Covid-19: Strategy - Statement

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 7:16 pm on 12th May 2020.

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Photo of Baroness Smith of Basildon Baroness Smith of Basildon Shadow Leader of the House of Lords, Shadow Spokesperson (Northern Ireland), Shadow Spokesperson (Cabinet Office), Shadow Spokesperson (Cabinet Office, Constitutional and Devolved issues) 7:16 pm, 12th May 2020

My Lords, having watched the Prime Minister’s recorded message on Sunday and his Statement to MPs yesterday, I will make two observations. We recognise that the complexities and unknowns of this virus mean that decisions about how we respond are very difficult and challenging. To meet those unprecedented challenges, the Government must provide certainty, confidence and clarity. Unfortunately, in his two statements the Prime Minister missed those targets by announcing the plans without the detail needed. Dominic Raab then had to tour the media studios on Monday morning with a basic message of, “What the Prime Minister meant to say was…” For example, when Mr Johnson said that people who were able to should go back to work on Monday, he really meant Wednesday. When we most needed clarity, we got confusion.

We now have the strategy document, so we can discuss the detail, but there is a reason why Statements should be made to Parliament, rather than taking the “Blue Peter” approach of “Here’s one I made earlier” and recording them especially for the media. The Government should not see the normal process of consultation, engagement, questions and scrutiny as political obstacles to be avoided. They must understand that this is the way that we get the best decisions and, therefore, the best outcomes. It is only by highlighting problems that we can work together to overcome them. Can the noble Baroness confirm that the impact assessments on these strategy documents will also be published?

Because of the way this has been handled, there are numerous questions to be addressed to ensure that the public have all the information they need and that we can all monitor and support the way forward. Will the noble Baroness guarantee that no question today is left unanswered and that, if necessary, she will follow up in writing with complete answers?

I will pick up four specific issues. The first is about understanding the R rate—the reproduction rate—which is essential in fighting the virus. How robust is the calculation of the current level being between 0.5 and 0.9? The report states that 136,000 people are currently infected in the UK. Given that there is no universal testing or tracing, on what scientific basis is it calculated and what is the confidence level of the statistics and the margin of error? It is a basic question of whether it is a calculation or an estimate. Our national strategy is predicated on that figure, so we need to be able to respond quickly if it changes, either by the further easing of restrictions or, as is happening in parts of Germany and in South Korea, having to respond to an increase in the R rate. How quickly can we accurately identify changes and adapt plans accordingly? If we are asking those who enter the country to self-isolate for 14 days to help keep the R rate down, how will this be enforced and monitored?

Secondly, the Prime Minister said that the virus varies across the nations and regions of the UK and therefore needs a flexible response. That makes sense, but flexibility does not mean the Government going it alone for England; it means consultation and engagement to ensure coherent policy even if there are differences. So what discussion and consultation took place with the devolved Governments before the Prime Minister’s announcement? And I have to ask: is it really true that they heard about the change of advice from “Stay at home” to “Stay alert” in the media and on Twitter? The noble Baroness attends COBRA meetings so she will be aware of the weekly meetings with the leaders of the devolved Administrations. Were the differences in policy discussed at those meetings? Can she also confirm that the meetings will continue to be weekly? It seems even more important now that they are so, if they are not, why not?

At a smaller, regional level, how accurate is that R figure in identifying regional and local differences? We see that the information regarding infections and deaths is given at local government level. Can the R rate be identified in the same way?

I want to ask about the advice on going back to work, which still appears to be that if you can work from home then you should do so. Many decisions will be predicated on social distancing and other protection measures being in place. I have real concerns about workplaces where there is no proper system for challenging decisions that are taken by an employer or manager. Should employees have little or no confidence that a proper risk assessment at the workplace has been carried out or acted upon, what support will the Government provide to protect their health, or in the event of any threat of job losses just for asking questions? I have to put this to the noble Baroness as well: does she consider that the Health and Safety Executive is fit for purpose on this front? Does it have both the capacity and the political support?

Today we have had more detail on how social distancing will work on public transport and where capacity is to be dramatically reduced. However, given that demand to travel on buses, trams and the Tube may start to outstrip supply, how will the Government ensure that transport networks are not overwhelmed by those just trying to get back to work, as the Government have advised?

It is also suggested that primary schools will go back in June. In the interests of the wider workforce, is guidance being prepared for schools and nurseries on how long children should attend for each day? If that were provided, it could help the public, employers and employees to properly plan ahead. On all those issues, can the noble Baroness confirm that genuine consultation with the relevant trade unions will be part of the decision-making and implementation process?

As we move to the next stages and some parts of everyday life begin to reopen, it is even more important that we get shielding and support for vulnerable people right. What are the Government doing to improve their efforts to identify and notify those in high-risk categories? Local authorities are reporting huge errors. They initially raised their concerns that the numbers seemed too low, but were not asked to contribute their knowledge as data identification was being undertaken centrally. It now appears that thousands of people were initially missed off, and in some areas local authorities have been told that the numbers of citizens to be shielded have more than doubled in the last week. That is a lesson to us all that local authorities have a vital role to play, given their understanding and knowledge of their communities, and that we have to work in ongoing partnership with them to make improvements and harness their local knowledge.

A huge amount is being asked of individuals over the coming weeks. People will rise to the challenge and do their best to keep themselves and each other safe, but it is not just an individual responsibility; it is a collective one and the Government must maintain their end of the bargain. That means delivering on testing, tracing and PPE for front-line workers.

Over the past few months our lives have changed. Thousands are grieving for loved ones. We have seen extraordinary efforts and commitment to manage and eradicate the virus and support individuals and communities. Staff in the NHS, in caring, in transport, in retail, in pharmacies and so many other public-facing roles that we rely on have done so much. We have a responsibility to them to prepare for the future, to do what we can to get the economy moving and to support people in getting back to work, but with great caution, as well as hope for what our country might become when this horrible disease is no more.