Covid-19

– in the House of Commons at 6:15 pm on 14th December 2020.

Alert me about debates like this

Photo of Jo Churchill Jo Churchill The Parliamentary Under-Secretary for Health and Social Care 6:15 pm, 14th December 2020

I beg to move,

That this House
has considered covid-19.

I am pleased to say that all across the country the roll-out of the covid-19 vaccine is continuing at pace. Tens of thousands of patients, such as the very memorable Margaret Keenan and Martin Kenyon, have already received their jab, at more than 70 sites across the UK. That number will continue to increase, which is positive news, as I am sure we will all agree. This week also marks the start of the wave 1 roll-out of vaccination in GP-led sites, and I want to take this opportunity to thank general practitioners and their teams for their work in getting this programme up and running. I visited a practice this morning in Newham, where I talked to the team—to doctors, practice managers and the fantastic practice nurse, Raj, who had been busy caring for patients, delivering flu jabs and giving diabetes advice and is soon to be administering the covid vaccine. All those things, along with the promise of vaccines in care homes by Christmas, are encouraging developments, which colleagues from across the House will join me in welcoming. Right hon. and hon. Members will also be pleased with the announcement of 1,800 projects to upgrade and refurbish hospitals across 178 NHS trusts this winter; from fixing new roofs to new MRI machines, the £600 million package will make a real difference for patients and staff.

However, we all understand that this progress should be taken while bearing the current situation in mind. Coronavirus is very much with us. This past week, the average number of new cases each day was 15,960. Average daily hospital admissions currently stand at more than 1,500. As Professor Chris Whitty, the chief medical officer for England reminded us only last week, even with our mass vaccination programme we will “not have sufficient protection” for the next three months. The number of cases is flattening and even rising in some parts of the country.

So it is important to remember that this is one of the most difficult times of year normally for respiratory infections. The winter period is always the most challenging time for the NHS, let alone in these unusual covid-tinged times. Therefore, we must do everything we can collectively to avoid putting any further burden on the NHS. We should continue with our current efforts, so that we can give all health and care workers the best possible environment, despite the current circumstances of rolling out that vaccine and saving lives. I am sure I speak for everyone when I say that I would like to take this opportunity to express my continued gratitude to those frontline members of staff in our health and care service up and down the country for all they do, in hospitals and in the community.

To reiterate, this Government will continue to focus their response and build around three vital pillars: tiers, testing and vaccine. The House has just heard my right hon. Friend the Health and Social Care Secretary outline the latest changes in our system of tiering. The first formal review of tiering decisions is to take place this Wednesday, two weeks after the new rules came into force. However, when the virus is growing exponentially there is not a moment to spare, so we are acting ahead of the formal review date and putting in place stronger measures in several areas. I know these restrictions can be hard, but this action is absolutely essential not just to keep people safe, but because we have seen that early action can prevent more damaging and longer-lasting problems later on. We will continue to stand with those who are impacted through our furlough scheme and support for businesses and the self-employed.

Even with the review point ahead of us, and following my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State’s statement earlier today, the Government have wasted no time in taking bold action where it is needed. As soon as we became aware of these worrying trends in parts of London, Kent and Essex, a plan was put in place, and from last Friday surged mobile testing units have been deployed to where they are needed most. They are now in several boroughs of London, in parts of Essex that border London and parts of Kent where statistics show a high prevalence of covid-19, particularly among secondary school pupils. That is why our community testing is targeted towards the 11 to 18-year-olds and their families and teachers.

In addition to this testing support, we will continue to work with the local authorities and schools affected. Here I want to encourage anyone who has been asked to come forward for a test to do so, even if they are not displaying symptoms, for we know that community testing works. That is why this kind of deployment is available all across the UK. We are working with devolved Administrations in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, and now over 100 local authorities across England, so that people in Kent and Medway, Derbyshire, Stoke-on-Trent and Darlington can access tests. I thank local authorities for their efforts in mobilising the power of community testing for their areas.

Community testing works because it is the best way that we can identify and then isolate people with the virus. We know that people with coronavirus will often feel unwell and may well seek medical attention or indeed, unfortunately, be hospitalised. However, one in three people have no symptoms at all, but they can still pass it on to others through asymptomatic transmission. So that we can reduce transmission and help people protect their friends and families, I would like to urge everyone to keep following the restrictions in place, taking the sensible steps that have, I hope, become part of everyone’s daily routine: washing our hands, covering our face and making space, as well as opening the window to ventilate places where we can. This will help protect those around us, our families and friends.

We cannot stop all our efforts just because a vaccine is here—that would be premature and risk everything that people have worked so hard for—but we do know that, in time, the vaccine represents our surest way out of the challenges we face. Many of the population will get their jabs in the first part of next year, as more vaccines come on stream, and I am encouraged by the peer review in The Lancet confirming that our home-grown vaccine candidate, the Oxford AstraZeneca vaccine, is clinically safe. We will be ready to roll out that vaccine along with any other vaccines in our portfolio if they are approved by the independent regulator, the Medicines and Healthcare Products Regulatory Agency. Vaccines are safe—so I urge people please to step forward.

Into the new year, our dedication to and efforts on the roll-out will continue. We will expand vaccination centres further. We will look to larger venues such as sports stadiums and conference centres. I remind everyone that they do not need to contact their doctor or the NHS; they will contact people when it is their turn for a jab. I know that many up and down the UK are eagerly awaiting that call.

Photo of Rosena Allin-Khan Rosena Allin-Khan Shadow Minister (Mental Health) 6:23 pm, 14th December 2020

I would like to start with a tribute to Dame Barbara Windsor. She holds a special place in the affections of the nation from her earliest days with the Joan Littlewood Theatre Workshop to being landlady of the Vic. Barbara Windsor asked us to make a stand against dementia, and we will. Our thoughts are with Dame Barbara’s friends and family.

It is now nine months since the first British patient contracted covid-19—nine months that have tested our national character, our national health service and our national leaders; and nine months of terrible grief for tens of thousands of families who face a Christmas with an empty chair at the family dining table. Torn apart with anguish and united in pain, those families were robbed of their chance to say goodbye and robbed of the last hug or kiss, and they are still unable to sleep at night.

Rates of depression doubled during the first wave, but referrals to mental health services dropped. Couple that with nine months of economic turmoil exacerbated by the Brexit shambles, with millions facing the dole or losing their homes and businesses, and people need assurances that their wellbeing will be protected. There are still 3 million freelancers and small business owners excluded from Government support and facing utter ruin, which takes a terrible toll on their mental wellbeing. Some of the 3 million excluded have even, tragically, taken their own lives. It is not too late for Ministers to do the right thing and support the 3 million excluded.

What a year it has been. When the British people were called upon to stand together against a common enemy and to rise to greatness, they were not found wanting. I am thinking of the people who queued down the street to volunteer to deliver food and medicine; people who donated to food banks and looked in on neighbours; and people such as Captain Sir Thomas Moore, who raised not just money, but our spirits and our sense of ambition. I am thinking of those who spearheaded the #WhatAboutWeddings campaign, supporting people whose wedding day plans were derailed and people in the wedding industry whose businesses disappeared. I am thinking of people in the Beauty Backed campaign, supporting workers—mostly women—in the multi-million pound beauty sector whose salons were closed and who could not work to feed their families.

I am thinking of our refuse collectors, delivery drivers, shop workers, shelf stackers, cleaners and others who kept the country running. I am thinking of workers in the social care sector—low paid and so often stigmatised—working at the sharp end of the pandemic in our care homes. These unsung heroes deserve real recognition. Perhaps next time we discuss low pay and minimum wage, we will remember how much we owe all these workers who make Britain tick. I want to give a special mention to Britain’s postal workers, who have played a special role in supporting our communities—not only delivering the post come rain or shine, but looking in on the vulnerable, raising the cheer of isolated and lonely people and being a friendly face amid uncertainty and fear. Britain’s posties, we salute you.

Of course, we praise the 1.4 million of us who work for our national health service. So many NHS workers risked their lives to fight the pandemic, and so many have tragically died. Many more are left with the trauma of dealing with mass casualties. The latest absence figures from the NHS show that just under half a million days were lost to mental ill health in just one month alone. With infections continuing to rise throughout the country and the Christmas easing of restrictions imminent, how will the Government ensure that the NHS has capacity to cope in January? Staff are already burned out and exhausted by the virus. What plans do the Government have to support our NHS to deliver the care that patients need throughout January and prevent the NHS from becoming so overwhelmed that the vaccination programme is affected?

Staff across our health service are struggling, and they know that the adversity is not over yet. I want to take this opportunity to praise workers across the NHS: our ambulance drivers, nurses, student nurses, doctors, health visitors, mental health professionals, midwives, pharmacists, porters, receptionists, radiographers, physiotherapists, admin staff and healthcare assistants. Not only that, but I want to praise the cleaners, the kitchen staff, the gardeners, the dispatch drivers, the record keepers, the chaplains, the volunteers and so many others.

When I turn up for my shifts at St George’s Tooting as an A&E doctor, I know that I am part of an NHS family in which every part relies on the others—a complex web of care and compassion. We as a country rely on them, so let us do more than offer them applause. Let us rebalance the system of wages and rewards in this country so that the most valuable people, such as care workers and nurses, are valued above shareholders and stockbrokers. I have mentioned our national character and our national health service. Both rose to the challenge admirably, but what about our national leadership? Her Majesty’s official Opposition have maintained a consistent position: we will support the Government in tackling this pandemic, but we reserve our right to scrutinise decisions and ask questions on behalf of the people. That is our proper constitutional role.

We will be demanding a full public inquiry into the Government’s response to covid-19, and one particular area that will require forensic dissection is ministerial decision making on procurement. On 18 March 2020, the Cabinet Office issued guidance on public procurement of personal protective equipment and other equipment to tackle the pandemic. That guidance noted that public bodies were permitted

“to procure goods, services and works with extreme urgency.”

By 31 July 2020, more than 8,600 contracts had been awarded, with a value of £18 billion.

Of course we recognise that there was a need for speed, but the National Audit Office reported that there is

“a high-priority lane to assess and process potential PPE leads from government officials, ministers’
offices, MPs and members of the House of Lords”.

Many suppliers with connections to the Government and Ministers obtained lucrative contracts. One such supplier was PestFix, a vermin control company valued at just over £19,000, which was given a contract worth £108 million for PPE that had not been properly tested. The House has heard of the case of Mr Gabriel González Andersson, who was awarded more than £20 million as a middleman between the UK Government and a PPE business founded as the pandemic took hold by Michael Saiger, a Florida-based jewellery designer. And the NAO showed that Stroud Conservative councillor Steve Dechan, who ran a small, loss-making firm, signed a £156 million deal to import PPE from China.

Those are just a few instances of a procurement scandal that will only grow as more of the truth emerges. The Prime Minister says over and again that any Government would have done the same. He is wrong. He must not judge others by his own standards. This is a Government who have stretched the procurement rules to breaking point, overseen a bonanza for chancers, spivs and Del Boys, and wasted millions on the cronies and chums of Government insiders. Doctors and nurses were sent to the frontline without working PPE while profiteers lined their pockets. The truth will come out. The public will get the answers they demand, and the guilty men and women—the hard-faced men who have done well out of the pandemic—will be called to justice.

Now, we face the first Christmas alongside covid-19. Ministers must do more to explain the science behind their current plans for the tier system and their plans to relax the rules during Christmas. The PM says we must be “jolly careful”, but are his Government? Is the Minister aware of the advice of Professor Andrew Hayward, director of the University College London Institute of Epidemiology and Health Care and a member of the Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies, who told the BBC that allowing people to meet up over Christmas amounted to

“throwing fuel on the Covid fire” and that it would

“definitely lead to increased transmission” and was

“likely to lead to a third wave of infection, with hospitals being overrun, and more unnecessary deaths”?

Is the Minister confident that the Government have done everything possible to avoid a third wave in the new year?

With today’s announcement that London will be moved into tier 3 just a week before rules are relaxed, is the Minister confident that the Government can effectively communicate these three rule changes to the public in the next week? What assurance can she offer the millions living in London and the south-east of England who will be under the tier 3 rules on Wednesday that the measures taken will actually halt the spread of the virus and keep them and their families safe over Christmas?

Photo of Steve Brine Steve Brine Conservative, Winchester

I have expressed my concerns in the House before about the Christmas policy. There is a lot of care going into looking at the data for the review of the tiers, and yet weeks ago, the Government announced a five-day relaxation starting on 23 December. What is the position of the official Opposition in respect of the Christmas firebreak? Do they now oppose that, are they still supportive of it, or are they abstaining?

Photo of Rosena Allin-Khan Rosena Allin-Khan Shadow Minister (Mental Health)

Everything has to be evidence based. We in the Opposition have been labouring under the misapprehension that the Government have control over the messaging that has been going out. The mixed messaging relayed day after day by this Government has left people utterly confused. That is why I am saying that we need assurances from the Minister and the Government that the millions of people living under these restrictions will in fact be safe over the Christmas period, were families still to mix.

Finally, we turn to the bright light at the end of the darkest of tunnels: the prospect of a vaccine. I welcome the news of new vaccines, and I praise all the teams who delivered them and the Medicines and Healthcare Products Regulatory Agency for its efficiency. We all have a duty now to explain that vaccines are safe, vaccines work, and if and when people are offered one, they must get vaccinated. When I am offered the vaccine, I will eagerly join the queue, not just because I am a doctor but because I have seen the tragic consequences of this disease up close. All of us in this House must speak up for the science and against irrational conspiracy theories and malign myth making, and we must get our people vaccinated.

Is the Minister satisfied that the Government are doing enough to build public confidence in the vaccine? Is she confident that we have the infrastructure to roll out the largest ever mass adult vaccination programme? What about those in tier 3—people in Derby, Leicester, Nottingham, Tyneside and Teesside, Lancashire, Manchester, Birmingham and the Black Country, Hull, Yorkshire, Bristol and, soon, London? Will they get the vaccine quickly and efficiently? What plans have the Government made to deliver the vaccine for tier 3? Can the Minister update us on the position of vaccinations for people in care homes? People were promised a vaccine, and they need reassurance that they were not given false hope.

As we near the end of a terrible year, let us reflect on the strength, resilience and genius of our constituents, on the communities that came together, on the values of solidarity and compassion that unite us and on our common resolve to make 2021 a better year for all—especially the bereaved, the lonely, the vulnerable and the people who saw their worlds turned upside down by this terrible disease. They deserve a Government on their side, yet millions feel let down and left on their own. In 2021, that must change.

Photo of Adam Holloway Adam Holloway Conservative, Gravesham 6:37 pm, 14th December 2020

First, I thank the care home staff and NHS staff in my constituency, particularly the medical staff at Darent Valley Hospital and Medway Maritime Hospital, who I know have their work cut out for them at the moment.

I would like to again bang the drum for the hospitality industry. If we believe that the main drivers of infection are hospital and care home settings, schools and households mixing within family homes, should we not be doing everything we can to avoid such household mixing? Regrettably, I firmly believe that many people in this country, unable to go into bars and restaurants, are mixing in unsuitable conditions in other people’s homes. We have seen since the end of the first lockdown the extraordinary and incredibly expensive efforts of the hospitality industry to make preparations to minimise the risks to their staff and customers and to stay afloat as businesses. When I look at establishments owned by friends of mine such as the Iron Pier brewery in Northfleet, the Griffin Inn in Fletching or TJ’s pub in Gravesend, I see that the driving principle of customer service for them since the first lockdown is the safety of their customers and their staff.

We have seen no evidence at all to confirm that people are more at risk in pubs than in private homes or more at risk congregating in well-run hospitality establishments. If we are knowingly going to crash the businesses and the life’s work of so many entrepreneurs in the hospitality industry, which we will be doing by knowingly restricting their ability to trade in the run-up to Christmas, when trading this month might actually save many of them, it would be nice if we could at least provide some evidence to support that.

Photo of Steve Brine Steve Brine Conservative, Winchester

Does my hon. Friend share the concern of many Members in this House about so-called wet pubs? The Bakers Arm in Winchester contacted me this morning to say they are finding it difficult to take seeing the bustling high street all around them and people sitting outside coffee shops drinking cappuccinos, yet people cannot buy anything from their businesses. They are literally going under. Does he have that same problem in his constituency?

Photo of Adam Holloway Adam Holloway Conservative, Gravesham

I completely agree with my hon. Friend. I said the other day that the last time I went into the Compass Ale House in Gravesend, it was literally like putting myself under the control of a manager saying, “Sanitise your hands. Do this. Do that. Sit down. Don’t do that. Why have you taken your mask off?”

I am absolutely not suggesting that pubs open as normal—in fact to the contrary, and that is the point. They are ready to operate safely in the new normal that they have arranged at such huge cost. I suggest a well-run pub is a safer environment for people to meet their friends than their front rooms, but like everyone in Whitehall and across the country, we have absolutely no idea either way. It is just a hunch.

Photo of Craig Mackinlay Craig Mackinlay Conservative, South Thanet

To assist my hon. Friend, he may be aware there was a report out based upon some work in south-east Asia. That seems to have been the basis of this risk assessment for hospitality, and it was not long ago that Public Health England itself said that potentially only 5% of infections were caused in the hospitality sector. I share his concerns, and I am sure he is critical of the risk assessment, just as I am.

Photo of Adam Holloway Adam Holloway Conservative, Gravesham

I wish I had spoken to my hon. Friend last night when I was looking for precisely that research. There is absolutely no reason why councils and the police cannot be given draconian powers to shut down establishments that are operating unsafely.

My second point is that we are looking forward to the Christmas relaxation of the rules, which I know will be hugely welcomed by hundreds of thousands of families across the country who have had it very hard over the past few months. At present, the virus appears to be circulating among school-aged children and their parents. Thank heavens that is usually without serious effect, although we have had many tragedies.

Over the Christmas period, people have been told that they can mix and that generations can mix. I strongly suggest to my constituents that while we may be allowed to do so, some might choose not to. It strikes me that there is a great risk of parents and children passing on the virus to grandparents, leaving the country in a very poor position as we enter the coldest months of the year, when transmission rates will inevitably be highest.

After the extraordinary foresight of the Government in securing the vaccines and with the likelihood soon of many, many millions of doses of the Oxford vaccine coming online, I suggest that while families are allowed to do something, it might just be better to wait another four or five months. I know a lot of people are talking about Australia at the moment for some reason. My constituent, Mr Hamilton, suggests that some families should consider, like Australia, celebrating together towards the beginning of the summer, once the vaccines are rolled out and we are out of the worst of the winter. We may be allowed to do things, but people should listen to the Prime Minister and be very careful.

Photo of Richard Thomson Richard Thomson Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Business and Industry) 6:43 pm, 14th December 2020

Allow me to begin my remarks by sharing the sentiments that have already been expressed about our gratitude to everyone who is currently working to keep us safe and comfortable in our homes, whether that is the NHS workers toiling tirelessly or those in the care sector or, as we have heard, the posties. I thank everyone who is keeping the wheels of society turning to make sure that our lives can go on as normally as possible in what have been deeply abnormal times.

The first vaccinations have taken place in Scotland in care homes this week, which is a tremendous source of optimism. The first care home resident in Scotland to receive the vaccine was 90-year-old Annie Innes. Annie worked as a carer herself for over 14 years and has been living in the Abercorn House care home in Hamilton for six months. Out of much darkness over the last few months, that gives us at least a glimmer of hope—not just that we will be able to see our relatives in care home settings again, but, more generally, that normality is hopefully not too far away.

I would like personally to thank everyone who has been involved in the roll-out of the vaccination programme. If anything gives us hope, it is this. I absolutely concur with all that has been said: when the vaccine is available, please, please, please get it. People should know that it is not just about keeping themselves safe; it is about keeping everybody around them safe as well. This is what will get us through this. There are obviously huge logistical challenges involved in distributing the Pfizer vaccine. It will be an extremely challenging task, but it will give us an additional layer of protection that none of us has had until now.

As more vaccines and different variants of vaccines become available over the coming months, it is the intention of the Scottish Government—in line with advice from the Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation—to continue with the roll-out, initially focusing on care homes, for older adults and carers, but also rolling out to other vulnerable adults, and, gradually, to the wider adult population. It is to be hoped that the roll-out marks the beginning of the end, but it certainly cannot be the end of our collective caution. We all still need to do all we can to keep our loved ones safe, whether that is through restricting our unnecessary contact with others or just facing facts: wearing face coverings; avoiding crowded places; maintaining appropriate hygiene and social distancing; and ensuring that we self-isolate and book a test if we have symptoms. We all need to continue to observe that public health advice.

In Scotland, the R number is now currently estimated to be between 0.7 and 0.9, which is confirmation that some of the very tough decisions that have had to be taken over the last few weeks have been having the desired effect. As a result, some 16 local authority areas have been able to reduce from level 3 to level 2, but there is a real need to remain vigilant throughout and not let our guard down, even as the Christmas period comes.

I draw particular attention to one allocation of resource that has taken place in Scotland that I hope the UK Government might take on board: a payment of £500 that is available to those who are on a low income and who have to self-isolate. The Scottish Government are going to maintain that, but it does mean that anyone who is required to self-isolate is not placed under any financial pressures to not do the right thing. From the position we occupy, it can sometimes be easy to miss the very real day-to-day pressures that people face, such as choosing between doing the right thing and doing what they need to do to support their families. If we take that problem away from them with a small amount like that, it can make all the difference—not just to those families, but to curtailing the spread of the virus.

Last week, the Cabinet Secretary for Finance in Scotland announced details of how a further £2.2 billion of support will be allocated. It includes an additional £600 million for the health and social care sector, wider public health initiatives and welfare support, a £500 bonus for health and social care workers, and funding for a winter plan for social protection that helps people to pay for food, heating, warm clothing and shelter. Second in that package is support for business and the wider economy, including funding for local business support packages, a hardship fund for the newly self-employed who have not received support through any other means, and local authority discretionary business funding. A further £500 million is there to support transport services, and to cover pandemic-related income shortfalls in organisations such as the Scottish Courts and Tribunals Service and Police Scotland. There is £15 million for the second part of that newly self-employed hardship fund, and £15 million to support the wedding sector and its supply chain, including photographers.

Adam Holloway mentioned hospitality. All aspects of the hospitality industry are crucial. It is not just the jobs done and the employment created, but everything else in the supply chain: the butcher, the baker, the candlestick maker. Those are the businesses we need to and can support through the financial support we make available. Those grant schemes, and many more that I do not have time to go into, will be available for application from January.

The Treasury made it very clear that the funding that has come to Scotland is to cover the period up until March, which means that the Scottish Government have held back £300 million. I can understand that people might be frustrated about that. Every year, covid or not, we go through the ritualised pantomime of Opposition politicians saying, “Why didn’t you spend all your money?” Frankly, the Scottish Government have to operate within a fixed budget. They have no borrowing powers. If they had borrowing powers, they might not need hold that money back and those numbers could be increased to other areas where support has not been able to be forthcoming.

I would add at this juncture that the £300 million that has been held back also has to cover any contingencies arising from anything that may or may not be decided in terms of the ongoing Brexit negotiations. It would be remiss of me not to say at this point that, with just over a fortnight to go until the end of the transition period, it is astonishing that we still do not know what it is we are supposed to be preparing for.

A no-deal Brexit would pose a very, very significant threat indeed to the NHS as it prepares to face the most challenging spell of the year throughout the winter. That is when the NHS is under its greatest strain and when demand on resources is at its greatest. To couple that with the impact of a no-deal Brexit would be an act of wanton recklessness.

Whether it is a low deal or a no deal, one of the main concerns for the NHS must be to ensure that sufficient drugs and medical equipment continue to arrive in the UK throughout the winter. The Tories’ extreme Brexit plans are posing a threat to that, with many experts and industry leaders acknowledging the disruption at the borders that will be the effect of leaving the single market and customs union without a deal. The Government’s own documents, which reached the press, suggested that the flow of medicines could initially be reduced to 60% to 80% over that initial three-month spell. I can only imagine the anxiety of families reliant on medicines for vulnerable children and other vulnerable family members not having the certainty and security that the supply can be maintained over the weeks and months ahead.

Many people will be facing a lonely Christmas this year, notwithstanding any seasonal relaxation of travel restrictions, but how much more difficult must it be for those who are facing that Christmas without financial support to put food on the table, to keep heating on, electricity in the meter and to keep their family warm? I again make the plea that there are so many people who have been excluded from the Government’s financial response that the Government need to look at that again.

In conclusion, I observe that the rise in the rates of infection in London and the south-east shows just how easily the virus can spread anywhere. It is a cautionary warning that we need to maintain our guard. The vaccine gives us hope, but it is the solidarity that has been shown between individuals, communities and their families which has sustained us in the months past, and which will continue to sustain us in the months ahead.

Photo of Emma Hardy Emma Hardy Shadow Minister (Education) 6:53 pm, 14th December 2020

I want to start by giving my thanks to all those people working in the NHS and all the key workers for the incredible job they have done throughout the pandemic.

The Government are facing quite a dangerous situation where many see their tier system as neither effective nor fair. Conspiracy groups are popping up across the country, spreading lies and misinformation through social media. In fact, as quickly as social media giants stop them, they seem to find a new way to spread their misinformation. In my previous speech, I called for transparency on how decisions are made and said that transparency is the only way to defeat conspiracy theories, but the Government are still failing to provide it. I am going to quote from an answer to a written question I asked about how tiers are decided. I asked the Secretary of State for Health when he planned to publish the scientific evidence used to determine which areas are under tier 3 covid restrictions. The response I had was that decisions on tiers are based on

“the case detection rate…in particular, among those over 60 years old;
how quickly case rates are rising or falling;
positivity in the general population;
pressure on the National Health Service”,

and so on. The important line that I want to draw to the Minister’s attention, which is feeding some of the disquiet that I sense in my constituency, is:

“As decisions are informed by a range of factors, it is possible for variation between individual factors when comparing areas.”

That fuels the sense that somehow the rules that many of us are experiencing up in the north are different from what people are experiencing down in the south. Why is there a possible variation between individual factors? Surely the Government have criteria that apply to everybody, regardless of their postcode or the place they live. That is how we have fairness, transparency and trust in Government, which is currently lacking.

People in Kingston upon Hull West and Hessle have been working hard to get the virus rate down. The East Riding seven-day rate is now 125, and Hull’s is 195. That is 75% lower than the peak on 16 November, and that dramatic drop is because of the hard work of people from across the constituency, despite the harm that having to follow all these rules is causing the local economy.

We are a face-to-face economy. When looking at the reasons why we had that sudden, huge growth, we have to look at the jobs in which people are employed. Many people’s jobs in Hull require them to go to work. They are not jobs that can be done remotely or at home. There is more need for self-isolation—again, I made that point to the Minister in my previous speech. If we want people to do the right thing, they should not suffer financial consequences for doing it. We need to look at the isolation payments of £500 that are reaching so few people.

I really hope that our declining rate is looked upon favourably when a decision is made about which tier to move us into. A 75% drop in a few weeks shows how determined we are to move out of tier 3 and into tier 2, but we need clarity. What are the criteria? What is the goal? Tell us what we need to do to move out of tier 3, and we can focus on making sure we do it.

The Government cannot leave us in tier 3 over the Christmas period without extra support. It has been an uphill battle to get any support for our area. I have said to the Minister many times before that we will not be the forgotten city, which is how many people in my constituency feel right now. Although furlough is protecting jobs, which is good news, it is not protecting businesses. Businesses tell me that furlough is going to continue after their business has failed. If the businesses have gone, what is the point in continuing the furlough until March?

Pub landlords are furious, and they have every right to be. There are 334 pubs in Hull, and landlords are seeing their life’s work destroyed and their industry go under. Many pubs will not open, but they are a vital part of our communities. Landlords spent months adapting to the Government guidance, ensuring they are covid-safe, closing at 10 pm and spending an awful lot of money, and their reward has been inadequate financial support. They see people crammed down Oxford Street in London, pushing past each other and not wearing masks, and all the time they are told, “You are not safe enough to open.” They are angry. As my hon. Friend Dr Allin-Khan mentioned, they see the Government wasting money on PPE contracts, and they are told that there is nothing extra to give them. That fuels the sense of injustice and unfairness.

The £20 a head business support grant is a one-off payment, and no account has been taken of the amount of time that restrictions may be in place in an area. That is putting an indescribable amount of pressure on business owners, who have no idea when they will be allowed to open. That is creating a gulf in support across the city. How is it right that businesses in tier 1 areas have received the same package of support for a 28-day national lockdown as businesses in tier 3? We have already spent weeks under the tightest restrictions, and there is a feeling of unfairness. Surely we need to look again at the discretionary support that is being provided for businesses in tier 3.

This pandemic is not an equaliser. We did not start from the same position, and it has not impacted everybody equally. We started from a weaker position because we had a decade of cuts and underfunding. Hull is one of the most deprived areas in the country. Our claimant count is now over 11%. I have mentioned this before, but between 2009 and 2019, on this Conservative Government’s watch, real wages grew by 1%. The Government can repeat their mantra, “Oh, we’re levelling up” as many times as they want, but we need deeds not words. When are we actually going to see some action? Six years ago, we were promised a direct rail route from Hull all the way to Liverpool—six years ago, but we are yet to see it anywhere.

I like to be an optimist, however, so I say to the Minister that I am still hoping for a positive reply to the Hull and Humber NHS trust request for new mental health facilities in the city. I hope that when she looks at the relative areas of need in Hull, she will look favourably on that request, because our hospitals have been hard hit.

I have mentioned the 334 pubs, but there are 131 restaurants unable to open and 109 cafés. Some 574 businesses in total are potentially going bankrupt, with people’s life’s work destroyed. We have mentioned the excluded, and I draw the Minister’s attention again to Charles Cracknell and the young entrepreneurs who have missed out on any funding throughout this pandemic.

I have a few other businesses to highlight. Hotham’s Gin School and Distillery is suffering terribly. It is a place where—when it is open again, everyone is very welcome to come—people can make their own gin, sample it, taste it and take it home at the end. It won a silver award for having the second best customer experience in the country under VisitEngland, but it is unable to open and facing huge costs without the support needed from Government to cover it. Events Made with Love, another events company, organises and supports weddings. It ordered everything for an event before the second lockdown was announced and everything had to be refunded to the customer. That is another business.

There is Lion Heart Hot Yoga studio—I made the request directly to the Government, “Why were yoga studios excluded from being able to open and yet other areas able to do so?” Again, it does not seem to make sense to me. Where is the logic in that? Fancy dress companies are not seeing any business through Christmas and did not see any business through Halloween, missing out on their busiest time. These are all small and medium-sized enterprises. They are not multinational companies with big pockets so they can pay their way out of this. These are small, family-run companies seeing their businesses destroyed.

I wrote to the Chancellor on 7 December asking him to look again at the discretionary support grant applied to Hull. I have had no reply yet. We are not asking for special treatment; we are asking for fair treatment: compensate us for the length of time that we are spending in tier 3; apply the same judgment to our data as the Government are applying to other areas of the country when deciding which tier we should be in; compensate us for the weaker position that we were put in by this Government at the beginning of the pandemic; give our businesses the support they need to survive; stop people who are trying to do the right thing facing financial penalties; look at that self-isolation payment; give us the support we need to roll out the vaccination. People in Hull West and Hessle are resilient and determined. All we are asking for is our fair share of support so that we can build our own recovery.

Photo of Mark Fletcher Mark Fletcher Conservative, Bolsover 7:03 pm, 14th December 2020

I am one of a number of colleagues speaking from the Government Benches this evening who was elected for the first time a year ago. On that joyous night, I do not think any of us foresaw quite what we were about to face over the past year. I hope that we have done our best and served our constituencies to the best of our abilities, but it has been a sharp learning curve, and I certainly did not expect to have to start a speech a year on saying that I send my sincerest condolences to those who have lost their lives in my constituency and elsewhere over the past year. It has been a time of tremendous challenge and one that I hope I never have to live through again.

There have been a number of covid debates over the past few months and I have not always been able to get on to the call list, so Members should forgive me as I add my general thank yous to so many people who have stepped up and done amazing things over the past few months. I include, of course, our NHS workers. My constituency is blessed to be served by three fantastic hospitals: Chesterfield Royal Hospital; King’s Mill Hospital; and Bassetlaw Hospital. The overwhelming consensus is that those three hospitals have been absolutely superb and have served my constituents and others with tremendous distinction. The care home staff, many of whom I have spoken to, have done such wonderful things. Let me mention in particular the care home managers who were so forthright and so determined to keep their homes safe. Some of the most emotional phone calls that I have had over the past few months have been with those care home managers who have taken on this project so passionately and so personally.

I pay tribute to the community groups and volunteers who have stepped up and served so selflessly. They have made sure that people have had food to eat and people to talk to and have done such amazing work. I also pay tribute to all those who have shielded and who have sacrificed themselves to keep safe. Then, of course, there are all those who have kept working as well. We so often forget those who have kept going, so I pay tribute to those in manufacturing jobs; to the shopkeepers who have served their communities; to the supermarket staff; to our rubbish collectors; to our council staff; to our postal workers; and to so many others. There are too many to mention and to list, but it has been a profoundly moving experience to hear so many wonderful stories.

This has been a challenge for our nation, the like of which I have not known in my lifetime. It was back in February and March when what was happening with this virus really dawned on us. The news was filled with so many stories about having to start testing, and then having to secure PPE. It is quite amazing how far we have come in that time. The fact is that we now have national producers and manufacturers of PPE, which effectively means that we can be self-sufficient. We have warehouses full of the stuff to protect our NHS workers and it all happened in such a short space of time. Then there is the fact that we can now carry out more than 500,000 tests every single day. I remember when we were carrying out about 1,000 tests and when 100,000 tests seemed a mile away. There are so many people who have been involved in making that happen. Again, the list is too long to mention, but we must not lose sight of how far we have come.

Then, of course, we have the vaccine: to think that we have so many vaccines ready to come down the track, as long as we get the approval; to think that we were the first country in the world to approve a vaccine; and to think that, last week, we started getting that vaccine out to people across this country. What a moment of hope and pride that was for this country.

So much nonsense has been written on social media and allowed to circulate about this vaccine and about its so-called evil effects. I am sure that Bill Gates is over the moon that he controls us all, day in, day out, but we must not let that nonsense put people off from having this vaccine, because it will save lives. Everybody who can have it, should have it. It is incumbent on every Member of this House and every right-minded person to say, “That is absolute nonsense. This vaccine is safe.” It has been tested to the highest possible standards, and we should not circulate anything other than that—sorry, Mr Gates.

We should also remember our economic support and quite how much has been pumped into our economy. The level of Government action and support that we have seen over the past few months is unprecedented. I appreciate that there are Members in every part of this House who will say, “What about x sector, what about y sector?” I have tremendous sympathy with some of those arguments, but we must not lose sight of that bigger picture.

I share many of the concerns raised by my hon. Friend Adam Holloway, because there are two particular sectors that need highlighting. One is the events industry and the other is pubs and hospitality. I agreed with Emma Hardy when she said that pubs are at the heart of northern and midlands communities, and that they play a special role. We are asking certain industries that are reliant on people coming together to suspend that for the moment, which is a tremendous challenge. We need to look at those particular industries again and question whether we are doing all that we can for them.

We had a wonderful moment in Derbyshire on Saturday, when the Government announced the local authorities that will begin community testing. I am incredibly grateful to the Minister. I have spoken to her and several of her colleagues at the Department of Health and Social Care to ensure that we get community testing in Derbyshire. The plan at the moment is that Derbyshire County Council will roll out five testing sites across Bolsover. This is a vital step in making sure that we eradicate the virus locally. Lateral flow tests have an important role in that.

I cannot thank the Department enough for its proactive engagement. I place on the record my thanks to Derbyshire County Council and my fellow Conservative Derbyshire MPs, who worked together consistently and for very many hours over the past few weeks to ensure that our bid was as tight as it could be. The fact that testing is being rolled out in the next couple of weeks says an awful lot about the quality of the bid that was put together. It is a hugely important step for my constituency.

It is hard to overstate how difficult this period has been or the sacrifices my constituents have made to help us get the numbers back down and to help us in our bid to get into tier 2. I doubt there is an MP in the House who does not want to get out of tier 3 if they are in it. I understand that the Government will look at a wide range of data. I spoke to the Minister last week about my hope that the data will be made publicly available and that the decision will be made as transparently as possible. I also understand that the Department is rightly filled with a cautious bias: it understands that Christmas is coming and that that might have a certain impact, so it wants to take the safest possible course of action. However, I am sure I speak for all Derbyshire MPs when I say that we are desperate to get out of tier 3. I imagine that will be heard from other Members.

Finally, I want to touch on the impact this period has had on people’s mental health. It is hard to overstate the impact that taking away people’s daily routine and normal social contact has had. Those intimate moments that people have with their friends and family have been replaced with a climate of fear and uncertainty—fear of catching the disease and becoming ill; fear of what might happen if one of their relatives or friends catches the disease.

It is striking to find how many people I have talked to seem to have been impacted by this period. We are very lucky in that we get to come to this place of work. Many people have not had that and have spent many months being incredibly scared. I spoke to one young lady in my surgery on Friday called Cara, who spoke passionately about her love of ice skating. Not having ice skating in her life had taken away her entire routine, her social group and the structure that she is used to and loves. That is just one example of many conversations of that nature.

Yes, the Government have done remarkably well given all the circumstances; yes, I would like pubs to get more support; yes, the vaccine offers a source of hope that we all need, but I think we will be living with the mental after-effects of this disease for some time to come.

Photo of Mary Foy Mary Foy Labour, City of Durham 7:13 pm, 14th December 2020

With the Health Secretary’s announcement today, there will rightly be a lot of focus on the spread of covid-19 in the UK and the questions it raises about the effectiveness of the Government’s tier system, as my hon. Friend Emma Hardy pointed out powerfully. However, I want to use the debate to raise the impact of covid-19 across the world. Last week, the People’s Vaccine Alliance—a collection of organisations including Oxfam, Global Justice Now and Amnesty International—called for the pharmaceutical companies that are developing covid-19 vaccines to share their information and to waive their intellectual property rights to all vaccines, tests and treatments until the threat of the virus has abated. To do so would massively increase the global supply of vaccine doses and save countless lives. Now is not the time to put profit before people, and I would like to make clear my support for this proposal.

Through an analysis of data collected by Airfinity, the People’s Vaccine Alliance has highlighted the dangers that an unequitable distribution of coronavirus vaccine poses. Its work has revealed that 67 of the world’s poorest countries will be able to vaccinate only one in 10 of their population. In contrast, wealthier countries have acquired enough doses to vaccinate their population three times over, while Canada could potentially vaccinate its population of five times over. All in all, the most well-off states that make up just 14% of the world’s population have bought 53% of the doses of vaccines most likely to be successful. It is so disheartening, and arguably dangerous, that 96% of Pfizer’s doses have been acquired by wealthy nations. While it is welcome that 64% of the Oxford AstraZeneca vaccine has been made available to developing nations, it will still only be enough for 18% of the world’s population. This is clearly not right.

Covid-19 has, sadly, shone a spotlight on the susceptibility to ill health of those in the most deprived communities, as well as the disproportionate impact of coronavirus on the world’s poorest. In the UK, those in our most deprived communities have been about twice as likely to die as those in the least deprived. With this in mind, it cannot be right that the wealthiest countries have enough doses to vaccinate more than their entire population while the most impoverished nations are unable even to vaccinate their healthcare workers and their most vulnerable. In times of crisis, it is easy to panic and to look after our own, but the reactionary response is rarely the best one. In the UK, we are no more deserving of the lifeline that a vaccine offers than any other nation. In order to uphold our human rights obligations, we must ensure that there is equal access to vaccines across the world. However, an equal sharing of vaccine resources is not just morally correct, it is also beneficial to the UK. As the director of Frontline AIDS said:

“This pandemic is a global problem that requires a global solution. The global economy will continue to suffer so long as much of the world does not have access to a vaccine.”

As a country, we cannot look to end this crisis simply by eliminating the virus within our own borders, because for as long as it exists, public health will be at risk and economies will be weakened.

I remind this House of our obligation, as a wealthy country, to the rest of the world. I urge nations from around the world to reject the pull of vaccine nationalism and to consider the world’s most vulnerable. To those who say, “We must put British interests first”, I say that beating this virus and reducing global poverty is a British interest. We must remember that when it comes to covid-19, none of us are safe until all of us are safe.

Photo of Jack Brereton Jack Brereton Conservative, Stoke-on-Trent South 7:18 pm, 14th December 2020

When I spoke in the general debate on covid last month, I accepted that the worsening statistics made it inevitable that England would face national restrictions, but in doing so I had hoped that Stoke-on-Trent would avoid tier 3. Sadly, that was not to be, given the rapid rise in cases and the pressures that our health system faced, and the new tier 3 that we are currently in is still more restrictive than what we had hoped to see.

Despite considerable progress locally, thanks to everyone’s efforts in getting rates down in Stoke-on-Trent, daily case numbers still remain relatively high, and the seven-day rate threatens once more to rise to in excess of 300 per 100,000. It would be a huge shame if the city slipped back, given the great progress we have already made. We must keep our focus on what matters most to each and every one of us, whether our families, our jobs, our mental health, our children, our grandparents or whatever it might be, and that relies on us getting out of tier 3 and defeating covid as soon as possible.

We have achieved so much working together—we have gone from being one of the worst 10 hotspots to being not even in the worst 30—yet as we approach Christmas and community testing and vaccines are being rolled out, a minority of people might be on the verge of throwing away the hard-won advances from the whole city’s efforts. Many families will be relieved that they can see loved ones over the Christmas period—many will not have seen one another for months—and many will want to see one another over this important period, but I urge people to be sensible and not take unnecessary risks.

The clear case we had hoped to see, and which we were close to seeing, for Stoke-on-Trent and Staffordshire leaving tier 3 now looks unlikely. As a number of hon. Members have already said, we are absolutely desperate to get out of tier 3, but the sad reality is that it looks like we will have to ask for further sacrifices and resolution to control the spread of this awful virus. Our NHS has taken the brunt locally—especially the Royal Stoke—and we will never be able to thank the staff enough for all they have done. We must continue to get the virus under control and help our hospitals, NHS and care workers who have faced unimaginable pressures—often at great risk to themselves—to care for others. The only way we can do that is by keeping covid rates down, reducing the numbers needing hospital treatment and saving lives. We can all play our part in that.

What is especially needed now is to get the last leg of testing systems right and ensure we identify the one in three cases thought to be asymptomatic. I am pleased to see an expansion in lateral flow community testing across Stoke-on-Trent and thank the city council and public health officials who made that possible for their work. They have done an incredible job. However, it is vital that the Government commit to expanding capacity further in Stoke-on-Trent over the Christmas and new year periods.

Alongside that, we are given hope, with the vaccination programme well under way, focused now on those most at risk and frontline health and care workers. It was hugely welcome to hear the deputy chief medical officer, Jonathan Van-Tam, suggest that through phase 1 of the vaccine roll-out up to 99% of covid deaths might be avoided. I know the vaccine roll-out in Stoke-on-Trent is progressing extremely well through the Royal Stoke, and it is starting in primary care facilities in our communities tomorrow. I am pleased to say that includes my own grandfather, Graham Brereton, who tells me he should receive a vaccine later this week.

There is much-needed light at the end of the tunnel, but it is vital to remember that we are still in that tunnel. We must continue to be vigilant and remember hands, face, space and avoid mixing households. Locally, in the weeks ahead we must focus absolutely on community testing and tracing and enforcing the restrictions to give us breathing space until the vaccine is more fully rolled out.

Thanks to the incredible advances of science, we are perhaps just a few months from returning to something resembling normality. I look to the Minister to tell us whether relative normality might be as little as 100 days away. Such a figure, if it is possible to give it, would really focus minds on how much longer the greatest sacrifices will last. We should not be restricting liberty, enterprise, socialising and leisure for a minute more than is necessary, but unfortunately right now—for a relatively short period of time—restrictions remain necessary. We see from Wales the risks of lifting restrictions too quickly, and with restrictions still in place—especially in tier 3—we must do everything possible to support our local businesses and protect jobs and livelihoods. I sympathise incredibly with all businesses forced to close and those that have had their livelihoods put on hold.

Covid has hit so many very hard. The extension of furlough to the end of March was hugely welcome, as was the extension of the self-employment income support scheme. For many businesses in Stoke-on-Trent, there has also been welcome grant support administered through the city council and loans for businesses that need them. Signposting support continues to be a top priority. The hospitality industry has been particularly hard hit, as has the events industry, which my hon. Friend Mark Fletcher mentioned, and retailers are losing out on what is usually the busiest time of their year.

I was pleased to see the Prime Minister announce an additional £1,000 for wet pubs recently. It will be vital to ensure that businesses indirectly impacted by the closure of hospitality, events and leisure are supported. My right hon. Friend Karen Bradley and I will be meeting local businesses tomorrow to discuss their needs in the months ahead. I will continue to push for additional support where it is needed, to get our economy back on track.

It is at the local, everyday level that we will control the spread while we wait for the extraordinary science of vaccination, and improving treatment and testing will enable us to erase restrictions. We must be willing to enforce all measures in an even-handed and proportionate way, which I know has been the case across Stoke-on-Trent and Staffordshire, with Staffordshire police doing an excellent job. In Stoke-on-Trent, successful enforcement action, from iteration of advice to closure and fining of those who have repeatedly broken restrictions, strikes exactly the right balance. That action is necessary and, importantly, is seen to be necessary, with the end goal of mass vaccination clearly now in sight. Regular reviews of which areas belong in which tiers are essential, giving us hope that we can drop down those tiers in the future. I cannot begin to emphasise enough the urgency of opening up again as soon as it is safe to do so, not least for our pubs, restaurants and the leisure industry, and all in our hospitality and those linked to it.

There is huge hope for the future, with the progress of vaccination and more rapid testing. In the meantime, it is vital that we stick with these measures and face short-term sacrifices to give time for them to be rolled out. I will continue to encourage people to get tested and to hold the line in this final leg of our efforts to overcome covid-19.

Photo of Layla Moran Layla Moran Liberal Democrat Spokesperson (International Development), Liberal Democrat Spokesperson (Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs) 7:26 pm, 14th December 2020

I would like to start by remembering all those in my constituency, in Oxfordshire and across the country who have tragically lost their lives. The number of people dying at present is thankfully fewer than it was before—it is in the handfuls—but for every single one, there is a family who has lost someone just before Christmas. It is right to start by remembering them.

I am sure I speak for many when I say that I cannot wait to see the back of 2020. It has been the most ridiculous year in so many ways, but it has also given us glimpses of hope and positivity. In Oxford West and Abingdon, there are so many people to thank, because they deserve it and they are working so incredibly hard, but I will just name a few. I think of the Abingdon Bridge, a group that works with deprived young people who often have nowhere else to turn. Other Members have spoken about mental health, which affects all parts of society, but I am particularly worried about our young people right now—their loss of chances for the future and their feeling of despair, with many feeling that they have nowhere to turn. It is an incredibly difficult time.

It is a difficult time, too, for families. Furlough has, of course, been welcome, but far too many businesses are on their last legs. They tell me that if Oxfordshire goes up from tier 2 to tier 3 or, even worse, if there is a spike and we go into a national lockdown in January, they will have to close. The very last of their resilience is nearing its end, and those families are finding themselves relying on food banks such as the Cutteslowe Larder, the Botley Fridge and the Oxford Food Bank more than they ever have before. We must thank those volunteers, but we must also make the case for a sustainable way through this crisis. That is what those businesses crave—the stability. They tell me that they would prefer to stay in tier 2 longer than to open up too quickly and risk a spike, which is what we are seeing in some parts of the country now, sadly.

I am proud that many of the scientists who work as part of the Oxford Vaccine Group with Sarah Gilbert and her cohort live in my constituency. They are nothing short of heroes. When the vaccine is approved, as I am sure it will be, they will save lives, and not just in this country. Because this vaccine does not need to be stored in extraordinarily sub-zero temperatures, it will save millions, if not billions, of lives across the globe. Those scientists all deserve extraordinary thanks.

There are others who deserve our thanks. Oxford United have given facemasks not just to their fans, but to the wider community. I have never been more grateful to our local papers, including the Oxford Mail, and to our local BBC networks for covering these extraordinary moments of heroism locally. It has made me and, I am sure, others really appreciate the value of our local broadcasters.

I would be remiss not to mention organisations such as the Children’s Air Ambulance, which has helped some of those most vulnerable families during this time. Of course, I also thank our local NHS teams, GPs, those who work in our care homes and our teachers, who have stuck on the frontline through thick and thin, and are desperate to be included in the first roll-out of the vaccine. That is my ask of the Minister: please encourage the Government to include teachers in that first wave of the roll-out; they desperately need it because they have been there throughout, looking after the children so that others could go to work.

Let me turn to the sustainable way out. It is not fair to say anything other than that the vaccine is the light at the end of the tunnel. It is what we all want to get to, it is how we are going to eliminate this virus. It is the way out, but as miraculous as the vaccine is, we are a long way away from that point. When the Government started hyping up the vaccine, I was disheartened to see in my own area—other Members may have seen this too—that people were thinking, “Oh, it’s around the corner. People are going to get it in December and January, not appreciating that the scale of the task means that in reality we are not going to get there until Easter at the very earliest, and probably much later than that.

Let me tell the House a story from the Oxfordshire trusts today. GP surgeries in north Oxford were lined up to vaccinate the over-80s. They had called people and said, “Come—here’s your appointment.” But at the 11th hour, NHS England contacted them to say, “You haven’t quite got the right information in the right place. Computer says no. Stand everyone down.” The disappointment among my constituents was palpable. There was frustration in the clinical commissioning group and the GP surgeries, which had worked through the weekend and overnight to ensure that the vaccine was available. I say this not to apportion any blame, but to point out that these kinds of mistake will happen. There will be hiccups on this road. We cannot assume that this will be over quickly.

Photo of Jim Shannon Jim Shannon Shadow DUP Spokesperson (Human Rights), Shadow DUP Spokesperson (Health)

Does the hon. Lady agree that over Christmas there is an onus on us all, in and outside the House, to follow the rules of hands, face and space, not to invite extra numbers to our Christmas dinner, and to wear a mask and keep our distance when we go shopping? If we do all those things, then with the vaccine we can beat the virus.

Photo of Layla Moran Layla Moran Liberal Democrat Spokesperson (International Development), Liberal Democrat Spokesperson (Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs)

The hon. Gentleman could not have put it better. I am the chair of the all-party group on coronavirus. We launched a report a couple of weeks ago, and as part of that launch I said that, as much as we all feel the need to be with our families, what the Government are doing by relaxing the restrictions is a bit of a gamble, because we do not know which way the virus is going to go. I am sorry to say that every time that I have stood up in this place and suggested that there might be a spike in a few weeks’ time, people have said, “Oh no, stop being such a naysayer. It’s not going to happen.” We have to accept that every time we think that we have got one over on this virus, it wins.

At this point, it seems inevitable that we are going to face a further spike in January and that we are going to go up in tiers, but it does not have to be that way. The Government could follow what other Governments have done across Europe and be honest with the public about the likely outcome, making the point that they do not have to use the relaxed restrictions. Actually, because of where we are now, I think it is time for the Government to rethink those Christmas relaxations. I say that with deep regret.

Photo of Jacob Young Jacob Young Conservative, Redcar

Does the hon. Lady not agree with me that people will still mix in households at Christmas anyway? The purpose of relaxing the restrictions is to provide people with a legal framework, so that someone wanting to mix with four or five households might just stick to the three-household limit because the Government are saying, “Well, you can mix, but try to keep it limited.” It is about trying to help people and guide them into proper household mixing, as opposed to a free-for-all.

Photo of Layla Moran Layla Moran Liberal Democrat Spokesperson (International Development), Liberal Democrat Spokesperson (Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs)

I have a lot of sympathy with that view. If we look back over the last few months, whenever we have reduced restrictions, that has worked—it can work—but the problem we have is that, combined with the euphoria over the vaccine, we have the situation where people are not just going to mix with three other households, but may also bend the rules a bit around that, so we will end up right at the limit. R is just below 1: there is no headroom left. I appreciate what the hon. Gentleman is saying and I understand it, but my fear is that it is just not going to work that way.

Photo of Chris Loder Chris Loder Conservative, West Dorset

I have to say that, from my personal experiences as the Member for West Dorset, the rates are continuing to go down. It has shown very clearly the levels of self-responsibility from the constituents in West Dorset. So would the hon. Member agree that actually, contrary to some of the points she made, there are indeed places throughout the country where the rates are going down and maybe where the tiers should be considered to be lowered, rather than maintained or increased?

Photo of Layla Moran Layla Moran Liberal Democrat Spokesperson (International Development), Liberal Democrat Spokesperson (Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs)

I thank the hon. Member for his point, and I can absolutely understand why, from his point of view, he might think that. What I would also say is that there were moments when we thought the south-east was going down, and now we have this variant and it is going up. What we do not know is how many people had been travelling from one area to the other or, indeed, what is going to come next, unless it were the case that the virus and R were going down in case numbers everywhere in the country and there was suppression.

I will for a moment digress on the three steps that the all-party group on coronavirus suggested that the Government follow. One is control—control was the lockdown—which means bringing R below 1, so that there is some headroom. Yes, it is making use of test, trace and isolate, but it also makes the point that places that do have locally led test, trace and isolate programmes are doing better, and that needs to be followed absolutely everywhere. It needs to be something that we take very seriously, and if local areas need extra support and money to do so, they should get it.

Step 2 is the bit that is missing: suppress before we get to eliminate the virus, which comes with the vaccine. Suppress is characterised by all areas, by and large, going down in the tiers, but we have never seen that. As we have gone down in tiers, almost immediately the rate starts to go up again, and that is the problem. By releasing restrictions too quickly, we end up in this boom and bust situation with the virus, and that is what is so damaging to businesses. What we suggest is that we keep people in the lowest possible tier, but that the tiers are beefed up more than they are now. Bluntly, if we stay there for longer and are honest with people, that allows businesses to plan.

Then we move to eliminate phase, which comes with the vaccine, if we get to that point. That is how we see ourselves through in the short and medium term, not just in the long term.

Photo of Craig Mackinlay Craig Mackinlay Conservative, South Thanet 7:38 pm, 14th December 2020

It is good to have the floor for more than the 180 seconds that was allowed in the debate before the last lockdown, which only gave us time to say our name and serial number.

I pay a very great tribute to the Government for what they have achieved. I think one of the crowning glories of what has been achieved in some of the testing data is the granularity of borough-by-borough data, which I will refer to that a little later. We have rolled out polymerase chain reaction—PCR—testing to a higher percentage of our population than anywhere else in the world. I had some doubt that we would ever reach 100,000 a day, let alone half a million, so this has been a real triumph in flexibility that our country has been able to achieve. We are now seeing the roll-out of lateral flow testing. Thanet schools will have the mobile testing units landing very shortly, as will other parts of Kent.

We have had a level of financial support that is almost unparalleled anywhere in the world. Of course, some businesses have not got what they thought they deserved, but we have to accept that this was new ground; we did not know what was around the corner and different support schemes had to be rolled out very quickly.

Then, of course, our own MRHA, the council that approves medicines, has rolled out at high speed but with absolute safety the first of the vaccines for licence around the world—the Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine—and there are others coming round the corner. The one that we all hope for is the home-grown Oxford/AstraZeneca vaccine—a rather more traditional vaccine, which is easier to store and administer. What is coming out of the billions that have been spent around the world in a very short time is this new messenger RNA-style of vaccine. Once we are out of covid, there could be—maybe, doubtless, possibly—a similar type of pandemic in years to come, and we will be better armed to respond rapidly to it, so hopefully our planet will not be in this situation once more.

We look at the vaccines as the way out of this, but we have to tell some truths. Some are being rolled out as we speak: my father of 86 is getting his vaccine No. 1 this Friday, and tomorrow vaccinations are being rolled out locally from GP surgeries in my Thanet constituency. That is all great news, but there are 66 million people in this country, and we need two vaccinations. We have limitations on the delivery of the vaccines and there is global demand for exactly the same product, so we need honesty about how we will scale it up and deliver it. It is not just about the numbers; it is also about the availability of staff and those who are able to vaccinate. It is a major undertaking.

We must pay real tribute to the NHS staff who have stepped up to the plate, shown massive flexibility and kept the show on the road. We all have fantastic communities that have been looking after the old people in their streets, church groups that have done their bit, and food banks and similar organisations that have risen to the challenge. The Minister, who is looking at me intently, can be quite sure that that is the end of my unalloyed congratulations for where we have got to thus far. I still have a number of fundamental concerns about the moving science that we are living under, and I aired some of them in the previous debate.

We had the ridiculous situation that, as we approached lockdown version 2, we pretty much banned everything. We banned swimming, gyms, golf courses and non-essential shops. We had what I then called the Wilkinson conundrum: the big shops could open, but the small shops selling some of what the big shops were selling were not allowed to open at all. We could not have group worship. Thankfully, under tier 3 and tier 2—obviously, 99% of the country is now under tiers 2 and 3, and the whole of Kent is under tier 3—some common sense has prevailed. All those shops can open, and we can indulge in group worship and do quite a number of the things that we could not before. That indicates that there has been some granularity of thought about these things—funnily enough, exactly what I was saying some months earlier—and it determined that those things were not so dangerous after all.

I am not here to be part of the difficult squad. I know I am in the Covid Recovery Group. I am attempting to be a serious critical friend of the Government, but we still have our hospitality industry, which many right hon. and hon. Members have mentioned this evening, and I suspect that more following me will do so. I feel that, because we are getting somewhat desperate to get out of this mess, we are losing sight of what works and what does not work. I find it hard to believe that we will all be going Christmas shopping. I am sure the density in our supermarkets will be that much higher over the next 10 to 12 days, as we scramble around for the cranberry sauce and the turkey. That is allowed. The nail bars and the hairdressers, thankfully, are allowed. [Laughter.] Well, my nails are not looking too bad. But we are not allowed to go to a well-managed location of hospitality, and I just cannot see the sense of that.

I still have my concerns about the economics of tier 3 and lockdowns. I think London will suffer greatly over the next couple of weeks. We still have not really seen the analysis of what other deaths may be caused because people are too fearful of going to health locations. Macmillan Cancer Support said just this morning that lockdown version one is likely to have led to 50,000 people not seeking the help for an early diagnosis that they might have sought. That means that once they are diagnosed, their cancer may have advanced to a higher level and treatment will be more invasive, more expensive and more unpleasant—and there will be deaths.

I am not sure we are considering the effect on mental health sufficiently. I know that has been mentioned on the Floor of the House many times. There is not just one example, but I think very much of the multi-generational family business of some standing, with a bit of a status in the community, that goes bankrupt through no fault of its own. I worry about the likelihood of suicide in such instances.

Her Majesty’s Treasury is very capable of modelling almost anything—it certainly tried to model Brexit over many years—yet it seems incapable of properly modelling the economic impact of these ongoing lockdowns. We had the spending review and the Office for Budget Responsibility report just a couple of weeks ago, which suggested that, at the mid-way point—a sort of tier 2 point—there is a permanent 3% scarring of our economy. Obviously, tier 3 has to be a little worse, if not a lot worse. As we have discussed on the Floor of the House over many years, there are reports from diverse organisations that say that long-term poverty, and the scarring of our economy that this will cause, will lead to worse life opportunities, fewer life chances and shorter lives. None of that has been factored in at all.

Let me turn to a couple of points that I hope the Minister will take away. I mentioned how useful the granularity of borough data has been. I think we all watch that avidly. Strangely, Thanet, part of which is in my South Thanet constituency, was at the very highest level of infection rates per 100,000 a few weeks ago, despite having been in the very lowest league at the end of the summer. I cannot explain that; I do not know why. We have our backs to the sea, and we do not have a community that mixes like a big city may. Thankfully, though, it is the only borough in the whole of Kent where the figures are now just on the way down. We are at 425 per 100,000 today, whereas we were at over 500 just a couple of weeks ago. That compares with a national average of 181.

My concern as we go forward is that we have seen that the tiers only get stricter. We have these five bases on which we are trying to interpret whether an area should go up or down. We have the pure numbers—that rate per 100,000, which we have all become very familiar with. I do not know what the threshold is between tier 1 and tier 2; it seems to be around 200, but I am really not sure. The shape of the graph is important: is it going up exponentially, or is it plateauing and going down? There are also the bases of the rate of infection among the over-60s, the most at-risk group for obvious reasons, and the positivity rate and whether that is going up or down. I have no idea about positivity rates—whether a rate of 2% is good or 10% is bad. Then, of course, there is the pressure on the NHS.

Concentrating on the pure numbers, however, I think that could be one of the tools by which we keep a lid on this—squash the sombrero and bide our time until we get to the vaccine. I do not know about any other Members in this House, but those numbers have really worked on me. At the end of the summer, when Thanet numbers were low, we had a spring in our step; we were not quite so worried—we were quite happy to walk down the high street to go shopping, and if we saw somebody without a mask on it did not really worry us too much. However, as those numbers have got to very high levels, I know that my behaviour has changed. If I see someone in the supermarket without a mask on —thankfully, it is a pretty rare event these days—I give them a very wide berth, of not just 2 metres but perhaps 3. I think we just do more careful things, too: we carry our hand sanitisers with us on a daily basis when our local numbers are high. I have the feeling that those numbers could be the most powerful tool in affecting behaviour.

Of course, the last of the five bases that we have to consider is pressure on the NHS, and I have a number of concerns about that. The community can affect the other bases—people can do something for themselves—but they can do very little, I am afraid, about what is happening in our hospitals.

I am very concerned. Last week a number of hospitals were reporting the percentage of their in-patients who had acquired covid within the hospital location. If our hospitals are under pressure, that creates more pressure for them. I find it hard to believe that this—the so-called nosocomial infection rate—cannot be solved. It was reported last week in The Daily Telegraph that 10,000 patients could have been affected, and we are all hearing about this. I am afraid I am hearing about it far too often; I hear about when patients go in for a routine treatment and are placed in a hot ward—in a mixed ward with others who are covid-positive. Last week, I watched ITV—national ITV—report on a situation at Medway Maritime Hospital. Few things really shock me these days, but this really did. A chap called Paul Tucker, aged 57, went into hospital with a serious condition that was nothing to do with covid and he died because he was in a mixed ward with covid-positive patients.

I can give another example, about someone I know: an old gentleman who broke his leg and went in for treatment. He came out solved, but he had had a covid test the day before discharge and no test result came forward. He went home for five days, and in those five days he had up to five carers attending to him every day—he is a gentleman on his own with no family living nearby—and on day five the hospital rang and said, “Ah, really sorry, but the test was a bit late: you’re positive.” Five carers every day had been attending a man they thought was covid-negative, and those same carers would be going out to possibly 10 different clients on a daily basis. The declared hospital-acquired infection figures that we are hearing do not count infections that have been created by such new spider’s webs because of a failure in a hospital. If there is a takeaway from tonight, Minister, it is that I beg you to get infection control under control in our hospitals.

I think I will leave it there, Madam Deputy Speaker, but these are serious times. We are not going to be out of this immediately or any time soon. Rolling out 66 million vaccines, times two, will take time. We need to live with the virus in a sensible way, and going in and out of lockdown, with the damage to health, the economy and mental health, must form part of the balance sheet of how a nation deals with this infection.

I give the Government great credit for their achievements. They are world class. Very few nations in the world can say that they did it as well and as rapidly as we have tried to do it. It is all very well being the specialist after the event, saying what might have been or what we could have done that might have been better, but the world is not like that. I give top marks to the Government, but there are some takeaways that could make it even better before we are fully out of the woods.

Photo of Rosie Winterton Rosie Winterton Deputy Speaker (First Deputy Chairman of Ways and Means)

Order. There is not that much pressure on time, but we have to be slightly conscious that everyone will want an equal go.

Photo of Tim Farron Tim Farron Liberal Democrat Spokesperson (Environment, Food and Rural Affairs), Liberal Democrat Lords Spokesperson (Communities and Local Government), Liberal Democrat Spokesperson (Housing, Communities and Local Government) 7:55 pm, 14th December 2020

Point taken, Madam Deputy Speaker. Thank you very much for calling me.

This has been the most peculiar of years. When we look at the media coverage of where we are with the virus, the vaccine, all the political issues that go alongside that, and the challenges over how the Government are handling things—well, badly or indifferently—many of us overlook what an appalling tragedy this has been and continues to be. Sixty-four thousand people in this country have lost their lives. Around 600 people or more in my county have lost their lives, and I knew dozens of them. One thinks about those people for whom Christmas will be not just lonely, difficult and challenging because of the restrictions we are all under, but a time of deep distress because they have lost someone close to them in the last nine months. When we see debates about the necessity of lockdown or restrictions of one kind or another, we need to remember what it is we are seeking to do: it is to save lives, and it will continue to be to save lives.

The tragedy that has hit my community, as it has every other community, feels almost too much to bear. We are a community where the average age is 10 years above the national average age in the United Kingdom. We are an area that, after London, is the next most visited place in the United Kingdom—the Lake district. Arguments are made about whether that meant that we had a higher than average incidence of the virus early on. We do not know that; what we do know is the way in which communities have responded to the virus.

In community after community, whether in our large town of Kendal, in Windermere, Grasmere, Ambleside and Sedbergh or in smaller places like Dent, Coniston, my own village of Milnthorpe, Arnside and Grange—everywhere I could mention in my patch, which is bigger than Greater London, and by the way I could mention another hundred—people have stepped up to take responsibility and have been desperate to meet the needs of their neighbours, though their own needs may be very significant. I pay tribute to every single one of them. I am proud to represent the south lakes and to represent those communities. Diverse though they are, they are also utterly determined to support one another.

There are so many within those communities who deserve our thanks and support, such as those working in care homes. I talked to one lady who worked in a care home, and not even a particularly large one, in my community. Back in April, on one night she saw nine residents lose their lives—in a single night. That was a tragedy for every single one of those people and every single one of those families. What does that mean? What does it feel like to be somebody who works in a place like that, administering love, care and concern for people as they go through their last moments? What is the cumulative impact on the mental health and wellbeing of people working in those communities?

We say thank you very often, and it is right that we do so in this place, but I want people who work in care homes, personal carers and those who work in the health service to know that we are not saying it glibly—we really, really mean it. We are utterly in their debt for the way they have cared for people at their moment of greatest need.

I think also of another group of people in a community like mine, where unemployment has gone up nearly sevenfold over the period of the pandemic: people who work for the Department for Work and Pensions in the jobcentre. They are people who serve people—people who perhaps were living in a state of relative comfort back in February or March, and then discovered that everything had collapsed around them. They are there for people at a moment of desperate need. They are not the only people, but I just want to draw them to the front of our attention. I thank those people on the frontline who have been supporting others who found themselves in need of benefits when they never thought in advance that they would.

I could say so many things about those who have stepped up to the mark at this time, but I also wish to pay tribute to those who have ensured that we have got to a stage where a vaccine is imminent—it turns out that we do need experts, after all. I am utterly indebted to those people, be they in this country or elsewhere, who have used their expertise and brilliance to do in 10 months what we would normally expect to take 10 years. Here is the thing that concerns me: we are close, potentially, to seeing light at the end of the tunnel and we can almost sense people beginning not to dip for the tape but to just let their guard drop. On behalf of everyone in this Chamber and beyond, I just want to say that this is the moment for utmost vigilance.

My dad was sharing that very thought with me the other day and he made the analogy with those tragic people who fell in the hours before the guns stopped on 11 November 1918. What a particular tragedy it was to be those who died at the end when the end was in sight. That is what we have ahead of us now, which is why if we need to tighten up restrictions over Christmas, miserable though that may be, we must think, “For pity’s sake, don’t we want our loved ones to see summer? Aren’t we prepared to make some restrictions now?” We know we are not going to have to live with this for years and years. We know that the light at the end of the tunnel is now visible. That is a glorious thing we can cling on to, but it is not an excuse to let our guard down—in fact, it is the opposite of that.

I want to encourage Ministers to think carefully about how the vaccine is administered. Of course, it should go first to those who are the most vulnerable, and those working in care homes and in the national health service. I have talked about the scale of my constituency, so it is great that we are likely to have a centre in Kendal and in Windermere, and we are looking at centres being rolled out through the primary care network, through GP surgeries and the like. I encourage the NHS within Lancashire and south Cumbria to ensure that there are centres in places such as Grange-over-Sands and Sedbergh, and other more rural, remote parts of Cumbria, so that this is not hard to access, particularly for people who are older and more vulnerable.

A community such as mine, which relies so heavily on tourism, with half the workforce working in tourism, has been deeply hit by the coronavirus. We operate on a feast and famine basis in hospitality and tourism, with the winter famine and the summer feast, and then back to the winter famine. The problem for us is that we have had three winters in a row. The Government’s investment in hospitality and tourism early on was of real benefit. Those £10,000 grants ensured that many businesses that would have failed were able to take advantage of the unlocking through the summer, so July and August were not a bad couple of months for hospitality and tourism in the lakes and the dales. I suggest to the Government that their failure at this point to repeat that grant support on that scale risks throwing away all the advantages they got from supporting hospitality and tourism in the early part of the year. What is the point of investing billions into it only to let those companies die in the next couple of months, so that when we are able to get back to some kind of normality, rather than having a hospitality and tourism industry ready to fight back and bounce back, we may have a bunch of dead businesses? So I encourage the Government now to repeat those £10,000 loans, to support hospitality and tourism.

I also encourage the Government to recognise the challenges faced in areas such as mine, which have been in tier 1 and are now tier 2, and are adjacent to tier 3 areas. The Lake District and Yorkshire Dales are in tier 2, but our neighbouring huge communities, the big population centres, are tier 3 So we are not compensated in the same way as businesses in tier 3 are, but we are massively affected by the fact that people in tier 3 cannot travel to take advantage of the wonderful facilities available in south Cumbria. I encourage the Government to consider making sure that support is provided.

Photo of Jim Shannon Jim Shannon Shadow DUP Spokesperson (Human Rights), Shadow DUP Spokesperson (Health)

With the advent of the vaccine for covid-19 almost here, does the hon. Gentleman feel that an extra push at this time for the goal of being covid-free should be what we all focus on? If we do that—collectively, singly and all together—we can make it happen, and that should be the positive message we are trying to send out from the Chamber tonight.

Photo of Tim Farron Tim Farron Liberal Democrat Spokesperson (Environment, Food and Rural Affairs), Liberal Democrat Lords Spokesperson (Communities and Local Government), Liberal Democrat Spokesperson (Housing, Communities and Local Government)

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his intervention. The fact that we know that the vaccines are now on their way surely changes how we look at all this. It means we now know we are not throwing billions and billions into a pot where we will never see the bottom. We know some kind of end is in sight, so what a terrible waste of tens of billions of the public’s money it would be, were we to be penny pinching in the last part of this pandemic. That is why we should back hospitality and tourism, which is the fourth biggest employer in the country and the biggest employer in Cumbria. It is essential to our economy as a whole and is worth £3.5 billion to the Cumbrian economy every year. This is the point; to invest in hospitality and tourism to see us through to the end.

In my community, there is a preponderance of businesses afflicted by having been excluded from support. Something like 4,000 people in my constituency alone were given no support. We are often talking about people who became self-employed in the past 18 months or so—the directors of small limited companies, hairdressers, personal trainers, taxi drivers and the like—but got nothing throughout this period. People on maternity leave have had their support cut at one end or the other. Often, these are the people—the entrepreneurs—who we will desperately rely on to build back our economy once we are through the coronavirus. Not only is it lacking in compassion for the Government to not back those people who have been excluded, but extremely stupid when they are the engine of our recovery, or at least they would be, if only the Government would help them.

A source of employment and a very important sector within my constituency and constituencies like mine is the outdoor education sector. It has been overlooked in many ways, although I am pleased to be part of the all-party group that Robin Millar chairs, which is looking at how we can support outdoor education.

It is worth bearing in mind that about 15,000 people work in outdoor education around the country, and 6,000 of them have lost their jobs already, largely because residential stays have effectively been banned by the Department for Education under advice from the Department of Health and Social Care. I understand that, although I would argue that residential stays at outdoor education centres are at least as safe as children going to school in the first place.

It is important that we save our outdoor education centres, which are hugely at risk at this point, not only because it is right to save them, but because this is the moment to deploy them. I and others in this Chamber have talked about the impact this period has had on the mental health of young people and their disengagement with education. Those children have lost three months at school, but some of them went back two years as a consequence of all this. In our outdoor education centres, we have the skill and talent to engage young people in learning, to foster a love of learning, to improve their mental health and wellbeing and to engage them with the education process again. Will the Government bring forward a specialist package, as they have in Scotland, to make sure that we lose no more outdoor education centre jobs and protect all our outdoor education centres?

Finally, I will say a couple of words about health in general, but in particular mental health. In my constituency, we saw the closure of our adult mental health ward, the Kentmere ward, at Westmorland General Hospital for covid reasons. We understand why that is the case, and we are pleased that the foundation trust is now putting £5 million into redeveloping that service and opening again within the next year. I encourage Ministers to put pressure on the Lancashire and South Cumbria NHS Foundation Trust to make sure that happens as soon as possible, and also to ensure that it remains a site to support people of all ages and all genders with mental health problems. It is incredibly important that we do not end up at the end of all this with a more exclusive and less accessible mental health service available in South Lakeland.

Finally, cancer. We have learned during this period that there is a backlog in cancer treatment of around 100,000 people. Cancer Research UK estimates that 35,000 additional deaths may happen as a consequence of covid through people dying as a result of cancer. We believe that for every four weeks’ delay in diagnosis and, indeed, in treatment starting, we see a 10% drop in the likelihood of surviving that cancer. I want to encourage the Government to look carefully, if belatedly, at the comprehensive spending review submission that the all-party parliamentary groups on cancer, including the radiotherapy group that I chair, put to the Treasury, but which the Government did not match or fund. That proposal would allow us to massively expand radiotherapy, which would be a way not just of treating people who would normally expect to get radiotherapy but of ensuring that we substitute for those other treatments that are not possible due to covid-19. It would be an absolute tragedy if we ended up losing tens of thousands of people to cancer through this period because the Government did not catch up with cancer when they had the chance to invest and to do so.

Photo of Jacob Young Jacob Young Conservative, Redcar 8:10 pm, 14th December 2020

I know that this is outwith the subject of today’s debate, and the Under-Secretary of State for Health and Social Care, my hon. Friend Jo Churchill, is no longer in her place, but I want to put on record my thanks to her for her work on changing the rules around blood donation for gay and bisexual men, as announced today. Her work and that of her predecessor, my hon. Friend Steve Brine, and the many campaigners on this issue means so much to gay and bisexual men. It will, importantly, boost our blood donations, and I thank her for that.

I want to start by expressing my sincere condolences to all those in Redcar and Cleveland who have lost loved ones to this awful disease. I also want to extend my thanks to our local NHS and care staff. Those at James Cook University Hospital and the Primary Care Hospital in Redcar have done so much, and many more lives would have been lost in Teesside without their tireless dedication over the last few months. I also congratulate Margaret Dixon on being the first person in my constituency to receive the covid-19 vaccine.

I wish to speak on two things in this covid debate. The first is the tier review on Wednesday; the second is our care homes and care agency staff. I know that other colleagues will be making similar pleas to the Department of Health and Social Care in the coming days, but I firmly believe that the people of Redcar and Cleveland have done their bit and deserve to move down the tiers this Wednesday. Some will argue that the ability to move up and down tiers should not be treated like a reward and that there should not be a recognition of the fact that areas have brought their cases under control, but what is the point in tiering if there is no ability to move up and down, and if instead we are locked into a tier indefinitely?

When I last spoke on tiering earlier this month, I described how disappointed I was that Redcar and Cleveland had found itself entering tier 3. However, when that original decision was taken, it was clear that it was sensible and proportionate, given the local data that we faced. As the Secretary of State outlined in his written ministerial statement, our cases were very high at 394 per 100,000 across the region, with positivity also very high at 13.3%. The case rate among the over-60s remained high at 292 per 100,000, and NHS admissions had remained high in November.

However, we are now some weeks on from that decision, and our position has improved greatly. Our case rate is down: in the seven days running up to 11 December, it was 131 per 100,000—a third of what it was when the original tiering decision was taken, and down by 7% on the previous week. Our case numbers for the over-60s have almost halved, sitting at around 150 per 100,000, down from 292 when we were placed in tier 3. Our positivity—the percentage of tests where the outcome is positive—is now 6.6%. This too has halved since the original tiering decision, and our local NHS admissions are down by 60% since their peak on 23 November.

As you can see, Madam Deputy Speaker, I am trying to paint a picture here. On every test set out by the Prime Minister on why areas can move up and down tiers, Redcar and Cleveland is performing. In two days, the Secretary of State will announce our new tier position, and I urge him to look at all this data, look at how we have improved and measure us against that. He has outlined today that London is to move into tier 3, and I fully support him in considering tightening restrictions in areas where cases are rising, but it cannot be that there is no reward for places where efforts have paid off. Many businesses in the hospitality sector are now down on their knees, and with that, those families are suffering. This Christmas will sadly not be much comfort to them in these times of uncertainty. Where stricter measures are put in place in order to bring cases down, those same measures must be lifted when they are not absolutely necessary, in order to bring some balance between saving lives from covid and saving lives from the consequences of economic suffocation.

Secondly, I want to touch on care homes. I pay tribute to all our care workers in Redcar and Cleveland. The Government have done a brilliant job in getting us to the stage where all care home staff can now get weekly testing. Still excluded, however, are care agency staff. I raised this matter in the House on 10 November. The response was that we want to step away from using care agency staff who go between multiple care homes during this period. That can still remain a goal, but our focus has to be on including them in the weekly testing regimes. I spoke to one agency manager who admitted that some of her staff had lied about symptoms to qualify for a PCR test, just so they could go to work, know they were safe and not infect care home residents. Will the Minister look at what more can be done to ensure that this issue can be resolved in the very near future? I would also appreciate assurances that care agency workers will not be overlooked in the roll-out of the vaccine, as they are just as much at risk as those who work in dedicated care homes full time.

Across Redcar and Cleveland, most of our care homes are saying that they will not be allowing any visitors before Christmas. I am surprised about that, given the announcements the Government have made on lateral flow testing for care homes and other measures, such as including family and regular visitors in weekly testing. The Minister and I have spoken about that previously. Will she consider looking specifically at Redcar and Cleveland and helping us to discover what the blockages are in the system, to ensure that people can see their loved ones at this important time?

To finish, I want to recap on that all-important data: 131 cases, down two-thirds from 390; over-60 cases, 150, down by almost half from 290; positivity at 6.6%, down by half on 13.3%; and NHS admissions down by 60% since their peak in November. It cannot be that the same people who follow the rules and help to improve case numbers in their community, continue to be punished and their livelihoods destroyed when the risk of infection is now much, much lower. There has to be fairness in the way we deal with this crisis and we need to take into account all other economic, social and health factors that may also cause great damage if ignored. My constituents deserve recognition for the good results on the ground. I hope the Secretary of State and the Minister will look favourably on their circumstances.

Photo of Sara Britcliffe Sara Britcliffe Conservative, Hyndburn 8:17 pm, 14th December 2020

I want to put on record my sincerest condolences to all the families in Hyndburn and Haslingden who have lost loved ones far sooner than they ever should have due to this awful virus. There will be a chair at the dining table that will be empty this Christmas because of it.

I need to say a huge thank you to the whole Department, the Secretary of State and Ministers for how responsive they have been throughout and for really listening to what we needed in Hyndburn and Haslingden. I know I have been pestering for quite a number of things. I have highlighted the specific needs of my constituents. One of those was for families to be able to visit their loved ones in care homes. This is a really, really important step, especially as some have not been able to visit since March. It has had a drastic impact on people’s mental health, which we have seen deteriorate in care homes. It was announced that Hyndburn would receive mass testing. I also pestered the Prime Minister for that, so that is great, and the deployment of the Army so we can finally find those who are asymptomatic and break the chain.

We have faced restrictions since July. It has been a tier 3 area. It has been really, really tough. Vaccine distribution in east Lancashire is so welcome and it really is that light at the end of the tunnel that we have needed. We have seen a really positive drop in cases, and I echo everything my hon. Friend Jacob Young said. We were at 491 per 100,000 when we entered the new tier restrictions. In Hyndburn and Haslingden, and across Lancashire as a whole, we have seen a significant drop. Hyndburn’s latest infection rate is 169 per 100,000 for the period 3 December to 9 December. That consists of 137 positive cases. Over the past week, Hyndburn’s rate has gone down by 21.3% —the largest fall across Lancashire—and Rossendale saw a 14.3% drop in the rate. That is a really positive step for us locally, and I would like to thank everyone in our community who pulled together and followed the rules to protect all those we know and love.

With this drop, there is much hope across my community of the prospect of tier 2, which would enable parts of my brilliant hospitality sector to reopen their doors. I urge Ministers to look closely at the local data in Hyndburn and Rossendale when making a decision on tiers, because there needs to be a reward for all the effort that local communities have made. It has been so difficult, and my residents are fed up. To get to a rate of 169 from 491 in the space of two or three weeks is absolutely brilliant.

Unfortunately, my local police force has released a public statement today after issuing a number of fines related to gatherings in private dwellings. I speak to numerous residents day in, day out who are sacrificing so much to protect their loved ones and bring our numbers down, and it is so frustrating for them to hear that this is happening. I speak to my police force on a regular basis—its office is two doors down from mine—and it tells me about these situations. I desperately want to see an easing of restrictions, as do all the people who have made these sacrifices, but the only way to do that is by everybody playing their part. It is so frustrating for my residents to hear about these illegal gatherings at the weekend. It is really important that everybody plays a part in this.

The easing of restrictions over Christmas is welcomed by many, but it is important that everybody remains cautious and acts with caution, as I will be doing with my family. This virus is still here. We are still fighting an invisible enemy, and it is unfortunately still making families lose their loved ones far sooner than they should. I am questioning the use of PCR testing in tier 3 areas. The Eastgate testing site in Accrington is currently only for those with symptoms. It is brilliant that we have mass testing, but that site is not being attended enough. Opening it up to those who do not have symptoms would mean that people who need peace of mind over Christmas can go and get a test before seeing loved ones who might be vulnerable to this virus. When the capacity is not being filled at these sites, as has happened previously, that could be a good thing to do, especially in tier 3 areas, for those who are very cautious about seeing their loved ones over Christmas.

Over the past few weeks, I have visited many local schools and spoken to pupils and teachers, who still have serious concerns due to the number of pupils who are having to self-isolate numerous times. One headteacher I spoke to told me about a pupil who has had to self-isolate four times. I urge Ministers across Departments to continue to talk to local MPs and local schools about the effect that this disruption to pupils’ education will have on their exams next year.

I want to thank everybody in my community for pulling together. Those in our hubs have worked extremely hard, as have the volunteers going shopping and our NHS frontline workers. I have been shouting about my community and how much they pull together, but they really are amazing. We have Pastor Anne at the Clayton food bank, who I visit. We have our local volunteers at the hub and those who have been going shopping for others who cannot get out, and we have our NHS key workers. It has been amazing, and I thank everyone in Hyndburn and Haslingden.

In my maiden speech way back in March when this began—before I started getting grey hairs at the age of 25 —I said that, as a community, Hyndburn and Haslingden would get through this. We have seen the light at the end of the tunnel. This is the hope that my residents need, and together, in Lancashire, we just need to keep this up. We need to remain cautious and we will get there. We have the prospect of the vaccine and mass testing, and I thank everybody who has contributed to getting us to this point.

Photo of Luke Evans Luke Evans Conservative, Bosworth 8:25 pm, 14th December 2020

Thanks, hope, change—three positive words that it is lovely to use in this debate. I want to put on record my thanks to all the scientists, researchers, staff, communications guys and the Government for getting it right last week and getting a vaccine out there. It really is the game changer and the hope that we have been looking for. As has been said many times in this House, the roll-out will be slow and steady, and things are not over yet—not for this month, for next month or for the months to come—but there is light at the end of the tunnel, and we have the opportunity to start to get things back to normal and see the change that we want. I welcome the news of the vaccine, and more in the pipeline, because it is what everyone has been hoping for.

I welcome, too, the fact that the Secretary of State for Health and Social Care, and Ministers, listened carefully when Leicestershire MPs said that we wanted to be decoupled from Leicester. That was not because of some form of covid nimbyism, but simply because we have had lived experience throughout the entire summer of what our people do, how they react and what goes on. I hope that Leicester gets as much support as possible to fight the virus, bring the numbers down and make a difference. With that in mind, if we are being led by the evidence, I would like to see a push for a borough-based model, based on our lived experience in Hinckley and Bosworth. As my hon. Friend Jacob Young rightly pointed out, if our constituents are following the rules and making the difference but the evidence is changing, so should the tier system. All we ask is to be given the power to do that. When the data comes through, I hope that will be the case.

A lot has changed during the pandemic. We talk about lockdowns now, but if we think back to what happened in March, we can see that the recent lockdowns and the tier system are completely different. The Government have rightly changed and focused their emphasis. They focused on the NHS, and on making sure it was not overwhelmed. More importantly, we were able to continue non-covid procedures, investigations and treatments. The Government then focused on education, and on getting kids back to school so that they did not fall behind. That, in turn, has allowed people to get to work, which was the third focus: opening non-essential retail and businesses. On the next level, leisure activities, the gym, welfare, getting out to see people and looking after ourselves mentally and physically have been prioritised. Those are all levers that we can pull but, alas, that means that socialising and hospitality come last.

Given that there is light at the end of the tunnel, however, change can happen. I would like to see support for the hospitality sector—for pubs and restaurants—in the short term to help them to get through, but let us not forget the other industries that will take the longest to come out of this: events, conferences, the wedding industry and, of course, travel. I welcome the fact that the Government are making strides wherever they can and using the taskforce to help, and that is good news for those industries. We can now see where we want to go in April, May and June. We have the potential to lay out a plan, albeit in draft, so that we can say to these businesses, “This is what you can start to work towards.” As someone who got married last year, I know that trying to plan a wedding in a few weeks is not something that my wife would have wanted to do.

One thing that struck me when I was driving around from Newbold Verdon to Hinckley was how much life is starting to return to normal. It must be so hard for a pub or restaurant owner to see people going about their normal day-to-day working lives, but to be unable to make that change. We should keep that in our minds going forward to try to balance protecting the NHS and protecting livelihoods.

As we come to Christmas, and this is likely to be the last chance—I hope—to speak from the Government Benches before the new year, our minds are focused on that new year and the hope that is coming. Although I urge policy change, some things need to stay the same: caring for each other at Christmas. It is going to be particularly difficult for those who are choosing to isolate—lonely people. So we should pick up the phone, get on that Zoom or Teams call, and speak to neighbours, friends and families. Of course, the piece of Government advice that should never be lost and should stay the same until we have all had the vaccine is: hands, face, space, get a test.

Photo of Chris Loder Chris Loder Conservative, West Dorset 8:30 pm, 14th December 2020

It is a pleasure to contribute to this debate.

Today’s actions from the Government are clearly well needed and well understood, particularly in those areas where the pandemic and covid is on the rise, but I rise to make the case for those at the other end of the spectrum—for areas such as rural Dorset, and indeed my constituency of West Dorset, where the number of cases has considerably reduced. I make the case and I make the plea to the Government that we look at more local tiering. At its western extremity, West Dorset is 55 miles from the main commercial centre of Bournemouth, which is influencing the tier that we are in. I am not sure that that is quite right. Indeed, I make the case for Dorset itself to be put into tier 1 at the Government’s review coming this week.

I have stood in this House on several previous occasions to make the case for a more local-tier approach. Earlier today, during the Secretary of State’s statement, my hon. Friend Felicity Buchan made very good and useful mention of counties such as Hertfordshire and Essex where the Government have been able to take that approach. I also pay tribute to my hon. Friend Jacob Young, who rightly said that for those constituents who work hard and take self-responsibility for themselves, their families and their communities, and where is a clear output of success, those constituencies and communities should be rewarded through proper scrutiny of the tiers to make sure that, wherever possible, the impact on civil liberties and the restrictions on our families getting together can be reduced.

Today in Dorset, we have 43.1 cases per 100,000, which is a considerable reduction on previous weeks. That figure is lower than that in Cornwall and the Isle of Wight when the decision was made to place those two areas into tier 1; they were at 58.5 and 56.4 respectively. On 12 December, one case of covid was reported in rural Dorset, while on 9 November, 85 cases were reported, so it is clear for all to see that there has been a considerable reduction in cases. On Friday, we had one patient with covid in Dorset County Hospital in Dorchester in my constituency. It is clear to me that Dorset has a very, very strong case for its tier to be reviewed, and I could not encourage the Minister strongly enough to consider that.

The good people of rural Dorset and, indeed, of West Dorset have been diligent. They have been self-responsible and respectful not only of themselves and their families, but of others in the community. I am particularly pleased that the Government have made huge strides with a vaccine. We in Dorset are blessed by Dorset County Hospital having a hub for the new vaccine. Indeed, to the north of our constituency, just over the border in Somerset, so does Yeovil District Hospital. West Dorset, I am certain, will be served well.

We also need to recognise the effect on wider business and our economy. Shops, pubs and breweries have very, very diligently taken that responsibility of being covid-secure. They have invested a lot of money. In many cases, it is safer for constituents in the community to be in those places than to be at home. We have 6,525 businesses in West Dorset, 97% of which are micro or small-sized businesses. It means that they face the most difficult of circumstances and, I am afraid, are the most affected by the situation, so it is incumbent on me as their MP to make sure that their voice is heard in this place.

On Friday evening, I went to Cerne Abbas—Members who heard my maiden speech will recall that I talked about the Cerne Abbas giant. There are many wonderful things about Cerne Abbas, and one of them is the small brewery there. When I went to meet the owner of the brewery, he told me very clearly that the business was in difficulty. There is no reason why it should be: our rates are very low, so we should be doing much, much more. In West Dorset, we have the independent Bridport Leisure Centre. We also have a number of pubs, but I am afraid that they have already started to close. Justifying to constituents the difference between pubs and the coffee shops that are open is incredibly difficult.

On Wednesday, we have a considerable opportunity—the Government have a considerable opportunity—not just to reduce the tier in rural Dorset, but to allow West Dorset to play its part in supporting the wider United Kingdom’s economy when it needs it most. There is no reason why our economy should be constrained. We are more than happy to support the rest of the UK in its period of need. I cannot urge the Government enough to reduce Dorset to tier 1 in the forthcoming review this week, and I urge the Minister, if she needs any further information, to refer to the letter I sent to the Department on 10 November outlining a number of points and asking a number of questions. I am hoping that that will help her and her colleagues to make that decision.

Photo of Robbie Moore Robbie Moore Conservative, Keighley 8:37 pm, 14th December 2020

It is a pleasure to follow my hon. Friend Chris Loder. Covid-19 has affected each and every part of our lives. It is a virus that is destroying our communities, our livelihoods and, of course, our way of life. I have spoken in this Chamber previously, on many times, about the impact that this virus and the associated restrictions are having on businesses, particularly on those in the hospitality sector and the other connected sectors, such as the wedding industry and the tourism industry.

The virus and restrictions are also affecting things such as gyms and dance studios, which, of course, under the restrictions in tier 3, which my constituency is in, are unable to hold classes indoors. I must pay tribute to Andrea Wortley, who runs a dance studio in my constituency. I have been to see her and can say that she is a great ambassador for the sector and has shown a real willingness to try to get her dance classes open again. I reiterate that directly to the Minister. I really want to put weight on this, because my constituency has been locked in local restrictions going way back to July, and many of my constituents are becoming increasingly frustrated, but we are trying incredibly hard. Our rates are now dropping at a great rate and I urge those on the Front Bench to look at the figures across the Bradford district, and across my constituency in particular, and to consider dropping it from tier 3 to tier 2, even if that means looking at a geographically localised approach.

Today, I want to focus on the extraordinary scientific and medical breakthroughs that have been made over the past year. They will form a crucial weapon in our armoury as we enter 2021. It is hard to believe that the first cases of covid were detected just over a year ago, but from technology to testing, treatments and vaccines, science is giving us new ways to beat this terrible virus.

It is remarkable how businesses are playing their part. Madam Deputy Speaker, you must come to my constituency because I have some great examples. We have been developing technologies to inactivate covid-19 on surfaces using far ultraviolet-C light emitted by krypton-chlorine lights. That technology is being developed by one of Britain’s world-leading universities, St Andrews in Fife. Another business based in my constituency—in Ilkley—GermzAway, has developed a hand sanitiser without an alcohol base, which is kinder on the skin and just as effective. Many of our great manufacturing businesses across the constituency, such as Global Precision in the Worth valley, are playing their part in producing PPE and, on a recent visit, I saw the great work that they were doing.

We have seen safe, effective vaccines developed at remarkable speeds by scientists around the world, including at Oxford. Oxford University has created a vaccine for the world that is as affordable as a cup of coffee and as easy to distribute as any refrigerated food product. It is just waiting to be approved. For those who are unable to take vaccines, for example, because of severe allergic reactions, the UK is now trialling an innovative antibody cocktail to provide protection. We are seeing how rapid testing will allow us to open up new parts of society and the economy. Recently, it was incredibly moving to see the images of care home residents being able to hug loved ones for the first time since March, thanks to new rapid testing—lateral flow testing—coming through.

So progress is being made. We have heard how Birmingham is looking at a new test and dine scheme, potentially allowing a route to enable our hospitality sector to reopen. I urge the Front-Bench team to do all they can to make this scheme work, as it would be hugely beneficial in my constituency, where the hospitality industry has been battered as a result of increased restrictions. Actually, if it does work, perhaps it could be rolled out to other industries as well.

In conclusion, science really is one of our greatest weapons in our armoury to protect us against this terrible virus. Going into 2021, there is light at the end of the tunnel. I pay tribute to all across Keighley and Ilkley who have done all they can—including our NHS, our care home workers, our teachers and our key workers—to fight this terrible virus. Yes, there is light at the end of the tunnel, better days do lie ahead, and I am confident that the next 12 months will be much better.

Photo of Selaine Saxby Selaine Saxby Conservative, North Devon 8:42 pm, 14th December 2020

It is a pleasure to follow my hon. Friend Robbie Moore. I would like to take this opportunity to thank the people of North Devon. Throughout the pandemic, our rate of infection has remained below the national average, and that is thanks very much to their hard work in following the guidance throughout. I thank the community groups who have kept one another safe. In a rural community, those networks are absolutely vital. We do not have those great big meeting places where transmission is easy, and those small villages have held themselves together. I thank the social care workers and those working in our care homes and particularly our NHS for everything they have done and are about to do in rolling out the vaccine.

It is with regards to the vaccine that I, like the Secretary of State, shed a tear that morning when the news came through. I find it really quite moving even now to see that light at the end of the tunnel. However, I also emphasise to the Minister the importance that my community places on timely information about the roll-out of the vaccine. We have been waiting nine months for the vaccine and we know that we might have to wait a little bit longer, but just to know when it is coming would be a huge help for so many. My elderly population and many who have shielded are desperate to find out when they will be able to receive the vaccine. As it is rolled out, how will this dovetail with reducing restrictions? I hope that now that we have a vaccine, a plan will come forward. I am delighted to hear of colleagues across the House tonight whose elderly relatives have been able to book an appointment, and I very much hope that the same will be true for my residents in the coming days and weeks.

In addition to my concerns about the vaccine roll-out in North Devon, I would like to flag the plight of my local hospitality industry. This week, Devon as a whole is running at 71 cases per 100,000 and North Devon is a bit higher at just over 90. Whereas others have spoken about tier 3 and wanting to get into tier 2, my hospitality businesses say that tier 2 is the worst of all worlds and they would dearly like to get to tier 1. Unfortunately, with cases at 71 per 100,000, I recognise that my 146 pubs are unlikely to see that this week. However, I would like to propose perhaps a tier 1a or tier 2-minus for when we are clearly heading in the right direction. Please, is there any chance that our pubs, which are covid-secure businesses and were grateful for Eat Out to Help Out—a quarter of a million meals were consumed under the scheme in my constituency with not one coronavirus case linked to them—could perhaps have the rule of six in a covid-safe environment? We are robust in North Devon. Could we sit out and have a drink without a substantial meal?

This Friday, I went and had a substantial meal in the lovely Quay Inn in Instow—it was a slightly isolated experience, being the only table in there at eight o’clock on a Friday two weeks before Christmas—having walked past the Wayfairer, the Boathouse and the Instow Arms to get there. Yes, I am lucky, my village still has four pubs, but all of them would normally be packed at this time of year and all of them were deserted. Therefore, while they are grateful for the support that has come to date, and they are delighted to be open, I very much hope they will still be open when we get through the worst of the pandemic.

I am told that my local tourism sector is down by 56% compared with last year and that up to 70% of my tourism and hospitality businesses are not sure they will still be there by Easter. The lack of planning is what they are finding so difficult. Now that we have that light at the end of the tunnel, I hope we can help them plan for next season. Only once we begin to exit this dreadful pandemic and normality is beginning to return—hopefully by Easter—can I hopefully revert to being the self-appointed one-woman tourist board for North Devon and welcome everyone back to my lovely constituency. Only then will we start to know how much of North Devon’s tourism and hospitality industry remains. As we continue to balance lives and livelihoods, I very much hope that just a little bit more can be done to protect both in North Devon.

Photo of James Sunderland James Sunderland Conservative, Bracknell 8:47 pm, 14th December 2020

Thank you very much for calling me, Madam Deputy Speaker. As the final Back-Bench speaker this evening with no votes on a one-line Whip, we could call this the graveyard shift, but I am grateful to be called.

Government policy in 2020 has been to strike a balance between conflicting priorities, and I publicly commend the Government for what they have done. For any journalists who may be watching, we are damned if we do and damned if we don’t, but I recognise resilience, pragmatism and unwavering dedication, having done a few tough jobs myself, so it is a big tick for the Government from me.

The macro imperative this year has been to keep people safe in line with public health advice, and that is entirely right, but I want to sound a few notes of warning. First, the Government’s support during the pandemic, notwithstanding the 3 million excluded—I am still concerned about them—has been excellent, with more than 1.5 million new claims of universal credit, 9.6 million jobs furloughed under the job retention scheme and claims totalling £41.4 billion. The massively generous coronavirus large business interruption loan scheme has provided 78,000 loans worth £18.4 billion, and we have also had £300 billion or thereabouts from the Treasury to support the country at this difficult time. It has got to come back. The important thing is that we as individuals need to learn to live alongside the virus and not hide from it, so we have got work to do to get back to normal, putting the money back into the Treasury and carrying on next year alongside the virus.

Christmas is welcome for all of us, and the Government’s relaxation of rules over the festive period, which I welcome, does show how they understand how important it is to the mental health of the nation and how far we have come in a short period of time. Welcome steps have been taken with the launch of visitor testing, visits regardless of tier and indoor visits to care homes—the list goes on. I am grateful for what has been done, but these enhanced freedoms are effectively a gift; the risk of a third wave or further lockdown in the new year cannot be the price that we pay for losing our resolve and will over Christmas.

This morning I visited the Lexicon shopping centre in Bracknell. It is a fantastic example of what can be achieved—a £240 million regeneration project, supporting the “Christmas Wishes” campaign. The Lexicon is doing everything possible to attract shoppers into its fantastic set-up. I was struck by how vibrant and busy it was today; the car park was full and people were also parked on the high street. The important thing is that it was safe. People were wearing masks. Excellent measures were in place in shops and there was clear distancing down the aisles. I am really grateful to Bracknell Forest Council for everything that it has done to ensure that supporting our high street can be done safely. Given the very low rates in my constituency over the last few months, it would be easy to complain that Bracknell is being put into tier 2 rather than tier 1, but by the same token we have to be pragmatic, because the rate next door in Slough and Reading is much higher. Of course, our own rate in Bracknell is rising too, so there is no time at all for complacency.

I want quickly to plug Brants Bridge, which is a medical facility in my constituency. I really welcome that the Government are setting up a new covid-19 Lighthouse laboratory at the walk-in urgent care centre at Brants Bridge—one of two in the country. It is expected to process 40,000 tests a day at full capacity, from drive-in centres and home tests across the south-east. It is part of Britain’s largest ever network of diagnostic testing facilities, and will create 300 new jobs for local people: 170 in logistics, 100 scientists, and 30 supervisors and managers. It should be open in January, running 24/7 and hoping to reach full capacity by February. It is a result of a collaboration between the Royal Berkshire Hospital, Frimley Health NHS Foundation Trust, the Royal Surrey County Hospital, and Ashford and St Peter’s Hospitals NHS Foundation Trust—a fantastic example of what can be achieved. I also thank the East Berkshire Clinical Commissioning Group.

The vaccine really gives us hope. It is being rolled out in Finchampstead in my constituency from tomorrow, with a capacity of more than 500 per day, and more broadly in Bracknell from next Monday. It is really exciting for the Bracknell constituency and beyond. Bracknell is pretty well served by hospitals. We have three hospitals on our doorstep, Wexham Park, Royal Berkshire and Frimley Park, all of which are serving my constituents brilliantly. I thank everyone working in the NHS and all key workers.

As I wrap up, I want to thank the people of Bracknell, Crowthorne, Finchampstead, Sandhurst and Wokingham Without for their pragmatism, social responsibility, patience and community spirit. We do not say thank you enough in this place. Without being glib, I am proud of what has been achieved locally, and I am grateful; merry Christmas to you all.

Photo of Helen Hayes Helen Hayes Shadow Minister (Cabinet Office) 8:53 pm, 14th December 2020

I am grateful to all hon. Members who have spoken in this debate. Taken together, the contributions have served as an important reminder of just how far the frontline of the fight against this pandemic stretches. I would highlight in particular the passionate speech of my hon. Friend Emma Hardy, who highlighted the plight of small businesses across her constituency, especially in the hospitality sector, and my hon. Friend Mary Kelly Foy, who spoke about the urgent issue of vaccine distribution to nations in the global south.

We owe our deepest gratitude to all those who spend their days and nights caring for others, working to keep our local economies functioning, our communities safe and our public services working, including our NHS and care workers, who continue to work long, gruelling hours, struggling for months without adequate PPE in a heroic response to the virus. Time and time again, our teachers, support staff and childcare workers create safe and supportive environments for children to thrive, even under such huge pressures. Other key workers, including many on short-term or zero-hours contracts, work to keep the country running. Testing site workers and contact tracers, often under-trained and ill-equipped, have done a huge amount of work, as have so many others across the country during this difficult time.

I know that every Member across the House wants to support and recognise all those working on the frontline of coronavirus. It is essential that their commitment and sacrifice is met with a fair, effective and far more joined-up approach than what the Government are currently delivering. That is the minimum they deserve.

Labour pays tribute to the work carried out by doctors and scientists across the world to develop vaccines against covid-19. Every Member across the House will have shared in the jubilation as Margaret Keenan became the first person in the world to receive the Pfizer covid-19 jab following its clinical approval last week.

In the meantime, as the vaccination programme is rolled out, there is still a huge task to reduce transmission. Labour has warned for months of the need for an effective test, track and trace system, but unfortunately the Government failed to use the window provided by the second national lockdown to fix the Serco test and trace system, and it remains an area where they are failing.

Labour is clear that our local mayors and council leaders should be in the driving seat to deliver an effective localised test, track and trace system. Our local councils have been a lifeline for so many during this difficult time, and are crucial not only in facing the virus down, but in rebuilding and recovering from the pandemic, yet too often some parts of the UK are left behind by the Government. On too many occasions, local leaders have not been given a seat at the table while the national Serco test and trace system flounders. Local responses will very according to the prevalence and transmission rate of the virus, but local leaders must know clearly what is expected of them and must be provided with the funding to deliver for the communities that they have been elected to serve.

The combination of Serco test and trace and the three-tier system failed to limit the spread of disease in September and October, and we ended up in a second national lockdown. Nobody wants a repeat of that. That is why we are calling on the Government to ensure that past mistakes are not repeated, that systems are reformed and strengthened and that no area is left behind.

This afternoon, we learned that London and parts of Essex and Hertfordshire will be placed into tier 3 on Wednesday. That is devastating news for many businesses, driven by alarming rates of disease transmission. The measures are sadly necessary, but they will succeed only if the Government work constructively with local leaders and put in place the right measures to support businesses and those who need to self-isolate.

We have seen the Government’s response too often being driven by who they know, not who is best placed to deliver. Multimillion-pound contracts have been handed to a small number of large firms, many of which are not integrated into our local communities and are not beholden to the same standards of scrutiny as Government Departments or local authorities. Not only that, but outsourced contracts and the cronyism too often associated with them have marred the Government’s response. That must be addressed.

Today, we learned of yet another example: Fleetwood Strategy, a brand-new company whose founder worked on the Tories’ election campaign, which was handed a £124,000 contract with no competition. We need much more transparency and more proof that experienced and qualified British businesses are being openly engaged. That is absolutely crucial for a joined-up and well-co-ordinated covid-19 response and for restoring the trust that is sorely lacking.

The Government must also see our schools, teachers and support staff as an indispensable part of our communities. Schools must be properly supported, with the right measures in place, including mass testing, to ensure that any spread of infection is swiftly contained. Local leaders in the north looked on in astonishment last week when councils in London and Essex were offered the mass testing for schools that they had been denied. The same councils in London and Essex were in turn bewildered at the lack of support provided for them to deliver the tests that they had been allocated. There are still schools struggling to access laptops for children who do not have them, so that they can learn from home when they need to self-isolate, at the same time as many children are being sent home due to infections in school or staff shortages. The Children’s Commissioner, Ofsted and others have been clear that covid-19 has widened the disadvantage gap between children. The failure to ensure that every child has the basic equipment they need to be able to continue their education remotely when needed is a source of huge anger and frustration in many communities, and that, combined with the failure to roll out the catch-up tutoring programme in any meaningful way, means that the Government are allowing coronavirus to compound educational disadvantage.

Tackling covid-19 is a huge global challenge. Appallingly, the UK has the worst death rate in Europe and the deepest recession of any G7 country as a consequence, so the Government must now learn the lessons from other countries. The Government’s response must be far more joined up. Countries that have managed the most effective infection control introduced locally led contact tracing, deeply embedded in communities. Ensuring that people who need to self-isolate do so means putting in place income support so that no one has to choose between doing the right thing for public health and putting food on the table However, we are still in a position where local authorities across England feel disconnected from central Government and where the national contact tracing system is still not anywhere near locally integrated enough to curb the spread of infection effectively.

All of us want the response to covid to be successful and all of us are unequivocally delighted at the news of our scientists’ success in developing effective vaccines, but we still face very grave challenges. That is why Labour has proposed overhauling the failing support for self-isolation. The Government’s own chief scientific adviser has said that testing

“only matters if people isolate as well”.

The Government must expand eligibility for the £500 test and trace support payment to users of the NHS covid-19 app and reduce the isolation period by using rapid testing. They must urgently conduct and publish an assessment of the financial barriers to self-isolation, including the level of statutory sick pay. They must end the top-down centralised model of test, trace and isolate once and for all, putting local teams in charge, and they must ensure routine testing for all high-risk workplaces and high-transmission areas. For our national response to work, a more connected and community-based response is crucial. I urge the Government to listen today and meet that challenge head-on.

We can all look forward to the vaccination roll-out. It is vital that everyone who is offered a vaccine takes it and protects themself and those closest to them, but we also know that the roll-out of the approved vaccines will take months, and that still, every single day, hundreds of people across the UK are dying from covid, and many more are suffering from its longer-term effects. We cannot and must not continue on the same path, with the Government clinging to outsourced contracts that have failed time and again to deliver. The Government must fix Track and Trace, support people to do the right thing, help vital sectors of our economy such as hospitality and the performing arts to survive beyond the pandemic, and work with our councils and communities to break the stranglehold of this virus and enable the recovery to begin.

Photo of Helen Whately Helen Whately Minister of State (Department of Health and Social Care) 9:03 pm, 14th December 2020

The speeches we have heard this evening remind us just what hard times we live in, when we have had to do things that would have been unimaginable just a year ago. There are the things we have done to save lives, but sadly, even so, many lives have been lost. As my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State set out in his statement to this House earlier today and the Minister for prevention, public health and primary care, the Under-Secretary of State for Health and Social Care, my hon. Friend Jo Churchill, reminded us in her opening remarks, this is not over yet.

I know that people in the places moving into tier 3 on Wednesday morning will feel a real sense of disappointment, especially as we get closer to Christmas. We have heard today some powerful contributions from across this House about how our constituents have been affected. For instance, my hon. Friend Mark Fletcher spoke about the impact of the restrictions on mental health, with the loss of routine, loss of social contact and loss of opportunities to pursue passions and activities that make life worth living—ice skating, as we have heard, but also dance classes. I should add to that the loss of livelihoods. Many colleagues have spoken about the impact on hospitality, and particularly pubs. Believe me, I really appreciate that, with a brewery as the largest employer in my constituency.

I also welcome the recognition and the tributes paid by hon. Members not only to the NHS and its workforce, but to care homes and care workers, who have indeed been there for the people they care for day in, day out throughout this pandemic. They are rightly prioritised for testing. I will pick up on a comment made by my hon. Friend Jacob Young and say that care agency staff absolutely should be tested regularly, using tests distributed to the care homes that they work at.

Photo of Jacob Young Jacob Young Conservative, Redcar

The care agency that I referred to said that it has about 160 members of staff on its books, of whom 80 are in work regularly. Of those 80, 60 are included in testing in some care homes; it is that final 20 who are not getting regular tests. I was told that the same was true for other agency workers, too.

Photo of Helen Whately Helen Whately Minister of State (Department of Health and Social Care)

It will probably be helpful if we pursue the specific case outside the Chamber. I just wanted to reiterate the importance of care agency staff being tested in care homes. Tests are being distributed to care homes for that purpose.

Whenever the Government have to take difficult decisions, such as the ones we have taken today, the impact of those decisions on people across the country is always at the front of our mind. With a 14% rise in average daily cases last week and a 13% rise in daily hospital admissions, we had no option but to act today, even ahead of the formal review point on Wednesday. As the Secretary of State reminded us earlier, Germany had to introduce tougher restrictions over the weekend, and Sweden is seeing real pressures on intensive care beds. As we set out in our winter plan, our strategy has always been to suppress the virus and prevent our NHS from becoming overwhelmed until the vaccine can make us safe.

I know that hon. Members will share my sense of optimism that, just as many other parts of the country have done so magnificently, the areas now facing rising rates can turn this around. They are getting the support they need to do that, right where it is needed most, including through the provision of community testing, with millions of newly invented tests targeted at the areas that need that support. I know that the Members representing those areas will want to play their part in this effort, so I can say that today we published a guide for Members so that colleagues can promote, support and champion local community testing and contact tracing in their areas.

I am grateful to my hon. Friend Craig Mackinlay, who spoke about how he had seen people become more careful in his area as they saw rates rise locally. He saw their behaviour change through the increased wearing of face masks, for instance, as people took the extra steps to keep themselves and others safe. That is a reminder that ultimately, all our efforts must be underpinned by a sense of personal responsibility. Our national effort begins with every one of us.

We all know what a difficult year it has been, yet that does not make those important public health messages any less true. As several hon. Members have reminded us this evening, we must continue to wash our hands, cover our face and make space. We must continue to self-isolate when we are asked to, for the 10 days now required. Perhaps even more challenging than that, though, we must be unafraid to ask ourselves difficult questions about who we are meeting, their vulnerability and whether that is a risk worth taking. Time and again, the common sense of the British people has prevailed, and it must continue to do so.

Finally, our vaccine deployment continues apace, because we know that vaccines represent our best route out of these difficult times. It is such a relief to be able to say about vaccination not if, but when. Tens of thousands of people have already been vaccinated, and GP roll-out started today in hundreds of parts of the country, so many more will be vaccinated this week, like the relatives my hon. Friends the Members for Stoke-on-Trent South (Jack Brereton) and for South Thanet mentioned.

Photo of Emma Hardy Emma Hardy Shadow Minister (Education)

The Minister will be aware that one of the issues raised during her call with the areas going into tier 3 was the need for boots on the ground—for people to help to administer the vaccine. The health force in Hull and areas like it is diminished because many are self-isolating, others are suffering from covid and it is an exhausted workforce. Will additional personnel resources be made available to help deliver the vaccine?

Photo of Helen Whately Helen Whately Minister of State (Department of Health and Social Care)

I know that a huge amount of work is going on to ensure that we have the boots on the ground needed to vaccinate people. Indeed, that is one of the things that those who have volunteered—particularly those with healthcare experience who are returning to the NHS—are stepping forward to help with.

We will vaccinate in care homes by Christmas, and that process has already begun in Scotland. Most of us who are eligible can expect to receive our vaccine in the next few months, which is truly heartening, but we must all stay on our guard through Christmas and into the new year. This is not the time to ease up—quite the opposite, in fact, because this is the busiest time of year for our NHS and for the doctors, nurses and other health and social care workers who have already done so much for us in this pandemic. Along with many colleagues today, I thank our health and social care workers.

This is a moment to stand firm against this deadly virus and to redouble our efforts to keep one another safe. This is one of the toughest things we have ever had to do as a country and one of the toughest things that anyone has had to endure personally, but the end is in sight. We must steel ourselves and do the right thing, if not for our own sake then for others’, and we will get through this together.

Question put and agreed to.

Resolved,

That this House
has considered covid-19.