Covid-19 - Statement

– in the House of Lords at 3:23 pm on 23rd September 2020.

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The following Statement was made on Tuesday 22 September in the House of Commons.

“Mr Speaker, with your permission, I will make a Statement on our response to the rising number of coronavirus cases and how we must act now to avoid still graver consequences later on.

At every stage in this pandemic, we have struck a delicate balance between saving lives by protecting our NHS and minimising the wider impact of our restrictions. It is because of the common sense and fortitude of the British people that, earlier this year, we were able to avert an even worse catastrophe, forming a human shield around our NHS and then getting our country moving again by reopening key sectors of our economy and returning children to school. But we always knew that, while we might have driven the virus into retreat, the prospect of a second wave was real. I am sorry to say that, as in Spain, France and many other countries, we have reached a perilous turning point. A month ago, on average, around 1,000 people across the UK were testing positive for coronavirus every day. The latest figure has almost quadrupled to 3,929. Yesterday, the Chief Medical Officer and the Chief Scientific Adviser warned that the doubling rate for new cases could be between seven and 20 days, with the possibility of tens of thousands of new infections next month.

I wish I could reassure the House that the growing number of cases is merely a function of more testing, but a rising proportion of the tests themselves are yielding a positive result. I also wish I could say that more of our people now have the antibodies to keep the virus off, but the latest data suggests that fewer than 8% of us are in this position. It is true that the number of new cases is growing fastest among those aged 20 to 29, but the evidence shows that the virus is spreading to other, more vulnerable age groups, as we have seen in France and Spain, where this has led to increased hospital admissions and, sadly, more deaths. In the last fortnight, daily hospital admissions in England have more than doubled. Tens of thousands of daily infections in October would, as night follows day, lead to hundreds of daily deaths in November, and those numbers would continue to grow unless we act. As with all respiratory viruses, Covid is likely to spread faster as autumn becomes winter. Yesterday, on the advice of the four Chief Medical Officers, the UK’s Covid alert level was raised from 3 to 4—the second most serious stage—meaning that transmission is high or rising exponentially.

So this is the moment when we must act. If we can curb the number of daily infections and reduce the reproduction rate to 1, we can save lives, protect the NHS and the most vulnerable, and shelter the economy from the far sterner and more costly measures that would inevitably become necessary later on. We are acting on the principle that a stitch in time saves nine.

The Government will introduce new restrictions in England, carefully judged to achieve the maximum reduction in the R number with the minimum damage to lives and livelihoods. I stress that this is by no means a return to the full lockdown of March. We are not issuing a general instruction to stay at home. We will ensure that schools, colleges and universities stay open, because nothing is more important than the education, health and well-being of our young people. We will ensure that businesses can stay open in a Covid-compliant way. However, we must take action to suppress the disease.

First, we are once again asking office workers who can work from home to do so. In key public services and in all professions where home working is not possible, such as construction or retail, people should continue to attend their workplaces and, like Government, this House will be free to take forward its business in a Covid-secure way, which you, Mr Speaker, have pioneered.

Secondly, from Thursday, all pubs, bars and restaurants must operate a table service only, except for takeaways. Together with all hospitality venues, they must close at 10 pm and to help the police enforce this rule I am afraid that that means, alas, closing and not just calling for last orders, because simplicity is paramount. The same will apply to takeaways, although deliveries can continue thereafter. I am sorry that this will affect many businesses just getting back on their feet, but we must act to stop the virus from being transmitted in bars and restaurants.

Thirdly, we will extend the requirement to wear face coverings to include staff in retail, all users of taxis and private hire vehicles, and staff and customers in indoor hospitality, except when seated at a table to eat or drink.

Fourthly, in retail, leisure and tourism and other sectors, our Covid-secure guidelines will become legal obligations. Businesses will be fined and could be closed if they breach the rules.

Fifthly, now is the time to tighten up the rule of six. I am afraid that from Monday a maximum of 15 people will be able to attend wedding ceremonies and receptions, although up to 30 can still attend a funeral, as now. We will also have to extend the rule of six to all adult indoor team sports.

Finally, we have to acknowledge that the spread of the virus is now affecting our ability to reopen business conferences, exhibitions and large sporting events, so we will not be able to do this from 1 October. I recognise the implications for our sports clubs, which are the life and soul of our communities, and my right honourable friends the Chancellor and the Culture Secretary are working urgently on what we can do now to support them.

These rules—these measures—will only work if people comply. There is nothing more frustrating for the vast majority who do comply—the law-abiding majority—than the sight of a few brazenly defying the rules, so these rules will be enforced by tighter penalties. We have already introduced a fine of up to £10,000 for those who fail to self-isolate, and such fines will now be applied to businesses breaking Covid rules. The penalty for failing to wear a mask or breaking the rule of six will now double to £200 for a first offence. We will provide the police and local authorities with the extra funding they need, a greater police presence on our streets, and the option to draw on military support where required to free up the police.

The measures I have announced all apply in England, and the devolved Administrations are taking similar steps. I spoke yesterday with each of the First Ministers and again today, and I thank them for their collaboration.

The health of everyone in these islands depends on our common success. Already, about 13 million people across England are living under various local restrictions over and above national measures. We will continue to act against local flare-ups, working alongside councils and strengthening measures where necessary.

I want to speak directly to those who were shielding early in the pandemic and who may be anxious about being at greater risk. Following advice from our senior clinicians, our guidance continues to be that you do not need to shield except in local lockdown areas, and we will keep this under constant review.

I must emphasise that if all our actions fail to bring the R below 1, we reserve the right to deploy greater firepower with significantly greater restrictions. I fervently want to avoid taking this step, as do the devolved Administrations, but we will be able to avoid it only if our new measures work and our behaviour changes.

We will spare no effort in developing vaccines, treatments and new forms of mass testing, but unless we palpably make progress, we should assume that the restrictions I have announced will remain in place for perhaps six months. For the time being, the virus is a fact of our lives, and I must tell the House and the country that our fight against it will continue. We will not listen to those who say, ‘Let the virus rip’, nor to those who urge a permanent lockdown. We are taking decisive and appropriate steps to balance saving lives with protecting jobs and livelihoods.

I know all this will have profound consequences for our constituents, so the Government will give the House every opportunity to scrutinise our decisions. In addition to regular Statements and debates, Members will be able to question the Government’s scientific advisers more regularly, gain access to data about their constituencies and join daily calls with my right honourable friend the Paymaster-General.

After six months of restrictions, it would be tempting to hope that the threat has faded and to seek comfort in the belief that if you have avoided the virus so far, you are somehow immune. I have to say that it is that kind of complacency that could be our undoing. If we fail to act together now, we will not only place others at risk, but jeopardise our own futures with the more drastic action that we would inevitably be forced to take.

No British Government would wish to stifle our freedoms in the ways that we have found necessary this year, yet even now we can draw some comfort from the fact that schools, universities and places of worship are staying open, shops can serve their customers, construction workers can go to building sites, and the vast majority of the UK economy can continue moving forwards.

We are also better prepared for a second wave with the ventilators, the personal protective equipment, the dexamethasone, the Nightingale hospitals and a hundred times as much testing as we began this epidemic with. It now falls to each and every one of us to remember the basics: wash our hands, cover our faces, observe social distancing and follow the rules. Then we can fight back against this virus, shelter our economy from even greater damage, protect the most vulnerable in care homes and hospitals, safeguard our NHS and save many more lives. I commend this Statement to the House.”

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) 3:28 pm, 23rd September 2020

My Lords, I assume that noble Lords have read the Prime Minister’s Statement, given that in our new circumstances, the noble Baroness does not repeat it. Many of us would have seen it made yesterday in the other House. It is clear that we are now at a point which the whole House would have hoped to avoid. The warnings from the Government’s own advisers are very stark, so when restrictions are needed, they will have our support because we need to avoid any confusion and have clarity in communication. However, perhaps I may raise a few issues with the noble Baroness.

I turn first to testing. The Prime Minister pretty much dismissed this yesterday. The lack of a comprehensive, even world-beating, test, trace and isolate system is making the nation’s efforts to tackle the virus more difficult, but yesterday the Prime Minister said:

“Testing and tracing has very little or nothing to do with the spread or the transmission of the disease.”—[Official Report, Commons, 22/9/20; col. 822.]

Surely the point of having the world-beating system that we are waiting for is to reduce the number of people who will be infected. What is that about? I heard the Prime Minister trying to explain what he meant at Prime Minister’s Questions but, despite a lot of words, I did not understand his explanation, so it is now the turn of the noble Baroness. Perhaps she could try to explain what the Prime Minister really meant. Does his comment that testing and tracing has very little or nothing to do with the spread of the disease mean that that is now the Government’s view, or did the Prime Minister get it wrong and the Government are still committed to a world-beating test, trace and isolate system?

On the new restrictions, we appreciate the difficulties in getting them right. Can the noble Baroness assist your Lordships’ House in understanding the rationale behind them? In many of the areas currently managing more restrictive measures, we have not seen the fall in the number of infections anticipated or hoped for. Were those results factored into the decisions taken for the rest of the country? It would also be helpful if she could say which rules the residents of those areas are now following. Is she confident that the actions being taken now will be effective and at what point will the Government make a judgment on their effectiveness?

Also, can she advise me on two sets of circumstances on which I would like some clarity? If I decide to go out for a curry tonight and I take five other noble Lords with me, that follows the rule of six and the six of us will be able to enjoy our meal in the restaurant. However, if two of those noble Lords come back to the House for the last business, does that mean that our group of six is now four, so two other noble Lords, perhaps from the Cross Benches, can join us for dessert? Is the rule of six the rule at any one point or can the six change during the course of the evening?

I am asking my second question for a friend. If a couple I know are at home with their two kids asleep in bed upstairs, does the rule of six mean that they can have only two friends round to socialise in their home, or can four friends come round? Again, what does the rule of six mean in those circumstances? Can six people be together or do the children, asleep in their beds, count as two of the six people in the home? That is the level of clarity that the Government will have to provide, and if the noble Baroness can respond, that would be really helpful.

On the furlough scheme, the noble Baroness will be aware of how valuable it has been to viable businesses that just need to get through this period so that they can survive until better days. The Government are bringing the scheme to an end for all businesses in all circumstances at the same time. Surely we can do better than that. The noble Baroness may have heard Paul Nowak of the TUC speaking earlier on Radio 4’s “Today” programme. He called for a smarter, targeted version of furlough. She may have heard him offer to work with the Government to bring employer and employee representatives together to help design a scheme that has the kind of flexibility needed to respond to struggling industries—and struggling areas—and will help companies and workers alike to get through what will clearly be a difficult time in the months ahead. That seems a wise, practical and pragmatic suggestion. Will she take it to the Prime Minister today and bring his response back to your Lordships’ House?

The Prime Minister also said yesterday that schools can access the tests they need and that every child with symptoms should automatically get a test. Of course that is right, but if the system is not in place yet, when will it be, and what is the current turnaround time for schools to get the results back?

Finally, this is a terrible virus. Many are suffering from the consequences of long-term Covid infection and others have lost loved ones, while people have had their lives restricted in trying to avoid getting it. The consequences of making the wrong decisions are enormous—literally matters of life and death. We know that there is pressure on the Prime Minister from all directions on what the appropriate course of action is, but these decisions can never be predicated on placating one group or another. We just have to do what is right. I hope that the noble Baroness can answer my questions today—I can see her riffling through her papers—but if she is unable to do so, I hope she will write to me over the next couple of days.

Photo of Lord Newby Lord Newby Liberal Democrat Leader in the House of Lords

My Lords, I thank the Leader of the House for agreeing to answer questions on the Prime Minister’s Statement yesterday.

The Government now face four tough challenges in combating coronavirus. The first is how to act proportionately to drive down infections and deaths while at the same time allowing as much economic and social activity as possible to continue. This is an extraordinarily difficult balancing act but, if the threat is as severe as the scientists believe, I find it surprising that the rule of six remains intact and allows, for example, individuals from six different households to meet in a restaurant, possibly for several hours, with zero social distancing. If I were a generous-hearted soul, I could invite five noble Lords for breakfast, five different ones for lunch and five different ones for supper. That sounds a lot to me. Can the noble Baroness confirm that Professor Whitty argued for stronger measures than those now being proposed? The rules also appear inconsistent. Why can 30 people attend a funeral but only 15 a wedding? That seems bizarre. Can the noble Baroness explain the science behind that decision?

The second challenge is how to identify those with the virus quickly and then isolate them from the rest of the population. Sadly, the Government’s track record on test, track and trace is hopelessly inadequate. It is miles behind the system devised in Germany, where, for example, anyone entering the country by car can have a prompt test at the side of the motorway, the results of which are quickly relayed to a working app, and where localised delays in getting tests done are so rare that they become major news stories. To argue that the German success and our failures have anything to do with our attitudes towards freedom is both risible and insulting. The Government are at least trying to be clearer on those who have priority in getting a test in future. But does the noble Baroness accept that it seems illogical to exclude from the priority list ancillary staff who work in hospitals, care homes and schools? Surely a caretaker, cleaner or member of the catering staff is just as capable of spreading the virus as a doctor, care worker or teacher.

The third challenge relates to persuading the public to adhere to the rules, and the Government have this week strengthened the stick and the carrot. On the stick, the Government have proposed increased penalties, but they are no good without more effective enforcement. The Prime Minister said yesterday that the Government will provide the police and local authorities with the extra funding they need to do this. But will he really live up to his promise? Up to now, the Government have provided extra resources to local government at levels well below what they believe they need to do their Covid work effectively. Will the noble Baroness confirm that the Government will now make funds available to police forces and local authorities at a level that they, not the Government, judge to be required to do their job properly? On carrots, the Government have announced a new £500 isolation support payment for people on low incomes who have tested positive or been told to self-isolate. What is the definition of “low income”, and how quickly and by what means do they intend to get this extremely sensible initiative up and running?

The fourth challenge relates to the additional economic damage that the new restrictions will bring. The hospitality, arts and sport sectors will be particularly badly hit. We are told that the Chancellor and Business Secretary will bring forward further plans to help support those most affected. But the new restrictions bite from tomorrow. So when will the promised new business support measures be announced and take effect? Businesses have a very small cash cushion to keep them going while the Government decide what they are going to do to support them.

Finally, the Prime Minster expressed the Government’s willingness to give the Commons every opportunity to scrutinise government decisions. This is a sound principle but, as the noble and learned Baroness, Lady Hale, forcefully pointed out, Parliament has effectively surrendered its scrutiny role over Covid legislation. The principal Covid Act was passed with barely any debate, and the delay in debating statutory instruments means that by the time we do discuss them they have been in operation for many weeks in most cases. So the scrutiny is, in effect, meaningless.

This deficiency, however, could easily be rectified by the Government. Will the noble Baroness assure the House that future statutory instruments such as the one coming into force tomorrow will be debated at the earliest opportunity? In the specific case of those new rules, and in light of the completion of the debate on the Agriculture Bill yesterday, can she give any reason why the House should not discuss the new statutory instrument tomorrow, in advance of it coming into effect, rather than at a later date when it will already have done so?

For the Government’s measures to work, individuals across the country have got to believe that they are necessary and proportionate. The scientists can set out the objective evidence, but only the Government can decide on the response. Bringing Parliament and the nation with them will be vital in the months ahead. To achieve that, they will need less bombast and more openness. I hope that we might now get it.

Photo of Baroness Evans of Bowes Park Baroness Evans of Bowes Park Leader of the House of Lords and Lord Privy Seal

I thank the noble Lord and the noble Baroness for their comments and questions. I assure the noble Baroness that the Government remain committed to the test and trace system, and it will clearly play an important part in our efforts to continue to tackle the virus. I am sure she will be pleased to know that the test and trace app will be rolled out nationally tomorrow, further enhancing that programme. It is designed to work alongside the traditional contact tracing services and testing to help people understand if they are at risk. On her questions about the rules, my personal interpretation is that she could indeed invite two noble Lords to join her for curry if two had left, as the rule is about six people. Children are counted as individuals, so they are counted as one of the six.

Both the noble Lord and the noble Baroness talked about evidence. Certainly both the Government and the scientific advisers looked at a range of evidence in order to come up with the package that we have.

The noble Lord and the noble Baroness quite rightly talked about the economic impacts, which we are all extremely aware of. They will know that through the measures we have taken so far we have protected 12 million people and jobs through the furlough and self-employed schemes, at a cost of £40 billion. However, I entirely accept their points about the impact that this virus is still having, and the impact it is still having on our economy. I can certainly assure the noble Baroness that my right honourable friend the Chancellor, and those across government, are working with employers, representatives, unions and businesses to continue to work out exactly what the best form of support for businesses in all sectors is. We keep that package under constant review.

The noble Lord, Lord Newby, asked about the prioritisation of testing. He is absolutely right: at the moment prioritisation is for those who work in acute clinical care, broader NHS staff and people in care homes, and targeted testing for teaching staff. He is obviously quite right to mention other individuals who work within these settings, and we will keep the prioritisation under review. As we increase our testing and look towards the 500,000 tests that we hope to get to by the end of October, we hope to be able to offer tests much more widely and include more people within that prioritisation.

On face coverings, the noble Lord, Lord Newby, talked about indoor settings with lots of people. That is why we are now mandating face coverings in indoor settings and enclosed places which are freely accessed by the public, where it may not be possible to maintain social distancing. He will be aware that we already had those measures in place for shops and supermarkets and on public transport. It is for that very reason that we are now extending the mandatory wearing of face coverings to hospitality settings, taxis and private hire vehicles—again, in enclosed settings where it is particularly difficult for people to maintain social distancing.

The noble Lord also asked about extra funding for the police and local authorities. We have already announced an initial £50 million to support the range of enforcement activity we would expect to see in relation to the new rules that we have just announced. It will be up to the police to decide how they wish to deploy that—for instance, it could be used for increasing patrols to enforce social contact rules, deploying police to high-risk areas where there is rising concern, and providing more support to local authorities and NHS Test and Trace where quarantine and self-isolation breaches are being escalated. Of course, those are just some of the ways in which this funding could be used at a local level.

In relation to the new payment that was announced, the £500 is targeted at those on low incomes and who cannot work from home. It is an additional payment, on top of statutory sick pay and existing benefits or support, such as universal credit, employment support allowance, local housing allowance or hardship fund payments. It will become available for those who are required to self-isolate from 28 September. Local authorities are working quickly to set up these support schemes, and we expect them to be in place by 12 October. Anyone who has had to self-isolate from 28 September will receive backdated payments. That is, I hope, the detail of the new scheme.

The noble Lord talked about parliamentary scrutiny, which is of course extremely important. Each SI has undergone full scrutiny, in line with the requirements of its parent Act. We have been using the appropriate parliamentary procedures for considering regulations, including waiting for the JCSI and the SLSC to report on them before they are debated. On Monday, we will have a more general debate, in line with the commitment we made, on the Coronavirus Act itself.

The noble Lord asked about tomorrow. As the noble Baroness, Lady Thornton—who is sitting there—will be well aware, we have two days of full discussions on coronavirus SIs, so I do not think we can criticise the House or anyone within it for the work they are doing on this. We will be discussing the SIs that were to be in the Grand Committee in the Chamber. We are dealing with them in order: there are deadlines within which we have to discuss these SIs, and that is the order in which we are taking them. I hope the noble Lord will accept that, as well as the fact that we have two coronavirus Statements today, we are taking this very seriously and ensuring parliamentary scrutiny.

Photo of Baroness Evans of Bowes Park Baroness Evans of Bowes Park Leader of the House of Lords and Lord Privy Seal

Sorry, I did have an answer on schools. Our advice for children is very clear: they should have a test only if they have symptoms. Obviously, we are well aware that there is a capacity issue in the system at the moment, which we are trying to address, so there are perhaps longer waits than we would like for tests. However, 64.7% of people who have a test get the results back within 24 hours.

Photo of Lord Faulkner of Worcester Lord Faulkner of Worcester Deputy Chairman of Committees, Deputy Speaker (Lords)

We now come to the 30 minutes allocated for Back-Bench questions. Please keep questions and answers brief, so that I can call the maximum number of speakers.

Photo of Lord Kakkar Lord Kakkar Crossbench 3:48 pm, 23rd September 2020

My Lords, I join others in thanking the noble Baroness for taking questions on the Prime Minister’s Statement, and in so doing draw your Lordships’ attention to my declared interests.

The first wave of Covid-19 earlier this year saw major challenges for the NHS, in being able to treat patients with non-Covid conditions, such as cancer and cardiovascular disease, while dealing with the large numbers of patients needing admission for acute Covid conditions. How will Her Majesty’s Government determine whether the measures now in place are having sufficient impact to be confident that the NHS will be able to manage not only patients requiring Covid-19 admissions but those with non-Covid conditions requiring urgent treatment during the winter? This is a critically important issue. Do they have modelling available? How will they determine if these measures are going to have the desired impact and, if not, how will they act to ensure that the NHS will be able to look after all patients, both Covid and non-Covid?

Photo of Baroness Evans of Bowes Park Baroness Evans of Bowes Park Leader of the House of Lords and Lord Privy Seal

I assure the noble Lord that the department is working extremely hard with the NHS to ensure an absolute minimum of disruption to other treatments. It was thanks only to the incredible work of staff that, even at the peak of demand earlier this year, hospitals were still able to look after two non-Covid patients for every Covid patient. A similar picture was seen in primary, community and mental health services. The most effective way to ensure that other treatments are not disrupted is to make sure we tackle this disease and try to make sure we do not have huge numbers of hospitalisations of patients with Covid. We are working towards that. We are also working on the principle that the most urgent treatments, including mental health support, should be brought back first. I assure the noble Lord that is a priority for the department.

Photo of Lord Robathan Lord Robathan Conservative

My Lords, what matters most in this crisis is not the number of coronavirus infections but the deaths that occur. All deaths are tragic, but I regret to say that they are mostly among the elderly, the frail and those with comorbidities. Two weeks ago, the number of deaths was approximately 11 or 12 a day. In the last seven days it has just about doubled. The number fluctuates, but it appears to be going up. Still, it is only between 1% and 2% of the average daily death rate in this country. That is after three months of greater social mingling.

I regret to say that this policy is incoherent, illogical and, without a vaccine, unending. It is doing incalculable harm to livelihoods, lives, the economy, our country’s future and, worst of all, our children’s future. Will my noble friend the Lord Privy Seal take this message back to the Prime Minister at the next Cabinet? Whatever focus groups may say, the British public are fed up and will not support the restrictions announced in this Statement any more than I do.

Photo of Baroness Evans of Bowes Park Baroness Evans of Bowes Park Leader of the House of Lords and Lord Privy Seal

My noble friend has been very clear in his views on the actions being taken and I respect them. He speaks for people who feel that way but, I am afraid, as the CMO and Chief Scientific Adviser set out earlier this week, we know that death rates are a lagging indicator. We have raised the alert level because we have seen that the doubling rate of cases could be between seven and 20 days, and that in the last fortnight daily hospital admissions have doubled. There is enough concern that we have felt it absolutely necessary to take this action early so that we can try to stop a devastating second spike. I completely accept and understand the points he makes about the economy—I touched on that in my answers earlier—but we strongly feel we need to take this action. I am very sorry—I think we all are—for the inconvenience it causes, but it is worth it to save lives.

Photo of The Bishop of Rochester The Bishop of Rochester Bishop

My Lords, I am looking forward to my invitation to curry supper. More seriously, I think I speak on behalf of all the faith communities in welcoming the Prime Minister’s continued affirmation of the importance of places of worship being open, albeit with restrictions, not just for the private benefit of the adherents of a particular faith but for wider community cohesion and well-being, bearing in mind not least that many of these places host food banks and other community care initiatives. I hope that, if any further measures are needed, that community well-being dimension will be kept in mind alongside others.

I return to the question asked by the noble Lord, Lord Newby, about the 30 and the 15 attendance at particular kinds of events and add to that the announcement made, I believe, this afternoon that as of Monday attendance at life events will be restricted to six. There is some confusion about definitions here. As a narrower question, can the noble Baroness confirm that an ordination service, of which there will be dozens all over the country in the next few weeks, is not a life event for this purpose but rather a regular part of church and community life? Restricting attendance to six in a space such as Canterbury Cathedral would seem a bit odd when tourists can visit every day.

Photo of Baroness Evans of Bowes Park Baroness Evans of Bowes Park Leader of the House of Lords and Lord Privy Seal

I thank the right reverend Prelate. I am afraid I am not so on top of that detail as to be able to give him an answer I would have confidence in, but I will certainly take his point back to MHCLG, which I believe is the lead department on this. I am sure that Ministers there will want to talk to representatives from the Church and other faiths to make sure the rules make sense.

Photo of Baroness Walmsley Baroness Walmsley Co-Deputy Leader of the Liberal Democrat Peers

My Lords, is the noble Baroness aware that there has been a considerable rise in mental and emotional ill health since the pandemic began? Many people are fearful, anxious and depressed. In the Government’s messaging on the virus, does she agree that there needs to be a balance between frightening people about the seriousness of the disease so that they will obey the rules and reassuring people that, if they do obey the rules, they will probably be okay? Does she think the Prime Minister got that balance right yesterday? I am afraid I do not.

Photo of Baroness Evans of Bowes Park Baroness Evans of Bowes Park Leader of the House of Lords and Lord Privy Seal

The noble Baroness is right about how incredibly important it is that we get messaging right. We are in a very complicated situation and everyone is doing their best. She is also right about concerns over mental health; for those with severe needs or in crisis, all NHS mental health providers have established 24/7 mental health crisis lines, and PHE has published its surveillance tracker to monitor the impacts of Covid-19 on the population’s mental health. These are proactive steps to help ensure that our response to the effects of the pandemic is shaped by emerging data. I am sure work such as that will help feed in as we think about messaging now and going forward.

Photo of Baroness Hayman Baroness Hayman Crossbench

My Lords, during the Statement yesterday the Prime Minister spoke of Parliament’s ability to

“take forward its business in a covid-secure way”.—[Official Report, Commons, 22/9/20; col. 798.]

Does the noble Baroness the Leader of the House recognise that there are grave concerns about how we are taking that business forward and the quality and effectiveness of current debate and scrutiny? As the noble Lord, Lord Newby, said, particularly concerning is the retrospective and often totally irrelevant nature of our scrutiny of statutory instruments which have been in force for weeks or months before they are ever considered in the House. In her response to the noble Lord, the noble Baroness did not seem to recognise that there was a problem. I urge her to read the words of the noble and learned Baroness, Lady Hale, and of her noble friend Lord Forsyth in the debate last Friday, and reconsider.

Photo of Baroness Evans of Bowes Park Baroness Evans of Bowes Park Leader of the House of Lords and Lord Privy Seal

I am sorry if the noble Baroness did not think I gave due weight to that response. As I have said, we are very concerned to ensure we have scrutiny. We have ensured that each SI has undergone full scrutiny, in line with the parent Act, and worked around the appropriate parliamentary procedures. At this point I also thank the House authorities for all the work they have done to help us ensure we are a Covid-secure workplace. I hope noble Lords, while finding it frustrating, will continue to appreciate that we are working in a hybrid way and doing remote voting in an attempt to make sure that as many noble Lords as possible can continue the important work we do in this House in scrutinising legislation.

Photo of Lord Polak Lord Polak Conservative

Following the lead of the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Rochester, I thank the Government for the clear, helpful and sensitive guidelines given to the Jewish community for celebrating Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish new year, last weekend. It was Rosh Hashanah, but not entirely as we have always known it.

As more local lockdowns will inevitably follow, bringing difficulties for people and businesses—perhaps even a good crisis to exploit, were I the shadow Education Secretary—can my noble friend the Leader of the House explain what extra help will be given to businesses which find themselves in local lockdown areas?

Photo of Baroness Evans of Bowes Park Baroness Evans of Bowes Park Leader of the House of Lords and Lord Privy Seal

Businesses in England required to close due to local lockdowns or targeted restrictions can now receive grants worth £1,500 every three weeks. To be eligible for the grant, a business must have been required to close due to local Covid-19 restrictions. The largest businesses will receive £1,500; smaller businesses will receive £1,000. Payments are triggered by a national decision to close businesses in a high-incidence area. That is specific help for businesses within local lockdowns but, as I alluded to in answer to the noble Baroness, Lady Smith, we are keeping the broader package of national support under review. That is why we have introduced things such as the £2 billion Kickstart Scheme, paying employers £2,000 for every apprentice they hire. There will be national measures and those specific measures I mentioned for local lockdown areas.

Photo of Lord Shipley Lord Shipley Liberal Democrat

My Lords, the Statement says the Government

“will provide the police … with the extra funding they need”.—[Official Report, Commons, 22/9/20; col. 798.]

If that is the case, what exactly is the role of the military to free up the police, given that promise of adequate funding for the police?

Photo of Baroness Evans of Bowes Park Baroness Evans of Bowes Park Leader of the House of Lords and Lord Privy Seal

The police will have the option to draw on military support if they require it. This would follow tried and tested mechanisms and so, for instance, could involve the military back-filling certain duties, such as office roles or guarding protected sites. What this is absolutely not about is giving additional powers to the military or having them replace the police in enforcement roles. They would not be handing out fines.

Photo of Lord Patel Lord Patel Chair, Science and Technology Committee (Lords), Chair, Science and Technology Committee (Lords)

My Lords, I was pleased to hear the Leader of the House mention an increase in testing to 500,000; I hope that that includes a rapid turnaround time. My question is about the ambition, mentioned by the Secretary of State and the Prime Minister, to use testing as a mass screening tool. The current test and track system has lots of problems but mass screening has even bigger problems, so I hope that before it is introduced, the Government will publish the plans and consult beforehand.

Photo of Baroness Evans of Bowes Park Baroness Evans of Bowes Park Leader of the House of Lords and Lord Privy Seal

I am sure that the department will take soundings and work with as many experts as possible as we look to develop this. It is a future aim to start testing people to identify those who do not have coronavirus and are not infectious with a quick, simple, scalable test but we are not near that yet, so we will certainly work with experts and companies to develop it. We will draw as much expertise as we can because, along with the development of vaccines, this will be critical hopefully to moving back to some kind of normal life.

Photo of Lord Hayward Lord Hayward Conservative

My Lords, the announcement yesterday hit sport very hard at all levels—not just those levels that are seen on television but community sport in whatever form. I believe that Ian Botham is to be introduced into this House on 6 October. Will my noble friend guarantee that sports will receive the same proportion of grants as have been given to the arts by the time that he arrives in this Chamber?

Photo of Baroness Evans of Bowes Park Baroness Evans of Bowes Park Leader of the House of Lords and Lord Privy Seal

I thank my noble friend. Like him and many others, I am extremely disappointed that we have had to pause these events. I was able to get one of 1,000 tickets to see Norwich play football on Saturday as one of the pilot events and, in terms of the way that was held, I thought that it worked very well.

We absolutely understand the economic consequences, as he rightly says, particularly for community and grass-roots sports, which so depend on spectators. I know that my right honourable friend the Secretary of State is working at pace with representatives from a variety of sports to ensure that we can come up with some kind of package to help them.

Photo of Lord Craig of Radley Lord Craig of Radley Crossbench

My Lords, there is a well-supported view that, in or close to lockdown, the most elderly should be allowed to meet close family and friends, or to self-isolate if they prefer, because of the human importance of such contacts. They should not be legally imprisoned for the rest of their natural lives in lockdown. Will the Government give this view serious consideration?

Photo of Baroness Evans of Bowes Park Baroness Evans of Bowes Park Leader of the House of Lords and Lord Privy Seal

I can certainly assure the noble and gallant Lord that such considerations are at the forefront of everyone’s mind. The noble Baroness, Lady Walmsley, talked about the impact on mental health generally; of course, many of us have not seen some of our relatives for a long time, which is very painful for them and for those of us who cannot see them. I assure him that we are considering that very carefully. It is why we are trying to take packages of measures that continue, at this point, to allow social contact, because we know how important it is. However, we will obviously have to take action if we cannot stop the virus continuing to increase, because it is critical that we save as many lives as we can.

Photo of Baroness Finlay of Llandaff Baroness Finlay of Llandaff Deputy Chairman of Committees, Deputy Speaker (Lords)

The Statement drew attention to the fears of those who were on the shielding list and those who are shielding others. What additional practical support is being reactivated to ensure that those people can remain Covid safe? In relation to businesses and private rentals in the commercial sector, what are the Government doing about the exorbitantly high commercial rentals that are destroying local businesses, whose profits have fallen at the moment?

Photo of Baroness Evans of Bowes Park Baroness Evans of Bowes Park Leader of the House of Lords and Lord Privy Seal

The noble Baroness will be aware that, in the announcement yesterday, the advice remains that the clinically extremely vulnerable do not need to shield at the moment, although this will be kept under review. Obviously, if things change, packages of support will be looked at. Local directors of public health are also able to offer specific advice for clinically vulnerable residents. Of course, in local lockdown areas there will be different packages of support, so that is absolutely something we will consider as and when the guidance changes. In relation to rents, I am afraid that I will have to write to the noble Baroness as I do not have information on that particular issue.

Photo of Lord Caine Lord Caine Deputy Chairman of Committees

Following on from the comments of my noble friend Lord Hayward, my noble friend the Lord Privy Seal will be aware that, in May, the whole rugby league family applauded the Government for the £16 million lifeline that they made available to the sport. That money was, however, predicated on a 12-week lockdown, and yesterday’s announcement on pausing the return of spectators could have a devastating impact on the viability of professional rugby league clubs both large and small. Can my noble friend therefore assure the House that the Government will engage urgently with the Rugby Football League to seek a quick solution to this issue and examine what more can be done to ensure a future for a sport that is so deeply embedded in communities such as mine in Leeds?

Photo of Baroness Evans of Bowes Park Baroness Evans of Bowes Park Leader of the House of Lords and Lord Privy Seal

I thank my noble friend. As I said to my noble friend Lord Hayward, the Secretary of State is working on this as we speak. He is well aware of the issues faced. As my noble friend said, we have already worked with the rugby league to help but, as he said, with the new situation unfortunately facing sport, we will certainly work to see what we can do because so many clubs in a range of different sports are absolutely central to their local communities and we want to make sure that they continue to thrive once this crisis is over.

Photo of Baroness Watkins of Tavistock Baroness Watkins of Tavistock Deputy Chairman of Committees

My Lords, I thank the Leader of the House for being here to speak to this Statement today. I want to talk about people who need to remain at work, of which nothing was said in the Statement yesterday. What are the Government doing about PPE stocks, based on the highest prediction of need? Does the UK hold sufficient stock for the NHS, voluntary and independent providers of health and social care, and domiciliary care services? If so, for how many days? How rapidly can the stock be replenished and what proportions are now manufactured in the UK? Are the Government’s distribution plans for PPE satisfactory, and have they adequately tested a system for distribution over the summer?

Photo of Baroness Evans of Bowes Park Baroness Evans of Bowes Park Leader of the House of Lords and Lord Privy Seal

Obviously, PPE was a significant issue earlier this year. Lots of lessons have been learned. The department continues to work to make sure that we have plans in place. The noble Baroness will be aware that, for instance, we provided more than 250 million items of PPE. We are working with both the public and the private sector to ensure that we have robust plans in place so that we can make PPE available as and when it is needed. Obviously, one of the priorities, as I have just identified, is care homes.

Photo of Lord Cormack Lord Cormack Conservative

My Lords, would it not be deeply unfortunate if the economic devastation that has already been caused by Covid—devastation that will continue following yesterday’s announcement—were compounded by a self-inflicted wound; namely, the total dislocation of the channel ports, as envisaged by the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster this morning?

Photo of Baroness Evans of Bowes Park Baroness Evans of Bowes Park Leader of the House of Lords and Lord Privy Seal

My noble friend is absolutely right: ensuring that we protect jobs and support those in work has been central to our work so far. As I mentioned in a previous answer, we have put in place an unprecedented package of support for businesses, including grants, loans and the furlough scheme. We will continue to support business to make sure that we have a thriving economy once we come out of this crisis.

Photo of Baroness Bennett of Manor Castle Baroness Bennett of Manor Castle Green

My Lords, the noble Baroness, Lady Smith, the noble Lord, Lord Newby, and the right reverent Prelate the Bishop of Rochester have all effectively set out the scientific and medical problems with the rule of six and the lack of clarity or logic in the rules announced. Will the Government consider, instead, having rules that will be enforced and guidance for the public, with a clear division between the two? Confusion between the two has been a significant source of problems. Rather than, for example, threatening to roll out the Army for two groups of neighbours numbering seven who are standing at a distance and briefly exchanging greetings in the park, will they acknowledge that it is the vulnerable and communities already suffering discrimination who are most likely to be affected by such enforcement action?

Photo of Baroness Evans of Bowes Park Baroness Evans of Bowes Park Leader of the House of Lords and Lord Privy Seal

I have made it clear that the military will not be rolling out but may be called upon to help with certain back-office duties, so I do not accept that characterisation by the noble Baroness. Of course, she and others have correctly talked about the need for clear messaging and guidance, which is, and will continue to be, at the forefront of our minds.

Photo of Baroness McIntosh of Pickering Baroness McIntosh of Pickering Conservative

My Lords, I thank the Minister for the Statement and for responding this afternoon. She will be aware of the massive investment that restaurants, pubs, clubs, bars and casinos have made to be Covid secure, so the devastation to the night-time economy following the announcement of the 10 pm closure will be considerable. The Prime Minister said that it is true that the number of new cases is growing fastest among those aged between 20 and 29. How are the Government specifically targeting that group to ensure that they stay safe, maintain a safe distance and are not super-spreaders?

Photo of Baroness Evans of Bowes Park Baroness Evans of Bowes Park Leader of the House of Lords and Lord Privy Seal

Obviously, we continue to put out as much public messaging as possible, and we are looking at social media and other ways of getting the attention of that group of people. The other issue we need to recognise is that unfortunately, cases are now rising throughout all age groups, which is a concern. The package of measures we have put together is an attempt to stop the rise in cases while ensuring that the economy continues, albeit in a somewhat restricted fashion. We do not want another full national lockdown. We hope that, added together, this package of measures, as well as everyone sticking to the basics of social distancing, good handwashing and wearing face coverings, will help to stop the rise that we are seeing at the moment, before we have to take further and more unpalatable measures.

Photo of Baroness Altmann Baroness Altmann Conservative

My Lords, I declare my interests as set out in the register and apologise to the House for omitting to do so in the debates today on the two rental Motions.

What assessments have the Government and their advisers made of the evidence from Sweden, which has managed so much better by not accepting the modelling assumptions predicting significant deaths? What estimates have government advisers and the CMO made of the number of deaths from undetected or untreated other illnesses such as cancer, stroke, heart failure and suicide, which have resulted from the NHS’s seemingly singular focus on one serious illness? We may not be choosing between deaths from Covid and the economy; maybe the choice has been between deaths from Covid and deaths from other causes.

Photo of Baroness Evans of Bowes Park Baroness Evans of Bowes Park Leader of the House of Lords and Lord Privy Seal

Certainly, the Prime Minister, the CMO and other advisers have been talking to their Swedish counterparts regularly in order to learn lessons from there. Indeed, they have also been talking to other European countries such as Belgium, which have taken measures, in order to learn internationally. We are all learning the best way to deal with this virus, so I can certainly reassure my noble friend of that. As I said, we are trying to restore the NHS services that were suspended while we dealt with the initial impact of Covid. NHS England has issued guidance for the return of non-Covid health services to near normal levels, making use of the available capacity while protecting the most vulnerable from Covid. As I said, this is something that the department is very much focused on. The way to minimise disruption to other treatments is to deal with this virus as effectively as we can, so that we do not have a huge spike of people with Covid being admitted to hospital.

Photo of Baroness Garden of Frognal Baroness Garden of Frognal Deputy Chairman of Committees, Deputy Speaker (Lords)

My Lords, all supplementary questions have now been asked.

Sitting suspended.