Health Protection (Coronavirus, Restrictions) (Blackburn with Darwen and Bradford) Regulations 2020 - Motion to Approve

– in the House of Lords at 3:15 pm on 24th September 2020.

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Lord Bethell:

Moved by Lord Bethell

That the Regulations laid before the House on 31 July be approved.

Relevant document: 25th Report from the Secondary Legislation Scrutiny Committee

Photo of Lord Bethell Lord Bethell The Parliamentary Under-Secretary for Health and Social Care

My Lords, it has always been clear that, once the country emerged from a national lockdown, there would be local outbreaks. Our strategy was to bear down heavily on these outbreaks, in line with best practice from around the world. The complex challenge for government has been to tackle these in a proportionate, locally engaged, evidence-based manner, recognising the impact of the virus on the vulnerable and the NHS while being sensitive to the impact of restrictions on local communities and the economy. An added complication in this instance was that we were looking at increasing infection rates in areas with substantial Muslim populations at the same time as the festival of Eid. This is not something we did lightly, and we were reluctant to disrupt this important moment—but action was imperative.

There were regulations predating these that imposed restrictions in Blackburn with Darwen—as well as Luton—that came into force on 24 July. These regulations restricted certain businesses in Blackburn with Darwen and large gatherings in both local authorities. The regulations we are discussing today replaced Luton with Bradford Metropolitan District Council. These regulations were reviewed regularly and came into force on 26 August, 2 September and 3 September. Essentially, each amendment reduced the protected area to focus our restrictions to the smallest reasonable area, which in practice meant specified wards only in Blackburn with Darwen Borough Council and the City of Bradford Metropolitan District Council, releasing wards where incidence rates were lower from local restrictions.

I should stress that the judgment about when to remove restrictions is driven by the evidence, but no single piece of data determines that decision. The infection rate per 100,000 of the population is important, but so is the test positivity rate, acceleration rates, intelligence from local infection teams, hospital data, international comparisons, the national picture, and the robustness of local plans to tackle outbreaks. So, for example, the infection rate in Blackburn with Darwen as of 1 August was over 70 per 100,000 people. By 26 August the rate had fallen to 52, and it fell again to 48 by 2 September. Similarly, at 1 August, the rates in Bradford were around 47 per 100,000, falling to 44 by 26 August and remaining at that level for the following week.

This was important data. But it is also important to understand the local context, particularly an assessment of how well the local communities were prepared to bear down on the outbreak, so we could judge where restrictions could be safely lifted. This is where the partnership between national and local government comes in. From the centre comes a range of support, including extra testing capacity and mobile testing teams, financial support for businesses and communities, and postcode-level data on cases enabling a more granular understanding of the progress of the virus.

Funding is essential to effective infection management to support the right behaviours. In Bradford, for example, central government funding was invested in supporting community-level assets, such as the Council for Mosques, voluntary and community networks that already engaged with a wide range of diverse groups, community wardens, youth ambassadors, and in services that already supported hard-to-reach groups in the community. The Council for Mosques led on development and communication of an Eid management plan.

Similarly, Blackburn with Darwen, responding to rising numbers of cases in July, developed a social movement of guidance, including face coverings in all public spaces and no hugs or handshakes. The local public health team, along with colleagues across Lancashire, has worked with local community leaders and faith networks to spread public health messages.

These examples demonstrate that successfully tackling Covid requires that partnership of central and local government. The Government have therefore consistently adopted the important principle that, wherever possible, decisions affecting local populations should be reached on a consensual basis and have put in the necessary bridge building to create that consensus. During this period, we began to have access to detailed data on infection rates down to ward level—data which we share with local teams. I note that the process of familiarisation with the new data sources, category terms and trends sometimes has a steep learning curve for all concerned.

In summary, I reassure noble Lords that the national teams at test and trace and Public Health England have worked incredibly energetically and swiftly to put in the decision-making connections, the financial resources and the data exchange necessary to implement a joint national-local approach. This has been a learning experience for all parties and agendas are not always perfectly aligned, but, during interventions such as this, there has been tremendous good will and lessons have been learned that inform our current system, which works much better. The Government are deeply grateful for the constructive way in which local leaders have engaged in this process, and I am sure the whole House will join me in paying tribute to the huge efforts of local leaders in the affected populations.

Since these regulations and their amendments have been implemented, the Government have continued to monitor and review the ongoing situation. The incidence rates in both local authority areas have, in fact, risen across most wards. The incidence rate for the seven days from 2 to 8 September in Blackburn with Darwen rose to 110.8 per 100,000 people, and during the same period it rose in Bradford to over 100. While we are only debating these four statutory instruments today, there have been regular reviews since they were made, considering the position in each local authority’s area, and we remain concerned by the continued high levels of the virus in both, driven primarily by community transmission.

In terms of next steps, we continue to learn from the local outbreaks and we will use the experience of these restrictions in Blackburn with Darwen and Bradford to inform and help us develop our responses to any future outbreaks. Furthermore, we will continue to offer transparency in our future reviews.

I am grateful to your Lordships for your continued engagement in this challenging process and for the scrutiny of these detailed regulations. I completely recognise that it is a frustrating process to be considering regulations such as these weeks or months after their implementation. I reassure the Chamber that this approach has given us a valuable legislative framework to react promptly to the fast-changing and sometimes unexpected twists and turns of this horrible disease, and that the scrutiny of sessions such as these, even if it is necessarily post hoc, has informed our decision-making on issues such as data sharing and engagement with local authorities.

Lastly, I thank the people in the protected areas in Blackburn with Darwen and Bradford who continue to respond to the measures put in place. It is unfortunate that the restrictions cannot be lifted at present, but, thanks to their continued efforts, it has not been necessary to impose further restrictions. I beg to move.

Photo of Lord Hunt of Kings Heath Lord Hunt of Kings Heath Labour 3:23 pm, 24th September 2020

My Lords, I am very grateful to the Minister for introducing these regulations. He mentioned at the end the rise in the number of cases in some of the local authority areas affected. I wonder whether he would respond to the comments of Paul Hunter of the University of East Anglia, who recently said that, if the idea was to supress the infections in Blackburn and other areas, then it had failed. He cited a graph shown by Chris Whitty, which showed cases rebounding in many areas where those restrictions were in place. He argued that the failure of some local lockdowns was probably in part because of problems with the test and trace programme, which was failing to reach about half of all close contacts of infected people in the worst-hit areas. He said that the measures in place were light touch, so their impact would be minor, with compliance likely to be lower than it was during the full lockdown. I would be grateful if the Minister could comment.

I shall also respond to a point the Minister made in the last winding-up about the work of his officials in preparing these statutory instruments. I do not criticise his officials because I know that they are working under huge strain, and I am glad to learn that more officials are to be brought in to do this work. The importance of the Explanatory Memorandum is key here. Way back about 16 or 17 years ago, I was the first chair of the Secondary Legislation Scrutiny Committee when the Government agreed that EMs would be produced for every statutory instrument. Before that, we mostly relied on short explanatory notes. Without EMs, individual Members of the House find it very difficult indeed to understand the implications of these statutory instruments. We have so many to consider at the moment that EMs have become extremely important. I welcome the Minister’s assurance that this has been recognised and that as more officials are brought in, EM standards will improve. I do not make any criticism of the individual officials concerned.

I shall follow up the point the Minister made about local authority leaders. I echo his tribute to local leaders. He talked about the problem that political boundaries do not always cover infections. While I of course understand that, but when it comes to Bradford, Blackburn or Leicester, for instance, we should be able to have a written comment from each of those leaders stating their view on the regulations.

I shall end by asking the Minister about financial support for the affected communities. He will be aware that there has been concern that this is having an additional impact on many businesses and individuals. One of the Blackburn MPs, Kate Hollern, recently raised concerns that small businesses have been particularly badly impacted, which has left many families struggling, especially those who are excluded from the furlough schemes. She asked the Government for additional financial support for the worst-affected areas. My understanding is that Bradford Council has similarly lobbied for additional funding for businesses which have been forced to close as the result of local restrictions. Can the Minister say a little more about whether the Government will acknowledge some of these issues and are ready to give more resources when local authorities have to support businesses in these very difficult circumstances?

Photo of Baroness Wheatcroft Baroness Wheatcroft Non-affiliated 3:27 pm, 24th September 2020

My Lords, I absolutely understand the need for stricter regulation in these badly hit areas, but as the noble Lord, Lord Hunt, has just pointed out, they do not appear to be working. That may be because of failings with test and trace—I am sure that the Minister will respond to that suggestion—but perhaps he will explain why it makes sense to keep the hospitality industry going during these tougher restrictions. I have looked at the instructions to those in that sector. They are told to take steps to ensure that people do not socialise outside of their households, either inside or outside their premises. I cannot see how they can do that and I would be grateful if he could explain.

Photo of Lord Greaves Lord Greaves Liberal Democrat 3:28 pm, 24th September 2020

My Lords, we have come to Blackburn and Bradford, and tomorrow we will go on to where I live which is situated between the two, in the middle of the Pennines, in the north of England. It is the same thing everywhere really. We have talked about the complications in these orders. If and when there is a general sorting out of them, it would be helpful if places such as Blackburn and Bradford could be put where they belong in the north of England so that we have them all together so that if we look at the regulations, we can see what is going on. Whether it is Yorkshire or Lancashire is neither here nor there—the noble Baroness, Lady Thornton, is a Bradfordian like me and I can see her muttering. However, that would be helpful.

I will say one or two things about local testing. Where I am, we have spent three or four weeks really trying to get to grips with local testing on the ground, including chasing up individuals in their houses, and it is not easy. In recent times, resistance to testing has grown. The Government need to realise that and understand that if the answer in hotspot areas is trying to get as many people tested as possible, whether or not they have symptoms, it is not easy.

The first problem was when the Government changed their mind last week and said that everywhere people without symptoms should not go to be tested because of the pressure on the testing system. That did not help, and I believe it has caused an increase in the incidence of the virus in east Lancashire. The second is that a general view was put around social media in a big way among people who do not really approve of testing at all that the more you test, the more cases you will get. It was not explained that what matters is the positivity of the people being tested, rather than the absolute numbers. By concentrating on absolute numbers, it was almost impossible to defeat that argument.

Then there was all the stuff on television about people on beaches, at raves and so on, which did not help, whatever the rights and wrongs of it. The single event that has done most harm was Mr Cummings’s trip to Durham. There is absolutely no doubt that it really hit home that if he can get away with it, why should we bother with testing or with all the rules and regulations?

Yesterday my noble friend Lady Barker mentioned confused messages and the careless use of statistics. She is absolutely right. In these circumstances it is important that the messages are clear, that people at local and national level are putting forward the same messages and that, at national level, people in the same party, Government and Cabinet are putting forward the same messages.

We have had a specific problem in east Lancashire that the willingness of people in the Muslim community to co-operate and be tested has become less than it was at the beginning. Whether it was right or wrong, the coincidence of the first lockdown with Eid caused a great deal of anger and resentment. In my experience it was largely held to, but it did not help. Subsequently, the testing that took place, at least in the two districts of east Lancashire I know best, showed that the wards with a high Asian population had the highest number of positives. That resulted in testing being concentrated on those areas, quite rightly, but it also resulted in a belief, combined with “the more you test, the more cases you get”, that the Muslim and Asian community is being targeted and victimised, particularly younger men. It is very easy indeed to get that response. It will be difficult to overcome that and to do all the necessary testing in those areas.

I said I would say something about Lords procedures, and I will. I do not believe that the present system under which we are here today is satisfactory. It is serendipitous that there are not many people taking part today. Debates, including the debate we are having on Monday, are just a series of short statements by people, not proper scrutiny or investigation, as noble Lords have said. I do not go quite as far as the noble Lord, Lord Forsyth, who said parliamentary democracy was being closed down, but it feels a bit like that. We are running to catch up.

I suggest that the time has come when the Government and the people who run procedure in this place need to look hard at what can be done to improve things. I have two suggestions. First, I suggest that the Merits Committee, which looks at these measures, sets up a special sub-committee that deals with them very quickly as they arrive, almost day by day, rather than waiting for the whole committee. Secondly, I suggest that it would be sensible for the business managers here to timetable a period each week for us to deal with these measures at much shorter notice than we normally do. I accept what the Minister said—that the normal procedures of the House are being followed and so on —but these are not normal times.

I want to add to what the noble Baroness, Lady Altmann, said in the previous debate and refer particularly to households. The Government and the scientists believe that household transmission is a major part of the growing transmission of this virus. That may be the case, but it may be that household transmission is more of a secondary transmission than a primary one and that the real places where transmission is now beginning to take place are commercial premises, entertainment premises and, unfortunately, schools. I follow what the noble Baroness, Lady Thornton, said this afternoon: we really need to see the Government’s technical evidence on this rather than simply taking what they say as gospel.

It is the impact on families that is causing most of the mental and emotional damage to health that the noble Baroness, Lady Altmann, referred to earlier. My noble friend Lady Walmsley said yesterday that people are fearful, anxious and depressed. When I heard her say that, it reminded me of John Keats’ words:

“The weariness, the fever, and the fret.”

This is a major problem now, and it is growing. In the early days, people thought, “It’ll only be three months or whatever; we’ll batten down the hatches and see it through”, but when the restrictions on grandparents seeing grandchildren, on sisters seeing each other, on families helping each other out and so on seem to be going on and on in the more restricted areas, people are not just getting weary and fretful; they are getting angry. This means that getting these measures adhered to is going to become more difficult as time goes on, so we need clear messaging, explanation and understanding.

The Government need to realise that the lockdowns on families that existed previously simply cannot be brought back again. The Government have business and education at the top of their priorities, but families have to be at the top of their priorities too.

Photo of Baroness Thornton Baroness Thornton Shadow Spokesperson (Health) 3:38 pm, 24th September 2020

There are a couple of things that I need to say right at the beginning. First, I declare an interest as a native of Bradford, where I grew up, with a brother who is a long-standing Bradford councillor. I feel that I need to say to the Minister, who is probably from the south, that Blackburn is in Lancashire and Bradford is in Yorkshire. I have to tell him that these things are quite important up there. As we move forward, it would probably be politic to put all those councils in Yorkshire in Yorkshire and all the councils in Lancashire and the north-west in Lancashire and the north-west. It is a presentational issue, I suppose.

The Minister is aware of my views on the retrospective nature of these statutory instruments. In particular, I hope that we will be able to discuss easement of the restrictions in a normal, non-urgent and timely fashion. The noble Lord, Lord Greaves, mentioned families. I have a large family in Bradford, Kirklees and Calderdale, and my husband’s family are all from Huddersfield and Holmfirth. We are not seeing them. We managed a short break in order to see people when things were easier in the summer, but we are not sure that we will see them again until the new year. That brings its own heartbreak and distress—it really does—and the noble Lord is right to say that the Government need to think carefully about that, as I am sure they are. Everyone is affected by this.

The Minister should know that my remarks are also about what local people are saying. He and I received a comprehensive brief from Bradford City Council on what it thinks. It is helpful and definitely a model that I should like to be repeated among the other councils that we are discussing. The council is saying that it must have better test and tracing, and proper funding to do it. In a good example of community co-operation, the council leader tells us that the University of Bradford, for which I declare am a council member, has been allowing its site to be used for testing throughout. However, although it needs the site back, now that term has started, it will nevertheless continue to use the university site as part of the national programme. That is good news because the site is well established and people know its location.

Business owners have sent a letter to the council, as previous support schemes have come to an end, asking for businesses to be kept afloat. I do not know what the Chancellor has been explaining to the world while we have been here in the Chamber, but I hope that his announcement will include measures to support businesses in Bradford and those other areas.

In Blackburn, Kate Hollern MP has raised concerns that small businesses have been particularly badly impacted, which has left many families struggling who were excluded from the furlough scheme. She has asked the Government for additional financial support for those worst affected. Blackburn council has been advising people with and without coronavirus symptoms to book appointments for tests but expressed concern about the way in which national system has failed. That system must not fail in the areas that are under such stress with the infection rates.

I sat in on the Minister’s phone call with all the MPs in the Bradford area on the day before Eid, and heard some of their indignation. It was divided into two parts. There were those who were very upset because they were going to participate in the Eid celebrations and had even spent large amounts on food for celebrations in their gardens, including Bradford MP Naz Shah. There were also those such as Philip Davies MP who strongly objected that Shipley had been included in the restrictions at all because he could not believe that the infection rate merited them. However, Shipley, with Bradford, is back in from Tuesday. I hope that he has revised his view expressed in the local paper that Covid-19 is no worse than flu and that people should just have to live with it.

It is worth saying what the challenges facing Bradford are, because I do not think that they are all unique to Bradford. As I said, the report that the Minister and I received from Bradford Council was very helpful. It says that there is communication fatigue and unclear messaging, which leads to non-compliance. We know that. It says that there is a real problem with conspiracy theories about 5G masts and about the fact that the Government are tracking people, and that the lower death rate is leading to some complacency. It says that deprivation is a key challenge and that, to quote the president of Bradford Council for Mosques,

“years of underlying issues have been surfaced by Covid-19.”

It says that large families, multigenerational living, poor health, and crowded and poor-quality housing all contribute to a real challenge over adherence to Covid-19 guidance and regulation. It also says—this is very Bradford specific—that Bradford is the Asian wedding capital of the north and that there is a specific problem with large wedding venues, typically hosting 1,000 guests for a wedding, not being able to function at present. Of course, they would not be able to. There are immediate problems of financial support for those venues and businesses, and there must be a question about whether they are likely to survive.

My brother-in-law and Bradford councillors are working very hard with local communities. Community cohesion is very strong in Bradford, but there is community division and hate crime is a rising concern, not least due to the stigmatisation of Covid-19 cases along ethnic lines. Those things need to be considered when dealing with Bradford, Leicester and other places with large BME populations.

Photo of Lord Bethell Lord Bethell The Parliamentary Under-Secretary for Health and Social Care 3:46 pm, 24th September 2020

My Lords, I start by acknowledging the touching comments of the noble Baroness, Lady Thornton, about the pain of separation. These thoughts were absolutely on our mind when we brought in these regulations. They were done at a time when we were pleased to be lifting the national lockdown and when we all felt a huge sense of relief after everyone had spent long months cooped up. The relief was profound, and the idea of sending some households in some parts of the country back into lockdown was keenly felt. I completely acknowledge the fact that for some families this is extremely painful.

I also acknowledge the comments of the noble Lord, Lord Greaves, on expectations management. It is true that the disease has bounced around. At moments, there have been false dawns when we thought we might have seen the back of it, and there have been dark moments when it has all seemed to be going wrong. Perhaps I may share with the noble Lord and the Chamber the view of the CMO—that, as the Prime Minister made really clear in his broadcast on Monday, we have six difficult months ahead of us. There is no beating around the bush and no easy way out of it. We have six long months ahead of us—but, at the end of that, there is the prospect that a vaccine and better therapeutics will give us medical alternatives to the disease, and that the innovations that can lead to the kind of mass testing that we are desperate to put in place now and are moving mountains to try to achieve will also give us the security to socialise in the way that we all want to.

Those are two grim notes to start my response with, but they answer in part the challenge from the noble Lord, Lord Hunt: why are these things not working? Well, they have worked in some respects. Since lockdown was lifted, we have seen prevalence levels across the country largely under control and we have had months of freedom. As the CMO could not have made more plain in his presentation with the Chief Scientific Adviser, infection rates are beginning to creep up, but this local-lockdown approach has been effective in some respects.

However, the thing that undermines it and that, more than anything, spreads the disease is socialising—sharing tight-knit space with people from outside your household, face to face in closed environments. That produces the aerosol effect that spreads the disease from one person to another, and that is why these measures target socialising as specifically as they do.

Perhaps I may quickly answer a couple of points that were raised. The noble Lord, Lord Hunt, talked about the importance of getting local authority leaders in front of statements. I reassure him that we have brought MPs into the decision-making process. We have sought to use MPs, with their representative qualities in the other House, as the liaison between local restrictions and the parliamentary process.

The noble Lord, Lord Hunt, and the noble Baroness, Lady Thornton, rightly talked about the importance of business support. In Blackburn, business support has risen to £10 million, and in Bradford to £36 million. Those kinds of numbers across the country have put an enormous investment in business support, so that people can take on board the restrictions that we have put in place and we can continue to support businesses.

My noble friend Lady Wheatcroft asked about the hospitality industry and why it seems that practice differs between venues. She is entirely right. Some pubs and clubs have socially distanced tables, well organised contact tracing on entry, table service and “bookings only”, but some have not, and they are the problem. The app which launched today will have a much easier to use QR code component, and the curfew will see the closure of pubs at 10 pm. Therefore drinking-up time will need to begin at around 9.30 pm. This will help address that disparity, but we will keep the situation under control.

The noble Lord, Lord Greaves, asked whether we had enough tests to go around and whether the testing system was under control. He is right that we are challenged, but we make no apology for the prioritisation we have put in place: clinical need, including for key workers, then social care, then surveillance and research, then the public. We are putting more and more resources into providing the tests that the public need and we are catching up with demand each day. There is a lot of commentary about whether the messaging around the epidemic is right—“This is said one day, this is said another day.” We all have views on whether every single message has been right, but it comes down to this very simple point. The message from day one has been clear: the way to beat this disease is through social distancing, hygiene and isolation. That has been our strategy from the beginning, and it remains our strategy. They are uncomfortable protocols which none of us like following, but there is no point in blaming the messaging. The country must stick with the basic protocols.

The noble Lord, Lord Greaves, and the noble Baroness, Lady Thornton, spoke very movingly about the impact of these regulations on the Muslim community. As I said in my introductory comments, these regulations were brought in just before Eid. It was a tough decision. They were brought in at the last minute, partly because we were trying to avoid causing disruption. As part of their introduction, I had round-table conversations. Although I was not on the notorious Bradford telephone call, I was on similar engagements, and I have no illusions about the depth of feeling on this. I know all about the concerns about conspiracies—that some of these recommendations were brought in on ethnic lines.

I know all about the challenges of housing and poverty in some of these communities, and the noble Baroness is entirely right that this disease tracks down people in poverty, people who live in multigenerational households and people who live cheek-by-jowl with each other. It is one of the unfortunate facts of this disease that it goes after those in deprivation and who have the least advantage. We are extremely conscious of that. It is one of the reasons why we bear down on this disease in such a tough way in the very communities that are most vulnerable to it.

However, I reassure the Chamber that we are working extremely hard to build that trust. There is a phenomenal amount of engagement and we are thoughtful about how we engage with these key communities. We work our hardest to provide all the testing facilities via the kinds of people who will engage with the communities involved. We seek to be sensitive, we have put in the media partnerships and the community engagement proportionate and necessary to win over trust, and I believe that we are making progress.

The message has been received loud and clear that this is an uncomfortable and unhappy way to be regulating on lockdowns. The noble Lord, Lord Greaves, talked about whether there might be some way of formalising a weekly update, or some kind of weekly process. That is an extremely good idea, which I will take note of and take back home. We are seeking to develop a more thoughtful and predictable way of working through these regulations, and I look forward to updating the House on our progress on that. I also reassure the Chamber that the Coronavirus Act debate on Monday has been extended to four and a half hours, which will give us an excellent platform to discuss some of these themes in more detail. I commend these regulations to the House.

Motion agreed.