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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 Ahmad of Wimbledon Lord Ahmad of Wimbledon Minister of State 3:28 pm, 17th March 2020

My Lords, I thank the noble Lords, Lord Collins and Lord Campbell, for their words of support. I will take those, and the level of unity in your Lordships’ House, back to the Foreign Office and to all departments in Her Majesty’s Government—particularly the Department for International Development, which is playing a leading role in such unprecedented circumstances. I am sure that the sentiments which both noble Lords aired are reflected across your Lordships’ House.

One of the final points made by the noble Lord, Lord Campbell, was about my mention, in the Statement, of responsibility. That reflected the responsibility of the Government in question for the measures in place for controlling the spread of Covid-19 in sovereign states. We are working with international partners and providing international support. We have already allocated over £241 million in support of other countries that need assistance and we are providing financial assistance to the World Health Organization. That is also intended to provide support where the measures being put in place may not yet be of the standard one would hope for. This is about sharing expertise and insights. What we have seen from the spread of coronavirus, from where it started in China to where it is today, and what we have seen not too far from here in Italy, shows the global challenge that we are facing and the importance of sharing research and insight. On the point made by the noble Lord, Lord Collins, about ensuring lessons are learnt, we have also allocated a further £65 million for research into the spread of the virus.

The noble Lord, Lord Collins, was right to point out that the Department for Transport is leading on the issue of freight services. He made important points; I support them and will share them. We should be talking to all representative bodies, whether of employers or employees, who may be on the front line and performing difficult tasks in supply chains, and ensure that they are given the support they require.

The Government are also stressing the importance of airlines continuing their services. We are talking to airline operators and ensuring that commercial routes are kept open. While airlines are, understandably, rationalising certain routes, we are imploring them, and working constructively with them, to ensure that the commercial routes continue to be operational, so that British nationals who seek to return to the UK can do so as early as possible.

I also pay tribute to those working in our ports and airports. They are often on the front line and not always given the acknowledgment they deserve. I declare a personal interest, as my elder brother works on the operations side for British Airways at T5. I know only too well from the stories that he is sharing about the challenges that staff are facing, often with passengers who are returning ill and clearly needing support, while ensuring that they fulfil their duties as well. I am sure the whole House will join me in paying tribute to those who are playing important roles on the front line.

The noble Lord, Lord Collins, also raised the important point about how we ensure the repatriation of British citizens, as did the noble Lord, Lord Campbell. To show you what we are up against, over the weekend, just in my patch, which is south Asia, we made 220 changes to travel advice just on Saturday and Sunday. The noble Lord, Lord Campbell, was right to point out that, as far as possible, this should be done with advance notice, but, as we have seen with near neighbours in Europe, countries are taking action.

The noble Lord described changing our travel advice to only essential travel as draconian. We need only cast our eye across the channel to see what other measures are being taken. It has not been the Government’s approach to impose, and we are working in a structured way. Nevertheless, as circumstances change, as the announcements made by the Prime Minister yesterday indicated, we are responding to what is a fluid and ever-changing set of circumstances, not just nationally but internationally.

The noble Lord, Lord Collins, made specific reference to Morocco and working in co-ordination with other partners. As he will be aware, my right honourable friend the Prime Minister took part in a G7 meeting with representatives of our European partners participating in the call, as well as other nations and the European Commission. His point is absolutely valid, and I assure him that we are working closely with partners. I and my noble friend Lady Sugg were involved in the repatriation over one weekend of one set of passengers. Every repatriation where we have had to engage directly with charter flights organised by Her Majesty’s Government has involved opening channels to other European countries, if so required, and we have sought to facilitate that.

That underlines the point that international co-operation is taking place—in certain circumstances, between countries that would not normally be talking to each other. Again, in my patch of south Asia, countries which have normally been challenged in their bilateral relations by international circumstances have come together because everyone recognises that this is a global challenge and needs global solutions.