Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 5:56 pm on 18th November 2020.

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Photo of Karin Smyth Karin Smyth Shadow Minister (Northern Ireland) 5:56 pm, 18th November 2020

Back in March, when our worst fears were confirmed and the first lockdown hit, I thought that some aspects of the UK Government’s response would be taken as read. I worked in public health and emergency planning before entering this place, and I know at first hand what a response should look like in the most basic terms and what it should feel like. I expected usual processes to function and best practice to kick in, and for muscle memory and accepted norms to initially, at least, shape our response. And I expected all that to happen underpinned by Government support.

I accept that the extraordinary nature of those months, as the Minister said in opening this debate, was unusual, However, as the National Audit Office report states, there were 11 ministerial directions. I do not accept that the virus was unexpected: the scenario planning was based on a threat of this type. I do not accept that the NHS was prepared: the Government were consistently warned that running at 95% capacity was not sustainable. And I do not accept that the way in which the response was led is beyond scrutiny.

What we heard from the Dispatch Box earlier was worrying, and I hope that the Paymaster General will clarify the situation when she winds up the debate. Essentially, the Under-Secretary of State for Health and Social Care, Jo Churchill, said, “Nothing we have done was corrupt.” However, issuing a ministerial direction is serious. It is about regularity, propriety, value for money and feasibility —and these contracts do not stand that test. One of the contracts for free school meals, for example, was with Edenred, a French company. There was no formal tender process under the emergency regulations, despite existing processes and companies being able to provide those critical school meal vouchers back in early spring. That took so much time and energy from schools in my constituency. It affected vulnerable children and that is totally unacceptable.

We may not be able to scrutinise the Government as we should because we passed the Coronavirus Act 2020, but the Select Committee on Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs, of which I am a member, will continue to do its job. I hope the Government will consider a more open and transparent way of operating in the coming months and that they will look at our report—the Minister gave evidence to the inquiry—in order to learn some of the lessons of what we should have used from the Civil Contingencies 2004. I am afraid time precludes me from talking about that in more detail, but we should return to that in this place.

I said in July that I hoped that we had turned a corner and that there would be more local work and a more local response. I genuinely thought that we might, but we have not, have we? As my hon. Friend Alex Norris has outlined, we will continue to try to make positive suggestions, but it remains the case that people in Bristol South are being disproportionately hammered by covid compared with other parts of the country. For the young and the very old, those on low incomes or in insecure work, those living in houses in multiple occupation, those from black and minority ethnic communities, those from multi-generational households, the cooks, cleaners and retail and hospitality workers, and those who rely on the Government, their inequalities are being exacerbated. This is made worse by the fact that the Government have lost time and wasted valuable knowledge that they could have used locally to manage the system better.

On the Select Committee on Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs, our inquiry has shown that the disconnect between the local and the national has been deeply problematic. In early May, we heard evidence from Sir Ian Diamond of the Office for National Statistics about how we could have utilised much of the data that is available much better, but again the Government have been too slow, and we need them to try to be much better. I think lessons are being learned, but I do not think they are being learned by Ministers and the Cabinet; the political direction and leadership are desperately worrying. We want the Government to do much better, and it is not too late to reset—it really is not. Our lives and our families depend on it, but it is crucial that the Government build back trust and admit where they have got things wrong. People will understand that. We need to empower local capacity and knowledge to lead the work, shape local solutions to the challenge, and deliver on the ground so that we can all have our lives back.