changed as a result of what we said here, we might see a better attendance, but the Government have shown the contempt in which they hold this place by introducing them way after the event. The question is: where are the reviews? What is it that we cannot see in them? This betrays a cavalier attitude to transparency, and it does absolutely nothing to engender confidence that the decisions that are being taken are the right ones.
We have to get this on to the record. My right hon. Friends the Members for Barking (Dame Margaret Hodge) and for Derby South (Margaret Beckett) want to be here engaging in the debate, but they are unable to be here because the virtual Parliament has been closed down for debates such as these, and they have to shield. The Government are telling them not to be here. That is the reason they are not here. Is that not correct?
My hon. Friend is absolutely right, and I am sure there are many Members who cannot be here for good reasons but who would like to take part in the debate. They are following the Government’s advice, which is to work from home wherever possible. This just shows how confused the approach is sometimes, and it really is an affront to democracy that those Members cannot take part in important debates such as these.
For the benefit of the House, I understand that that particular point about participation in legislative debates is currently being considered by the Procedure Committee. I think the Government have indicated that if the Procedure Committee can come up with a sensible way of including colleagues who need to participate remotely in legislative debate, that is something that the Government will look at favourably. I hope that is helpful to the House.
I thank the former Chief Whip for his intervention. I would certainly welcome that development. I have not heard anything from the current Leader of the House to explain why we can take part remotely in some debates but not in others. I will not take any more interventions, because I know we are up against time.
Turning to the regulations themselves, they include, as the Minister outlined, some relaxations including the reopening of some outdoor retail as well as various outdoor sporting activities. They also make provision for elite athletes in anticipation of the return of professional sport, including the Premier League later this week. I am sure we are all looking forward to that, although anyone who has witnessed the Arsenal back four this season may consider the definition of an elite athlete to be a triumph of hope over reality.
It is not all one way, however, and for the first time, the regulations include a list of venues that must now close. I fail to see any logic, coherence or consistency in respect of the Government’s approach to these venues and, critically, there has been no impact assessment on those venues. The first set of regulations, despite their sweeping nature, had no impact assessment at all. We understand, of course, why that was not possible in the first instance, but we have made it clear that we do not want that to become the norm, because we know that the impact of these regulations will be huge. We are now on the third set of regulations, 12 weeks after the lockdown started, and we have still had no impact assessment. How can the Government continue to issue new laws with such sweeping powers when they cannot tell us what their impact is?
Is there a document the Minister can point us to that sets out the Government’s own assessment of whether they have met the five tests they set themselves for relaxing the lockdown? Certainly, there is concern that the threshold for relaxation has not yet been met. Only yesterday, the World Health Organisation expressed concern that we may be coming out of lockdown too early. According to a recent University of Oxford study on each country’s level of readiness for easing lockdown, we are now fourth from bottom in the entire world.
The questioning comes not just from outside bodies but the Government’s own joint biosecurity centre, which has not reduced the threat level—still level 4—and says very clearly that only when the threat reduces to level 3 can there be any relaxation of restrictions. I implore the Minister to set out exactly why the Government feel they can depart from the opinion of their own joint biosecurity centre.
All these concerns matter not only because of the enormous impact of the regulations but, frankly, because the Government appear to be winging it in respect of which regulations they choose to apply. Take the new category of venues to be closed in schedule 2—model villages, zoos, safari parks, aquariums and so on. Clearly, that was an oversight in the original regulations, but we have seen a rapid U-turn on parts of the regulations so that, as I understand it, zoos and safari parks are no longer required to close. How have the Government got themselves into such a mess that we are debating on the Floor of the House regulations that they do not fully support? How can it possibly be consistent with the rule of law for the Government to present us with regulations and say, “Actually, we’re going to pretend that bits of this are not there”? It is an absolute shambles. To preserve the rule of law, it is vital that people do not act outside the law, but how can we expect it to be enforced properly if the Government say that bits of the regulations do not need to be followed? The changes come to us late, without any assessment of their impact, and after some of them have been pulled. That does not inspire confidence that the Government are in control of the situation or following any kind of plan.
As we know, the WHO, the Association of Directors of Public Health and some of the Government’s own scientific advisers have said that the easing of lockdown should not occur until the testing and tracing system is proven to be more robust, but the reality is that the system is in chaos. The Government have not been able to publish the number of people tested each day for more than three weeks now. How can testing and tracing work properly if we do not know how many people are tested each day? A third set of data from the test and trace system shows that it needs a lot more work. Just over 8,000 people were tested, but only two thirds of them were contacted. Missing out a third is not what I would call an effective and robust system.
And what of the app? It seems that the world-leading, game-changing, virus-busting app is not as important as it once was. That is a fate that probably awaits us all in here, but the app has suffered a downgrade before it has even been launched. Last month, the Secretary of State said it would be crucial and that downloading the app would be a public duty. Now we are told that it is not vital; it is more of a cherry on the cake. Which is it? Will the Minister explain how it is safe to open non-essential retail if people who might come across someone who is infected cannot be traced because there is no working app in place?
The Government have been too slow on testing, too slow on social care, too slow on personal protective equipment, and too slow on the lockdown, and now it seems they are too slow on tracing. The Prime Minister promised a world-beating system by
This matters because the restrictions are being lifted now. The Government must demonstrate that they have got a grip of the testing and tracing strategy in order to restore public confidence in their handling of the pandemic and to ensure that we do not risk another catastrophic spike of infection that will lead to a second lockdown, with all the damage that will bring. The Government have taken the decision to lift the restrictions. It is for them to demonstrate that they are listening to the experts and publish the full scientific evidence behind the decisions that have been taken.
We want the Government to succeed and remain committed to working constructively with them, but that is a two-way street. I have now spoken three times on these regulations. On each occasion I have stressed the importance of the Government operating within the rule of law, following due process and providing us with a full evidence base supporting the decisions they take. On each occasion the Government have failed to listen to those concerns. They have failed to demonstrate that they are following the science, they have failed to show that they are assessing the impact of their decisions, and they have failed to show that they grasp the importance of accountability. This Parliament and this country deserve the full picture, so I hope next time we debate these issues we get just that.
Tonight we are debating the continued removal of civil liberties and we are not having a vote at the end of this debate. We need to start voting on these matters. I find it absolutely extraordinary that 10, 11, 12 weeks into this crisis we are yet to have a vote. This is important stuff—important to my constituents, this country and Members, and we need to get back to business as usual, as much as we can.
I will come on to that point.
We have got to get people back to work. I am going to lose hundreds of small businesses in my constituency and thousands of jobs—and that is just if we all go back to work tomorrow. If we delay week after week after week, more and more jobs will go and more and more businesses will close, not just in my constituency but in yours, Madam Deputy Speaker, and in everyone else’s in this Chamber—all colleagues. It will be catastrophic. It is going to be really, really bad for a lot of people. Not having a job, losing your business and not having a home have bad outcomes—bad health outcomes, bad mental health outcomes, and just bad outcomes all round for your family and community.
We talk about when we do not have coronavirus any more—when we have banished this virus from our shores. Well, we may have to learn to live with this virus. I did a bit of research and found a book by the virologist F. M. Burnet, written in 1953—a very good read it is too. He was an expert on Spanish flu, and he wrote this:
“Influenza remained unduly active and unduly fatal through 1919 and 1920, but gradually reverted to normal character. The change from the young adult incidence of fatality to the standard type involving virtually only the old was not complete until 1929.”
That was a decade.
You will know, Madam Deputy Speaker, that as most viruses mutate they become less fatal, and hopefully that it is what is going to happen to coronavirus; I suspect that it will be the case. There is this idea that we can stand here and say, “We’re not going to go back to work—we’re not going to go back to normal—until we banish coronavirus.” But we could see this hybrid Parliament lasting a lot longer than any of us thought it would last. We could see a lot more of our constituents out of work and a lot more businesses failing; in fact our whole country could fail.
We talk about leadership; we talk about the Government leading. That is a realistic expectation—that the Government lead—but what about our obligation to lead? Parliament came back two weeks ago after the Whitsun recess and we had a number of votes. We were asked to queue for half an hour, in the sunshine, and we started whingeing and tweeting out. Why were we whingeing that we were being asked to stand in a queue? My God, for crying out loud, our constituents had been doing it for the past 10 weeks, and yet when it is our turn we do not like it at all. Where is the leadership there, I ask you? And it did not go unnoticed by our constituents.
I will return to the issue about democratic accountability and the democratic deficit, and why this place needs to meet vibrantly to debate matters of great concern. You will remember, Madam Deputy Speaker, that during the EU debates there was heat, passion and emotion, but it never spilled over into the streets because we were the safety valve. We were allowed to let off steam in this Chamber on behalf of our constituents, and they felt they had a voice. But now in London we are seeing people who feel passionately about an issue—who feel it viscerally in their hearts—not having voices in Parliament organically, through a debate, sharing, debating and discussing their concerns.
That is why it is so important that we start voting on matters of civil liberty—that we take it upon ourselves to return to this place to lead the country back to work. It is not good enough to think we have done our bit by clapping fantastic NHS health workers and people in supermarkets, and yet when it comes to our turn we say, “No, that is for other people.” We have got to get back to work—ourselves and the nation.
What an honour to follow that! I agree with much of what Sir Charles Walker said. It is important that we debate civil liberties and indeed vote on them, and recognise that at the moment we are choosing to put some of them in abeyance for the greater good, which is to protect people’s lives and, in the long term, livelihoods.
Leadership is hugely important, but what are we saying to the public? “Those people who can work at home should and if you can’t, we will do everything we can to try to make it safe for you to work in your normal workplace.” If people can work at home, they should, yet here we are, the leaders of the country, having proved—the screens around the Chamber are proof of it—that we can work at home and we have chosen not to. That is the opposite of leadership; it is poor leadership. I therefore disagree with the hon. Gentleman on that.
Order. I am anxious that we return to the substance of the regulations. We have had quite a wide-ranging debate about virtual Parliament versus any other kind of Parliament, but we are here to discuss the regulations.
My remarks were merely a bridge from the excellent speech of the hon. Member for Broxbourne.
The restrictions that we are discussing have been a huge imposition on our lives and livelihoods. I would argue that they have been necessary to protect us, our loved ones and especially those who are most vulnerable in our society. Millions around the country have made colossal sacrifices. In every community, countless people selflessly battled with loneliness, and families and businesses plunged into financial insecurity, even destitution. Our communities in Cumbria have been among the hardest hit. In Westmorland and Lonsdale, there was a 312% increase in unemployment last month—the highest in Britain. For thousands back home, it is not a case of fearing that financial hardship might come at the end of the lockdown; it has already arrived. Thousands are at risk and hundreds are in the midst of destitution.
In Cumbria, we are deeply concerned about the survival and sustainability of the tourism and hospitality sector in particular. I want to focus my remarks on how the restrictions affect that industry. Visitors come from Britain and all over the world, not only for the landscape, but for a world class industry that receives and serves them. We have the best pubs and restaurants using local produce, the best accommodation and the best attractions from steam railways to lake cruises. We have heritage and history from Wordsworth to Donald Campbell and an innovative first-rate retail sector that is integrated with that visitor economy. Cumbrian tourism normally brings in £3 billion a year. It is the biggest employer in Cumbria and of course tourism is the fourth biggest employer in the country.
I am grateful for that relevant intervention. The point is that we need to do what is safe and compensate those people who are unable to go about their normal business if it is not safe. I am not one of those people who says, “We just follow the science.” A judgment still needs to be made on the basis of the science, but we need to have the guidance up front and early. As Jim Shannon said, Northern Ireland is opening up on
In the Lake District national park—the most populated national park in the country—80% of the working-age population works in tourism and hospitality, an industry that has basically closed down for the past three months. It is not the case in every part of the country, but the tourism in the national parks and in the coastal zones of the UK is largely cyclical. Visitors rely on the feast of the summer to see them through the famine of the winter. Lockdown turned our summer to winter. Even if businesses are permitted to open in a limited capacity, the restrictions on customers will continue to prevent them from making up all that lost income. If the tourism economy is able to fully reopen only in the autumn, we condemn people to three winters in a row: three winters of making a loss; three winters of financial hardship. As the Government ease the lockdown restrictions, it is entirely sensible for the Chancellor to begin the slow unwinding of the furlough scheme for many businesses. After all, there is light at the end of the tunnel and hope for the future—but not for everyone. We must not fall into the trap of thinking that the ending of the lockdown will mean that business can begin to make profit again; being open for business is no guarantee of having business. A business cannot pay its staff even 10% if it is not making any income to pay them with, and that is going to be the case for a good number of businesses in the tourism and hospitality sector. If the Government insist on no exemptions to the phasing out of the furlough from August, many businesses in Cumbrian towns and villages will be forced to lay off huge swathes of their staff or to fold altogether.
As well as the huge increase in job losses on my patch, 37% of the working population are now on furlough—that is the fourth highest level in the country and the highest by far in the north of England. If we do not recognise that the tourism and hospitality industry is in a unique and precarious position, we will simply end up killing hundreds of otherwise healthy businesses in the autumn, in which case, what would have been the point of the Government’s expenditure so far? The furlough scheme would just become a waiting room for unemployment, and I will not settle for that.
The hon. Gentleman is making a powerful point about tourism. It is worth £3 billion to Cumbria, and £320 million lands in Thanet—North Thanet and South Thanet as a whole—because of it. Would he now consider it appropriate that people should be able to sleep on their boats, and use their caravans and campervans, because these family units could be spending money on things locally, although not in the pubs and restaurants, obviously? Would he consider that to be sensible at this time?
The hon. Gentleman makes a good point, which is that we should be considering intelligent ways of unlocking. The industry could reopen in phases, and I have been encouraging people involved in the hospitality industry in the lakes and the dales to get the breakdown of what is possible for their business and their industry to the Government early, so that it informs the Government’s decision making. Many of the things he suggests should be considered, and I am sure they are being. As I will discuss in a moment, we could have done with the guidance on what is permissible significantly sooner—that is, we do not have it at all, even with only 19 days to go.
It is not right for us to simply accept that for many people in hospitality and tourism the furlough scheme may just end up being that waiting room for unemployment, if no support is provided to take them beyond the autumn, because of the cyclical and seasonal nature of our hospitality and tourism industry. I will not settle for that. I am sure I speak for dozens of colleagues from right around the country, from all parties, who recognise this problem in their own communities. I urge us all to work together to make sure the Government see the need for a special package for the hospitality and tourism industry, in Cumbria and across the whole country.
In Cumbria, we pride ourselves on our warm welcome to visitors and the strength of our communities. Not only will the impact of this on hospitality and tourism be catastrophic for those directly involved, but untold damage and hardship will be caused to other industries and businesses that are tied into and utterly inseparable from the tourism economy. I am talking not only about the restaurants, pubs and attractions, but about the retail industry, entire supply chains, the maintenance industry, and those involved in furnishings and fittings. We provide a first-class welcome for our visitors and we are proud of it. From the awesome pubs and vibrant retail industry to the fantastic hotels and cosy homestays, our communities are a credit to the awesome part of the world we get to call home, but our visitors experience only the tip of the iceberg. Below the surface an enormous amount of work goes on to maintain and supply the visit that people enjoy; these are the businesses caught in the tension of being both desperate to get back to work and concerned to keep themselves, their families and their customers safe. Keeping restrictions in place is absolutely right to protect lives and prevent a second spike, which would be even more damaging to our economy, but we also have a responsibility to protect Cumbria’s families from hardship and destitution.
There is still no sign of the Government guidance, which it was promised would arrive last Friday, on the reopening of some of the tourism and hospitality industry. There is still no clarity on which parts of the hospitality industry will be able to open from
There are three simple things that the Government could do to ensure the survival of the tourism industry through to the spring of 2021. The first is to publish the guidance today. Thousands of people are living in considerable anxiety day to day, having been robbed of even the small amount of certainty that a road map would provide. If the restrictions are to be eased in a way that will maintain health protection, businesses need the maximum time available to prepare and put appropriate measures in place.
Secondly, the Government must be flexible in their phasing out of the furlough scheme for tourism and hospitality and recognise that if they phase out the scheme for businesses with no income at this stage, they will needlessly kill off many of our local businesses that would otherwise be able to thrive and prosper in the future.
Thirdly and finally, the Government must introduce a bespoke support package for the tourism and hospitality sector, to see it through to the spring of 2021. Our lakes economy exists on feast and famine. The lockdown came at the end of the winter famine, and then the feast was cancelled. If they dump us out in the cold on our own as we approach the next winter famine, they will kill an industry and plunge thousands of my constituents into hardship. I am not having that—not when a support package through to next spring could see us come out fighting, ready to bounce back as the high season begins.
We take seriously our responsibility to care for the lakes, the dales and the whole of Cumbria’s spectacular landscape. We cannot wait to welcome visitors back to enjoy the fells, the food and the finest places on the earth, from Dent to Coniston, Grasmere to Kirkby Lonsdale and Windermere to Kendal, but without financial support there could be barely any tourism and hospitality sector there to welcome them. Will the Minister and her colleagues show that they are serious about protecting lives and livelihoods by announcing those measures to protect the tourism industry today?
It is a genuine pleasure to follow Tim Farron, because my area, like his, has a number of tourism and hospitality businesses. I have met a number of those businesses virtually, and they too will be waiting to see the guidance on how they are able to open their businesses in a way that is profitable and sustainable. They no doubt look forward to seeing that guidance.
I want to cover two things. The first is the process of how the Government make these regulations and the House debates them. The second is the amendment to regulation 7, on gatherings, and pertains specifically to an event proposed in my constituency.
My first point relates to one that I touched on in my interventions on the Minister and in response to my hon. Friend Sir Charles Walker. I note that on social media, one of our colleagues has clipped my remarks and used them as an explainer for the rather complicated set of amendments that we are debating. I have not yet had a chance to look at it, because that would have been inappropriate and difficult in the Chamber, but I will see whether my explanation has clarified things.
It is worth reminding ourselves that this set of regulations are the biggest restrictions on the liberties of British people since the second world war, and potentially even including some of the wartime restrictions. The first set of regulations were made on
I note that although the amendment No. 2 regulations were debated in a Delegated Legislation Committee, as the Minister said, they are going to be approved by the House only today—they are on the Order Paper—and we are now debating the coronavirus No. 3 regulations which, as set out in the exchanges, have in some cases already been superseded by the No. 4 regulations, which were laid before the House on Friday and in some cases came into force almost immediately afterwards, with some regulations coming into force on Saturday.
My hon. Friend the Member for Broxbourne put his finger on it when he noted that the regulations are actually quite complicated and not everybody will understand them in great detail, but because they are the law a breach of them is actually an offence. We are creating criminal offences here, and when we do that it is important that we let people know what the offence is and how they can make sure that they remain within the law. I suspect that if we were to do a survey among Members of Parliament, even they probably would not get all the regulations correct. They are quite difficult to follow, given that they start off with a set of regulations that is then amended over and over again. It is quite a challenge to work out what the current legal position is. Given that sanctions are involved, that is difficult.
If I were to explain to the public—who are, after all, the people we represent and the reason why we are here—why they should care about what might seem like a piece of esoteric processology, I would say that it is because we are debating laws that they have to live under and that place enormous restrictions on their liberty and how they live their lives and, as my hon. Friend the Member for Broxbourne said, have really quite significant impacts on their livelihoods, as was clearly illustrated by the hon. Member for Westmorland and Lonsdale when he recounted the impact on his local tourism sector, as there has been an impact on mine. The regulations include detailed provisions about what businesses can trade, how they can trade and how they can make money or not make money, so it is important that we debate them seriously.
It is worth my briefly going through how we have ended up with these regulations. As I said, the first set of regulations were in effect debated as part of the debate on the Coronavirus Bill. There were then some amendments that were largely minor and technical, so people could probably live with the fact that they were not debated in detail. The second set of amendments—those that are not being debated by the House today, because they were debated in Committee, but will, I suspect, be approved by the House today—contained some important changes and significantly increased the maximum penalty from £960 to £3,200. Admittedly, that is the maximum after a number of offences, but it is a significant penalty increase, and they have not yet—until this evening—been approved by the House. So far, that criminal offence or sanction has been imposed only by the stroke of a Minister’s pen, not by the approval of the House.
The amendment No. 3 regulations, which we are debating, contain some significant changes. They changed fundamentally the structure of the regulations from restrictions as to whether we could leave our homes and the reasons why we could do so towards in effect saying that we could leave our homes whenever we liked but just could not stay away overnight. That is a significant change in the way the regulations are structured and, again, that has not been properly debated by the House until today.
The other significant change in the regulations was that they altered the rules about gatherings. Originally, more than two people were not allowed to meet in a public place. These regulations change the rules on gatherings to cover both public and private places and put a restriction on gatherings to be of no more than six. I will come onto that a little later in my remarks, because it is relevant to my particular constituency case.
The final thing that these regulations do that I want to focus on—the Minister touched on this in her remarks—is to extend the review period from 21 days to 28 days. I am not sure I quite follow the logic that the Minister set out, because I was happy with the shorter period on the basis that the regulations are very significant restrictions on liberty, and therefore I think reviewing them more frequently is better. On the Minister’s point that the length of time for the review has been extended to allow changes to come into force and an assessment to be made of the impact of those changes on, presumably, the R number and the level of infections before we make another set of changes, I understand the logic behind that, but that does not really seem to be exactly what we are doing. The review period as set out in the regulations is
If those changes today were to have an adverse impact on the spread of the virus— I do not think they will, because businesses are operating in a covid-secure way—we probably would not know about that in 10 days’ time because of the period that the virus takes to show up and feed through into the data. So we would not be in a position on
My final point before I come to the specifics of the regulations is on the amendment (No. 4) regulations, which deal with linked households. I will touch on them only briefly, because they are not the regulations we are debating today. I have read those regulations, and they are quite complicated. There is such a level of detail about family structures and the rules on which households can link to other households means, and I am not really sure that trying to put that level of detail into the law makes a lot of sense. That is both because it is complicated—I am not sure how anybody makes head or tail of it—and because realistically I cannot see how anyone can practically enforce the regulations. I do not see how a police officer, without carrying out the most extraordinary amount of surveillance, can possibly know whether various households are appropriately linking to each other, particularly if one of the households has multiple adults in it.
We may have reached the point where the Government should think—particularly because there has been such high compliance with even the parts of the rules that are guidance only—about whether we want to set out our thinking, publish the advice and guidance to people, and allow them to implement it themselves without having legal sanction underpinning it.
These regulations expire at the back end of September anyway. It may be worth the Minister saying what the Government are doing: whether they are going to keep the legal framework in place until then, or whether, at an earlier point, there may be some sense in moving to a model where we deal with this through guidance and advice, not the power of the criminal law. That would be a tribute to the British people. They have largely followed the rules very, very fully and the evidence is that they can be trusted to follow the guidance pretty comprehensively, even if it is only guidance and not backed by criminal sanction.
On the specifics in the regulations we are debating today—this is my final point, Madam Deputy Speaker—regulation 7 makes it very clear that a gathering of more than six people outdoors is unlawful and that somebody attending such a gathering is committing an offence. I mention that because there is a proposal in my constituency to hold a demonstration this coming weekend on the subject of black lives matter. Now, I am very firm in my view that I abhor racism of any kind. In normal circumstances, I would welcome people demonstrating that they, too, were against racism of any kind. I hear people say we have a right to protest in this country, and normally we do. However, under the regulations, which I suspect the House will approve this evening, we actually do not have a right to protest if there are more than six people—it is an offence. The Home Secretary made it very clear that it is an offence. She was very clear, in her exhortations this past weekend, that people should not come to London and should not protest, because the regulations are in force because we are trying to deal with a pandemic.
That is very much the view of most of my constituents about this particular demonstration. My own view is that I would welcome such a demonstration to take place in the future when the coronavirus regulations are no longer in force and we are no longer trying to deal with the pandemic, but it would be an offence at the moment. There is a decision taking place this evening. The local trust that runs the recreation centre is having to make a decision about whether to approve the demonstration. I have been very clear that people attending the protest would be committing a criminal offence, which is punishable by a fine, and it should not take place. If it were to take place, my advice to people would be not to turn up but to express their views in other ways—there are plenty of ways that people can express their views on social media and so forth—and to hold over a protest until it is lawful.
In any other circumstance, if a Minister proposed abolishing the right to protest, people would be outraged. We would think that this House would absolutely have to vote, debate and decide on such a provision, but that right to protest was effectively extinguished by the stroke of a Minister’s pen and has been significantly changed in the regulations again by the stroke of a Minister’s pen. It is only today that the House will take a decision. I would say to Ministers that it is in their interests to bring the measures to the House, have them debated and then have the House give its backing, so that it is Parliament that has approved them and not just them. Until the regulations are approved, the ban on protests is purely on the basis of the signature of the Secretary of State for Health, as the Minister said. I am sure that he does not really want to have all to himself the fact that he personally has abolished the right to protest in England. That is actually what he has done without the sanction, yet, of this House, because the regulations have not yet been approved.
As ever, my right hon. Friend is making a forensic analysis, particularly of the timeline, to which I think we will all refer over the days ahead. He makes the very good point that we are considering regulations that are backed up by criminal records and fines, and that we are doing that rather rapidly and belatedly. Would he hazard a guess as to how many people will actually be fined for having a barbecue with seven people next week, when they see that there will be no fines or sanctions for big gatherings of people who are passionate about what they stand for? I wonder if he might hazard a guess.
My hon. Friend has a point. The reason why I have been clear in the view that I have expressed in my constituency about these protests is that I fundamentally believe that we live in a country governed by the rule of law, and one thing about the rule of law is that it applies to everybody in the country. Of course, one of the arguments that many of the people attending these protests are making is that they want everyone in our country, whatever their race, to be treated equally under the law. We already have laws in this country that protect the way people are treated and guarantee, under equality legislation, that we treat people of different races the same. It is difficult for someone to argue that they want the law to be applied to protect people of different races and guarantee their rights if, at the same time, that person is conducting a protest that in itself breaks the law. It is not a very consistent position to have.
I understand the point that my right hon. Friend is making, and it is very important that people act safely, but I find it rather wonderful that people in this country believe that the right to protest belongs to them and not Ministers. Whatever the rights and wrongs of protesting while there is a lockdown, looking ahead to the strength of the democratic right in this country, the fact that people believe the right to protest belongs to them and not Ministers should, in future, give us all hope for our democracy.
I broadly agree with that sentiment, but I have a concern, for this reason. I think that we live in a country governed by law and I want the law to be respected, so the difficulty, if we get large-scale of breaches of that law—particularly if there is no sanction—is that all the millions of people in our country who, as my hon. Friend Craig Mackinlay said, have been faithfully obeying the law, following the rules, not meeting members of their family and putting themselves through considerable hardship and difficulty then think it has all been rather pointless, and they do not quite understand why there appears to be a different set of standards. That is why it is important, if we are going to make rules such as this, that they apply to everybody, and that is very much the sentiment in my constituency. It is also important because if these things are the law, they are presumably the law because Ministers have determined, on advice from the chief medical officer and the chief scientific adviser, that allowing these gatherings would allow the virus to spread more widely than it would otherwise. In that case, allowing such protests to take place is going to put people’s lives at risk.
I am very fortunate that in my constituency we have had a relatively low incidence of coronavirus and a relatively low number of people have died, although every death is, for the family and friends of that individual, a tragedy. The incidence has been relatively low and I do not want to see that change, which is why I think it is important that we obey these rules.
In conclusion, although I support the regulations—I am certainly very happy to support them this evening—the Government need to think about the way they bring these sets of regulations in front of the House, the way they are debated and the way they are explained to people. They also need to look, over the coming days and weeks—as we hopefully are able to continually ease the restrictions—at the point at which it makes sense to move from the law and a legislative underpinning of these rules to advice, guidance and trust in the very good sense of the British people to follow the rules and continue driving the virus out of our community, so that we can all get back as close to normal life as possible until we develop a vaccine or a treatment.
I thank all hon. Members who have spoken. The debate has exemplified quite how challenging and complex this situation is. Throughout it, we have discussed both opening up and not opening up at the same point. The regulations state that the Secretary of State should ensure that restrictions are lifted at the earliest opportunity if no longer necessary for public health. These measures are incredibly restrictive, and we should not leave them in place a moment longer than we need to, but we have to go with caution. Parliamentary scrutiny is essential, but we could not justify to the public keeping the restrictions in place longer while we await a debate.
The changes are broadly consistent with the road map that the Prime Minister laid out to this House on
Let me quickly put on the record my thanks to the Minister. At the very beginning of the outbreak back in February, when the first outbreak was in my constituency, she briefed me daily and was constantly available as a source of information at that point, so I thank her.
Can the Minister explain to the House why, on issues such as zoos, in the few days it has taken to get this statutory instrument to the Floor of the House, there has already been a U-turn? Why is there so much confusion about this announcement?
I would argue that this is a dynamic situation. For example, with zoos, scientific evidence indicates quite clearly that open spaces are much safer for people to be in, so a degree of logic applies. It is very difficult to argue that we do not want things opened, while at the same time requesting that businesses and so on are opened. There has to be a degree of walking slowly, and I hope to come on to that. Several Members raised the fact that there appear to be inconsistencies, but I would argue that the Government are maintaining only the restrictions that are necessary and appropriate at any given time.
I want to come in on the point made by my hon. Friend Peter Kyle. Paragraph 23C of schedule 2 deals with aquariums and zoos, including safari parks, and we just need to be clear about the Government’s position on that. Are they now saying that that paragraph is no longer going to be applicable, or are zoos part of this? I would be grateful if the Minister could clarify that, please.
Zoos have been closed as a consequence of the restrictions since they came into force on
The debate today has provided an opportunity for the Government to hear the concerns of a wide range of society through the contributions made by right hon. and hon. Members, and I now turn specifically to the debate. First, I would like to say that I have heard the frustrations. Regulations have to be made urgently, given the impact they have on individual rights and to respond to the latest possible evidence. Debates are organised and scheduled through the usual channels, which, I would just say, are not always as fleet of foot as others.
In response to Justin Madders and my right hon. Friend Mr Harper, the Secretary of State keeps the restrictions and requirements under constant consideration throughout the 28 days. It is a continuous cycle, rather than a fixed point in time for a review. If I understood the argument of my right hon. Friend the Member for Forest of Dean correctly and we took it to a logical conclusion, it would mean that as we lifted restrictions, it would actually take longer were we to be iterative over those 28 days, rather than processing easing as we currently are.
I appreciate the Minister’s tolerance in letting me intervene again. Can we be clear on the reviews? I appreciate why the Secretary of State will be doing that on an ongoing basis, but the Opposition would like to see those reviews in some documented form so that we can understand the basis on which restrictions are eased and implemented.
To that point, I will address the comments that the hon. Gentleman made about transparency. In recognition of these unprecedented times, SAGE has been publishing statements and the accompanying evidence it has reviewed to demonstrate how the scientific underpinning and understanding of covid has continued to evolve. As new data emerges, SAGE’s advice quickly adapts to new findings and reflects the situations.
I would like to turn to the impact assessments.
My understanding is that, as the situation is abating, to push the review out to 28 days while making a constant assessment is deemed the right thing to do to allow a more fluid process.
A full regulatory impact assessment is not required for regulations that last for less than a year. As the regulations are set to expire six months after they come into force, they therefore fit that criteria. However, the Government are considering the economic impact of the regulations on businesses and individuals, as well as the personal impact on those with protected characteristics, on people’s mental wellbeing and on religious groups and many others. As I say, this is an extremely testing and complex situation.
On testing, we have delivered a national response and have rapidly scaled up testing. From some 2,000 tests a day only back in March, we now have the capacity to conduct over 200,000 tests a day across the entire testing programme. Increasing our testing capacity is one of the greatest national mobilisations we have ever seen, and I thank Peter Kyle for his kind words. Back in February, the numbers of cases were such that we could trace at that point.
Moving on, my hon. Friend Sir Charles Walker said how important it is to get businesses open and to get back to work, and I could not agree more. Tim Farron explained the challenges in the tourism industry. My hon. Friend Nigel Huddleston is looking at the unprecedented impact that covid-19 is having on the tourist industry in order to deliver some of the changes that I am sure my constituency of Bury St Edmunds would like to see, as it relies heavily on tourism. I, for one, cannot wait to get back to the hon. Member for Westmorland and Lonsdale’s part of the world. The first walk we ever do when we go there is Swedish Bridge, but to go round the horseshoe or along the coffin trail would be a delight in the current circumstances.
For my right hon. Friend the Member for Forest of Dean, I can make clear that Her Majesty’s Government have given clarification on exactly what is provided for in the regulations and what we additionally suggest as guidance to come out during the review period. There is a complexity in the guidance, and I take on board his broader points. I agree that everybody has so far followed the guidance in a remarkable way.
I thank all Members for their contributions during the debate and provide assurance that we have listened and will take the House’s views into account as measures are kept under review. As I said when I opened the debate, we are incredibly grateful to the public for their sacrifices and their efforts to follow these tough measures. I also pay a fulsome tribute to our NHS and care workers and all the key workers for their ongoing hard work to keep our vital services running, to save lives and to keep all of us safe. I commend these regulations to the House.
Question put and agreed to.
That the Health Protection (Coronavirus, Restrictions) (England) (Amendment) (No.3) Regulations 2020 (S.I, 2020, No. 558), dated
In order to allow the safe exit of hon. Members participating in this item of business and the safe arrival of those participating in the subsequent item of business, I am suspending the House now for three minutes.