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 Lord Newby Lord Newby Liberal Democrat Leader in the House of Lords 7:16 pm, 12th May 2020

My Lords, I thank the noble Baroness the Leader of the House for taking questions on the Prime Minister’s Statement. I think everybody agrees that the Government have to strike an extraordinarily difficult balance in moving from the simplicity of lockdown and the “stay at home” slogan towards some sort of social and economic normality without jeopardising the progress being made to control the virus. Even while following the science, there are many uncertainties and risks that have to be weighed, and decisions have to be based on judgments which only Ministers can make.

In these circumstances, the best way to secure maximum public trust and support is to be clear, consistent and open. The Prime Minister’s statements to both the nation and the Commons, coupled with many and various briefings by Ministers, spads and other officials over the past week, have unfortunately led to many uncertainties, inconsistencies and unanswered questions.

I therefore have some questions for the noble Baroness the Leader of the House. First, on testing, how resilient do the Government believe the system now is, given that only a few days ago they sent some 5,000 tests to America because they could not be analysed in a timely manner in the UK? Have any further such shipments proved necessary?

On the crucial track and trace technology, how confident are the Government that their own bespoke system, currently being tested in the Isle of Wight, is fit for purpose in the light of their placing a £3.8 million contract last week to investigate the use in the UK of a completely different one? If a track and trace system is implemented, how will the Government ensure that those who need to isolate do so, given that the number of people they plan to employ on this task is way short of the numbers involved in countries that have been following such a system effectively for some time? Will they consider establishing multidisciplinary community Covid teams, on the German model, involving local directors of public health, which will check not only that people really are isolating themselves but that they are getting the support they need in their homes?

Underlying these questions is the common theme of a monolithic, national programme that has been implemented with little apparent understanding of local conditions and the potential for working collaboratively with local public and private sector partners. Will the Government now look at developing a more collaborative approach in the months ahead in order to avoid some of the problems that they have encountered in the weeks we have just seen?

Moving on to the safety of people at work—an issue which the noble Baroness, Lady Smith, touched on—compliance with the rules is policed by the Health and Safety Executive and local authorities. Both are desperately short of resources to undertake this additional work. What further resources will the Government make available to them to ensure that if employees have concerns about their working conditions they can get a timely inspection of their premises? At the moment, I feel that any concerns raised by employees will not be dealt with expeditiously, because there are simply not the people able to deal with them.

In relation to quarantining for those coming into the UK, why have the Government waited so long to take a measure that has been in place in over 100 other countries for several months? If this is now such an important barrier against the virus, why has the Prime Minister agreed to President Macron’s request to exempt all those travelling from France, which has also had a very high incidence of the disease? It is very difficult to see on what science that decision could possibly have been made.

On schools, why have reception and year 1 groups been prioritised over other primary and junior years, given that these groups will find it the most difficult to maintain social distancing? Again, what is the scientific rationale for that? In the light of the fact that some headmasters are saying that they will not open their schools because they do not believe that they can do so safely, what response, if any, do the Government plan in such cases?

Finally, on your Lordships’ House, the Prime Minister has been keen to urge the House of Commons to move

“in step with public health guidance … towards further physical proceedings”.

Does the noble Baroness agree that the Lords should also embrace this principle and move now towards a hybrid Chamber along the lines of that already in place in the Commons?

As the noble Baroness, Lady Smith, said, there has been a terrific and positive communal response to beating this virus. That feeling exists strongly today, but if it is to continue, the Government must just be open with the people, be clear, and make sure that all of us know how we are supposed to behave in the best interests of ourselves, our families and the country in the months ahead.