The business of the House motion that the House has just agreed to provides for motions 3 to 9 on today’s Order Paper to be debated together, but I assure the House that the Question will be put separately on each motion at the end of the debate.
I beg to move,
That the Health Protection (Coronavirus, Local Covid-19 Alert Level) (Medium) (England) Regulations 2020, (S.I., 2020, No. 1103), dated
With this we shall take the following motions, on public health:
That the Health Protection (Coronavirus, Local Covid-19 Alert Level) (High) (England) Regulations 2020, (S.I., 2020, No. 1104), dated
That the Health Protection (Coronavirus, Local Covid-19 Alert Level) (Very High) (England) Regulations 2020, (S.I., 2020, No. 1105), dated
That the Health Protection (Coronavirus, Collection of Contact Details etc and Related Requirements) Regulations 2020 (S.I., 2020, No. 1005), dated
That the Health Protection (Coronavirus, Restrictions) (Obligations of Hospitality Undertakings) (England) Regulations 2020 (S.I., 2020, No. 1008), dated
That the Health Protection (Coronavirus, Restrictions) (Obligations of Undertakings) (England) (Amendment) Regulations 2020 (S.I., 2020, No. 1046), dated
That the Health Protection (Coronavirus, Restrictions) (No. 2) (England) (Amendment) (No. 5) Regulations 2020 (S.I., 2020, No. 1029), dated
Two weeks ago, I pledged to the House that for significant national measures we will consult Parliament in advance of their coming into force wherever possible, and today we deliver on that commitment with votes tonight on national measures to slow the spread of coronavirus. This pandemic remains a formidable threat. Our strategy is to suppress the virus, supporting the economy, education and the NHS, until a vaccine makes us safe, and I must report to the House that the number of cases of coronavirus has quadrupled in the last three weeks.
There are now more people in hospital with coronavirus than there were on
Given that Liverpool city region, which includes my constituency of Wallasey, was placed in tier 3 yesterday, could the Secretary of State outline whether there are plans to reopen or revive the Nightingale hospitals to serve that region? I do not mean the hospital in Manchester.
Yes, as the hon. Lady will know, three Nightingale hospitals were put on alert yesterday to be reopened. The closest Nightingale is in Manchester, but we keep that under review because expanding the capacity of the NHS is one of the things that we can do. Nevertheless, no matter how big the NHS is, if the virus is not under control it will make more people need hospital treatment than there could possibly be hospital treatment available for. While we are, of course, restarting the Nightingales, which have been mothballed for months, that is only a precaution; it cannot be the full answer to the question. We had a very good discussion yesterday about the measures in Liverpool city region, which I will come on to in some detail.
To follow on from what my right hon. Friend said about our strategy being to suppress the virus until a vaccine makes us safe—until science saves us—the Prime Minister yesterday was, very wisely, cautious in his answer to our hon. Friend Mr Baker on the vaccine. What if it does not come, and what if it comes and the efficacy of it is not good enough, and there are challenges with roll-out and all sorts of other challenges that he and I know about—the anti-vaxxers notwithstanding? Can he give those of us who are nervous about—
Order. This is not a question but a very quick intervention. I have 89 people who want to speak. If there are to be interventions, they must be short.
Of course, the work on a vaccine continues. No vaccine technology is certain, but we have already bought six different vaccines and there are more than 100 in development around the world. That is what underpins the strategy, and the work on the leading vaccines, including the AstraZeneca Oxford vaccine, continues effectively. We have seen, both here and overseas, just how quickly the virus can take hold, and we have to act now to get it under control.
At the beginning of August, Calderdale had just four people in hospital with covid, zero in intensive care units, and spikes in just two wards. This morning, we have 43 people in hospital with covid, six in ICUs, 12 deaths this month, and almost 800 positive cases coming through. Can my right hon. Friend say what steps he is taking to ensure that the NHS is not overwhelmed by the virus in the coming months?
Order. I have just said that we must not have long interventions. These points are for the speeches that people are waiting to make later. If a Member wants to intervene on the Secretary of State about something that he has just said, that is all very well, but if they make points about their constituencies at this stage rather than waiting until later, it is simply dishonourable; it is just not right.
My hon. Friend—and he is an honourable man—makes an important point that has wider context than just his constituency, which is that we must make sure that we control the virus. My heart goes out to the families of those in his constituency who have died. The only alternative to suppressing the virus is that it then expands exponentially. That is what happens with a virus when the R is above 1. I know that some people feel that we should adopt a more relaxed approach, but that will lead to more of the sort of thing that my hon. Friend has related from his constituency.
Some people have set out this more relaxed approach, including those in the so-called Great Barrington declaration. I want to take this argument head on, because on the substance, the Great Barrington declaration is underpinned by two central claims and both are emphatically false. First, it says that if enough people get covid, we will reach herd immunity. That is not true. Many infectious diseases never reach herd immunity, such as measles, malaria, AIDS and flu, and with increasing evidence of reinfection, we should have no confidence that we would ever reach herd immunity to covid, even if everyone caught it. Herd immunity is a flawed goal without a vaccine, even if we could get to it, which we cannot.
The second central claim is that we can segregate the old and vulnerable on our way to herd immunity. That is simply not possible. As the medical director of the NHS said yesterday, we cannot somehow fence off the elderly and the vulnerable from risk while everyone else returns to normal. It is neither conscionable nor practicable—not when so many people live in inter- generational homes, not when older people need carers who of course themselves live in the community, and not when young people can suffer the debilitating impact of long covid. Whenever we have seen cases among young people rise sharply, we then see cases among the over-60s rise inevitably thereafter, and we are not the kind of country that abandons our vulnerable or just locks them up.
If we let this virus continue unchecked, the loss of life would be simply too great to contemplate. We know that it would put our NHS at risk, as my hon. Friends have just said. We know that both because of what happened in March and because of what is happening right now. We have already heard from the heads of the Academy of Medical Royal Colleges and the Royal College of Emergency Medicine that, if we do not act fast and come together to quash the virus, we risk putting the NHS under extraordinary strain both for covid treatments and for non-covid treatments.
We have seen the exit plan from local lockdowns. For instance, in Leicester, where we had a firm local lockdown, the case rate came right down. We lifted that and we have sadly seen it start to rise again. The case rate is determined by the amount of social mixing, and it reduces during a lockdown. In some parts of the country where the case rate has continued to rise, there is an argument for further ensuring that we do not reach the level of contact that is at the root of the virus spreading. The challenge is how to calibrate the lockdown to get the virus under control while doing the minimum damage to the economy and to education.
Will the Secretary of State acknowledge—a simple yes or no—that we should not be in this position in the first place and that the best exit strategy is having an effective system of testing, tracing and isolating that is locally led? If that were working properly—even SAGE has admitted that it is not—we would not be here.
We have one of the biggest systems of tracking and tracing in the world. The idea that I sometimes get from people in this House is that, somehow, it is not one of the biggest systems in the world or one of the most effective in the world. I get that in this House, but I do not get it when I talk to my international colleagues. They ask me, “How did you manage to build this capacity so fast?” That is the truth of it.
Of course we need to continue to build it and to make sure it is continuously more integrated into the local communities, who can often go to reach the contacts that the national system finds it hard to reach. However, to argue that the enormous system that is working so effectively, with so many brilliant people working on it, is at the root of this challenge is, unfortunately, to miss the big picture, which is that, sadly, this virus passes on—until we have a vaccine or a massive testing capacity that nobody yet has, this virus passes on through social contact and that is, unfortunately, what we need to tackle in order to get this under control.
Let me make a point about the numbers. In the first peak, about 8% of people caught covid and 42,000 people died. If we do not have the virus under control, even with the better survival rates we now have, thanks to both drug discoveries by British science and improvements in clinical practice, those figures will multiply. In addition, harder economic measures would then inevitably be needed to get it under control and they would be needed for longer. If you, Madam Deputy Speaker, like me, want our economy back on full throttle, we need to keep this virus in check.
The SAGE advice that Ministers receive is, of course, published; we have had great debates in this House about that and it is published. We make decisions that are guided by the science, taking into account all the different considerations we need to look to.
It is worth giving credit to the NHS Test and Trace team for the growth in testing, but the evidence published yesterday said that the impact of the testing and tracing system was having only a marginal effect on reducing the virus. So can the Secretary of State look not just in high-risk areas, but in all areas to get more of the contact tracing done by our fantastic directors of public health and their teams?
Yes, absolutely. We are doing precisely that. The way it works where it works best is that the big national system makes the immediate and rapid contact with people who test positive—for more than half of people that is immediately successful—and then when contacts are harder to make the data is passed to the local teams, which do not have the scale to do the immediate, rapid contacting but do have the boots on the ground and the local knowledge. That combination of the two is what works best where it works well.
My right hon. Friend is making a compelling case, but will he bear in mind that in the west midlands we are concerned that yesterday’s change was made on the basis of neatness, not of medical need? Will he reassure me that he will always listen carefully to the West Midlands Mayor, Andy Street, as these matters all develop?
Yes. The introduction of the three-level system means that, in some areas where the local area has been working so effectively to get the curve flattened, as in the west midlands, under the leadership of Andy Street—there has been a rise in the past few days of data, but essentially a huge amount of progress has been made—changes have had to be made. However, I will absolutely recommit to working with Andy Street, who is an incredibly effective voice for the west midlands, to make sure that what we can do together can best deliver to control the virus in the west midlands. I pay tribute to my right hon. Friend, who makes the case on this so effectively, because protecting our economy and protecting our health are not alternatives. We must act and keep the virus under control to protect lives and livelihoods. I strongly believe that every one of us, young or old, has the ability to suppress the virus through the actions we take and the best way to protect the vulnerable, support the NHS and protect the economy is to get the rate of transmission down.
I turn to the steps we are taking to do that and, therefore, the instruments before the House today. Yesterday, the Prime Minister provided an update on the measures we are taking, which centre on three local covid alert levels in England.
Yes, absolutely, and I will go further than that: we look at this at sub-district level, if that is appropriate. In High Peak we put four wards into level 2 and the rest of the wards stayed in level 1. So we are prepared to look at the sub-district level if that is appropriate. Some districts within North Yorkshire have individual outbreaks in individual institutions that we are managing, and we should not mistake that for general community transmission and therefore put those areas into a higher level than is necessary. I am happy to go through the local epidemiology from near Thirsk that affects my hon. Friend’s constituency.
In a sense, that brings us to the point of these local covid alert levels. These are the first statutory instruments to be debated under our commitment to consult Parliament on significant national measures that have effect in the whole of England or are UK-wide and, wherever possible, to hold votes before the regulations come into force. That is what we are doing today.
Local action has proved to be one of our most important lines of defence. Where firm action has been taken—for instance in Leicester, or in Bolton, where we flattened the curve—our local approach has inevitably produced different sets of rules in different parts of the country, as my right hon. Friend Mr Mitchell set out. We have already moved towards simpler national rules that are centred on the rule of six, and we are now acting to simplify and standardise the rules at a local level.
The regulations set out three levels of alert: medium, high and very high. The medium alert level, which will cover most of the country, will consist of the current national measures. This includes the rule of six and the closure of hospitality at 10 pm. The high alert level reflects the interventions in many local areas at the moment and that aims to reduce household-to-household transmission by preventing social mixing between different households indoors, with the rule of six outdoors. That is super-simple: no household mixing socially indoors and the rule of six outdoors.
The very high alert level will apply where transmission rates are rising most rapidly and where the NHS will soon be under unbearable pressure without further restrictions. In those areas the Government will set a baseline of prohibiting social mixing, while allowing households to mix in public outdoor spaces, because that is where the risk of transmission is lowest, as long as the rule of six is followed. That baseline is set out in the very high alert level regulations being considered today. Pubs and bars will be closed, and we will advise against travel into and out of very high-risk areas.
We also offer a package of support for individuals, businesses and councils. That includes more support for local test and trace, which many have asked for, more funding for local enforcement and the offer of help from the armed services, as well as the job support scheme announced by the Chancellor. That is best done as a team effort and, wherever possible, we want to build local support on the ground before we introduce these measures. So in each area we will work with local government leaders on the extra measures that need to be taken. We do not rule out further restrictions in the hospitality, leisure, entertainment, or personal care sectors, but retail, schools and universities will remain open.
My friend, Justin Madders, says from a sedentary position that that was his idea, but success has many fathers and I can tell my hon. Friend Dr Evans that such a postcode checker was launched this morning. I will send him the link. It is still in beta, so it will be constantly improved, not least to ensure that, if a postcode covers an area that is in two different levels, that is clear. That is being sorted at the moment. A postcode checker is a great idea. It tells you the level of local risk. Furthermore, the NHS covid app, which has now been downloaded by over 17 million people, has a link to the local alert level as well.
To turn back to the measures before us, we will keep the measures under constant review. The overarching regulations sunset after six months, but regulation 8(1) of statutory instrument 1105 makes clear that the allocation of a particular area to local alert level 3 will automatically expire after 28 days. We will work with local areas on the level they need to be at and that work continues at pace. Decisions to move local areas between the levels will be considered by the JBC, working across Government and with local government on the normal weekly cycle. While, of course, there will be times when we need to act quickly to contain the virus, we want to give the House the opportunity to consider the measures on the medium and high local alert levels, and the baseline measures for the very high alert level. I urge the House to support the measures set out today.
The Secretary of State mentions that they will work with local authorities when moving authorities between areas. Will he also give time to measures that local authorities may already be taking, such as in Newcastle-under-Lyme, to see their effect before moving areas from one tier to another?
Yes, that is a very important point. Taking into account all local considerations, and working with the local director of public health and political leadership, is important to get exactly that sort of consideration into the decisions.
I would like to set out, as the Prime Minister did yesterday, the details of where we have reached with the Liverpool city region. Liverpool will move on to level 3 tomorrow. As well as the baseline measures—that is, as well as closing pubs and bars—gyms, leisure centres, betting shops, adult gaming centres and casinos will also close. I thank all the local authorities that have been working with us to keep the virus under control, but there is more work to do.
The regulations under consideration today include measures on the obligations for businesses. Statutory instrument 1005 makes it a legal requirement for a range of premises to collect, retain and, where relevant, disclose contact details as part of NHS Test and Trace. Statutory instrument 1008 allows for fixed penalty notices to be given for breaches of covid-secure business guidance in various settings, primarily hospitality. These are amended by SI 1046, which adds the need for a range of premises to display information about the need to wear face coverings.
SI 1029 increases the fines for those flouting targeted action to close specific public places that are a threat to public health. Although SI 1029 was intended to deliver the 10 pm closing time when laid, the elements relating to the 10 pm closing time are superseded by the local alert level system. The powers in SI 1029 are therefore revoked. In practice, the effect of SI 1029 is to deliver enforcement against individual places that have been flouting the rules, which is the one of the top demands of councils in their fight against coronavirus. I know that most people and most businesses have been doing their bit. These changes are there to ensure that the vast majority of responsible businesses are not undermined by others that are not following the rules.
The Secretary of State talks about a regulation on pubs closing at 10 o’clock, which has been in force for four weeks. There may be some undoubted positives for health, but we see some negatives with people amassing together on public transport and in the streets. Do the positives outweigh the negatives, as far as the science is concerned?
Yes, I believe that they do, and I will give three reasons why I think these measures are the right ones. The first is that we already now have evidence from accident and emergency departments that we have seen a reduction in alcohol-related admissions late at night, after the 10 pm curfew. That is important in its own right, but it is also a proxy, a measure of how much people are drinking late at night. Therefore, it is evidence that there is less mixing and less drinking late at night.
The second is that, while people may be coming out and mixing after 10 pm, they are doing so largely outside, when they would otherwise be mixing inside the premises; it is just easier to photograph outside.
The final point, though, and the appeal I make to the House on this, is as follows: since, sadly, in order to control this virus, we need to reduce the amount of social contact, and since we are trying to protect, as much as is possible, education and work, that essentially leaves socialising as the other part of life—of activity—where people transmit the virus. It is therefore understandable that Governments around the world and around this United Kingdom, Governments of all different stripes and political persuasions, have all come to broadly the same conclusion that it is necessary to restrict socialising, because that way we reduce the transmission with the least damage to education and the economy. While there is both direct and proximate evidence for the positive impact of this measure, there is also the strategic point that, if we wanted to control the virus and we were not to do this, we would have to do something else, and as a matter of policy choice we want to protect education and protect work.
I will now come to my concluding remarks. We know only too well the damage this lethal virus can inflict, the strain it can put on our NHS and the way it can upend our closest relationships and our freedom to do the things we love. I know that we are asking a lot of the British people, but we also know that together we can shift this curve, and we are now called upon to do it once more. The measures before the House today will help in that fight, and I commend the regulations to the House.
Just before I call the shadow Secretary of State, it will be obvious to the House, both those in the Chamber and those watching around the building, that I have more than 80 people who are trying to catch my eye and that we have until 6 pm to conclude the debate. I am afraid that, in order to be fair to everybody, because I appreciate that this is not an occasion for long-thought-out speeches on matters of principle, but on matters to do with individual constituencies, and to try to give as many people from as many parts of the country as possible the chance to contribute, we will start with a time limit of three minutes.
Madam Deputy Speaker, I have heard your message loud and clear; I will endeavour to be brief and not to detain the House for too long, given the points you have rightly made.
The House will understand that we are grappling with a virus that spreads with speed and severity. Throughout this crisis, we have urged the Government to adopt an approach with the strategic aim of suppressing the virus and bringing the R below 1 in order to save lives, minimise harm and keep our children in school. That has to be our priority, and no one should be surprised that, as we are in autumn and going into winter, that presents us with immense challenges.
Before the summer, the Academy of Medical Sciences, in a report commissioned by the Government, modelled that we could see 119,000 deaths between September 2020 and June 2021. The academy also warned, as did we, that without an effective test, trace and isolate regime the virus would get out of control. Sadly, we were proved correct. The Secretary of State has run through the numbers on the prevalence of the virus, but I will just underline the point that hospital admissions are rising.
Yesterday, there were 3,665 patients in hospital in England, 568 more than on
A disproportionate number of those in critical care today are from poorer backgrounds and from black, Asian and minority ethnic communities. That is a reminder that covid thrives on and exaggerates inequalities, and that any long-term covid strategy cannot just rely on a vaccine but demands an all-out assault on health inequalities as well.
Just as hospital beds fill, there are more concerns about the availability of beds for the rest of winter. Last week, there were warnings that some hospitals across the north of England are set to run out of beds for covid patients within days, and NHS Providers reminded us that the sustained physical, psychological and emotional pressure on health staff is threatening to push them beyond their limits. The British Medical Association is saying that without stringent measures rapidly introduced, the NHS and its workforce will very quickly be overwhelmed. This House cannot overstate how serious the situation is.
Yes, as the Secretary of State said, our clinicians have made extraordinary strides in treatment. We know that steroid and antiviral drugs will help improve mortality, but we also know that when infections rise, as night follows day, hospitalisations rise, and, sadly and tragically, that means that more will die as well. For those who avoid hospitalisation, many can be afflicted with serious, long-term, debilitating health problems—so-called long covid. None of us knows whether those conditions—that syndrome—will last for the rest of their lives or whether they will recover in the next 12 months.
Just as we have to protect our NHS, we cannot allow the mass, industrial halt to elective surgery and delays in treatment never seen before in the history of the NHS. We have to mobilise our national health service to perform the care for non-covid patients as well. The decision in March, although entirely understandable—I do not criticise the Government for taking it—has bequeathed us waiting lists of 4 million. Today there are 111,000 people waiting beyond 12 months for treatment. In January of this year, there were just 1,600. Three million people have missed out on vital cancer screening. One in three cancer patients has said that their treatment has been impacted by the effects of covid. I make these points not to criticise the Secretary of State but to reinforce the point that we have to protect our national health service as we go into the winter months.
I know that no Member across this House is complacent about these matters. Every hon. and right hon. Member is united and determined to see infection rates reduce and care improved. I know that everyone across this House wants to see the immense backlog in non-covid care tackled. I know that none of us wants to see this virus let rip and leave the weakest and the frail to fend for themselves. So I do not come to this House to caricature the position of any hon. Member. Our differences are about how we apply the tools we have at our disposal, and how we confront this, the biggest public health crisis for 100 years.
We know, as the Secretary of State said, that the virus thrives on close human contact, especially where air is stagnant and in conditions that are poorly ventilated. We know that the virus is airborne. We know that fundamentally our best defences are hand hygiene, distancing, mask wearing, and avoiding crowds. But we also know that a full national lockdown stretching for weeks and weeks, like we had through April, with a rule, effectively, of one-household contact—a rule of one, indeed, for some people—would be disastrous for society. Again, I do not believe that anyone in the House is proposing that.
The question is what measures can be taken now to bring R below 1 without resorting to that full lockdown. We know that when 8 million children returned to school, that would have put upward pressure on infection rates. I am critical of the Government for not providing the extra testing capacity that would have been needed, as should have been obvious. Yet we must do everything we can to keep our children in school. The implications of children not being in school are devastating for their life chances and development. We know that crowded public transport puts upward pressure on infection rates, but I do not believe that any Member of this House would consider it sensible to close public transport networks—to close the underground or to close the Metrolink across Manchester. We know we have to encourage people to work from home, and many are doing that, but we also know that there are many who cannot work from home, and they should be protected with access to mass testing—particularly NHS staff. I hope that the Government get on with routine testing of frontline NHS staff. We have repeatedly called for the Government to do that.
That then therefore leaves us with few levers to pull. That brings me to hospitality, because—I am sorry to have to say it—pubs and bars do bring people together. Every Member across this House knows that after a few drinks people lose their inhibitions. It should come as no surprise to us that social distancing breaks down, and if bars and pubs are poorly ventilated—as, sadly, some are—then airborne transmission is more of a risk. I know that Members will point out to me, as they have in the past few days, that the data show that household interaction is the biggest driver of transmission. That is correct—but how does the virus get into the household in the first place? It does not come down the chimney, like Father Christmas: someone brings it into the house.
If we cannot close, schools, workplaces or shops and cannot shut public transport, the only lever that we have is hospitality, so, yes, we support the restrictions announced yesterday by the Secretary of State and the Prime Minister. We know from experience in Bolton and Leicester that the pub closures had an impact—the virus is still prevalent in my city and in Bolton—but without the closures the virus would have been driven up further.
We therefore support the announced measures, difficult as they are. Indeed, we support the measures aimed at constraining the time people can spend in the pub. I understand the Secretary of State’s procedural points about the instruments before us and the 10 pm curfew, and he knows that I know that many Members are deeply sceptical about that curfew. We will not stand in the way of the passing of the statutory instrument, but if the House’s procedures had allowed it, we would have proposed an amendment to implement the Welsh scenario, where there is drinking-up time, off sales are banned after 10 o’clock and there is no hard stop at 10 pm.
We have all seen the pictures that Huw Merriman mentioned, although I must say to many of my hon. Friends who made the point about city centres being full of revellers after leaving the pub that it is not as though we have seen such pictures only once the 10 pm curfew was introduced—we have seen them before in our city centres, sadly. I have been on public transport after 11 pm! This is a longstanding issue. The 10 pm curfew does not help it, but let us not pretend it has caused all these issues.
I think I made that point, but, yes, I most certainly would. If I had proposed that amendment, I hope the hon. Gentleman would have joined us in the Division Lobby, although I know that since leaving the Government he has been very lax about going through the Lobby with the Opposition—[Interruption.] I drank my water too quickly as the hon Gentleman’s intervention was shorter than I anticipated—[Interruption.] I beg your pardon; I assure Members it is not the virus.
Many Members affected by this in recent days will know that the decisions made to put an area into restriction will be effective only if they are made in conjunction with local people. I know that extremely well as a Leicester Member, where we have had restrictions for 105 or 106 days. People in towns such as Bury or Bolton or across Greater Manchester or in boroughs such as Wolverhampton, West Bromwich or parts of Birmingham need clarity about their future and local leaders need reassurance that there is a plan. Local leaders need reassurance that if they are put into a tier there is a plan to get them out of it and moved into the lower tiers. It is not clear at the moment why particular areas are in the medium tier and not in, for example, tier 2. I do not want to pick on my near parliamentary neighbour, Edward Argar, but I hope he can explain when he responds to the debate why the city of Leicester is in tier 2 with restrictions yet his constituency, where the infection rate is 150 per 100,000, is not. Why is North East Derbyshire, where the rate is 164 per 100,000, not in that tier? Why is Barrow, where the rate is 277 per 100,000, not in that tier? There are many other examples across the House. People living in areas where restrictions are in place would like to be reassured that there is some consistency in these matters and that decisions are made transparently. I do not want to pick on the hon. Gentleman’s area, but he will see the point I am trying to make.
Of course, the areas where hospitality has closed need support to save jobs and protect livelihoods. At the moment, there is a financial package on offer for tier 3 —the Opposition do not think it goes far enough; we do not think it is adequate—but there is no financial support for tier 2, even though there will be a significant impact on the local economy, as we have seen in Leicester. On tiers 2 and 3, could the Minister, in responding to the debate, say a little bit about care homes? What does he say to the thousands of families who, under tier 2 and now tier 3, will not be able to visit their loved ones in care homes? The impact on a loved one in a care home of not being able to see their family is immense, especially in the winter months as we run up to Christmas. What steps will the Government take to support those areas in tiers 2 and 3 so that families can safely resume visiting their loved ones? Will he commit to a 24-hour turnaround in test results in care homes so that care homes and residents are protected?
This brings me to testing and tracing. One of the great strides we made in Leicester was door-to-door testing. Can the Minister guarantee that any areas in tier 2 and tier 3 will get capacity for door-to-door testing? Back in August, the Government promised that local areas would have more control over test and trace, with dedicated teams backed up by local authorities, but under this tiered system it was reported yesterday that only areas in tier 3 would have greater local control over contact tracing and testing. Why was this not put in place months ago, and why has it not been put in place everywhere across the country, not just for tier 3? This is the point that Mr Harper made, and he made it extremely well.
I am sorry, but the testing and tracing regime has become a broken system that continues to misfire. We even have SAGE now warning that it is having a marginal impact on transmission, as the right hon. Gentleman said. To be frank, and I know Conservative Member will groan at this, if Serco has not come up with a solution by now, it never will. Scrap the contract, put public health and local NHS partnerships in control of testing, and invest in the widespread backward contact tracing we need. It is still only in its infancy, but it is absolutely vital to getting in control of the virus, and we need to expand it at a local level.
Does the hon. Member agree with me that one of the other reasons why SAGE said that test, trace and isolate is having a marginal impact is because the “isolate” part is not working, and that rather than slapping £10,000 fines on people for not self-isolating, what we actually need to do is provide incentives and support so that people isolate?
The hon. Lady is absolutely right. I agree entirely with her. I have been having these exchanges with the Secretary of State on almost a twice-weekly basis, and when I go over the remarks I have made at the Dispatch Box and remind myself of what he has said at the Dispatch Box in case I can catch him out, throw quotes back at him and all that kind of stuff, I have noticed that we were making this argument months and months ago. It is not good enough just to give one £500 payment; people need support to isolate. If they are poor and on a zero-hours contract, and they are forced to make a choice between not feeding their family or going to work, they will go to work. That has been one of the most significant failures in the test, trace and isolate regime, and the Government, I am afraid to say, still have not fixed it. We would argue again that they have to put testing and tracing in the hands of public health and local NHS partnerships, because unless we get testing sorted out, we will have a never-ending rollercoaster of restrictions, while deaths and damage continue.
When it comes to the overall set of restrictions announced yesterday, the fundamental question for us as an Opposition is not whether they go too far, but whether the overall package in fact goes far enough. A question was posed by the chief medical officer himself at the Downing Street press conference yesterday. He commented that the areas worst hit by covid will need extra measures on top of those announced on Monday if infection rates are to be significantly lowered. The question is: will the measures announced yesterday reverse the rising tide of hospital admissions and reverse the rising tide of critical care admissions? I obviously hope so; but I am sorry, I fear it will not. The rate of growth in the virus may at this stage be quicker in the northern regions, but the embers are burning brightly everywhere else as well, and I fear further action is going to be needed.
The Prime Minister says he follows the science. Yesterday the SAGE minutes that came out—after the press conference, frustratingly—warned of a very large epidemic with catastrophic consequences, and said that the burden of a large second wave would fall disproportionately on the frailest in society, and on those on lower incomes and from the black, Asian and minority ethnic community. That last point is exactly what is currently happening in our intensive care units across the country.
The same minutes reveal that the Government were advised to close all hospitality, move all university teaching online and put in place a national circuit break three weeks ago, with immediate action. The Government rejected that advice, presumably in favour of the measures that we are debating today. Of course, it is only advice to Government—Ministers are perfectly within their rights to choose what advice to take and not to take; to govern is indeed to choose—but the Prime Minister and the Secretary of State have come to the Dispatch Box week after week and told us that they are following the science. So at what precise moment did the Prime Minister stop following the science?
I am sorry to say that SAGE advised the Government to take action in March, but the Prime Minister was too slow. After the Prime Minister spoke yesterday, we saw that yet again he has been advised to take action and has so far refused. It is the same virus, the same delays, the same country and the same Government making the same mistakes again. Our constituents will ask, “Is history repeating itself?” If these tiers do not work, then what? Tier 4? Tier 5? What is the plan? Well, there isn’t one.
We had whack-a-mole—a fairground game—but there was never a strategy, just a soundbite from the circus ring showman. We have had exaggerated claims, complaints when challenged and a lack of transparency with the public, but further action and a clear plan are needed. Just at the time when hospital admissions are rising again, we have the Prime Minister hanging on to a rising balloon, and—to quote “Withnail and I”—not knowing whether to
“let go before it’s too late or hang on and keep getting higher”.
We have the highest deficit in Europe, the worst recession in Europe and are now not even pretending to follow the science. We will not divide the House against these restrictions, because we believe they are necessary as far as they go, but I fear that the Government now need to go further. The sooner that the Prime Minister is clear with the British public, the better.
I support these restrictions with a heavy heart. On balance, I will be supporting the Government this evening, but I want to make just a few quick points.
I would be very careful about subscribing to the Vallance/Whitty orthodoxy that informed these regulations, while not at all examining very carefully respectable bodies of medical opinion to the contrary. I would cite particularly the Heneghan/Sikora/Gupta line. It is important that the Secretary of State and his ministerial team address those things head-on and treat them with the respect that they deserve.
The Secretary of State has my utmost sympathy. When coming into office, he opened a box marked “public health” and found tools for doing all sorts of things, such as sorting out lifestyle problems—obesity, smoking, diet and all of that. I suspect that he found very few that were geared towards dealing with infectious diseases, particularly this infectious disease. He has done some good things to try to remedy that in a very short space of time. May I suggest to him, to sort out the shadow Secretary of State’s obsession with Serco, that he looks again at the Public Health Laboratory Service, which was in its second incarnation as the Health Protection Agency when it was abolished in 2012. He might find in such a thing the means to deal with infectious diseases of this sort in the future.
We need to be careful about groupthink, confirmation bias, a thin evidential basis and uncertainty masquerading as certainty. There is a huge margin of uncertainty with all this, and we all need to develop a level of humility in our attitudes towards dealing with this crisis. That is why I shall be supporting the Government this evening.
I cannot let the right hon. Gentleman get away with that. In 2016, Operation Cygnus was very clear about what needed to happen. It was a question not of if there was going to be a pandemic; it was when. The Government failed to introduce all the recommendations from that exercise. I will not let them get away with this.
The hon. Lady can do what she likes. The Secretary of State is dealing with the situation that he found at the time. Developing the National Institute for Health Protection in short order from the disaster that was Public Health England was, I think, a very good effort, but there is much more to be done, as I know he appreciates.
May I sound a cautionary note for the Secretary of State? We have gone to great measures to close down schools, and I appreciate the need for that. That was informed, of course, by the Imperial College model, which was a flu model, in essence, and was inadequate for this particular virus. He will know—I hope he does—of the work published in September by the University of Edinburgh group under Ackland, which suggests that that certainly did suppress admissions to ITU. It certainly protected the NHS, but probably over time, unless we get a vaccine, it will cause more deaths directly from covid, quite apart from the incidentals for other diseases, the loss of liberty and livelihood. The Secretary of State needs to understand that and that there is an alternative view. If we do not get a vaccine, I fear, paradoxically, that we will see more deaths, not fewer, as a result of some of the interventions that we have put in place. Of course, Ackland was unsighted on this latest set, but the logic would suggest that those measures too may, over time, if we get a third and fourth wave, cause more trouble than they solve. It is a respectable piece of work and the Secretary of State needs to take account of it.
In all this, we simply do not know and we are learning all the time. We have to accept, I think, the expertise of those advising Ministers and that we have experts for a reason, but there is an alternative view. Unless we get a vaccine—goodness me, I hope we do—I think we may find that the cure is worse than the disease in terms of lives lost directly to covid, incidental lives lost to other common diseases—stroke, heart attack and particularly cancer—loss of liberty, loss of livelihood and the compete trashing of our economy. That is what is at stake. I do not envy the Secretary of State in his work.
It does appear that anybody who questions or expresses doubts about the Government’s approach to coronavirus is accused of wanting to let the virus rip, which is patently untrue. I support a number of the rules that have been introduced. This is all about what the balance is, what is common sense, whether we are going too far the other way, the impact on civil liberties, and what will work and have a significant impact on trying to control the virus. That is where the debate is and why some of us are raising questions.
These statutory instruments come on top of as many as four previous announcements between
I have spoken to the chief executives of both my local hospitals. They tell me that they are under increasing pressure and that there is a spike in admissions above the normal expected, but I am also told that the majority who have been admitted are over 70. That is not different from the start of the pandemic, so it should have been no surprise to the Government.
The second part of the SIs sets out more restrictions on business. I am contacted every day by businesses who are in trouble and constituents who are worried about losing their jobs. Two thousand more people have become unemployed in Halton since March. Nobody understands the reasoning behind the 10 pm curfew for hospitality. I have been inundated by constituents about the closure of gyms. Many of my constituents tell me how much has been done to make them safer and about the impact it will have on their physical and mental health if they close. They want to see the evidence and reasoning for closing them.
We do not hear enough from the Government on the unintended consequences of restrictions on healthcare and the impact on diseases such as cancer and heart disease. Many of my constituents do not support the measures to put Halton into tier 3, and I share their scepticism and concern. I have not seen the evidence to give my support to them. We seem to be being used as a guinea pig.
We need to better protect our elderly and vulnerable. We need to better enforce the rules that are sensible and common sense. We need to sort out the test, trace and isolate system, which is not having the impact that it should. We need more competence from this Government and better data to be shared with the public and MPs. This Government have got many things wrong, and they continue to do so. I have no trust in this Government and the way they are working. We need to ensure that we have competent and proper reasoning behind these decisions.
I want to focus my remarks on whether there is currently any viable alternative to the lockdown measures that have been put in place in my constituency. In my view, there is not. The argument put forward by some is that we could somehow isolate or protect the vulnerable, to allow the rest of us to carry on with our lives as normal, but how realistic is that? We have to be clear about the number of people that we are talking about. This is not just about people in their 80s. Our current understanding is that approximately one in every 200 people in their 50s and 60s affected by coronavirus will die. For people in their 70s and above, that figure is more like one in 10. Taken together, those age groups add up to something like 25 million people. How viable is it to keep them safe?
In answering that question, we must not compare it with how successfully we have been able to do that so far, because if we abandon lockdown measures for everyone else, there will be one key difference. Right now, as we are all involved in the national effort to stop the spread of the virus, we all play a part in keeping the levels of the virus low. That means that when a grandparent meets up with their grandchildren, their grandchildren probably do not have the virus. It means that when a plumber turns up to fix a pensioner’s boiler, they probably do not have the virus. It means that when a carer arrives to help get an infirm person out of bed, they probably do not have the virus. Most importantly, it means that when an older person managing their chronic illnesses turns up to their next GP or hospital appointment, the receptionist, the nurses, the doctors and the people in the waiting room probably do not have the virus. That is because we are all playing our part in trying to stop the spread.
If we were to let the virus spread among the rest of the population, we can forget all of that. We would reach a point where, in every single one of those examples, the vulnerable person would stand a very real chance of catching the virus because it would be rampant. That is the reality of the strategy that some are proposing. We would effectively be telling 25 million people to play Russian roulette every time they step outside their door—they can hug their grandchildren, but they run a real risk of catching a deadly disease if they do that. They can go to work, but they run a very real risk of catching a deadly disease if they do that. Most importantly, if they go to their cancer screening, their radiotherapy or their chemotherapy, again, they run a very real risk of catching a deadly disease. That is no choice at all.
But we do have a choice, and that is to persevere. It is not easy, and I have no doubt that we are paying a terrible price in terms of the economy, our wellbeing and our health, but I simply cannot see how that price would be outweighed by the loss of life on the scale we would see and the restrictions we would have to put in place on 25 million people if we were to give up. I do not think we can justify abandoning the older members of our society to their fate—not when, if we buy them more time, I believe we will find other ways forward. Whether it is a vaccine or mass daily testing, science will provide us with the solutions. I could be wrong. We could lose that battle in the long run, but we have not lost it yet, and I do not think the British people are ready to surrender; I know I am not. We must push on with these measures.
The coronavirus situation on Merseyside is such that I accept that something serious needs to be done. Yesterday in Aintree University Hospital and the Royal Liverpool University Hospital, there were 279 coronavirus-positive patients—the highest number in any English hospital. There is substantial and widespread community transmission, with 600 cases per 100,000, and not only in student areas. There is a worryingly high incidence of spread to vulnerable groups, particularly people over 65 years old, and 31 are in critical care, so something definitely needs to be done.
However, I worry that the way in which the Government have handled the pandemic and its manifestations so far, and the impact that this has had on the situation in the north-west, is not helping. There is a widespread feeling that lockdown was lifted in Liverpool city region before cases had fallen far enough. The failings and increasingly poor performance of the nationally arranged test and trace system are making control of the virus much harder. People are waiting many days to get results. Many contacts of those testing positive are going untraced until it is too late for isolation to make a big difference.
The lack of discussion and candour until recently and even engagement with local leaders, Mayors and MPs means that there is a trust issue. That was worsened by yesterday’s briefing, at which the CMO suggested he was not confident that the tier 3 base measures would stop the epidemic growing, which the Prime Minister told the House they would. We then learned from the SAGE minutes, as my hon. Friend Jonathan Ashworth said, about widespread scientific advice not being followed three weeks ago. We need—I urge the Minister—more transparency and more openness from Government. We do not have enough of that. Let us have the information in real time and let us work on it together.
Most of all, we need proper financial support for the people on Merseyside affected by these serious restrictions. Tier 3 measures are going to devastate some of our lowest-paid workers. We cannot defeat the virus on the cheap and we should not do it on the basis of the living standards of the poorest. The assistance proposed so far is inadequate to the task.
According to the TUC, there are 41,000 people in the city region area who might benefit from the local furlough scheme, but there are many, many thousands more whose businesses will not be forced to close but who will not benefit by one penny from these proposals or from this support. It is not enough. More is going to have to be done to support local people in tier 3 areas and to prevent penury from following the pandemic.
The Government are desperately trying to find that balance point between protecting livelihoods and protecting lives, and I am grateful to them for all they are doing to try to bring that off, but the only way forward is to get maximum buy-in from the public. There is no perfect set of rules or laws that can be enforced. We do not have enough police and that would require a mighty explanation task, so the more they can do by means of persuasion, the better. Sharing with the public the dangers and showing them how hand washing, distancing and not mingling in enclosed spaces are going to work are the way forward. I am apprehensive about how much of this is enforceable.
Test and trace can work only if people who are traced are willing to co-operate. Quite a lot of people leave funny names, apparently, or they are not available when people are trying to contact them, or when they are told that they are a contact, they decide they are too busy to follow the procedures. They might genuinely be too busy and have real conflicts in their lives about looking after relatives, sorting out children, cooking meals at home or whatever it is, and it is very difficult suddenly to isolate if they do not have the property and the means to do all that, so we need to carry them with us. There needs to be a more energetic reliance on persuasion and less on formal rules.
My other worry about this strategy is that we need a plan B for the possibility that there is no early and successful vaccine. We all hope that the Secretary of State is right and we all hope that, by spring, there is a vaccine that works that can be produced at scale and that enough people want to take it so the problem goes away, but there might not be and this might fall down on one or more of those requirements. I urge the Government to think through what is plan B, because we do not want this continuous cycle where the virus pops up, we impose controls, the virus goes down a bit, we relax the controls and the virus pops up again.
That is deeply destructive to social life and community life. It is going to destroy many more businesses and many more livelihoods. Many more jobs are going to be lost. Businesses need some greater certainty that they will be able to trade, so I urge the Government to be more open with us about what is plan B for no vaccine and more open with everyone about how long these controls have to last and what their purposes are.
The 10 o’clock rule has become the iconic one that is opposed by some and supported by others. The problem with it is that people find easy ways round it. They comply with leaving the pub, but then congregate in each other’s homes and use off-licence booze. They might be breaking the rule of six, but feel that is a tolerable thing to do. The police cannot go to everybody’s home to find out whether they are breaking the rule of six, but they can enforce turning out the pubs. It might be worse for people to drink at home than to drink in the pub, so rules have their limitations. Let us get more buy-in by persuasion. That is our job as politicians.
I would like to make the following points based on my 20 years’ experience as a former public health consultant.
Unfortunately, I do not believe that the new tier system and measures that were introduced yesterday are sufficient to contain the virus. The localised approach will not work because of seeding. The virus travels where people come from. I came down on the train yesterday—I talked to Sir Graham Brady about this point—and there might have been people who were asymptomatic who unknowingly have spread the virus, unfortunately. There may also have been people who wanted to exercise their personal choice, who have the virus and knowingly exposed people to that risk. Unless the Government are prepared to set up roadblocks across the M1, M6, M62 and all other routes to and from the north, I am afraid that, just as happened in the first wave in Italy, the virus will spread.
To understand what we need to do now, we must understand how we got to this position. It is abundantly clear, as has already been said, that the national test and trace programme is not fit for purpose. In spite of clear WHO guidance, it was not fully operational in June when the first lockdown measures were eased, and as a consequence it has failed to cope with the predicted rise in infections ever since. On top of that there were, unfortunately, significant specific failures.
I support the calls of the CMO, SAGE and others for a short circuit break to help drive down infection rates, but that should be at the national level. Any circuit break period should be used to undertake the transfer of test and trace to local public health departments. That must be accompanied by full resource transfer. Currently, less than 10% of the money used by local authorities at a local level has been reimbursed by the Government. That is unjustifiable and unsustainable, and it must be resolved.
In addition, the circuit break should be used first to ensure that the NHS and social care are fully prepared. They must have adequate PPE. They must have flu vaccines. They must have regular testing regimes. We should identify vulnerable people for supportive shielding, and not via some algorithm. We need to define exactly how we are going to support people in a way that does not mean they will be detrimentally isolated. We must also make sure we have simple, coherent messaging with local community engagement, and I support what the Government are trying to do with the simplification. We must also make sure that we have monitoring and enforcement capacity.
All workers and businesses need to be fully supported during any circuit break. We are at war with the virus. The Treasury needs to recognise that and respond adequately. Finally, the Government must recognise that covid is a disease of poverty.
I take this opportunity to thank all those in my constituency who followed the rules when Leicestershire was being threatened with a lockdown. Through their dedication and their following of the rules, we have managed to avoid it for now.
During that threat of lockdown, one of the key messages I brought to this House was the importance of making sure that two key messages get through: where the affected area is and the measures that come into place. I am therefore pleased to hear today that we have a simplification and a tier-based system that will allow our constituents to understand the measures in place. With a postcode checker as well, it is even better. That was built, and I fed into the review led by Dame Mary Ney. She has produced a document on good practice for areas going into lockdown. I suggest that Members have a look at that document, because they can hold the Government to account by the very nature of what is written in it.
I was pleased to hear yesterday—it was repeated again today—that the Government acknowledge the difficulties of balancing health and the economy. It is a simple temptation to say, “Let’s just do it by generations and protect the shielded”, but the evidence shows that we cannot do that. Generational spread does happen, and that is when the threat comes to our elderly and our shielded.
What has happened this time is that we have a more nuanced response from the Government, and I welcome that. It is good medicine to change as things progress, but I want to focus on the future. I have some short-term suggestions for the Government, such as making sure we are clear with our signage about indicative dates, changes and accountability. We need to be clear about the principles behind the decisions we take, so that when someone asks, “Why can’t I sing?”, they can be told, “Well, singing transmits the virus four times further.” When those principles are clear, it becomes obvious how to interpret the guidelines.
We want certainty for sectors, whether that is the wedding industry, events, the aerospace industry or the travel industry. They need certainty on exactly what will happen for them with guided points. They welcome timetables and they understand if things move, but a clear direction at least is important.
I welcome the aim for a vaccine, but until we get there I agree that a plan B would be useful. We have talked about near patient testing, and I have raised those questions in this House. Could it be that, in the future, before we come to speak in the Chamber, we have 20-minute saliva test—it is bound to be negative—and then come in and carry on with our day-to-day life? Until we get there, I urge the Government to read the Health and Social Care Committee’s recommendations on dealing with non-covid sites. At the end of the day, experience teaches us to help those who cannot and to empower those who can. That should be the message that the Government take forward.
Madam Deputy Speaker,
“I am not confident, and nor is anybody confident, that the tier 3 proposals for the highest rates…would be enough to get on top of it.”
Those were the words last night of the chief medical officer, but sadly the Government knew this in September, when SAGE scientists advised the immediate introduction of a list of measures including a circuit breaker. In the following days, the Prime Minister went ahead with only the work-from-home U-turn and the 10 pm curfew. Now we know the truth. Last night, we saw that the SAGE minutes clearly stated that the curfew measure was likely to have a marginal impact, as it also seems the Government’s tiered approach will do.
Further, after the initial lockdown, any semblance of economic normality that would have kept the public safe was predicated on a comprehensive test, track and trace system, but with people still making vast round trips to get a test and risking their details being lost in an Excel spreadsheet never to be seen again, it is clear that we do not have a comprehensive testing system. And how can we forget Operation Moonshot? Salford was to be one of the pilot areas testing the Moonshot programme. However, my local council confirmed to me this morning that, some time ago now, it asked the Department of Health and Social Care to share the clinical validity data behind this new technology. To date, that query remains unanswered, and until this morning Salford City Council had been told to pause the programme. So can the Secretary confirm his current plans for the development of mass testing?
We all know what needs to be done. Any resumption of normal life depends on bringing the infection rate down, followed by robust test, trace and isolate systems, but for this to happen, we need clear direction from Government, and our businesses and workers need economic support to do what is required of them. So far, the Chancellor’s support still does not extend to the more than 3 million people who are excluded, and the watering down of economic support means that, even under tier 2, many businesses and workers across Greater Manchester will see a significant drop in income that they will not be able to sustain. So it seems we have a choice here: either we do not follow the science and instead impose the misery of prolonged tier 2 and tier 3 restrictions in many areas with little economic support, and cases and deaths will rise; or we follow the science and bring down transmission with a short national circuit breaker and a reform to test, track, trace and isolate. Frankly, the pandemic strategy so far has been akin to throwing a glass of water on a chip pan fire, and the Government need to change course today.
I have three quick points. First, I welcome my right hon. Friend’s announcements on the tier system and, in particular, the granularity that has been allowed. In my neighbouring borough of High Peak, we are seeing ward-based restrictions, and I pay tribute to my hon. Friend Robert Largan for his work on ensuring that that happens. I urge that there should be more granularity in what we do, led by local health professionals.
On the matter of hospitality, this is where I have to declare an interest. My family has run a pub for 53 years, from my grandfather to my father and now my brother, and they have never faced anything like this in all that time. I recognise why my right hon. Friend is doing what he is doing, and I agree with him that schools and workplaces have to be our priority, but we also have to think about the businesses that have spent thousands on making themselves covid-ready and now face a very uncertain future. Shift workers and those who work in hospitality are now completely excluded from any socialising with their friends, because the bars are simply not open at the time when they can go and enjoy themselves.
Also, people do not understand why there are differences around the country. Why is Wales allowing a drinking-up time? Why does Northern Ireland have an 11 o’clock closing time? I say to my right hon. Friend that I will support the Government’s measures today, but please can we look at having some more flexibility? I would be very happy to talk to him about some of the suggestions that my brothers have put to me during this debate, including on off-licence sales, drinking-up time and perhaps more flexibility on Friday and Saturday nights, which are the lifeblood of hospitality industries around the country, particularly in areas outside the big cities.
My final point is about this place, which is leading the way. We are sitting here in a socially distanced way. We are the most visible workplace in the country and we are abiding fully by the rules. However, if we have a Division this evening, we are putting ourselves at risk, and we are putting the staff of the House at risk. As the Clerk said in evidence to the Procedure Committee yesterday, if we do not have enough security staff able to come into this place, we cannot open. I want to see this place open. I want to see us scrutinising what the Government are doing and to be able to have these debates. We will be able to do that a lot better and a lot more safely if we vote in a safe way, and that means allowing the House to make a decision about whether we return to remote voting.
There is a huge principle to be debated here. At the heart of it is the false dichotomy posed again by the Secretary of State today between hospitality and the economy and jobs, as though hospitality were not part of the real economy and millions of jobs did not depend on it. Tell that to the workers and businesses owners in pubs and clubs, restaurants and cafes, hotels and wedding venues, theatres and cinemas, betting shops, bingo halls and casinos and gyms, all of which are facing really hard times and challenges. They are facing closures, ruin and job losses on a massive scale. At the same time, as we heard earlier, Treasury support is weakening and the Chancellor of the Exchequer is not only losing the cost of support but suffering a major loss of revenue.
Unfortunately, the approach seems to be driven less by deep analysis and more by the dreaded doctrine of “something must be done”. This is something; therefore we must do this irrespective of proportionality, outcome or impact. But this time it is even worse. It seems to be “something needs to be seen to be done” without any cost-benefit analysis or considering the impact on a beleaguered industry and a workforce facing mass redundancies. Accordingly, I and many other Members are unclear about the basis, either at a local or national level, of these proposals. The Chief Secretary talked earlier of anecdotes. I want a bit more than anecdotes.
Sir Richard Leese, the leader of Manchester City Council, rightly said on Radio 4 today that a far better way than closures and curfews is to give powers to local councils to take rapid action to shut down non-compliant venues. In my authority of Sandwell, which has an enviable contact rate of 85% led by the excellent public health director Dr McNally, we have had one case linked to a hospitality venue, and that was early on in the pandemic in a pub in Smethwick. The Express & Star, our evening newspaper, investigated and found that across the Black Country, which is home to 1.25 million people, there have been just 10 such incidences of covid, again all early in the pandemic.
In his opening speech, the Secretary of State did not give an indication of how long he thinks this can go on. It could last almost indefinitely unless we develop a vaccine, an event that, as the Prime Minister candidly admitted yesterday, is uncertain and would not be 100% effective. One of the tests of an exit strategy is considering how we contain the virus if we are not able to eliminate it, as we have had to do with major diseases throughout history and as many of parts of the world still have to do today.
It is a pleasure to follow John Spellar who closed on a critical point.
I thank my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for the good faith that is being shown today in fulfilling the promises given before about bringing these matters to the House. I hope that the same will be done in future if there are to be any measures to move areas between tiers in the three-tier system.
We all recognise that the Government have a difficult and unenviable balance to strike. We want to ensure the most effective response to the virus, while preserving vital treatment for other illnesses, such as cancer, and maintaining as far as possible normal family and social life as well as jobs and livelihoods.
In this context, I would argue that we need to work with the public, encouraging people to take sensible precautions for themselves. We all know the principal steps that need to be taken. We know that hand hygiene and distancing are key to protecting ourselves and others. We should encourage people to take that responsibility on themselves more and more. There should always be a presumption in doing so that we should protect as much of people’s freedom as possible. There are some simple steps that can mitigate some of the worst effects of these measures. Exempting young children from the rule of six is one that has been taken in other parts of the United Kingdom. Getting rid of the 10 pm curfew, or softening it, as others have suggested, is another. Introducing testing at airports to mitigate the hugely damaging quarantine arrangements is another, and I hope that we will see some movement on that in the next few weeks.
I make no bones about it: I would go further. As I said last week in the House, in my view, it is wrong to use public health legislation designed to control infected people to direct the lives of an entire population. But most immediately, I am concerned for my constituents in Greater Manchester, who have been in extra restrictions since late July. They were lifted for 12 hours, as my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State remembers very well, and I remember the tears that I heard cried by constituents when those restrictions were restored. In tier 2, we can at least meet friends and family outdoors, but after two and a half months of controls, we must be told how and when the restrictions will be lifted. This half-alive state that we have come to inhabit cannot be allowed to become permanent.
I begin, I am afraid, by declaring my registered interest in Glint Pay, for reasons which will become apparent.
The problem with today’s statutory instruments is that they implement a strategy to suppress the virus until a vaccine has been found. Indeed, my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State tweeted:
“Our strategy is to suppress the virus, supporting education, the economy and the NHS until a vaccine can keep us safe.”
That runs into three problems. The first is that a vaccine may not come. The second is that a vaccine may not be effective. The third is that all this is propped up on quantitative easing and ultra-cheap credit. Indeed, now we are reading in the newspapers about negative interest rates, and this is why I declared the interest. I think you have to have a peculiarly high level of economic education to believe that we can head towards £745 billion of QE and ultra-low or negative interest rates and that all this will not be a problem. I will not say any more about it. I think it will be a problem, and it is precarious indeed that the Government’s strategy is propped up on such a monetary policy.
Only yesterday, I asked my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister by when he expected to have vaccinated the vulnerable population. Of course he was good enough to reply that he could not give me a date and made reference to SARS, which took place 18 years ago and for which we still do not have a vaccine. I was grateful to him for his honesty.
Personally, I think that privately the Government are a little more optimistic about the AstraZeneca vaccine, which my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister mentioned, but here is the thing: even suppose the Government had vaccinated the public with a successful, safe vaccine by Easter or possibly the summer, that still leaves our economy and Government spending propped up on ultra-cheap credit. The problem with that is that the Bank of England has told us on the Treasury Committee that if inflation comes in it will have to, under its mandate, fight inflation. That would effectively mean pulling the plug on Government spending. This is precarious indeed.
I turn in the last few seconds to the Great Barrington declaration. No one can deny that it is well motivated. Indeed, it says:
“Keeping these measures”— lockdown policies around the world—
“in place until a vaccine is available will cause irreparable damage, with the underprivileged disproportionately harmed.”
I have been looking closely at the critiques of the declaration. Professor James Naismith of the University of Oxford wrote:
“Humility and willingness to consider alternatives are hallmarks of good science.”
For the reasons that I have given, I am convinced that the Government must find an alternative strategic plan between the Great Barrington declaration and where we are today.
I have heard one or two people say that the Government do not have a plan, but I do not agree with that. I think the Government have a good plan, which they set out in May. I read it at the time and thought it was very sound. My problem is that the Government often do not seem to remember that they have a plan and do not always follow through on some of the things in it, for example, the risks of a vaccine, which my hon. Friend Mr Baker reminded us about. The Prime Minister said in the foreword to the plan:
“It is clear that the only feasible long-term solution lies with a vaccine or drug-based treatment.”
But he was frank enough to say that
“while we hope for a breakthrough, hope is not a plan. A mass vaccine or treatment may be more than a year away.”
The best evidence, even now, is that that year, which would take us to next May or so, is about the best-case scenario for being able to vaccinate older members of the community if all goes well, so it is clear that we have to do other things.
The first phase of the Government’s plan was the lockdown, to drive down the virus to a very low level. The second phase was to introduce smarter controls, for example, covid-safe workplaces in hospitality venues, combined with an effective testing and tracing system. I said in my intervention on the Secretary of State, looking at the evidence at the moment, that the second most important piece of that, according to the Government’s plan, was the following:
“local authority public health services to bring a valuable local dimension to testing, contact tracing and support to people who need to self-isolate”.
I welcome the extra support given to the local public health teams in the high-risk areas that the Government have set out, but I would argue that it should go further and extend across the country. The importance of that is seen if we look at the data, which shows we are reaching only about 74% of those who test positive to get their contact information. We are reaching only 68.6% of those contacts in total, according to the latest data, which is the lowest percentage. That means that overall we are reaching only about half of the contacts of people who test positive.
Does the right hon. Gentleman agree that the data also shows that the tracing rates for local authority or regional public health teams are somewhere between 90% and 100%, whereas the central contact tracing percentage is only somewhere in the 60s? That is more evidence that we should be running this locally.
I do think there is some evidence to show that local teams are better. I work closely with my local director of public health in Gloucestershire—I am sure every Member of the House does with theirs—the fantastic Sarah Scott, who has recently been promoted to a wider brief, and her team. I would have real confidence that if she were given the resources, she and her team would do a fantastic job of tracing contacts quickly, getting to them, working with them to explain why isolating was important and perhaps being able to work with them to identify some of the barriers that, as my right hon. Friend John Redwood mentioned, might stop them isolating. If we were to do that and be much more effective, that would enable us not only to live with this virus, but to live meaningful lives where people could have more social contact; they could have more ability to have those important contacts—the Secretary of State acknowledged they were important. That was in the Government’s original plan and they should lean into it. The Government have a strategy and they need to go back to that original strategy to look at the areas that are not being executed as well as they could be. I said in my intervention that I give credit to the Test and Trace team for massively expanding testing, but the testing is not an end; it is a means to an end: to identify the virus, isolate areas where we need to put in further measures and encourage people to isolate. If we do that, we will be successful and the country will thank us for it.
If we are to have any hope of getting a grip on this virus, reopening our economy and restoring our freedoms, it all depends on fixing test, trace and isolate, and on giving control of that system to directors of public health. As I understand it, local directors of public health can make proposals on how to tackle the virus in their area only under tier 3. Can the Government confirm today that, if local authorities make proposals on how to use extra delegated powers and their local knowledge to keep the virus under control in their areas, they will work with them to enable this to happen, even when those areas are just in tiers 1 and 2?
We also need to see proper financial support for those businesses that are being asked to close, so that they can both survive and recover. This is no small threat. Almost 25% of hospitality businesses think they will fail in the next three months. We understand the need for public health measures, but they must come with a proper package of support. Many in hospitality are worried that the restrictions on households mixing in tiers 2 and 3, and on alcohol to be served only with a meal, might make businesses commercially unviable, and they will need to close even if they have not explicitly been told to do so. In those circumstances, will the Government make the extended job support scheme available to those companies? If local authorities decide to close all pubs in addition to tier 3 measures, do those who are forced to close have access to the Government’s central extended support scheme, and do suppliers to those businesses that have had to close, but are not technically forced to close themselves, have recourse to the extended job support scheme as well?
Then there is the curfew. We have seen crowds of people in close contact turfed out onto streets, onto public transport, into off-licences and into homes where they cannot be policed. The facts are well rehearsed. SAGE members were not consulted. The Government did no assessment of the cost to business. The Campaign for Real Ale and UKHospitality asked for the evidence, but got nothing. The curfew is now subject to a judicial review, because the Government have failed to provide any evidence. Yesterday evening, at a briefing for MPs, the Government’s medical advisers admitted that the curfew was a policy decision, not a scientific one. Overnight, SAGE’s minutes observed that the curfew would have a marginal impact.
On that point, I used to be a landlord many years ago, in the days when we kicked people out at 10 o’clock on a Sunday and 11 o’clock the rest of the week. Is the reality not that it is up to people to take responsibility for their own safety and that this is not just about a policy?
The idea that a Government can change a policy without having implications for public behaviour is absurd. That is why the behavioural science group exists to advise SAGE and has advised the Government on this point. What is worse is that we knew that the Government were advised to close everything down for two weeks and they did not, suggesting that the curfew was just a feeble attempt to look as though they were trying to do something. The Government are so desperate not to accept that they got it wrong, or to suffer a defeat, that even if the House votes down the curfew in the seventh vote tonight, it has already been incorporated into the package of measures in the first three votes, which will introduce the three tiers from tomorrow. The Government have provided no opportunity for Opposition MPs to amend them so that we can improve public health and outcomes for businesses. The Government had the opportunity to persuade the public and Opposition MPs with clear evidence, but they have squandered that, choosing instead coercion and control. It is outrageous that local government leaders, business leaders and Members of this House have had to fight tooth and nail for weeks to see the evidence behind Government measures that are threatening lives and livelihoods in our communities. It is an outrageous abuse of power and it must stop. There is a sickness of secrecy at the heart of this Government, and it can be cured only by some radical transparency.
I will say at the start that, as a Conservative, imposing state control over people’s lives makes me feel incredibly uncomfortable and puts me well outside my personal comfort zone.
Back in August, when the whole of Calderdale was put under local restrictions, we got additional support from the Government in several forms. One form of support was an additional tier on the national track and trace system. That has been a valuable tool to give the local authority real evidence of where the spikes are coming from. As a result of that, we traced around 90% of contacts.
As I said, I have a problem with state control over people’s lives, but—and there is a “but”—what we have seen locally during local restrictions is that, although the majority of people adhere to the law and guidance, which is worth repeating, sadly, a significant number do not. Unfortunately, the actions of a significant few are putting everybody else at risk, and the current spike is staggering. It is the result of a significant minority who are taking the liberty of living their daily lives as they choose, and they are putting everybody else at risk. These are some of the things that are happening locally, some of which are evident from our track and trace system: people not self-isolating when they are unwell; people not self-isolating when they return from holiday; and people not self-isolating when they have been in contact with someone else who has tested positive. It is not advised to mix households in pubs and restaurants; however, because that has been guidance only, our local pubs and restaurants have been full of mixed households seated together. That is not evidence from track and trace, but from the local MP, in the pub for most of the weekend. Finally, households are still mixing, despite it being law that they cannot.
There are many reasons why people have not adhered to the law or guidance, but the reality is that when a significant few ignore Government advice and take decisions about the pandemic into their own hands, they put the majority at huge risk. This is by no means a criticism of our local police and local authority, but they have taken the decision to have a light-touch approach to enforcement of local restrictions. I have supported that, but we are again at a cliff edge with the virus locally, and that light-touch approach, where people are not penalised for taking their own decisions, is being abused by a significant number of people.
I have lots of stats about what is happening locally, but basically we have had 800 positive cases in the last two weeks. We now have 43 people in hospital and six people in ICUs, and we have had 12 deaths since
A week ago, Nottingham showed for the first time a dramatic increase in our covid-19 infection rate. We needed immediate action from the Government, but instead all we got was confusion and delay. We were left in the dark for a week, with no action and no communication from the Government, and during that time the infection rate doubled to be the highest in the country. The saddest thing about that is that it was avoidable.
The Government have failed us time and again during this crisis. They failed to protect elderly people and vulnerable people, who died at an alarming rate in care homes and nursing homes. They failed to implement a test and trace system and they failed to listen to the OECD’s advice that the best way to protect the economy was to prevent a second wave, instead telling people one minute to go out to pubs, to eat out to help out, and then blaming them for doing so the next. The Government prioritised the interests of the economy over saving lives, yet failed to do both, and we are now faced with the worst recession in the developed world.
Last week, MPs, councillors and members of the public were left to find out in the press that we were due to go under a local lockdown, without any details of what that would look like for residents and for businesses. People in Nottingham have made enormous sacrifices during this pandemic, but frankly people are fed up. People want the Government to do their part. That means a serious economic package to protect jobs and businesses, and fixing the privatised Serco test and trace system. Are the Government so wedded to privatisation that even when it is utterly failing and public health is at risk they just plough on? We also need to extend the eviction ban so that no one loses their home during this time.
We know that lockdowns work only if people can afford to self-isolate, so why is it that, eight months into this virus, statutory sick pay is still £95 a week? The Secretary of State said that he could not live on that, so why are my constituents expected to? My final question to the Minister, in the last few seconds, is why have the Government not even followed their own scientific advice, which was to ban households mixing, close pubs and bring all university teaching online? How many people have to die before the Government get a grip of this virus?
I welcome the opportunity to make a short number of points to the Government about these statutory instruments. First, I welcome the fact that they have set out with clarity and granularity how the system will work, and that we have the chance to debate these measures today. As the Prime Minister said last night, the evidence behind some of the statutory instruments is, at best, imperfect, and I am particularly concerned about the evidence for the 10 o’clock curfew. That curfew may or may not be necessary, but in my constituency, many people are leaving the hospitality sector at 10 o’clock and going to local shops to buy alcohol. They are moving from a covid-secure environment, usually to a less covid-secure environment. If the Minister wants to make the case that SI 2020 No. 1029 is necessary, I suggest that he introduces a statutory instrument that allows for local restrictions on the purchase time for alcohol.
I welcome the fact that the restrictions are time limited in a number of cases, and I accept that the Joint Committee on Statutory Instruments will need to make quick decisions. Why is the proposed expiry date for a number of these statutory instruments not three months but six months? If there is any indication that we need to increase that period, will the House get to debate that? Will there be a 28-day review in the House of all the statutory instruments?
The Prime Minister was absolutely right last night when he said that we need to build consensus, and the Minister will not be surprised to hear that, as a south London MP, I am particularly concerned about a London-wide lockdown, which would impact 9 million people. All restrictions must be applied proportionately. Merton, which includes Wimbledon, has one of the lowest infection rates in London, but many boroughs in different parts of London are affected. At what level would a London restriction be applied, and will it be agreed by borough leaders and not just the Mayor? Will the Minister confirm that for London, like the rest of the country, restrictions will be on a borough-by-borough, ward-by-ward basis? It is difficult to see the rationale for a London-wide imposition of new restrictions.
I believe that the Government should have brought all these measures to Parliament from the beginning, and it should not have taken a revolt on the Tory Back Benches for us to debate these statutory instruments. Why? Because through debates in Parliament we can persuade the public that the Government are making the right decisions, and we can challenge the Government and make them explain why they are making certain decisions.
From the beginning of the pandemic there was widespread support for what the Government were doing, but since Dominic Cummings’ trip to Durham, where his rule breaking was met with impunity by the Prime Minister, we have seen an increase in confusion and the rules get more complex. We have also seen people’s good will turn into cynicism. The advice over the summer about eating out to help out, or people being told to go back to work, then to work from home and not go out or even go to the pub, caused confusion and ill will. That is making it much harder to persuade our constituents that this is what they should be doing, and that the Government have a plan. We need transparency and honesty, and to be able to trust what the Government are doing.
Yesterday, my local authority was put into tier 3. We know that the Government have decided to keep universities and workplaces open, against the advice of SAGE. That leaves them with only socialising to try to press down on the virus. All they can do is restrict socialising in private or public. Given that there were 41 deaths in the past week in the north-west, I understand the need to do it, but we cannot just have local lockdowns on the cheap. The current furlough-lite is just not a good enough system to ensure that hospitality and jobs are properly protected, and 67% of wages is just not enough. We are abandoning many hundreds of thousands of jobs and many fantastic businesses in hospitality and entertainment to go to the wall without support.
I want to support the Government, but the Government also need to share their thinking and be much more transparent and open about the scientific advice and what works. They also need to be far more generous, especially in tier 3 areas, with the support they are willing to put in to keep local economies, local jobs and local businesses alive, so that we can all fight to get this virus down.
I am very happy to speak in this debate. This pandemic is devastating to so many: those who have lost loved ones, those who live in fear of leaving the house, those serving in the NHS, frontline workers, those worried that their jobs are to be lost, those worried that they will not get medical treatment quickly enough or those who do not seek it for fear they may have to go to the hospital, parents of children who should be doing exams this year and are beyond stressed, teachers who know the need to educate children but are concerned for safety—I cannot think of any group of people in the whole United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland who are not affected by this in some way.
I think of a lady I know, who attends and looks after children and babies at the Ards Elim Church, and who has had devastating news. As we know, the hospitals and so on closed down to testing in Ards, particularly for those with cancer; the papers today referred to 3 million people waiting for appointments and assessments. This lady, unfortunately, has had devastating news of advanced cancer, so I am conscious that it is for that generation of hard-working, straight-talking, Queen-and-country-loving, God-honouring prayer women that I support the Prime Minister, the Minister and the Government in what they are trying to do and in their attempts to keep as many things running as possible.
I am conscious of those waiting for a CAT scan or MRI scan and of those with normal—if normal is the right word—health issues who are waiting for treatment. I also think of those with Alzheimer’s; the Alzheimer’s Society has sent me some figures showing that one in four of all coronavirus deaths between March and June were people with dementia. It also referred to the 92 million extra hours spent by family and friends, and the diagnosis rates in August 2020 that fell below the 66.7% target—it was nowhere near reached.
Perhaps when the Minister sums up the debate he can give me some succour in relation to cancer rates and Alzheimer’s. The Alzheimer’s Society has also said it would like to see nominated visitors to care homes classified as key workers, so that they can get help with PPE and infection control. Those may seem like difficult tasks, but the fact is that it is not enough just to keep people alive. The quality of that life must also be essential.
Turning very quickly to Northern Ireland, we have one of the highest rates in Europe in Strabane, but we also have some incredibly low rates of community transition in my own area of Strangford. That shows the difference there can be in a small region such as Northern Ireland, and it shows how we must be localised in how we respond to these things. I conclude by saying this: we must press on in education, press on with hospital appointments and press on with business. We must press on in a new way—the safest way possible for everyone in this great United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland, with space and respect for all—but we must still press on.
Almost 43,000 people have died through covid in the UK since the start of the pandemic. Those are not just numbers not grounded in reality; each number, each curve and each graph represents real people. Many have fallen ill and many have died due to the virus. They are our neighbours, our friends, our colleagues and our families. They died, in many cases, without seeing their children, saying goodbye for the last time in an ambulance. Our Prime Minister too was in hospital, while his partner was pregnant, and suffered a great deal because of the virus. Thankfully he pulled through and is fighting fit and doing his utmost to protect our people, but no one is immune to this virus.
The Government have the incredibly complex task of saving lives without compromising livelihoods. The economic measures put in place by the Chancellor to that extent have been among the most generous in Europe. These regulations are consistent with the Government’s strategy to defeat covid-19 and manage the demands on the NHS. I believe the Government are working hard to take that balanced approach, taking into account public health issues, broader health and wellbeing, and the economic and social considerations. Unfortunately, we have seen infection cases rising rapidly across the country, and the number of patients admitted into intensive care units in hospitals has increased. This is exactly the situation we must avoid. The Government’s job is to do what is best for the people, and to save lives while protecting the economy. One thing is for sure, however: no one wants to see the number of deaths and hospitalisations that we saw earlier this year.
My own area of Morley and Outwood, along with the rest of West Yorkshire, has been placed on high alert level at this stage. Such is the great variation of infections between the regions, there have been different rules in different parts of the country. This is the best way to keep our economy going without shutting down our entire nation. Today’s three-tier system ensures a collaborative approach between central Government and local communities. The Government are not simply introducing restrictions without the necessary support. I welcome the Chancellor’s further actions to protect jobs and to support businesses whose premises have been legally required to shut. The Government are taking the necessary responsibility to support the economy through this public health crisis.
As Conservatives, we suffer by instinct from the imposition of restrictions—I personally do—but we would not do it unless it was extremely necessary to safeguard lives. During lockdown, I had many conversations with care homes, businesses and constituents in Morley and Outwood. They all agreed that it was possible to keep the virus under control while keeping the economy going. I believe there is broad consensus in this House and in my constituency that the health of our fellow citizens is paramount. It is time for us, across the House, to pull together, across the country with local leaders, to put the health crisis first and avoid all party politics.
It is a pleasure to follow Andrea Jenkyns. She makes a valid point that this is a public health crisis.
Over a week ago, my constituency of Hartlepool was placed under lockdown. It is currently in tier 2 of the new measures. Yes, it was requested by the local authority that such action be taken, but not in the guise in which it formed itself in the current measures. Lockdown was imposed on Hartlepool via a Government press release. Yesterday morning at 9 am, there was a hastily arranged conference call, hosted by a Minister, with all north-east leaders, yet Hartlepool, together with other authorities in the Tees valley, was left off the phone call. On behalf of my council, I would like the Minister to answer why they were not included in a phone call on the new measures in the north-east of England. If that was a mistake, has it been rectified or when will it be rectified? Consultation with my local authority has so far been woeful.
Turning to the public health issues, now that the whole of the Tees valley is under tier 2 we can hopefully work together and set party politics aside for the public good. Collectively, our local authorities face important challenges and they deserve to have appropriate resources allocated to them. In my council, it is estimated that £4.5 million is needed to provide extra support during lockdown. We desperately need to see a strategy developed by the Government for ending lockdown. Test and trace needs to be devolved, so that local environmental health teams, who know the patch and have the knowledge, can provide a more effective service. We need much more to assist us to get through tier 2. It is a public health crisis. I urge the Government to improve their communications and to answer the question I put earlier.
If you are on the call list between No. 40 and No. 70 and you no longer want to participate in the debate, please make sure that the message comes through to the Chair.
I believe that the measures proposed by the Government are reasonable and proportionate to slow the spread of the virus while balancing this against civil liberties. In particular, I believe that the 10 pm closing time is appropriate as part of the package of measures designed to strike that balance, and that the data and evidence, as outlined by the Secretary of State, show that it is actually proving effective in curbing the spread of the virus. It is of course a compromise, but one that allows the hospitality industry to remain open for business while including restrictions to curb the virus in the areas of greatest risk. It is also important to remember that all these measures are kept under constant review and seek to respond to the latest data about which steps are most effective in curbing the spread of the virus. I am much encouraged by the Chancellor of the Exchequer’s recent announcements of increased financial support for sectors such as the hospitality industry that are most affected by the restrictions.
I speak in this debate as the MP for a Welsh constituency, Clwyd South, which borders England, and therefore the decisions taken in Wales are the responsibility of the Welsh Government. I strongly support the Westminster Government’s introduction of a new three-tier system that is much more targeted than the Welsh Government’s current local lockdown by county. Currently, 80% of Wales is under local lockdown. I very much hope that the Welsh Government will follow the Secretary of State’s more targeted approach, as outlined in this debate, particularly with regard to the district-by-district approach in areas such as High Peak. That is what we need in Wales. Having witnessed the blanket approach in Wales, which in my constituency does not distinguish between different areas of infection within counties, nor between different levels of infection, I strongly support the Secretary of State’s graduated and sustainable three-tier approach.
I fully support the Government’s measures before the House today, which are proportionate, balanced and represent a collective approach to ensuring that we do our very best to protect others in the fight against coronavirus.
My constituency has been under what are now known as tier 2 restrictions for 75 days. Yesterday evening, public health authorities and the local authority were told that we should now enter into talks to consider going into the highest tier. That quite shocked me, because it was not what I was told in the calls with the Secretary of State yesterday or in any other calls. It has also come as a surprise to people in Bradford.
Just as other Members have made cases for their constituencies, I will be no different in making the case for mine. Bradford West is a special case in that in 2017-18 child poverty was at 50.9% when we take into account children’s deprivation and housing costs. We have the seventh highest rates of unemployment in the country. Under the current support package, minimum wage workers on £8.72 will have to pay rent and live off £5.84 if the businesses they work for are forced to close. Those excluded from any financial support from the Government during the pandemic face another £20 cut in their universal credit claims as the Government drive on with their roll-back of vital support.
I ask the Minister directly: how does he expect people to survive in a constituency such as Bradford West, which has rising rates of child deprivation and is currently under additional restrictions, if their places of work were to close? Do not he and the Government see how the lack of adequate support alongside these restrictions will, rather than preventing a rise in child poverty, lead to an increase in child poverty in constituencies such as mine? If these measures are to be effective, the support needs to be adequate. I therefore ask him to speak to the Chancellor and consider additional funding support for constituencies such as mine. I know this Government may not have the political will to try to reduce child deprivation in constituencies such as mine, but I sincerely hope that they have the moral will to do so.
When history judges how we responded to this pandemic, social media has plenty of memes that give really good outlines of what the Government’s U-turns have been—from “whack-a-mole” to “world-beating” and all these “moonshot” theories. But actually the real test will be: how will our next generation make their way? Will their education be right? Will they be the next generation of poverty, even after 10 years of austerity and 10 years of this Government? What will life look like for my children and the children beyond? That will be the real test, so that is the responsibility the Government need to step up to today.
Lockdowns do work if the desire is merely to flatten the curve, flatten the sombrero, reduce the R number, and covid is the only thing in town. But of course it is not the only thing in town. That ignores the corollary effects on other health issues, wellbeing and, of course, the economy.
The benefit of what the Government are proposing today, with tiers 1, 2 and 3—medium, high and very high—has the benefit of clarity, which I think has been lacking thus far. But I do have concerns and I would like clarity from the Minister before the end of today’s debate as to how he proposes to move areas in the future, as necessary, between the different tiers. My reading of the SIs is that that can be done without recourse back to Parliament. Areas can be moved between 2 and 3 or vice versa with no negative or affirmative procedure in this House. The worry has to be that there is an ability to recreate a national lockdown in piecemeal fashion, so I certainly hope the Minister will be able to answer that.
I have the same concerns this week as I did last week—raised by many hon. and right hon. Members—about the rule of six, and I was a Teller last week against that SI. There seems to be very little rationale today and there was none last week. If six is the magic golden number, surely four has got to be better and, if not, why not 10? Let us discuss that. I was particularly taken by the speech—he is not in his place—of my right hon. Friend Mr Harper, who made the very reasonable point that a mother and a newborn, never detached from each other, under these counting units count as a two. That has to be patently absurd when, under any reasonable measure, they have to be counted as a one, and that absurdity would continue into any close living family unit.
My real concern is, of course, about the 10 pm curfew. Just considering this great city of London, the restaurants close, the pubs close, there is no takeaway available at 10 o’clock, and guess what? The first train out of London or the next tube at 10.10 is going to be rocker-chocker solid—mixing and mingling with people at close proximity. For great clarity of any Whips listening to this debate, I will be voting against the, albeit superseded, negative procedure SI on the 10 pm curfew, which is in motion 9. I remain very concerned about the SI in motion 3 on the Order Paper about the lower level tier 1 —medium. Again, the 10 pm curfew has crept into all of these SIs and I see no rationale for it to be relevant for the lower level—the safer level. So I remain to be convinced, but I am currently concerned and may vote against.
Increasingly, it feels like the north is being treated as an afterthought, with decisions taken by people in Whitehall who could not even point to Warrington on a map. We had absolutely none of the promised engagement over the weekend with our local authority and there was a concerted push to make us subject to the tier 3 restrictions of the Liverpool city region, despite not being a part of those conversations or, indeed, of the Liverpool city region. It has been insulting to be invited to a meeting for a totally different county by the Department for Health, and to be told what restrictions we would be subject to only minutes before the Prime Minister made his announcement, when the details had all been leaked to The Times days earlier, causing huge anxiety locally.
The real irony, however, is that many of our local businesses would be better off if we had gone into tier 3, as the financial support for tier 2 is totally inadequate. Between the 10 pm curfew and the introduction of the ban on households mixing indoors, hospitality venues in Warrington lost up to 90% of their business in a single week. No business could be expected to survive that indefinitely and the job support scheme does little to help, pushing families into poverty. Far from the Government’s stated aspiration of levelling up, we are being levelled down in the north-west by coronavirus and a Government who seem to think we should be grateful for the limited support we have had.
The worst part is hearing from constituents who have lost hope. The mental health impacts of all they have had to endure will be lasting and significant. As well as getting serious about financial support for our region to deal with the virus, we urgently need to see increased support to deal with the mental health crisis that we face. To give people hope, we need to have it explained what thresholds Warrington needs to meet to be moved out of tier 2 and into tier 1, with the rest of the country. With something to work towards, compliance will naturally increase, and it will give us back some of the control that we feel we have lost. We all want to do our bit, but the Government must do theirs. That means greater engagement, transparency and accountability and not a lockdown for the north on the cheap.
I am pleased to contribute to the debate. Many of us on the Back Benches fought for this opportunity to contribute, although I was hoping that we would have longer than three minutes. I do not doubt that Ministers are grappling with the most difficult trade-offs in managing the spread of the virus. In particular, I know that the Minister for Health bears a huge responsibility in trying to ensure the lowest possible number of covid fatalities.
I support the Government in their efforts to manage the virus and their three-tier system, but I have concerns similar to those of my hon. Friend Craig Mackinlay, and I want to raise three of them. First, the Prime Minister was brutally honest yesterday in telling my hon. Friend Mr Baker that a vaccine may or may not be available, depending on what science delivers. If that is the case, we need a long-term covid strategy that does not involve areas being put in and out of restrictive measure for many years to come, which will not only damage local economies but have a tragic impact on the diagnosis and treatment of other potentially fatal health conditions among my constituents in Wealden.
In particular, cancer comes to mind. The national health service has been called the national covid service by many of my constituents. I received an email from a local resident, Mike, who is trying to get a neurosurgery consultation appointment. He has been told that, for his condition, he has to wait 48 weeks, not the 26 weeks that it would have been in February. Amusingly—even though my residents in Wealden are struggling, they still have a sense of humour—he says that patients are asked to use their “fastest finger first” when ringing to try to get a same-day hospital appointment:
“Anyone without a swish redialling telephone and the persistence of Miss Marple has little chance of getting an appointment.”
That is the problem we face. Our efforts to protect the NHS and protect our constituents from getting covid are unfortunately leading to people being unable to manage their other health conditions.
Secondly, testing and tracing continues to be an issue in my care homes and schools, and I urge the Minister to do what he can to ensure that the turnaround time for tests is much swifter than it is at the moment. The final point I wish to raise is about hospitality. It is clear that there is no scientific basis for the 10 pm curfew. The SAGE scientists say:
“Curfews likely to have a marginal impact. Low confidence.”
We are repeatedly told that this virus spreads indoors. A story in today’s Telegraph says that spending on alcohol is £261 million more than it was in September. That is no doubt because people are spending money on booze to drink at home, where the virus spreads much more. We need to be clear about the unintended consequences of the decisions we take.
In March, we adhered to lockdown measures to protect one another’s lives and prevent the NHS from being overwhelmed. Evidence indicates that the virus is on the increase across the nation. The analysis of what that means, however, is contested, and I remain to be convinced that the imposition of further measures in Wakefield at this time is the right thing to do. The measures before the House, which seek to arrest the spread of covid-19, will cripple Wakefield’s economic recovery and sound the death knell for many businesses. There is no silver bullet, and without one, although it is difficult, we must learn to live with the virus. The continued peaks and troughs are unsustainable and offer false hope.
Last week I visited Ossett brewery, which employs close to 400 people in my constituency. Having spent tens of thousands of pounds on becoming a covid-secure business, the incomprehensible 10 pm curfew—at best grounded in questionable science—has left the business in jeopardy. This afternoon I received an email from the managing director, who said that the imposition of tier 2 measures would merit the brewery’s closure.
I have similar stories to tell from restaurateurs and businesses from across my constituency. My inbox is swamped with people asking me—imploring me—to help the Government to realise that their businesses will be damned. I have not received one letter or email asking me to commend the Government on their proposals.
Throughout the pandemic, the people of Wakefield behaved responsibly, adhering to the Government’s guidelines. When my constituency was marked as an area of concern, my constituents diligently followed social distancing advice and were rewarded. Wakefield now has a lower number of covid cases than neighbouring Kirklees and Calderdale—indeed, lower than the Chancellor’s constituency of Richmond, which has been categorised as tier 1. As a consequence of this new tier system, Wakefield will be unfairly characterised as tier 2, along with the rest of West Yorkshire. As Wakefield is placed in stricter measures—
Does the hon. Gentleman agree that we should thank local health officials, particularly the directors of public health such as in Bradford West, and that they have the real answers? That expertise is very local and this needs to be led locally, as opposed to nationally with “one size fits all” in cases such as his?
The hon. Lady raises an interesting point. Certainly, if we used a model such as Germany, that would be the case, but Germany has a strong federal system with the Länder while the United Kingdom is far more centralised, so I do not think there is a fair comparison. It would be best if all our citizens co-operated entirely with test, track and trace, downloaded the app and used it, and behaved responsibly. In the end, with the covid virus, the human variable is key to limiting and controlling the disease. We have to get individuals to understand their responsibility and their key use in sorting this problem out themselves.
As I was saying, under this new tier system, Wakefield will be placed under stricter measures while other areas in West Yorkshire with a far higher incidence, such as the hon. Lady’s, will enjoy eased measures. Wakefield’s infection rate merits the disaggregation of the Wakefield Metropolitan District Council area from West Yorkshire and its placement in tier 1. The Secretary of State has already said that this is possible in High Peak and parts of North Yorkshire, so, if he would commit to so doing for Wakefield, I would reconsider and vote with the Government. Without such assurances, I fear these measures would, for Wakefield, be death by a thousand cuts. I could not look my constituents in the eye if I had voted for measures that broke them.
Bristol, in tier 1, has fortunately been able to maintain low transmissions, and hence admissions to hospital and, so far, deaths. We want it to stay that way. My experience of working in the local health system is that this is in large part due to good relationships that have been hard developed over many years, particularly through local resilience forums. There are good relationships with Public Health England and directors of public health. Working together is sustaining some very good work locally, but there is no room for complacency. We recognise that the economy—wealth creation—is crucial to good local health, and we need support from the Government for both those things.
In the short time available, I want to highlight issues around isolating, shielding, and test and trace. As well as reducing social contact, which the Secretary of State talked a lot about, the key to transmission reduction is isolating, but isolation support is woeful and for communities with little money, which face higher unemployment, the situation is worsened. We have to be much more honest about the incentives and the way they work to support people who are isolating. It is hard and the knock-on effects on families are substantial and disruptive. Again, we need local public health people who know their communities to help support those who are isolating. We need much more support for people who are shielding. People do not understand why it is now different from how it was back in March.
Across the House, we all know that the test and trace system is not working. It is causing chaos for the frontline, particularly care home managers and school leaders. There is a balancing act to be done here. Again, we need local support to inform those school leaders and care home managers about how to interpret the guidance. That cannot just be done through the algorithm. It is a disgrace that the test and trace system is not led by a civil servant whom we can hold to account. I do not know how we can hold the Baroness—I do not know whether the courtesies of the House allow me to name her—to account for the system. That must be changed. It is crucial that we can hold people to account.
I accept that the legislation was rushed through in March, and perhaps there was a reason for not using the Civil Contingencies Act 2004 or the public health legislation we are debating today. The Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Committee has scrutinised this, produced our report and we now need to move to a better way forward. We cannot keep dragging the Government here week after week to do our job, which is to agree to disagree, to scrutinise and to hold to account, based on our experience, the work we do in Committees and our work locally. It would improve the legislation. It would improve local trust, and ultimately that supports the front line and saves lives.
The Government must be under no illusion: the country’s patience and goodwill are wearing thin. People were promised that the lockdown pain would be worth it as they experienced friends, colleagues and family members lose businesses and be made redundant, separation from loved ones, the cancellation of hospital appointments, and children missing out on education. They were promised a world-beating track and trace system. They were promised that the Prime Minister had taken personal control. They were told that it would be all over by Christmas. After 204 days, we are back to square one: the fourth worst in the world for Covid cases.
I spoke last week to a pub landlord, who did not mince his words and had reached the end of his tether. He had three pubs: now he has only two. He has seen his costs increase and income fall. He says he did everything the Government asked of him: he shut for 13 weeks; he moved tables; he turned off music; he turned off sports commentaries; he moved drinks outside; he opened doors and windows; he asked people to sit down; he stopped more than six being in a group; he split up families and support bubbles; he told people not to shout; he banned singing; he banned dancing; he banned live music; he started wearing masks; he completed track and trace; he got sanitary stations; he had additional cleaning; he had table service; and now he has been told he must shut at 10 pm, which means last orders at 9.15 pm, because having been a barmaid I know that people need drinking-up time before they can be cleared out. That therefore means that business is being lost from 9.15 pm.
He does not understand it. The science is telling him that it does not have significant reasons for following it, and what we need from Government are evidence and clarity. He has been let down. He needs support for businesses, and not just for those in tier 3 but those right across the country. We need a commitment that there will be adequate notice for any of these changes.
It is ludicrous that people in tier 3 can order alcohol only if they have a “substantial meal”. What is a substantial meal? If they order a salad they cannot have a glass of wine, but anything with a pastry lid means they can have a pint. This is nonsense. We are treating the public like fools.
We need to improve communication. The Government must not underestimate how angry people are. People are losing faith in the Government, and that is dangerous. Hull West and Hessle was already suffering because of a decade of austerity and of cuts—a decade of cuts that the Prime Minister seems to forget he voted for.
Our hospitality trade brings colour to our lives—those social moments that we enjoy; the times we are with friends and family and celebrate weddings, anniversaries and birthdays. Pubs help to bring the community together. This Government’s incompetence is killing them off, and they will not be forgiven.
I speak amid concerning news for our constituency: our borough, Redbridge, has the highest infection rate in London alongside Richmond upon Thames. Infection rates in the London borough of Redbridge have risen to more than 100 per 100,000, and in some of my Ilford South wards it is significantly higher.
I welcome the Government’s latest three-tier guidelines, but I feel that they need to go significantly further. Hundreds of my constituents have written over the past few days expressing concern that we have such a high rate. I have visited shops and businesses, speaking to people face to face in the appropriate socially distanced way. They are extremely concerned about the direction of travel.
The London director of Public Health England, Professor Fenton, has warned that coronavirus cases in London continue to rise, and we are seeing undeniable evidence of that trend. In fact, infection rates are rising across the country despite the partial and tight lockdown measures in many parts of the country. It is clear that the Government must now act more decisively than they have so far to stop any further escalation of infection rates in London. We must learn the lessons of other regions across the country that have had partial lockdowns and are still seeing rising infection rates. I am speaking to councillors in Oldham, which has witnessed soaring infection rates—above 205 to 327 per 100,000 in the space of just a week—despite being under tight lockdown measures since the end of August. The partial lockdown measures in regions such as Greater Manchester have clearly failed to curb infection rates, with Manchester’s infection rate rising by more than 100 to 543 per 100,000 just last week.
The current overall London lockdown infection rate remains at 100 per 100,000. That is why I believe it is now time for the Government to act urgently across London by implementing a circuit-breaker lockdown for at least two weeks to prevent London from suffering the fate of other major cities across the country and to halt the trend of rising infection rates across the city. I recognise that this needs to be hand in hand with further economic measures, because it is a more radical measure, but it must be done. I will not be able to look my constituents in Ilford South in the eye when their friends and family are dying because of the utter chaos and ineptitude of this Government.
That initial financial support must urgently be provided to the workers and businesses in Ilford South and across London. The cost would be far smaller than that which would be required if the infection and death rates soared, and London was forced into a far longer and more serious lockdown over a protracted period of many months. Similar calls have been echoed by the Mayor of London, who just today stated the need for tighter restrictions across the city. In my constituency, all the data shows that it is our black and majority Asian communities that are suffering so badly as a result of the virus. We cannot afford for them to continue to be on the frontline.
I implore the Government, who have the lives of my constituents in their hands, to act now and bring in a circuit-breaker lockdown across London immediately.
Just yesterday the Prime Minister and the Government unleashed a new package of restrictions and tiers in order to tackle the transmission of the coronavirus. Yesterday afternoon, in a meeting with west midlands MPs, the Secretary of State for Health and Social Care told the MPs present that all bar two areas—Dudley and Coventry—will be placed on tier 2 restrictions. When I asked him whether he could let me know the scientific basis for Coventry and Dudley being on tier 1 restrictions, and what could trigger a move to tier 2, my question was ignored and unanswered. When I asked how soon after a governmental decision has been made to move a constituency from one tier to another Members and community leaders would be alerted, I received no answer.
This is utterly unacceptable. My constituents in Coventry North West deserve better. They are doing everything they can to hold up their end of the bargain to ensure that transmission is low and stays that way. They deserve more clarity on the evidence behind the Government’s decisions. Clarity ensures adherence. Without it we are flailing in the wind, and people are suffering. Right now, the Government risk losing confidence in their ability to see us through this crisis. They have wasted months of precious time and millions of pounds of taxpayers’ money, and are still not getting it right. Will the Minister let us know just how much notice each local area will be given if a change in its restriction level occurs, and how local communities and local leaders will be told of these decisions?
To borrow a phrase that we are all too familiar with, winter is coming. It is imperative for the Government to be better prepared to tackle the virus, and equip our hospitals and care sectors with the resources they need to handle the second wave. I fear that the Government have not learnt lessons from spring, and that our care sector will be under-protected. I fear that our hospitals will be ill prepared to cope, and that non-covid patients will once again be relegated to the back burner, because the right precautions and planning are not in place to deal with what may come.
Will the Minister let the House know what the Government are doing to prepare for the pressures on our NHS that winter will bring, in particular for cancer patients? What plans will be in place clearly to address sprawling waiting lists for cancer services, and what additional support have the Government given to the many thousands of people who have had their cancer treatment disrupted over the course of the pandemic? These are pertinent question that we have asked the Government time and again, but yet again they are providing us with little clarity and no answer—on the back foot, as usual.
This is an opportunity for the Government to do better, and, in the interests of the country, I really hope they do.
It is a pleasure to follow Taiwo Owatemi, and I share very much her frustration at the impossibility of getting clear answers from the Government on so many of these important questions.
“Necessity is the plea for every infringement of human freedom. It is the argument of tyrants;
it is the creed of slaves”— those words from William Pitt were included in an email from one of my constituents complaining about the way in which this Government are treating the constituents in Christchurch and so many other people in this country. What is the necessity for what the Government are bringing forward today? I asked on
“hundreds of thousands of deaths…would follow”—[Official Report,
I do not trust them at all. I shall refer to the evidence from Sweden, because the Prime Minister’s challenge to his critics was to put forward an alternative. The Swedish approach is clear and simple—it is to trust the people and make them responsible for their own health and welfare. I looked at the figures for Sweden for the first week of October. Only seven deaths were recorded in Sweden in the whole of that period and today, not a single death was recorded in Sweden. The Swedish Public Health Agency recommends that household isolation and quarantine should exclude those who have provisionally tested positive for covid-19 or have been confirmed to have antibodies in the last six months. I tabled a question asking why that category of people cannot be exempt from these regulations. Again, I have not had an answer, although the time when it should have been answered has long passed. This is intolerable—the arrogance with which the Government are treating us as elected Members of this place.
Swedish common sense is to the fore. They have restricted gatherings not to six, but to 50. They allow nursing homes to decide their own visiting policies. They regard the rules about face coverings as simplistic and irrelevant. Again, on face coverings, I tabled a parliamentary question on
“whether the introduction of regulations requiring the use of face coverings was linked to an increase in infection rates of covid-19”.
It will not have escaped your notice, Mr Deputy Speaker, that since those regulations were brought in, there has been an exponential increase in the infection rate in this country. Have I had an answer to that question? Of course not, which suggests that the Government do not even want to face up to the evidence that face coverings are counterproductive and are leading to a false sense of security.
In Sweden, two thirds of all deaths from covid-19 have been in the over-80 age group. That is similar to the situation here, and all the United Kingdom restrictions have so far given the average member of this country—the UK citizen—an extra half-day of life. These new restrictions that are coming in will not even give that, because the collateral damage that is being caused will actually reduce life expectancy further.
Clearly, if we are going to live with this virus, which we obviously will at least until—if ever—a vaccine is found, we need to influence individuals to behave in a way that not only keeps them safe, but makes them discharge their responsibility to keep safe other people in society and in their families. There are many tools that Governments can use to do this. They include rules, regulations and restrictions on activity. They also include messaging. We must give positive incentives to do these things, as well as negative consequences if the rules are not followed. However, I have to say to the Government that more rules will just mean that the compliant, who are not engaging in risky behaviour, will continue to comply, but that those who are reckless will find ways round the rules.
There is no better example of that than the curfew. We know that there is no scientific basis for doing it to protect people’s wellbeing. We have penalised restaurants, which now have to close at 10 pm and cannot do two sittings in an evening, although they have made massive investments to make their premises covid-secure. We are punishing the compliant. Meanwhile, publicans in the high street can comply with the rules and close at 10, but they are offering take-outs at 9.45 to the massive crowds of people spilling out of the pubs. That is reckless behaviour, and I really think the Government need to take stock. It is clear that this is not a good measure to influence behaviour in any positive way. There are much better ways of doing it. Considering the powers that the Government have already taken, I think we should look at more enforcement of fewer rules and regulations, rather than creating new ones when there are issues.
In the time I have left, I want to pay tribute to my community and to the local authority officials and health officials in Thurrock for the fantastic effort they have made in tackling this virus. We are currently 134th out of 149 local authorities in terms of cases. We have a local contact tracing capability that has kept rates down, and we have had no deaths since July, so it has come as some surprise that Public Health England has been lobbying my local authority to move from tier 1 to tier 2. That makes an absolute nonsense of this tiering policy, because we should be asking for additional restrictions only where there will be a material benefit to public health. My director of public health advises me that further restrictions will actually jeopardise public health, and that there will be no benefits from them. We must not be complacent, given the current rise in cases, but please will the Minister resist any attempt to put Thurrock into tier 2?
With time short, I want to highlight just a few issues relating to the measures being debated today. I have always said that I will support any measures required that will successfully contain and minimise the devastating impact of this virus, but I hope it has become clear to the Government, after a weekend of discontent, that this country will not accept measures determined by stealth and communicated through press leaks in the night. Those affected by these measures are owed much greater respect than that. The leaks last Thursday evening caused widespread anxiety across Newcastle. People are fearing for their jobs, businesses are cancelling orders and preparing to batten down, suppliers are finding themselves left with goods that are no longer wanted and families are fearing that this might be their last chance to meet. This is no way to treat people who have already suffered so much as a result of the virus.
Everyone accepts that sacrifice is needed. The resolve that people have needed to make those sacrifices to protect the most vulnerable and support the NHS has been unwavering, but they must have confidence that their sacrifices are worth the pain and will actually bring the right results. That is why the Government’s approach has been so damaging. We cannot afford to lose the confidence of those we rely on to make this work. The Government need to be open, honest and transparent, and respectful to those who need to live with these restrictions. We saw a much better approach yesterday, and I hope the Government have learned and will not put people through that anxiety again.
I want to put on record my concern about whether these restrictions are necessary at all. There is a sense of inevitability about this, but the fact is that the UK is far from world-leading when it comes to handling this virus, despite its regular over-inflated claims. We need a functioning test, track and trace system, and we need support for those who are isolating. Also, we are not on top of asymptomatic transmission, and that is a major problem. It was needed last time and it is still needed now.
I have one more specific issue to raise. With no financial support being provided to hospitality businesses in tier 2, we have to know that these measures will work. By allowing restaurants to remain open in the tier 3 areas, despite closing the bars, the Government seem to have acknowledged that restaurants carry a lower level of risk. The effects of alcohol consumption on social distancing are well documented, but the situation where alcohol is served alongside a meal is clearly different. We are not talking nuts and crisps, but a meal, yet the blanket 10 pm curfew for all hospitality in tiers 1 and 2 does not account for the different transmission risk. It does not look after restaurants which, as Jackie Doyle-Price pointed out, can offer two sittings. There is no time for dessert or coffee. That sounds trivial, but it can be make or break for a restaurant business. The Government need to look again at lumping all hospitality businesses into the same restrictions. It does not work.
Mr Deputy Speaker, you may well think that over 37 years, you have heard enough from me, so let me read out a letter that happened to arrive this morning from a constituent. It says:
“I am 67 years old and for the first time in a long time I am scared. Not of the virus, which, let’s be honest, is proving to be no more deadly than the flu”— that is his opinion; I do not necessarily share it.
“I am scared of the damage being deliberately caused to the economy and our freedoms by this Government in the name of covid-19. It isn’t the virus closing businesses and causing job losses, it’s the actions of the Government. It isn’t the virus stopping people getting treatment and operations, it’s the actions of the Government. It isn’t the virus preventing pupils and students getting the education they are entitled to, it’s the actions of the Government.”
So speaks my constituent in a letter that arrived this morning.
Another letter arrived this morning from a constituent telling me that they were having doorstep services very successfully over recent months attended by six to 16 people in place of going to church if that was not possible. That, of course, now breaks the rule of six, so they have had to stop.
I follow my hon. Friend Sir Christopher Chope in posing some serious questions to Government that have to be answered. On positive test results—I ask the Government to write back to me if they cannot answer in the winding-up speech—what percentage do they estimate are false positives? Of covid hospitalisations, what is the breakdown between those in hospital who happen to have tested positive and those who are in hospital because of their covid symptoms? Given the disparity between the number of cases and the number of deaths, are we not wrong to react to the rate of infection, rather than hospitalisations and deaths? There are many, many other questions that need answering.
Following my hon. Friend, what is the evidence that we are saving lives by throwing people out of pubs at 10 o’clock into the street? They can go and buy lager in the shops. They can go back to their student digs.
Does my right hon. Friend agree that one way of bringing the Government to account would be to withhold our support until these important questions are answered?
My hon. Friend makes his point. We are a Parliament and we are entitled to express our opinion and hold the Government to account, and that is what we are trying to do this afternoon.
The trouble with the Health Secretary’s arguments is that he is always raising up Aunt Sallies and pretending that some of us want to let this thing rip. We are simply trying to ask questions of the Government and hold them to account. No Member of Parliament wants to let this thing rip, but what we do say is that the real danger of the disease is to people over 80. The average age of death is 82, and the vast number of them are over 80. It is up to the older population and those who care for them to take self-responsibility—masked by all means, taking great care and shielding even in places of multiple occupation. We have to shield elderly people—they are the people at risk—but we have to get the country back to work. We simply cannot go on bailing out businesses. We are going bankrupt, as I said to the Chief Secretary to the Treasury earlier this afternoon.
With the economy, we are hoping to pull ourselves up by the hair. We cannot do it. We have to allow people to work, and therefore the whole approach needs to change. We need to emphasise the need to shield the elderly population and those who care for them and we need people to take back control of their own lives. I repeat—I will say it again and again—that if we go on cancelling cancer operations and heart operations, if we drive people into mental health difficulties and if we close down businesses, we are paying a terrible price, and there has to be a balance.
It is a pleasure to follow the right hon. Gentleman. I do not always agree with him, but he does always make me think. I hope to be able, on behalf of my constituents, to articulate their anxiety, their confusion and their frustration with today having been placed, along with the rest of the Liverpool city region, under tier 3 restrictions. The imposition of such stringent measures has come as a surprise to us. I want to make it clear that this decision, including the specificity on the businesses that are closing and the restrictions on movement and on people, has been made by the Government. There was an ad hoc process of discussion with local leaders, but there was no proper mechanism for consulting them about these measures which will have such a huge impact on the 1.6 million people across our city region. So for the Government to say that this was agreed is like me saying to you, Mr Deputy Speaker, that we have agreed that I will have only three minutes to speak in this debate.
That is important because it speaks to the heart of the lack of trust and public confidence in the Government, and I say that with a heavy heart. Businesses have played their part in my community: pubs, gyms, leisure centres, betting shops and casinos have all expended huge amounts of money and resources in getting themselves ready to reopen, only to have been let down by systemic failures on the part of the Government on test, trace and isolate. I am not opposed to restrictions where they are required and necessary, and let me say clearly that I am worried about the rising rate of infection in Merseyside and in St Helens, and about the increased incidence of hospitalisations, but if these restrictions are to be imposed, we need to see evidence for them and a measure of financial support. It speaks volumes that not only have the Government failed to provide that in a bespoke way for St Helens and Merseyside, but they have stopped local leaders using the £40 million unallocated from the first round of business support to help businesses that are now having to shut their doors, and they have asked for that money back. That is shameful and it is not a way for the Government to bring the public along with them.
This is fundamentally about the people who live in my constituency. We are a resilient people in St Helens and we have been through a lot, but resilience is not enough to get us through this. We need help from the Government. Our businesses need the resources to survive, and our NHS needs the tools and staff to get through a difficult number of months. I fail to see how imposing a tier 3 lockdown on one part of the country with diverse rates contained within its entity will do very much to mitigate this—the SAGE report said the same yesterday. It is time that everybody shared in the pain in a short break—a national lockdown for two weeks—to get this under control and for the Government to develop an exit strategy to get the whole country out of this mess.
I will start by disagreeing with Conor McGinn, because another lockdown would be the wrong thing to do. I rise to speak to statutory instruments 1103, 1104 and 1105, on the tiered approach, and to SI 1029, although I believe it has now been superseded by the tiered approach. Although I rise to speak about those items, I do not support them. I am a friend of the Government, and sometimes the best thing a friend can do is be a critical friend. I hope that the Government will take my comments in that light, seeing them as critical but constructive.
Although I welcome the premise of a three-tiered approach, in simplifying what was a patchwork of restrictions across the country, I am unfortunately unable to support it in its current format. While the 10 pm curfew is involved, I see this doing nothing but harm to a sector that has done everything asked of it by the Government. Obviously, we have limited the number of clients these businesses can have and now we have limited the number of hours they can open for, which is causing them real harm, not only in my constituency but across the north and the country. SAGE has said that the curfew was likely to have only a marginal impact and looking at the data we see that that is evidently the case, with a small percentage of transmission taking place in this environment. As such, I urge Ministers to follow the science in this regard and remove the curfew as early as possible.
Although I appreciate what the Government are trying to achieve with the tiered system, it falls far short. We are very much doomed to going down the “Hotel California” approach whereby we are having restrictions imposed on us that we may never leave. Thresholds whereby we can go up or down a tier have not been made clear. My constituency is at the peak of tier 2 and so is at risk of being in tier 3 soon, but we have no idea where the threshold is to go into tier 3 or what we would need to meet to come back out of it should we go into it. Further support needs to go to tier 2—not only to businesses that are struggling already but in order to prevent a need to go into tier 3, which should ultimately be a last resort. Hopefully with earlier intervention we can mitigate the need for any further places to go into tier 3.
There needs to be far more support for those sectors that, under Government edict, are being closed, whether that be the events industry or the wedding industry, which are having severely limited numbers imposed upon them. It is the Government who are saying that they cannot operate; therefore, the Government should step forward and support them. I think the Government are going down the right avenue; I just do not think that they have got it quite right. That would be my constructive comment to the Government. I give them a C for the marking, but a “must try harder”.
It is hard to follow such optimism. I would begin by saying that the Government have lost control of the coronavirus, but that would not be entirely accurate, because at every step of this crisis, from a nonsensical herd immunity strategy to the initial lockdown delay, equipment shortages, care home neglect, contradictory messaging, a privatised testing crisis and much more, the Government have failed to adequately protect our communities.
My constituency of Leicester East has been in lockdown, or under significant restrictive measures, whether we call it tier 3, as it was then, or tier 2, as it is now, for over 100 days—to be precise, 106—at great cost to livelihoods, our businesses, our collective wellbeing and our mental and physical health. The Government are failing on lives and livelihoods. I therefore do not believe that they have ever had this virus under control, and I fear that the measures introduced this week will not be enough.
This catastrophe was not inevitable. Across the world, countries from New Zealand to China are returning to normality. I hope that you will forgive me, Mr Deputy Speaker, for saying that no city has borne a greater brunt of the Government’s failed approach than Leicester. Sadly, the Government have wasted the sacrifices of the British people, as we are now in a similar position to where we were in March. They spent £12 billion on a failed test and trace programme, which prioritises the enrichment of private corporations over the protection of our communities.
Rather than trust local health experts and the public sector, the Government have outsourced responsibility to corporate giants, which have consistently failed, with unacceptable contract rates as low as 50% or lower. My home city of Leicester is a prime example of the contrasting success of an underfunded local public health-led trace system. The success rate for our contact system is over 85%. The wasteful experiment of the private sector in our test and trace system must end.
It should be simple: if someone is contacted by NHS Test and Trace they must be provided with the material means to isolate. It does not matter what rules are set if no one in government is taking these matters seriously and if they are interpreting the rules to suit their own interests. The Government are not even following the advice of their own scientists, who make it clear what needs to be done to put the health of the nation first and protect lives.
I am very pleased to be able to contribute to this debate. When I put in to speak at the end of last week, it was on the basis that we would be discussing the nationwide 10 o’clock curfew, but of course events have intervened and we now find ourselves in a situation of a tiered approach towards lockdown. Many of us on the Conservative Benches will know that if, as I expect, no votes are held on the tiered approach, by the time we get to the actual vote on the 10 pm nationwide curfew it will be somewhat futile. Even if that, to great surprise, did not pass, it would not have any effect because those in the medium level would still have that 10 pm curfew. None the less, I want to touch on it.
I want to pick up some of the themes in the regulations, and the concerns that many Conservative Members have. Sometimes I have heard it suggested that Members who raise concerns wish to let the virus rip. On the contrary, we have great concerns that, if we are not careful, we will rip out the heart of our economy and see jobs lost, livelihoods destroyed, and the impact on health that all that can bring. We have already seen hospital treatment times ripped up so that those who have something seriously wrong with them that could have been treated will now have a terminal illness. Households and friendships have had their social cohesion ripped out by the fact that they are isolated and cannot share their precious time. For some people at the end of their life, this is the only time that they have remaining to see their family and loved ones.
I want the Government to consider that those of who speak on this side of the argument do so because we are concerned that we will lose more than the benefits that the covid protections they want to introduce could bring. I want the Government to take this side of the argument with us; I want to see more evidence that the restrictions will work; that a vaccine is in sight; that we are having temporary additional lockdowns because there is a vaccine in place. If there is not, we must be honest. We cannot shut down this country and all the people within it for years to come because it would not be sustainable or accepted.
My message to the Government is, “Please take us with you. In the event that there is no long-term solution, we will have to live with this virus as we live with the other menu of risks that we face daily.”
It is a pleasure to follow Huw Merriman.
We hear from Minister after Minister the mantra that we should follow the science or the medical advice to tackle the spread of covid-19. It seems common sense, really. We now have the highest excess death rate in Europe, and the worst recession in the G7. That is not an act of God; it is because of serial incompetence by the Government. I do not want the Government to be in that place. Opposition Members sincerely do not want the Government to be in that place. We all have loved ones and constituents with families and caring responsibilities, and this is a matter of life and death.
Yet it was revealed today in the media that SAGE gave advice about a reset—a short period of time; it could have been over the school holidays—and that advice was not followed. Now we have more of the same—the whack-a-mole strategy that the Prime Minister referred to. The only problem is, certainly in parts of my constituency, that the mole hills are appearing rapidly by the day. One part of the constituency—Halton—is now in tier 3. We can have arguments about that, when we compare Halton with other places across the region. The other part of my constituency is in tier 2, just to complicate matters slightly when we communicate messages to residents.
Just an hour or an hour and a half ago, we saw the national figure for deaths—145 people have lost their life today. It is very serious in my constituency when we look at hospital admissions and people in ICU. It is a big issue and a big problem, which requires an approach based on evidence. That evidence states clearly and it has consistently been argued for six months, certainly by local leaders, that local authorities should be resourced up and down the land. The Government should link public health professionals with a national system to create an effective test, track and isolate system. That is the major problem here. The hon. Member for Bexhill and Battle is right that we need a vaccine and we are probably going to have to live with this virus for some time. We need effective systems in place.
Follow the evidence. Look at hospitality, look at the pub trade, look at restaurants. We have all seen the evidence presented by the Government—
I must start with some moments of sadness, which is that, although we have heard much praise of the vaccines in development, the reality is that we do not know whether one is coming. If it does come, how effective will it be? If it is effective, which groups will it benefit? Even if it is effective in wide groups, how easily will it be made and distributed? We have so many variables and so many unknowns here.
I appreciate enormously the position that the Minister and the Government find themselves in, but it is because of this uncertainty that we need to look really hard at the decisions we are making tonight. These decisions are not just about the spread of coronavirus, or indeed its prevention, but about the health, the mental health and the wellbeing of our entire community. Fundamentally, they are not just about health today, but about health tomorrow. The impact on the economy is not simply something for the Treasury to be interested in; it is of fundamental interest to the Department of Health and Social Care and to the welfare of every person in this country. That is why I ask the Government to think very hard as they make these decisions.
The purpose of government is quite simple: it is to provide a stable platform on which people can build free and independent lives—not controlled lives, not ordered lives, but lives that are free and independent. Today, we are taking decisions that are interrupting that and making that harder. I see the position that the Government find themselves in, but I ask them to think very hard about the powers that they are asking to take.
At the moment, we are not getting the predictability and the consistency that we need. When we talk to ambassadors or high commissioners of the United Kingdom around the world, there are some countries that have easy access to the UK without quarantine and others that do not. The rules that govern which do and which do not are not immediately consistent. It is not immediately obvious which will benefit and which will not. When we look at the different areas in the United Kingdom, we see the same problem. This level of consistency, of predictability, that is so essential for a free people to know and to invest in—
All we want from the Government is consistency. They spent all summer telling us to go into pubs and restaurants, and paying us to do so. They told us all summer to go back to our offices, and now they are telling us the opposite. Members might not agree with what they are doing in Sweden, but at least there is a consistent message. That is all I am asking of the Government.
My hon. Friend is absolutely right on this. What we are looking for is the consistency to know that, over the next two, three, or perhaps five years, we will have to live with this virus and perhaps without a fully effective vaccine. We need a system that people can rely on, can know what they are doing and can be able to plan their lives, because, at the moment, it is off the bus, on the bus, off the bus, on the bus. For those of us who have served in uniform, we know how much time that wastes, we know how much time that takes, and it makes it so much harder not just to plan for weddings and, sadly, for funerals, but to make even simple investment decisions. Even those areas of the economy that are not closed down suffer because of the lack of predictability.
I ask the Government to think very hard about the decisions that they are taking, to devolve as much as possible locally so that those who are in closest touch with the populations that they are elected to govern can make the decisions, to follow the track and trace and to understand the effects of the virus locally, and, on a much wider scale, to come up with rules that can actually be relied on not just for a few weeks, not just for a few months, but, sadly, possibly for several years.
It is a pleasure to follow Tom Tugendhat. As he pointed out, there is some significant uncertainty about when we might have a vaccine, so there are two critical levers to tackling this virus: one is public trust, which the Government can achieve by taking people with them on the measures that they seek to implement; the other is a functioning, locally led, test, trace and isolate system.
On public trust, the Government have made much of following the science. Yesterday, we found out that there were plenty of recommendations from SAGE that the Government chose not to follow. The legislation that we are considering is before us today. That may be so, but it is up to politicians to make policy decisions and advisers to advise. To build public trust, the Government need to explain their thinking. What are their trade-offs? They need to show their working. When they have considered these measures, what are the wider health impacts of not taking them? What are the economic impacts of taking these measures? People need to see for themselves, and there must be trust from the public in following the new measures. I strongly agree that clarity of message is important for public trust.
Many Members have mentioned following the science, and my hon. Friend Daisy Cooper made a passionate argument about the curfew, which we know is resulting in other behaviours that frankly put public health and those businesses at risk. A publican in my constituency said, “We will just have to make up for the lost income by encouraging people to drink earlier in the day,” with bottomless brunches and so on. That binge drinking will happen earlier, or in people’s homes after the pubs have shut.
The Minister will have heard my earlier interventions on test, trace and isolate, and I believe that the 90 pages of complex rules and regulations would not be necessary if we had a properly functioning system. We got the R rate below one in the national lockdown, and on
“Test, track and trace will be vital to stop a second peak of the virus.”
I know he likes to talk about his very large testing system, but we have had all sorts of issues with data, and sadly he was making jokes about that in the Smoking Room last week, apparently.
Okay, but he has not denied it. [Hon. Members: “Yes, he has!] Fair enough. I withdraw that remark. This is not a party political point. I care for my country, and lives and jobs are at risk. Please can we sort out test, trace and isolate, because none of the measures will work if the system is not operating properly.
The Government’s responsibilities, for both lives and livelihoods, require an almost impossible balancing act that is unlikely to satisfy anyone, least of all natural Conservative job creators, who ask only to be allowed to get on with their business with as little interference as possible. The uncomfortable reality, however, is that our country would not accept those struck by the pandemic dying without dignity if hospitals and mortuaries are full, and that means doing things that none of us imagined in our wildest nightmares.
In constituencies such as mine—Gloucester is in tier 1 —the message must be for all to take the restrictions seriously to avoid becoming a higher risk area with yet more severe restrictions. We must enable Gloucestershire Royal Hospital to have capacity to help those with covid and treat cancer and other patients. I urge the Government to promise less and deliver more and to provide a faster testing service so that those at our universities, colleges and schools can function well. They should expedite the go-ahead for Heathrow’s 20-minute test for travellers and reconsider the details of the 10 pm closure when supermarkets are still selling booze later.
The Government should increase delegation to local authorities, such as the responsible public health team at Gloucestershire County Council, and let us all share as much information as possible. As these restrictions continue, they should carefully consider ways to allow young mother and baby groups to meet, for example, or allow some fans at outdoor sport. We will need those small moments of joy to help us through an otherwise difficult winter. I will support the Government tonight, but those questions need answering. The cost of lost livelihoods will only grow while we wait to see whether these restrictions work and science provides longer-term solutions.
I would love to have been a fly on the wall during the discussions that have just taken place, because I have yet to hear from a west midlands council leader or a mayor who supports the decisions that were arrived at, and there seems to be little evidence to support the tier 2 decision. I am told that contact tracing shows that hospitality is probably responsible for about 2% of contacts in Birmingham, and I do not quite get it. Giving pubs 48 hours’ notice of the plan shows indifference to the pressure that those people are under and the jobs that are at risk.
I want to mention two things on testing. One of my constituents told me she had developed symptoms and got a test at the local walk-in centre on
Another constituent received a text at 6 am on Sunday morning with the name, date of birth and covid test result for someone they have never met or heard of. The test results were negative, but I have no idea whether the person who actually took the test knows that. I have raised this matter urgently with NHS Track and Trace, but frankly, I am sceptical about getting any kind of suitable reply. My constituent has never had a covid test. How on earth has this happened, and how many other people’s results have been sent to the wrong person? World-beating—we would settle for something that simply worked.
I have two final observations. First, why are Ministers continuing to tell people that it will be okay by Christmas? What kind of signal are they sending people at this time? Do they mean it will be okay by Christmas and then terrible in the new year? Is that what they are planning to do? Finally, I would really like to know why we did not give council leaders the option of a two-week circuit break, as was suggested by the officials. Would that not have been a much better deal for many of the people in my constituency and in many other constituencies around the country than the ridiculous proposals that have now been imposed on them?
I start by paying tribute to the Ministers for the work they have been doing. I recognise that they are in an incredibly difficult time and doing their best, so I pay tribute to them personally. They are trying to strike a balance between clarity and giving, as my right hon. Friend Sir Edward Leigh has said, a consistent message to the public, and trying to achieve flexibility in recognising that the infection works in different ways in different places. They need to strike a balance between the national and the local, which is not easy, and I recognise the challenge in striking that balance.
I do not want to talk about the risk to the economy that we face, because other hon. Members have made that point very powerfully. I simply want to raise the tragedy that this pandemic represents for our communities. The tragedy is that, as a virus, it works through human relationships, through families and households, through communities and the gathering places of our neighbourhoods —the pubs, churches and sports fields, the institutions that give our lives not only pleasure but identity and meaning. I know that the Government share that sense of tragedy and want us out of this situation as soon as possible.
I accept the advice the Government are getting on the transmission and the value of all the different lockdown measures. I simply want to make an appeal for a response to the virus that is less about big business and big government. I accept why big business and big government —Deloitte and Public Health England—were called in at the outset, but surely we can say that we have tested that approach sufficiently to suggest that there might be a better way to deal with this, a response that is less about big government and big business, and more about local communities and trusting the people and the professionals in our local places.
I know that the Government share a belief in the important of civil society, local government and trusting public health professionals locally. I hope that, as we move through this terrible winter, we can adopt a different model, relying less on the undoubted intelligence, goodwill and good intentions of people in this postcode and more on the people in the places we represent.
This global pandemic has had a horrific impact—not only a huge human cost but a tremendous economic and social cost, caused by the measures that have had to be taken to contain the spread of the virus. None of us would want to be in the position of having to take these decisions, and I certainly do not envy the Minister for Health and other members of the Government who have to balance the need to safeguard both lives and livelihoods. It demands a combination of the judgment of Solomon and the navigational skills of Thetis to reach what is often the least bad outcome, in a situation where there are no right decisions and no good outcomes.
If we are to reassure not only the residents but the businesses in our constituencies, many of which provide the jobs, livelihoods and prosperity on which they rely, we need to be clear about the basis on which decisions are taken. I thank my hon. Friend the Minister for the openness with which he has approached this, making himself, his ministerial colleagues, scientific and medical advisers and officials available for a wide range of briefings on that evidence.
In the minute I have left, I want to speak briefly about the obligations on the hospitality sector. Clearly these measures have a hugely detrimental impact on pubs, bars, restaurants and the many small businesses that rely on them, whether in the brewing, events or wedding industries. We need to be clear about the evidence on the extent of transmission in hospitality and similar settings and what has led officials’ and advisers’ clear confidence that the measures being taken will make a meaningful difference. At the briefing last Friday, the chief medical officer said it was too early to be sure about the extent to which the restricted opening times in the last three weeks had made a difference, but he was sure that it had made a difference. As that data becomes available, it needs to be shared with Members of Parliament and with our constituents.
First, I want to highlight how amazing the community of Hyndburn and Haslingden has been throughout this pandemic. The sacrifices they have made have been unbelievably difficult, and we have faced higher levels of restrictions than most across the country. All through this, I have tried my best, as have local leaders in our community, to bring people with us, and one of the difficulties we have faced is the varying restrictions. Many have said that the new tiered system and the simplification of messaging is the best approach to take. I understand how difficult the balancing act is between getting the numbers down, protecting those who are vulnerable and protecting people’s jobs and livelihoods, and so do most of my residents across Hyndburn and Haslingden, who are doing everything they can to get our rates down.
The reality we face is that, in Hyndburn and Haslingden, the rate of infection is now over 300 per 100,000 people. As of today, 40% of our ICU beds in the Royal Blackburn Hospital are now occupied by covid patients. Hospitalisations are increasing, people are losing their lives and the virus is taking hold across Lancashire. We are seeing this virus move from young adults to those who are most vulnerable. Nobody wants that, and we cannot let this virus go unchecked. These are people’s friends, loved ones and family members. The Royal Blackburn Hospital is not cancelling elective surgery, but I echo the concerns of Lancashire chiefs about what will happen if covid cases continue to rise. I urge Health Ministers and officials to continue their engagement with local leaders across Lancashire.
I also want to comment on how the announcement will affect the hospitality industry. Many pubs across Hyndburn and Haslingden have contacted me about the financial struggles they fear they will face due to the rule on only households and bubbles being allowed to meet in their premises. My local pubs, such as the Albion in Clayton, the Tinker and Budget, and the Hare and Hounds, have expressed their worries that it may have been better for them to be forced to shut their doors rather than to operate under tier 2 restrictions. It would be beneficial for the Treasury to look at a tiered approach to the financial support available to the hospitality sector, as those who have to close will receive financial support while those who fall under tier 2 still face tighter restrictions and could be operating at a loss of about 60%. I ask Ministers to work across Departments to find a financial strategy that matches the tiered approach, as we urgently need to support the beating heart of our communities. Nobody wants to shut their doors and most are doing all that they can to keep people safe in their establishments.
Finally, I want to highlight how critical road maps are. If we need to move between tiers, then we need to do so with clear messaging and to bring our community with us. We need to explain why certain measures are being brought in, backed up by the data. Let us do what is necessary now to protect the vulnerable and save lives while supporting jobs and livelihoods.
It is always a pleasure to follow my hon. Friend and neighbour Sara Britcliffe.
I welcome the tiered system because it increases the simplicity of the messaging. That is very welcome, because it is what our constituents need more than anything else at the minute. The vast majority want to comply; they want to do the right thing. But for the past couple of weeks—I speak as the Member for Burnley, where we have had a higher case rate than most places in the country—the complexity of the messaging has been difficult. The next thing that they want is light at the end of the tunnel. They want to know that there is something to look forward to. Will Ministers look at the four-week review period to see if there is a way to bring that down? The worry is that at four weeks, if we are placed into extra restrictions—into tier 3—at some point next month, we are looking at Christmas before there is even a review of when those measures could be lifted.
As many Members have said, where this virus spreads, it spreads in the one thing we hold very close to each other—our relationships. We live together, we grieve together, we celebrate together, and we compete together. I get the sense from some that they think that the only option is to lock down completely. I do not think that is the right thing to do. We absolutely need to limit interactions, but it needs to be targeted in the right place, at the right time, for the right length of time. Sacrifice is important and it is sacrifice that will get us through this, but it cannot be without hope.
That brings me to test and trace, which is the best tool we have to make sure that our sacrifices are time-limited. We have an enormous testing capacity, and Ministers should be congratulated on that. We have done more than many other countries. But the capacity in itself does not protect us; what protects us is how we use it. I ask Ministers, either today or in the future, to update us on the rapid testing that will be delivered in five minutes or 20 minutes, because that is how we will get those human relationships back. That is how we will get football fans back into stadiums, children into schools when there is an outbreak, and all the other things that we want to do. If Ministers could do that, the hope that I spoke of that gives people a light at the end of the tunnel will come back.
I pay tribute to the Minister and his colleagues for all the hard work they are doing at this time.
I fully understand, as the Member for West Dorset, a very rural seat, that many colleagues in the House represent constituencies that have far more difficult situations with coronavirus than I and my neighbours in Dorset. I know full well that Ministers in the Cabinet will be treading the difficult line between public health and safety and the economy. However, in my constituency, I have 100,000 residents, 400 geographical square miles, 132 parishes, 117 pubs, and two people who are poorly in hospital with coronavirus symptoms. We are faced this evening with a motion that will in effect close our village pubs at 10 o’clock. That is deeply, deeply damaging to our community. It is putting hundreds and hundreds of jobs at risk. I have to ask the Minister and his colleagues to consider that this one-size-fits-all approach to the 10 pm curfew really is not right for rural parts of Britain such as mine, where it will be deeply damaging to the economy. Can I just ask the Minister and his colleagues to take this away? I shall have real difficulty supporting the Government on that this evening—real difficulty—and I very much ask him to see what can be done.
I would like to talk briefly about the need for a plan, the use of language and the use of science. I am delighted that the Minister is here, because he is a very diligent Minister and I know he listens closely to his colleagues.
First, we need a longer-term plan than the one that I think is on offer. We need a sense of strategy and a sense of clarity. We may be living with this virus for months or, in the worst case scenario, for years. Waiting for the cavalry in the shape of a vaccine is taking longer than we hoped, and there is a chance—a small chance—that it may never happen, but even if we get that vaccine in the weeks and months ahead, it may only be a mitigation, not a cure-all.
The promised return to normality by December clearly has not happened, so we need to articulate what is paramount to protect people as much as possible, while ensuring that the cure is not worse than the disease. I think that, at times, our posture has been reactive. That does not mitigate the fact that lots of good stuff has been done: our economic response has been powerful; Test and Trace, even imperfect, is an extraordinary achievement; and likewise, the Nightingale hospitals.
We are getting there, but I do not think we are there yet, and I think the answer needs to be more of a plan and perhaps more of a decentralised approach. Many of us have had concerns about this. We have said these things to the Whips, and I have been very careful about saying so publicly, but I think we are now at a juncture where it is beneficial that I and other colleagues are saying this.
Secondly, on language, I do not think the language of battle helps. Does the Minister agree with Professor Sikora, who has said:
“If you try to scare people with worst case scenarios, it doesn’t work”?
Talk of battle should be replaced by talk of “Keep calm and carry on”, because that is the language that I think we need.
Thirdly, and perhaps most critically, the Government talk about following the science, but actually it depends what question we ask the science. If we say, “Defeat the virus: suppress it in any way you can”, we get one course of action, and potentially a very destructive one. We must accept that the virus cannot be defeated, but be determined to mitigate it to protect as much as possible the elderly and the vulnerable, while trying to limit the damage to other people’s lives through increased cancer deaths, heart disease and strokes and—God knows—what must be happening to mental health in this country with people cooped up so much. We need a sense of balance.
To me, on the pubs issue, and on gyms and swimming pools, there is absolutely no evidence that shutting a pub or the restaurant in Yarmouth I was in on Saturday at 10 o’clock, or shutting a swimming pool or shutting a gym, actually helps prevent the transmission of this virus.
I represent constituents in Cornwall, and we are the only part of the country that is a different colour to the rest, because actually we have reducing coronavirus numbers, which is why the 10 o’clock curfew makes no sense. We have talked again this afternoon—I do not want to rehearse everything that has been said, or anything—about consistency, yet we have told pubs they need to close at 10 o’clock but we have done absolutely nothing to curtail the sale of cheap alcohol in supermarkets. Once again, we are seeing the supermarkets doing everything they can to maximise their take on the back of the coronavirus. Those in the pubs that have been told to close are looking out of their window and seeing large groups of people, after curfew, drinking alcohol they have bought in the Co-op, dare I say, or other high street stores and supermarkets.
We know that poor health leads to greater risk of severe covid outcomes and we are concerned with the risk to health because of coronavirus, and the Government are not known to dither or delay, but one area—it is completely relevant—where the Government have dithered and delayed is the introduction of the minimum unit price for alcohol. What the Government could do right now to reassure pubs, which are not affected by that piece of legislation or that tax, is to curtail cheap alcohol sales in supermarkets, which would not only improve people’s health but give the pubs a chance to recover. If the Government are not prepared to change the curfew, they must be prepared to give pubs a fair chance.
The Government are already considering that; they could bring this forward. It would reduce the drinking culture, which is not helping, and improve health outcomes, which would improve people’s chances of surviving coronavirus and increase the Treasury’s income, which has to be something it is very concerned about.
The Government had no restraint in imposing the 10 pm curfew. They have shown that they can move quickly and aggressively when that is needed to protect people’s health. Why do they not do exactly the same and introduce the minimum unit price for alcohol?
I completely support the Government’s efforts to help bring coronavirus under control, to keep us safe and to protect the NHS and our economy. The easy clinical solution would have been a total lockdown, so the new tiered system is a mark of the effort going into providing responses that are tailored to localities.
Everyone understands that social contact poses a risk of contagion, so managing those contacts in pubs, cafes and suchlike is absolutely key. We want to keep those pubs open where we can—not just because of the jobs they provide directly and through the supply chain, but because pubs are often the only place of contact for many isolated people. I think of the Chapel House wet-only community pub in Gornal in my constituency, and James, the landlord, who is still making things work with about half the normal clientele. However, James has told me that if his pub is to retain table-only service, he will have double the staff as well. That is an equation he can balance for the next month or so only by dipping into reserves.
My appeal is for us to revisit the risk profile of table-only service in wet-only pubs, and to consider perhaps more creative suggestions that might be even better. At the moment, new, young staff might be covid- asymptomatic and moving from table to table taking orders, and then coming back serving that table. Can we not look, perhaps, at more creative ideas, such as a table calling system on rotation, so that an individual from each table, wearing a mask, is called to the bar systematically?
All I am asking is that we revisit the science around this specific issue. Whatever the outcome, I feel certain that Dudley people, and people in Gornal, will play their part in defeating this virus.
I have no choice but to be brief, so I shall make three short points.
First, lockdowns hit poorer people—those on shifts, those in insecure work, those who work in retail or hospitality, those who work alone and those who live in flats or smaller houses. Poorer people suffer when the economy suffers, so it is deeply regrettable that Labour Members have called for a second full national lockdown. That again reaffirms their position as the party for economic destruction. I urge the Government to resist calls for a full second national lockdown. That would be harsh and destructive, and it would condemn people on low incomes to much more difficult lives.
Secondly, what happened in Peterborough during the last lockdown was remarkable. Stevie Wiley, Ishfaq Hussain and Zillur Hussain, as well as countless others, inspired a city. We looked after the vulnerable. We delivered food to those who were shielding. We fed our rough sleepers. We come in different shapes and sizes, and from different ethnic groups. We even speak different languages, but we came through this as one city—perhaps more than any other city—although I do not want to do this again. Couples remain unmarried. Serious medical conditions remain undiagnosed and, in the case of my father, who died during lockdown, we are still unable to say goodbye in the way I would like. To be honest, I still grieve over this.
Peterborough has a rate of 56.4 cases per 100,000 people. For a big city with intergenerational households, dense housing and economic challenges, that really is a remarkable achievement. We have done the right thing and we do not want to be in tier 2. I want the Minister to hear this very clearly: we do not want to be in tier 2 and we will do everything we can to prevent this.
That brings me on to my final point. So many pubs and restaurants in Peterborough feel as though they are being punished for doing the right thing. They have gone to considerable expense to prepare themselves for these restrictions, and the 10 pm curfew in my city is having a devastating impact. Pubs and restaurants have closed—it is not that they might be closing—as a result of this. Why? When I look my local pub landlords and bar managers in the eye, I struggle to answer that. So I urge the Minister to review that 10 pm curfew, communicate why he feels it is a good idea, listen to the industry and reflect on what I have said today.
It is a pleasure to be called in this debate, Madam Deputy Speaker, and to see the Minister for Health on the Front Bench—I have huge respect for him. This issue is one of national interest, is it not? This is not about party politics; it is about what we as individual MPs think is best for our country. MPs such as me, who disagree with the Government to a large extent, are not heretics. We do not want to “let it rip” and we do not want to see the elderly die; we are just trying to gauge as best as we can what is best for our country. Just because one or two, or a few, of us disagree with the Government, it does not mean to say that we are violently opposed to what they are doing. We have huge sympathy for them, as we have never been here before. But I ask myself every morning, and I have asked doctors and professionals this: if we locked down the whole country again for two, three or four months and covid almost disappeared, what would happen when the door opened and we all came out again? That little virus would be there, saying, “Hello, I’m back” and it would infect us all again, because it is a pandemic.
This virus is not going to go away. Two days ago, I spoke to a professor who is working hard on a vaccine at a Southampton hospital and he was optimistic that a vaccine could be found. That is great news, but all vaccines come with a health warning—they do not necessarily do the job, as we have seen in the past. Flu is still here. People who get the vaccine still get the flu. Flu mutates and new vaccines have to be produced. So even if we get a covid vaccine—it would be good news and I would, of course, welcome it—the pandemic will still be here.
Is all this worth shutting down the country for? My hon. Friend Paul Bristow does not want to be in tier 2, but all tiers are, in effect, shutting down the economy in local areas, to a lesser or greater extent. As a country, we are paying a terrible, terrible price, economically, socially, mentally, financially and in health terms. Millions of our constituents are suffering in unimaginable ways. I will end by talking about my parents, who, sadly, have passed away. I know for certain that were they alive now, they would say, “Richard, get out there. Get the country going again. Protect those like us as best as you can, but for God’s sake get the country back on its feet.”
I know time is short, so I will keep it brief, Madam Deputy Speaker. The key point I want to get across is that, obviously, public health must be a priority but we must not forget the real human stories behind every one of the statistics. So we should look at not only the number of covid deaths but the economic impacts that lockdown measures are having right across our country. I have been banging the drum for our hospitality sector, pushing for additional support for it to protect those people who have spent their entire lives building up strong businesses that are integral to their local communities, right in the heart of those communities. I think of people such as Christian Burns and Cheryl Jeffrey. We must do all we can to try to protect them as best as we can as we move through this pandemic.
As hon. Members will see, I have less than six minutes to respond. I regret that I may slightly disappoint the House in that—untypically for me—I will not be able to take interventions, having agreed with the Chair to enable the maximum number of Back-Bench contributions.
We have heard many different views and perspectives today, and although I may not personally fully share all of them, each represents an important and sincerely held point of view. Whatever the differences of approach among hon. Members, it is clear that all Members passionately share the common objectives of protecting lives and livelihoods. No one should doubt the underlying unity of purpose in this House.
As the Secretary of State set out, we have seen rapidly rising levels of transmission and infection, followed—with a time lag—by rising hospitalisations, particularly in the north-east and the north-west, and, sadly, increasing levels of deaths. I think it was my hon. Friend Sara Britcliffe who pointed out that this disease is sadly now moving from younger people into older, more vulnerable age groups. We therefore need to take further measures to protect the public and the NHS—as we have done throughout the pandemic—as we enter winter.
At the same time, we seek to ensure that individuals and businesses are not subject to restrictions that are disproportionate to the risk in their area or to the risk that this disease poses. We need to continue to suppress infection rates and transmission. This is not just about protecting health; it is also about protecting our economy. As hon. and right hon. Members have said, regrettably there are no easy choices here. That is why the Government are recognising reasonable calls for a simplified and clearer set of regulations, by putting in place a simplified, tiered framework so that individuals and businesses can clearly understand the rules in their local area, the restrictions in place and what they will need to do to comply with them. This helps to build on the consent and compliance that many colleagues have mentioned that comes with taking people with us and clarity of messaging.
The Government are acutely sensitive to the impact that these restrictions will have on local areas, and hon. Members have spoken passionately on behalf of their constituencies today, including a large number who have made points about the 10 pm curfew, as the House and others will have heard. We have worked and continue to work closely with local leaders to seek a consensus on the actions that we are taking at each level. In the time preceding these announcements, we increased engagement with local authorities at official level, and had meetings with local leaders and directors of public health. Their valuable insights have helped to shape the new system set out in three of these sets of regulations today. I have to say that I know of no Minister who has done more to engage directly with colleagues, councils and communities than my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State.
Local authorities and local leaders will be involved in any further actions and decisions about what level each area falls into. Having previously spent almost 10 years as a local councillor, I pay tribute to the dedication of council officers and councillors. I am clear about their vital role, working in partnership as part of a national approach. We recognise that there are elements of the restrictions that are difficult for individuals and businesses. I pay tribute to the British people and recognise the huge sacrifices that they have already made. That is why it is right that my right hon. Friend the Chancellor has introduced further support measures, alongside the very extensive support package that he set out to the House earlier in the year.
The measures in these regulations are reasonable and proportionate, given the increased rates of transmission that we are seeing and in the context of our clear commitment to keep education settings open, and businesses open as much as possible. I reassure the House that throughout, as evidence and the science—I use that term in the plural—develop and evolve all the time, we continue to keep that under review, and I approach emerging scientific evidence with an open mind.
I urge hon. Members to join me today in supporting these regulations relating to the covid alert levels and enforcement action, tracing and businesses, recognising the very challenging infection point that this country sits at today, with rising infection and hospitalisation rates. The fight against this virus is certainly not over and we must all continue to play our part in tackling it. These measures seek to do that in a proportionate and clearly understandable way. This House and its collective wisdom are vital to getting it right, and I hope that this evening the House will demonstrate that wisdom and vote for these measures.
The Deputy Speaker put the Question (Order, this day).
Question agreed to.
That the Health Protection (Coronavirus, Local Covid-19 Alert Level) (Medium) (England) Regulations 2020, (S.I., 2020, No. 1103), dated
The Deputy Speaker then put the Questions necessary for the disposal of the business to be concluded at that time (Order, this day.)