Covid-19: Strategy - Statement

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 7:08 pm on 12th May 2020.

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The following Statement was made yesterday in the House of Commons.

“With permission, Mr Speaker, I would like to make a Statement about the next steps in our battle against coronavirus and how we can, with the utmost caution, gradually begin to rebuild our economy and reopen our society.

For the last two months, the British people have faced a grave threat with common sense, compassion and unflinching resolve. We have together observed the toughest restrictions on our freedoms in memory, changing our way of life on a scale unimaginable only months ago. All our efforts have been directed towards protecting our NHS and saving lives. Tragically, many families have lost loved ones before their time, and we share their grief, yet our shared effort has averted a still worse catastrophe, one that could have overwhelmed the NHS and claimed half a million lives.

Every day, dedicated doctors, nurses, social care workers, Army medics and more have risked their own lives in the service of others. They have helped to cut the reproduction rate from between 2.6 and 2.8 in April to between 0.5 and 0.9 today. The number of Covid patients in hospital has fallen by over a third since Easter Sunday. Our Armed Forces joined the NHS to build new hospitals on timetables that were telescoped from years to weeks, almost doubling the number of critical care beds and ensuring that, since the end of March, at least a third have always been available.

Our challenge now is to find a way forward that preserves our hard-won gains while easing the burden of the lockdown. I will be candid with the House: this is a supremely difficult balance to strike. There could be no greater mistake than to jeopardise everything we have striven to achieve by proceeding too far and too fast. We will be driven not by hope or economic revival as an end in itself, but by data, science and public health.

The Government are today submitting to the House a plan that is conditional and dependent, as always, on the common sense and observance of the British people and on the continual reassessment of the data. That picture varies across the regions and home nations of the United Kingdom, requiring a flexible response. Different parts of the UK may need to stay in full lockdown longer, but any divergence should be only short term because, as Prime Minister of the UK, I am in no doubt that we must defeat this threat and face the challenge of recovery together.

Our progress will depend on meeting five essential tests: protecting the NHS; reducing both the daily death toll and the infection rate in a sustained way; ensuring that testing and personal protective equipment can meet future demand, which is a global problem, but one that we must fix; and avoiding a second peak that would overwhelm the NHS. A new UK-wide joint biosecurity centre will measure our progress with a five- stage Covid alert system.

The combined effect of our measures so far has been to prevent us from reaching level 5—a situation in which the NHS would have been overwhelmed—and hold us at level 4. Thanks to the hard work and sacrifice of the British people in following social distancing rules, we are now in a position where we can move in stages to where I hope the scientific advice will tell us that we are down to level 3, but this will only happen if everyone continues to play their part, to stay alert and to follow the rules.

We must also deal with the epidemic in care homes, where a tragic number of the elderly and vulnerable have been lost, and while the situation is thankfully improving, there is a vast amount more to be done. Of course, we need a world-leading system for testing, tracking and tracing victims and their contacts, so I am delighted that Baroness Harding, the chair of NHS Improvement, has agreed to take charge of a programme that will ultimately enable us to test hundreds of thousands of people every day.

All this means that we have begun our descent from the peak of the epidemic, but our journey has reached the most perilous moment, where a wrong move could be disastrous. So at this stage, we can go no further than to announce the first careful modification of our measures. Step 1 in moving towards Covid alert level 3 involves a shift in emphasis that we can begin this week. Anyone who cannot work from home should be actively encouraged to go to work. Sectors that are allowed to be open should indeed be open, but subject to social distancing. These include food production, construction, manufacturing, logistics, distribution and scientific research. To support this, we are publishing guidance for businesses on how to make these workplaces safe and Covid-secure.

People who are able to work from home should do so, as we have continually said, and people who cannot work from home should talk to their employers about returning this week and about the difficulties that they may or may not have. Obviously, anyone with Covid symptoms, or who is in a household where someone else has symptoms, should self-isolate. We want everyone travelling to work to be safe, so people should continue to avoid public transport wherever possible, because we must maintain social distancing, which will inevitably limit capacity. Instead, people should drive or, better still, walk or cycle.

With more activity outside our homes, we would now advise people to wear a cloth face-covering in enclosed spaces where social distancing is not always possible and you are more likely to come into contact with people you do not normally meet. The reason is that face-coverings can help us to protect each other and reduce the spread of the disease, particularly if you have coronavirus-like symptoms. But I must stress that this does not mean wearing medical face masks—2R or FFP3—which must be reserved for people who need them.

We have all lived, so far, with onerous restrictions on outdoor spaces and exercise. This is where we can go significantly further, because there is a lower risk outdoors than indoors. So from Wednesday there will be no limits on the frequency of outdoor exercise people can take. You can now walk, sit and rest in parks, you can play sports and exercise, and you can do all these things with members of your own household, or with one other person from another household, provided you observe social distancing and remain two metres apart. I do hope that that is clear. I am conscious that people will come back and ask questions in more detail, and I will be happy to answer them.

We shall increase the fines for the small minority who break the rules, starting at £100, but doubling with each infringement up to £3,600. You can drive as far as you like to reach an outdoor space, subject to the same rules and the laws and guidance of the devolved Administrations. I am sorry to say, however, that we shall continue to ask those who are clinically vulnerable, including pregnant women and people over 70, or those with pre-existing chronic conditions, to take particular care to minimise contact with those outside their households. We must continue to shield people who are extremely vulnerable. They should, I am afraid, remain at home and avoid any direct contact with others. I know that easing restrictions for the many will only increase the anguish of those who must remain shielded, so the Government will look at every possible way of supporting the most vulnerable.

All of our precautions will count for little if our country is reinfected from overseas, so I give notice that we shall introduce new restrictions at the UK border, requiring 14 days of self-isolation for international arrivals, while respecting our common travel area with Ireland. Every day, we shall monitor our progress, and if we stay on the downward slope, and the R remains below 1, then, and only then, will it become safe to go further and move to the second step. This will not happen until 1 June at the earliest, but we may then be in a position to start the phased reopening of shops; to return children to early years’ settings, including nurseries and childminders; to return primary pupils to school in stages, giving priority to the youngest children in reception and year 1 and those in year 6 preparing for secondary school; and to enable secondary school pupils facing exams next year to get at least some time with their teachers. Our ambition, and I stress that this is conditional, is for all primary school pupils to return to the classroom for a month before the summer break.

To those ends, we are publishing guidance on how schools might reopen safely. Step 2 could also include allowing cultural and sporting events behind closed doors for broadcast, which I think would provide a much-needed boost to national morale. Nothing can substitute for human contact, so the Government have asked the Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies when and how we can safely allow people to expand their household group to include one other household on a strictly reciprocal basis.

Finally, no earlier than July, we may be able to move to step 3, if and only if that is supported by the data and the best scientific advice. We would then aim to reopen some remaining businesses including, potentially, hospitality, cinemas and hairdressers, as well as places of worship and leisure facilities. This will depend on maintaining social distancing and new ways of providing services, so we will phase and pilot any reopenings to ensure public safety. I must be clear again: if the data goes the wrong way and if the alert level begins to rise, we will have no hesitation in putting on the brakes and delaying or reintroducing measures locally, regionally or nationally.

Our struggle against this virus has placed our country under the kind of strain that will be remembered for generations, but so too will the response of the British people, from dedicated shopworkers keeping our supermarkets open and ingenious teachers finding new ways of inspiring their pupils, to the kindness of millions who have checked on their neighbours, delivered food to the elderly, or raised astonishing amounts for charity. In these and so many other ways, we are seeing the indomitable spirit of Britain.

Let me summarise by saying that people should stay alert, by working from home if you possibly can, by limiting contact with others, by keeping your distance to two metres apart where possible and by washing your hands regularly. If you or anyone in your household has symptoms, you all need to self-isolate. If everyone stays alert and follows the rules, we can control the virus, keep the rate of infection down and keep the number of infections down. That is how we will be able to save lives and to save livelihoods as we begin to recover from coronavirus. I commend this Statement to the House.”

The Statement was considered in a Virtual Proceeding via video call.