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Covid-19 Update - Statement

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 12:31 pm on 25th June 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) 12:31 pm, 25th June 2020

My Lords, the Prime Minister’s Statement was targeted at a nation desperate to return to a more normal way of living as soon as it is safe to do so. We support that aim. The past few months have taken an enormous toll on individuals and communities. Some, long after most of us will be getting back to work, school and socialising, will still be coping with grief and loss, with mental and physical health issues and, of course, with financial hardship.

The Government have to balance and weigh up the risks of both action and inaction as they plot the path out of lockdown. It is not easy; these are judgment calls. The fundamental change in the Government’s response in the Statement is to move further towards individual decision-making and responsibility through guidance and away from legislation.

I appreciate the need for some flexibility in the system and the wisdom of basic common sense—perhaps such as not going out for a drive to test one’s eyesight—but alongside the benefits of flexibility, it inevitably creates some mixed messages and a lack of clarity. So, as we have come to expect with announcements from this Prime Minister, we need further details and I hope the Leader of the House will be able to help with that.

I want to say at the outset, though, that the tone of the debate is really important. When urging others to act responsibly, Mr Johnson has to understand that this also applies to him. When debating the Statement, my friend and south coast parliamentary colleague, the Hove MP Peter Kyle, sought advice from the Prime Minister. Bear in mind the scenes that we saw on beaches yesterday. My honourable friend asked how, in the absence of an app for tracking and tracing, we can keep places such as beachfront bars safe where it is impossible to get customers’ addresses. In response, Mr Johnson bellowed that elected representatives should “show some guts”. That is a pretty unhelpful and offensive response. I am sure that the noble Baroness will disassociate herself from comments such as that, but, more importantly, can she shed any light on the very sensible question asked by my honourable friend?

On the wider issue of that missing app, the leader of the Opposition, Keir Starmer, also sought clarity from the Prime Minister yesterday, but to little avail. So let us try again. Having been promised a “world-beating” app by 1 June, it is a bit strange now to be told by the Prime Minister, after spending £11.8 million, that we do not have an app—and, he says, neither does any other country. That was news to Australia, China, Germany, Singapore and South Korea. But the Prime Minister still says that we can do better.

Mr Johnson was asked, given that around 33,000 people are currently infected with the virus and around 10,000 people have been tracked and their contacts traced, what has happened to the other 23,000 who are infected? Yesterday, the Prime Minister did not have an answer, but now, 24 hours later, the Government will have had time to find out. So can the noble Baroness update the House on how many of the other 23,000 have now been tracked and had their contacts traced? It is not a trick question; it really is fundamental to understanding how we will navigate through the next few months. We need a system that is effective and has public trust, so that people will co-operate and isolate when told to do so. We need a system that allows local authorities and communities to respond quickly and efficiently to any localised outbreaks of Covid. Without that, we run a serious risk of a second wave.

The Prime Minister also said each step out of lockdown will be “conditional and reversible”. That is a sensible and proportionate response. On what criteria will decisions be based, and will the criteria be published? The reintroduction of restrictions could be local or national, and action will have to be swift, well planned and enforced.

The role of local authorities will be crucial, but council leaders have reported to me that they have had no guidance from the Government on how local lockdowns could work, what powers they will need to enforce them and, crucially, who would make the decisions to impose any restrictions. Would it be the council or does it have to be the Government? Therefore, can the noble Baroness either confirm that such discussions are already scheduled or reassure your Lordships’ House that Ministers will immediately initiate urgent discussions with the Local Government Association and local authorities to ensure that they have the powers and resources they need?

Yesterday, a group of the country’s leading health experts called for an urgent review to ensure that the UK is prepared for what they called the “real risk” of a second wave. In an open letter, the chair of the British Medical Association and the presidents of the Royal College of Surgeons, the Royal College of Nursing, the Royal College of Physicians and the Royal College of GPs urged Ministers to examine

“areas of weakness where action is needed urgently to prevent further loss of life”.

We all know the consequences of failing to prepare, plan and learn the right lessons. The Prime Minister has said that caution is his watchword. Can the Leader confirm that the Government are undertaking a preparedness review? If she does not have the details on that, I am happy for her to write to me.

We all know how important it is to get the economy moving again, and that is reflected in the Statement. We want to do so safely. Can the noble Baroness say something more about how the one metre-plus measures to protect staff and customers will be monitored and enforced? What resources are being made available to assist employers in providing such measures? What recourse to immediate action will employees have if they feel that their safety is at risk?

Finally, on getting back to school, my good friend Sam Parker, now aged eight, is very keen that his year 3 class gets back to school next month. I think that his parents would like that as well. On behalf of Sam and other children who are itching to get back to that more formal learning environment, can the noble Baroness say whether new guidelines will be issued to head teachers in England and when further information will be available?

Also, yesterday the Children’s Commissioner, Anne Longfield, said that she thought it was ridiculous that schools were opening after theme parks. She expressed concern that education had become a lower priority. Can the noble Baroness explain why theme parks have opened before schools?

Over the past few weeks and months we have become used to scientific and medical experts publicly talking about their advice to government and answering questions from the public and the press. That has been really important in maintaining public confidence. For the majority of us who are not experts but rely on them, it has been really helpful as we try to understand the judgments the Government are having to make. Any unlocking carries risks. We know that it has to be done in stages, with careful planning based on scientific evidence. Can the noble Baroness assure us that the package of measures announced is welcomed and supported by the Government’s own emergency advisers SAGE, as well as the CMO and the Chief Scientific Officer?

Finally, given that the daily press conferences for announcements and updates have been abandoned, I assume that we will return to the normal process of Statements to Parliament, such as this one, which I certainly welcome. Can the noble Baroness confirm that we will receive regular Statements on progress?