Covid-19: Strategy - Statement

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 7:31 pm on 12th May 2020.

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Photo of Baroness Evans of Bowes Park Baroness Evans of Bowes Park Leader of the House of Lords and Lord Privy Seal 7:31 pm, 12th May 2020

I thank the noble Lord and the noble Baroness for their comments. Like them, I pay tribute to everybody for the fantastic national effort that we have seen over the last few weeks. They are absolutely right: it is critical that we provide information at this very difficult time, particularly as we are coming out of the lockdown. We are committed to keeping Parliament and the public informed. In addition to the plan that was published on Monday, over 45 guidance documents have been published, and there is more to come, so we are absolutely committed to making sure that everybody has the most up-to-date and best information possible so that they can understand their responsibilities and the decisions they have to make in the coming weeks.

The noble Baroness asked about the vulnerable and shielded. I assure her that there has been a huge amount of cross-government, cross-agency and local government work. Local resilience fora in particular are playing a critical role in supporting and helping those who are shielded—that will continue—and, of course, we should pay tribute to the hundreds of thousands of members of the public who have signed up to the good Samaritan app to help and provide support to those people.

The noble Baroness rightly asked about the data and the R rate. The fact that the R rate today remains between 0.5 and 0.9, which is perilously close to 1, is the reason why we are taking very careful steps in the coming weeks. In particular, that is why we have set up the joint biosecurity centre, which will bring the UK’s leading epidemiological expertise together to ensure that future outbreaks are detected and brought under control.

This centre will collect a range of data to build up the picture of infection rates across the country, and analyse it to form pictures of changes in infection rates across the country, thereby providing intelligence on both the overall national picture and potential community level spikes. It will advise the CMO of a potential change in the alert level, which we have also just set up, and the CMO will then advise Ministers. It will identify specific actions to address local spikes in infection in partnership with local agencies, and of course it will work in partnership with the Government and the devolved Administrations to ensure that it is effective throughout the United Kingdom.

I hope that the noble Baroness will therefore see that this centre will be critical as we move into the next phase. We will rightly be looking at all the data and its robustness, and ensuring that we can act quickly to changes in data and, along with SAGE, advise the Government. Several other countries, such as New Zealand, South Korea and the United States are also operating a Covid alerting system of the type that we have just set up.

I can assure the noble Baroness that the devolved Administrations have been involved in all discussions. As she rightly said, I sit on a number of the COBRA committees. Representatives of the devolved Administrations attend every committee. We discuss areas of best practice and mutual interest, and where approaches and data slightly diverge. It has been a very strong relationship between the Administrations, but there have been differences in the data in each country—it is of course right that the devolved Administrations make decisions for the people of their area.

Both the noble Lord and the noble Baroness asked about the return to work. We have been working closely with unions, the Health and Safety Executive, public health authorities, business groups and local authorities to develop the guidance that we have published for businesses, and we will of course continue to do so. I am pleased to let the noble Lord and the noble Baroness know that today we announced £14 million of additional funding for the Health and Safety Executive. We are determined that it should be able to do its job. Nobody should be forced to work in an unsafe workplace. If employees are concerned that their employers are not taking all practical steps to promote social distancing, they can report them to their local authority or to the HSE, which can take a range of actions. We will support them in doing that.

The noble Baroness and the noble Lord asked about schools. We want to get reception and year 1 children back into education as quickly as possible and as the scientific advice allows. We believe that school is the best place for them to learn and we know that it is important for their mental well-being to be back with their friends and teachers. Schools will open only in a phased way and only when it is safe to do so. We will of course continue to work closely on this with the unions. We have published guidance for schools and other healthcare settings. We are asking them to implement a range of protective measures, including increasing cleaning, reducing pinch points at the start and end of the day and utilising outdoor space, and we will look at their staying in their small classes for as long as possible so that they have minimum contact with groups around the rest of the school.

The noble Lord asked about testing. We believe that we have a robust system in place, but we will not be complacent. We are trialling the NHS app, but that is just one part of the track and tracing system that we will use. We will ensure that the vulnerable and those who do not have access to the app will be able to be tracked and traced. We will certainly continue to learn from international experience, as the noble Lord mentioned.

The noble Lord also asked about the UK’s borders. During the contain phase, we had enhanced monitoring at the borders to identify symptomatic travellers, but once there was significant transmission within the UK, the scientific advice was that border restrictions would have had a marginal effect on the number of coronavirus cases. Now that domestic transmission within the UK is coming under control, it is right that we take these new measures. As the noble Lord said, the Prime Minister has been talking to President Macron to develop a joint approach.

The noble Lord asked about the House of Lords and a hybrid House. As he will know, work is ongoing to establish how we can do that, but I am sure that all noble Lords will want to ensure that if we return physically we do so in a safe environment both for your Lordships and for the staff, who are supporting us fantastically through this difficult time.