Public Health: Coronavirus Regulations

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 2:47 pm on 13th October 2020.

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Photo of Jon Ashworth Jon Ashworth Shadow Secretary of State for Health and Social Care 2:47 pm, 13th October 2020

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.