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Covid-19 Update - Statement

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 3:28 pm on 17th March 2020.

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Photo of Lord Collins of Highbury Lord Collins of Highbury Opposition Whip (Lords), Shadow Spokesperson (Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs), Shadow Spokesperson (International Development) 3:28 pm, 17th March 2020

My Lords, I thank the Minister for repeating the Statement by the Foreign Secretary. Perhaps I may first express my appreciation for the extraordinarily hard work of all the FCO staff who, I know from comments made in the other place, have been working tirelessly over the weekend and throughout the night to support their fellow citizens.

I will turn first to international freight services, such as shipping and haulage. As the Statement said, they are

“vital for ensuring the continuity of supply of essential food, goods and materials to the United Kingdom.”

The Government, rightly, view this kind of travel as essential and say that they will work with the industry to issue detailed advice to maintain the flow of goods, while protecting the well-being of staff working on those routes. Can the Minister assure the House that the Department for Transport, which will be leading on this work with the freight sector, will consult those most directly affected—the workers in the sector—and ensure that trade unions are also properly consulted? It is vital that we get the co-operation of all sides of society in the battle against this virus.

What assessment have the Government made of the impact, particularly in the food and agriculture industry, of people naturally wishing to leave and return to their home country? What sort of cross-government co-ordination is there on that?

As we heard from MPs in the other place, this is clearly a time of immense concern for tens of thousands of people. We have heard about individual examples of young people stranded without the resources to make decisions about how to come back. The Foreign Secretary constantly referred to clear and practical advice. I strongly believe that this is one of the rare occasions when people want to be told what to do. It is not just advice; people need to be absolutely clear about the consequences if they have to make difficult decisions—for instance, if a parent is ill in a foreign country. This applies to my own husband; we were due to fly next week. People need a clear statement of what to do.

The other place heard the example of Morocco, which unexpectedly closed its air and sea borders, causing particular problems. I was hoping to hear from the Foreign Secretary that his department had been in touch with the French and Spanish authorities, which have many nationals there as well, to try to create a more co-operative and international response, especially in assisting people to get back home. Morocco will surely be joined by other countries making similar announcements. Can the Minister confirm that we are making representations to Governments—in co-operation with our EU partners, because many of our citizens are travelling to similar places—to ensure that those Governments who are contemplating similar action give us information in advance so that we can be prepared to give appropriate advice to our citizens?

The Foreign Secretary also referred to liaising with the civil aviation authorities and airlines. This is an example of action being taken before the Government’s advice has been issued. Can the Minister assure the House that airlines which halted flights had reassured the Government that they had made provision to enable customers to return immediately or early?

Finally, this is a difficult situation and we are focused on the immediate need for a response. However, whatever we do today, we need to ensure that we learn lessons. We do not know what is around the corner: in the 1980s it was AIDS, and we saw the response of the Lord Speaker at the time. Whatever immediate action we take in responding now, we need to learn the lessons that ensure we are better prepared next time something like this happens.