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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 Lord Newby Lord Newby Liberal Democrat Leader in the House of Lords 12:31 pm, 25th June 2020

My Lords, I thank the Leader of the House for answering questions on this Statement.

I welcome the broad thrust of the Government’s proposals because as the risks of catching Covid-19 have diminished, the economic and mental health costs being incurred by many people are increasing. At some point, the costs of remaining in lockdown were bound to be greater than those of lifting it, and that moment appears to have arrived.

As far as the detailed proposals are concerned, the Prime Minister says that they are based on the principle of,

“trust the British public to use their common sense.”

“Trust the people” is of course an old Liberal slogan, so I cannot but applaud that, but the problem about using one’s common sense is that there is no universally agreed view of what common sense constitutes in any particular circumstance. Everybody will disagree with the Government on what it means in specific instances now, and I will mention just two of my own. I do not understand why local cricket clubs cannot re-open when so many other sports are operating, and I do not know why cathedrals and large churches are not allowed any choral music at all, even though individual choristers could stand apart from each other and many metres away from the congregation. These are relatively small issues, but they matter a lot to those affected. What is the process for keeping such inconveniences under review? Will the Government look at further small steps that would seem to many to be an application of the common sense which the Prime Minister claims is the hallmark of his policy?

Going forward, the two bigger challenges are support for the economy and dealing with any new outbreaks. Today’s Statement is not primarily about the economy but it has major economic implications, not only for those working in sectors where the lockdown is effectively being removed, but also for those where it is not. My only plea to the Government is to be nuanced in any stimulus they give to the economy, and to concentrate on giving continued support to sectors that at present cannot begin to return to normal, such as the performing arts, where a failure to be generous now could lead to a long-term hollowing out of the sector.

There is also the issue facing those who are currently shielding, who will not be able to return to work safely at the end of July, because their workplace will not have adequate anti-Covid-19 measures in place, due to the intrinsic nature of the work. Working as a chef is one example. Will the Government extend the provision of statutory sick pay for such people? If not, how are they supposed to make ends meet?

The second big challenge is how to deal with any resurgence of the disease, which is likely to begin with localised outbreaks. In this respect it is instructive to look at what has happened in Germany. The recent outbreak at the Gütersloh meat processing factory saw 1,500 cases out of a workforce of 7,000. This led almost immediately to the lockdown, for a week, of a district of some 360,000 people, and the rapid deployment of some 100 mobile testing teams to identify further infection among the population as a whole. My concern is that a similar outbreak here would not be met with a similarly decisive response.

If such an outbreak happened in England, as the noble Baroness, Lady Smith, said, who would make the decision to lock down the equivalent of a London borough or a district council area? How quickly could such a decision be made? What capacity exists for large-scale local testing in such an area, and what contingency planning has already been undertaken by the Government to ensure that there is a decisive response?

At present, the “track, trace and isolate” policy is based on a national system of telephone callers who have no knowledge of local areas, no local credibility and therefore limited powers of persuasion. It is backed up by an app which, at best, will not be ready for months, and in any event is now not the most important thing that is going to happen but

“the cherry on top of the cake”.

Will the Government now refocus their “track and trace” efforts towards a more locally led approach, and will they change tack and commit to being open with people when significant new outbreaks occur in specific local settings—for example, in meat processing plants, as has happened in two or three cases in the UK already?

While loosening the lockdown and opening up more of the economy is welcome, it will only remain welcome while we avoid a generalised second wave of infections. This is perfectly possible with a rigorous, locally based “track, trace and isolate” system. At present, however, neither I nor anybody else believes that such a system is in place. Until it is, the Government run the risk of making the same hash of coming out of the pandemic as they did of going into it.