My Lords, we are here to debate the SIs putting restrictions on the north of England in August and September. Before we start the debate, I note that there was some confusion yesterday about a bundle of the regulations that we were debating. I express regret for this confusion and thank all noble Lords concerned for their patience. I also express reassurances the House that resources have been put in place to ensure that this does not happen again.
The regulations we are discussing today first came into force on
I apologise for taking up so much of the Order Paper with this business, but also reassure the House that I hope to mitigate this through transparency about our intentions, our actions and their results. However, I will not apologise for introducing the regulations at all because they have done so much good in supporting our colleagues in these areas in their efforts to tackle the epidemic.
I turn to a brief history of the local lockdowns in these areas. Actions had already taken place to protect the people living in the affected areas in the north of England in the weeks before these regulations came into force, such as increased testing and public health support. We also gave additional funding to all upper-tier local authorities. For example, Manchester City Council received £40,840,915 and Kirklees Metropolitan Council more than £28 million. This enabled them to enhance the various local interventions and support measures put into place.
We hoped that these interventions and the work of the local public health teams would get infection rates down without us having to take more drastic action. However, by the end of July it was clear that the rates of infection were continuing to increase to unacceptable levels. Epidemiological surveillance data had been showing high transmission rates across Greater Manchester and in areas of Lancashire and West Yorkshire. When the regulations came into force, the incidence rates in almost all these geographic areas were significantly above the national average. Pendle, for instance, had the highest incidence rate in England between
The epidemiological data and local insights suggested that the most likely route for transmission of Covid-19 behind the increases was as a result of people living in different households in the areas meeting up with each other. This is a point that we discussed in the Chamber yesterday. Multi-generational households, overcrowding and social deprivation in many of those locations exacerbated the transmission risks. The Secretary of State for Health and Social Care was therefore persuaded that it would be necessary to impose restrictions to prevent further spread of the virus and keep the country safe. The cross-government Covid-19 operations committee, or Covid-O, chaired by the Prime Minister, decided on
However, by Wednesday 26 Aug, after reviewing the up-to-date epidemiological data and information from the local authorities, the local directors of public health, PHE, JBC and the contain teams, as a result of this discussion the Secretary of State removed Wigan Metropolitan Borough Council and Rossendale Borough Council from the protected area, so that the restrictions remaining in those areas aligned with the rest of England. Again, on
We sought to mitigate the impact of these measures by imposing them only where the transmission risks were highest. Concerns about the outbreak of coronavirus in the north of England have been significant, and the engagement with local leaders has been extensive, repeated and productive. I therefore thank all the local authorities and local resilience forums, Public Health England and the Joint Biosecurity Centre, as well as the local directors of public health, the Mayor of Greater Manchester, Andy Burnham, and the council leaders for all of their ongoing support.
In general, these regulations prohibited households in the relevant areas of the north of England mixing with each other in their homes or gardens, apart from those with support bubbles or in other limited circumstances on compassionate grounds. The regulations also included provisions making it a criminal offence to breach any of the restrictions or requirements. As with the national regulations, those who breach these provisions can be issued with a fixed penalty notice. Due to the increasing incidence rate in Preston as the regulations came into force, Preston was added to the protected area covered by these regulations. Subsequent amendments removed local authorities or specific wards from the regulations.
In terms of next steps, as I said earlier, we will continue to make public the outcome of any reviews. I am grateful to your Lordships for your continued engagement in this challenging process and for the scrutiny of the regulations. In particular, I thank those people in parts of Lancashire, Greater Manchester and West Yorkshire who have, in general, responded well to the measures put in place. It is thanks to their continued efforts that there were changes to the boundaries, and we hope to ease measures further if improvements continue. I beg to move.
My Lords, in my two minutes, I want to make it clear that I support carefully targeted local action that is democratically agreed with local authorities and mayors where appropriate, ensuring that we evaluate and monitor how that is working and learn the lessons. Perhaps the Minister would indicate in his response what lessons have been learned from looking at areas that are very close to each other, such as Oldham and Bolton, and the different outcomes from very similar lockdown measures, so that we can target more clearly what needs to be done and learn when it is not working.
Can we also ensure not only that the democratic process works speedily, in the way described by the noble Lord since the beginning of August, but that we sometimes address the elephant in the room? Infection rates rose during August and by the end of the month hospital admissions had started to rise. Was there any correlation with Eat Out to Help Out, which economically was incredibly successful but might have contributed to where we are today?
Will the noble Lord use his power and that of the Government to try to damp down the hype, speculation and fear that keep on emerging? Today it is universities and the fear that students might not be able to go home for Christmas—as though semesters do not end in time for people, if necessary, to be properly tested and allowed to go home. We are seeing hype, including from responsible outlets such as the BBC which ought to know better, which can have an impact on postgraduate taught courses and research qualifications that people have not yet fully taken up as they come into the country, perhaps from across the world.
In other words, can the Minister say how we are learning the lessons since
My Lords, yesterday I said quite a lot about a similar set of regulations which I will not repeat, but what I did do in the evening yesterday after our long discussions was attend a meeting of Pendle Borough Council. I was able to do that from my room in this building. I am obviously a member and I shall give a flavour of two resolutions that the council passed, which might be helpful. The first was to express the council’s thanks and gratitude to the staff of Pendle Council and all the other local agencies whose staff have “shown such fortitude in the face of unprecedented peacetime impacts on the daily lives of themselves and their citizens” and gone beyond the call of duty in what has been happening.
The council then passed a motion on test, trace and isolate, which in a sense was a little less positive. “The council notes with alarm that the chaos in the nation’s test, trace and isolate systems for Covid-19 is contributing to the disease accelerating.” The failures of the Government system have created a situation where they are locking us into lockdown in Pendle. These are things that I have said previously in the Chamber. The council believes that “oppressive” regulations—not all regulations, but oppressive regulations—are counter- productive to the fight against Covid-19 and are generating mental health issues and undermining social cohesion across the borough. I also talked about that to a degree yesterday.
The council requested that the Government should issue a simple set of principles setting out the steps that individuals should take. The Government think that they have got that, but we are asking that people understand it. The emphasis should be on supporting people to live their lives in accordance with the guidance, rather than a reliance on virtually unenforceable regulations and “Covid marshals” and—this is a point I have been making on behalf of all the councils in the hotspot areas—the Government should provide sufficient resources for Pendle Council and its partners to have an effective test, trace and isolate programme involving screening, targeting individual testing, a local end-to-end tracing programme and adequate support for individuals who are required to self-isolate, together with the monitoring of such isolation to ensure its effectiveness. The Government have been moving towards this, but I thought that this might be helpful.
My Lords, the recent rash of debates on health protection regulations is indicative of the speed at which this situation is evolving, and it underlines the importance of effective communication strategies to help people understand the changes and distinguish rumour from truth. Technology and social media are clearly valuable in this effort, but this week the World Health Organization warned that they are also enabling an infodemic that undermines the public health response and jeopardises measures to control the pandemic.
Fake news spreads fast and it has real and life-threatening consequences. By promoting fake products, spreading misleading information and encouraging suspicion of official guidelines, it can increase anti-masks, anti-lockdown and anti-vaccination demonstrations and campaigns that can seriously compromise the attempts to fight Covid-19. Research from King’s College London, in which I declare my interest, has found a clear link between beliefs in conspiracy theories and mistrust of government, authority and science, and the likelihood of rejecting a Covid vaccination when it arrives.
So while clear messaging based on accurate, evidence-based information is vital, it is not in itself enough. We also need effective strategies to combat the spread of misinformation and disinformation. Can the Minister say what the Government’s counter-disinformation unit is doing to tackle this infodemic and does he agree with the Democracy and Digital Technologies Select Committee of this House that the delay to the online harms legislation means that the UK currently lacks the appropriate laws to tackle the spread online of misleading and harmful content related to Covid-19?
As infection rates rise and regulations change, uncertainty and anxiety increase, so there is an urgent need for the Government, media platforms and civil society to work together to combat misinformation and disinformation and mitigate the risks they pose to the efficacy of regulations such as those we are debating today.
My Lords, this time last week when we were debating other regulations under this legislation, I talked about the strange death of parliamentary democracy in our country, and nothing that has happened since has done anything but reinforce my view. I heard on the radio this morning that students in Glasgow are being told that they have to self-isolate in their rooms, that they are not allowed to go home and that they may be there until Christmas. These powers are being exercised by regulations which are being made using the Public Health (Control of Disease) Act. This Act gives the Government power only to restrict the movements of people who are believed to be infectious and to close infected premises. As far as I can see, it does not provide the power to control people who are not infected or to close uncontaminated premises. If the Government want to exercise controls of this kind over people who are not infected, they have the power to do so using the Civil Contingencies Act. But, quite properly, that legislation requires that the consent of Parliament is obtained within seven days of any regulation and is renewed every 30 days.
Last week, my noble friend talked about being in a war-type situation where urgent action was required. That is exactly what the Civil Contingencies Act provides for. Have the Government used the public health Act improperly in order to avoid parliamentary scrutiny and created today’s farce where, as he has just indicated, we are debating regulations that were made seven weeks ago and which have already been superseded while being unable to control those that are in force now?
My noble friend apologised for cluttering up the Order Paper. Cluttering up the Order Paper is all that is happening here. There is no proper scrutiny. We cannot vote against these regulations and we have the farce of being asked to consider them after they have been superseded with only two minutes to do so.
My Lords, I declare my interest as set out in the register, as chair of Operation Talla, the independent ethics panel.
I speak in respect of those regulations imposed on Greater Manchester and other areas which came into effect in early August. I entirely support the practice of focusing restrictions on those geographical areas and types of gathering that are disproportionately driving levels of coronavirus infection. Furthermore, along with many other local leaders in my areas, I believe that the restrictions imposed in the Health Protection (Coronavirus, Restrictions on Gathering) (North of England) Regulations 2020 (No. 828) were proportionate to the risks identified at the time. I thank the Government for introducing them.
However, I have serious reservations about the process leading up to these regulations coming into effect. In a statement made just after 9 pm on Thursday
We can quibble about the distinctions between regulations, restrictions and rules, but the plain sense of the message and how it was received was that family gatherings planned with food already prepared would not be lawful the next day. However urgently action may be required, the laws of this realm cannot be altered simply by a government Minister declaring it so. Change must follow regulations being laid before this House under the affirmative procedure. Only then can the public know what they must obey, and only then can our police enforce it. Thankfully, subsequent announcements of forthcoming regulations have included start dates that offer a realistic chance of the necessary documents having been drafted and laid before us in time. Therefore, I ask for reassurances from the Minister to this House today that we will not see a repeat of the misleading messages given in the case of Health Protection (Coronavirus, Restrictions on Gathering) (North of England) Regulations 2020 (No. 828).
My Lords, I have watched most of the coronavirus statutory instrument debates this week. I pay tribute to my noble friend Lady Thornton for her superhuman contribution, and to the noble Lord, an unpaid Minister who treats the House with courtesy and clear explanations. He must be the most exploited intern in the country.
These six SIs, some contradictory, some disapplying, tumbling over each other in timetabling, epitomise the dilemma in a fast-moving situation of needing legal cover and adopting fair policies. Contained in them are affirmatives from Labour councils to the restrictions and negatives from Conservative MPs. Both must be dealt with. By taking part in this crazy non-system, we could be accused of accepting responsibility for a rudderless ship, a very uncomfortable position to be in. How will the Minister explain to the House’s satisfaction that, regarding the debate to be held on Monday, initiated by the noble Lord, Lord Robathan, discontinuing the use of temporary provisions is wrong?
My Lords, I support the words of the noble Baroness, Lady Donaghy, particularly those about the Minister.
Does the Minister agree that, while Section 3(a)(ii) specifically excludes care homes, the Vivaldi 1 report made it clear that they are incredibly vulnerable to Covid-19 outbreaks as a result of staff entering the building? The risk increases particularly in areas with rising levels of infection such as West Yorkshire and East Lancashire, to which these new measures apply.
In July, SAGE recommended regular testing for staff and residents of care homes. On
My Lords, I declare an interest as I live in the north-west of England, as do members of my family, one of whom is an A&E doctor working with Covid patients.
Greater Manchester’s mayor, Andy Burnham, has described the situation in the region as “chaotic”. Across the political divide, Bolton’s MP, Chris Green, laments a breakdown in the communication of decisions. Constantly changing messaging has been buttressed by muddle and confusion. Take my unanswered Written Questions about why grandparents are prohibited from helping frontline workers with their young grandchildren, while simultaneously, several separate adults have been able to go to a public house together. Others, urged to return to the office just weeks ago, are now told not to, unless it is essential.
We must be honest with the public about risks but let them judge for themselves. The priority must be to protect the vulnerable, remembering that there were nearly 30,000 extra care home deaths between
For the general population, clearer decisions should be decided more locally, as in Germany and South Korea, where decentralisation has been effective. An over-centralised “pushmi-pullyu”, stop-start approach destroys jobs and drives up unemployment. That in turn will have catastrophic consequences across the north-west every bit as destructive of health and well-being as Covid-19. Chaos and confusion undermine confidence in government, while an emasculated Parliament gives the illusion of accountability and scrutiny. Our loss of liberty under the cover of Covid-19, and the intolerable threat to use our Armed Forces to enforce decrees and edicts touching every aspect of our lives, is simply not acceptable, and Ministers need to understand that.
My Lords, in these regulations it is young people, who are least affected by the virus, who are taking the lion’s share of the burden in the north and throughout the UK. Young people, who are instinctively gregarious, are living with their school lives damaged. They are often the first to be quarantined and yet are expected to attend schools which have had to sacrifice school sport and activities on the altar of academia, necessarily prioritised under Covid. As my noble friend Lord Forsyth said, they have had to trade in a university experience for a remote online degree course, often in a closed single room, while having to pay the same costs charged by universities, which have closed the opportunities for sport, an active lifestyle and social and cultural engagement, which have been at the centre of the university experience for generations.
For those who started work coming out of school, college or university last autumn, it was the young who were victims of a furlough scheme, which was constructed on a year’s employment contract, without which the employee had to pay everything to keep them. It was no surprise that young people were the casualties of a “last-in-first-out” policy, making them three times more likely than employees in general to lose their jobs. It was young people who woke to see apprenticeships and internships go up in smoke. It is young people who have no chance of a first step on the ladder when companies are making existing employees redundant—a generation of young people more obese and more prone to suicide, mental health issues, boredom and loneliness than any other in living memory.
When the Government come forward with their promised and overdue sports recovery programme, will the Minister recognise that a physically and mentally fit and active cohort of young people is critical and, in health terms, beneficial in the fight against Covid? Will he ensure that it is about not only the survival of clubs hammered by Covid, but also about the people served by the clubs, the young who have no team sport opportunities now or on the horizon? If not, we will have let down a generation of young people, not only those in the north or Glasgow, but a whole generation who should not have borne the brunt of a disease which least affects them.
My Lords, the commentary by the Secondary Legislation Scrutiny Committee on these regulations and the update which we have just heard from the Minister illustrate beyond doubt what an extraordinary challenge these local authorities are facing as they try to follow and implement government regulations which, as we have already heard, change on a daily or weekly basis and are causing great confusion. They often have not involved the local authorities in their making. Sometimes they have been introduced without consultation or local advice. It is no wonder that communities are confused, but people on the front line are also confused.
I follow the noble Lord, Lord Willis of Knaresborough, in saying that care homes are in the front line. There is no more talk of a ring of steel, but the least they ought to be able to expect in these areas of high infection is priority for testing, speed of turnaround and the greatest possible protection against transmission from asymptomatic visitors and staff. It still seems that that is not the case, and across the region there are reports of scores of incidents where care homes are waiting up to a week for test results. What has to be changed in order to give care homes priority not just in terms of speed of testing and getting results? Is the problem a local shortage of lab equipment and materials or a shortage of skills? Have the Government looked at the possibility of using the capacity of local universities—their lab space and technical skills—to supplement testing? Can the Minister explain why care home inspectors are not being routinely tested when they visit homes? Perhaps the more fundamental question is: what is the argument for care homes remaining in pillar 2 rather than being treated the same as health workers in pillar 1? As my noble friend Lord Blunkett said, we all hope that the lessons from the fiasco this spring have been learned. I hope the Government can reassure us that that is the case.
My Lords, I want to return to the issue of linked childcare households that I mentioned in yesterday’s Leicester debate and which appears in these regulations. I recognise that the Minister shares concern about childcare for working parents, especially women, who still bear the brunt of it both generally and during the pandemic. Therefore, the provision of linked childcare households is welcome, but I query the strictness of the provision, as, if the childcare linking arrangement is terminated, neither household may form another. I know from personal experience that childcare arrangements simply do not run as smoothly as you might hope, especially if you do not have the budget to buy in the amount of assistance that is needed.
Clearly, chopping and changing and involving lots of households is not wanted, but there are all kinds of reasons why individual arrangements may need changing, from illness to simply that they do not work any longer. Perhaps the regulations were not expected to be in place all that long, but opening up is no longer the national direction of travel, with warning of measures continuing for six months. Therefore, if this provision is going to be around, will consideration be given to how to allow for changes in linked households, maybe after an interval? With the regulations as presently drafted, households have only one chance to get it right, despite any of the disrupting life events that simply happen, including coronavirus. The Government have not managed to get their coronavirus plans right first time, yet parents are expected to. Can this be looked at again?
My Lords, like many others, I am very worried about the long-term wider effect of these regulations. I have been talking to friends in Northumberland. All their plans lie in tatters. Money has been spent that is now wasted. Hard-earned income has been destroyed. They are feeling rebellious. We must let our citizens know that they can plan ahead with certainty. People are asking whether Christmas will happen. For many people, quality of life is more important than pure safety, but it is the job of the public service to treat safety as paramount, and this leads to predictions of doom. This is why we must involve politicians who realise that these restrictions must be balanced against the long-term damage that the regulations cause. For instance, in the Times I read in early April said that the Covid daily death toll was 854. At the beginning of this week it said it was 17. On the same day 450 people died of cancer, but government regulations have, for cancer, halted or drastically delayed drug development. Where is the sense of proportion in the priorities? Are the Executive ordering us into a Pyrrhic victory?
My Lords, these orders are not simply about the wretched virus. They are also about how we operate as a Parliament. We see profound damage on all sides, yet there is no proper chance to discuss it. Instinctively, I want to support my Government—of course I do—but the Government’s path has been a rocky one, from lockdown to easing and back again to lockdown, with detours through empty testing centres and a particularly overcrowded car park at Barnard Castle. Conservative Peers, such as my noble friends Lord Forsyth and Lord Moynihan, have raised important issues today, and next Monday my noble friend Lord Robathan has a Motion demanding more parliamentary consideration. Those are signs of growing frustration.
It is a frustration that I understand and entirely share. My noble friend Lord Robathan’s Motion, along with today’s proceedings, are not simply about Covid but about fussy little things such as democratic accountability, that irritating grit in the oyster. I notice that my noble friend Lord Bethell is down to respond next week. As much as we all admire him, I would have thought it more appropriate for the Leader of the House to handle that business. I hope the Government will change their mind.
Already my time is up. There is no time for this House to speak, and not enough time for the Government to think, listen or clear up their own confusion. But in the long months that lie ahead, they will need to listen very much more carefully if they are to show the leadership we all want and allow us in this House to get on with our job.
My Lords, one thing that has to be said about the statutory instruments being discussed today is that, whatever their good intentions, they are certainly complicated. Obviously the author felt a duty to be both precise and comprehensive, otherwise we would not have in Statutory Instrument No. 828 the laborious definition of an “elite sportsperson” or of all that the word “vessel” can mean—although the sub-paragraph does not refer to the old proverb about empty vessels.
As we look back over the months and survey the statutory instruments produced by the Government on restrictions on gatherings, we have concluded that the whole policy has become an unholy mess, a confusion of mixed messages and tentative, half-baked decisions. Any scan of media cuttings from the north of England in the past few days will expose just how much bewilderment there is among the local population about what is or is not permissible and what is or is not wise. The spate of legalisms contained in the statutory instruments is directly responsible for that state of affairs. We need more clarity for people, not more jobs for lawyers.
One has to wonder whether we would be in a happier situation if greater flexibility were to be embedded in the legislative process here. I think we might all agree that each statutory instrument before us today is a cumbersome and unwieldy tool—a perfect metaphor for the Government’s utterances on social gatherings since the very first version of lockdown.
My Lords, two minutes is an impossible amount of time in which to analyse this stack of superseded orders, although noble Lords have made some very telling points. For example, the noble Lord, Lord Forsyth, spoke about the use of the Public Health (Control of Disease) Act 1984—a chillingly appropriate name for an Act giving very sweeping powers, which I think have been wrongly used in some instances in this matter.
These orders restrict civil liberties because of the seriousness of the emergency, but Parliament must have the ability to scrutinise and consent to each and every incursion into civil liberties. The Government have to act quickly, but Parliament can also act quickly if, and only if, the Government co-operate in enabling it to do so. However, the present way of doing things causes confusion in the public’s mind and a lack of understanding of what is law and what is merely guidance. Ministers use terms such as “rules”, which seem to fall somewhere between the two. There is no place between the two; there is law and there is guidance.
In this country, announcements on TV by Ministers are not the law. Parliament makes laws and is part of the process of securing public assent and co-operation, which are absolutely essential in dealing with the present crisis. This House has a major part to play in constructive scrutiny. Parliament as a whole really must get a stronger grip on this process, but the Government can facilitate or obstruct that. They should begin to recognise that public support and willingness to co-operate will steadily dissipate if there is a belief that Ministers are just making it up as they go along without any proper process of scrutiny or approval.
My Lords, first, it would be a little irresponsible for a doctor to stop giving medicine to a seriously ill patient at the slightest sign of improvement. Does the Minister agree that that is precisely what the Government did when, despite warnings from local leaders, they eased restrictions in Bolton and Trafford, only to reimpose them after a huge rise in numbers of those affected?
My second concern is the growth of difficult-to-understand language around prevention, with uncertainty over what constitutes a support bubble and whether immediate relatives can be considered part of the same household, et cetera. Does the Minister agree that a much sharper advertising campaign is needed on the dangers of this killer disease not only to the individual but to those they hold near and dear—a need that is even greater in close-knit, newer communities in our northern towns?
My Lords, I shall speak to the health protection coronavirus restrictions on gatherings regulations, laid before the House on
Any restriction on people’s freedom is regrettable, but we are facing an epidemic the likes of which we have not seen before, with epidemiological data showing growing high transmission rates of Covid-19. Therefore, it follows that it is necessary to impose restrictions which prevent the spread of the virus and reduce public health issues but which are proportionate to what they seek to achieve at the time. I welcome the areas where easements are made, but everything remains very fluid.
As my noble friend the Minister alluded to earlier, the Government are working with local authorities to develop dedicated local outbreak plans to help manage Covid spikes, with all authorities having to submit their procedures. There is an urgent need for good data, and of course clarity is essential in order to be able to take people with you. I stress the importance of having local volunteers and using council employees to fill the role of Covid marshals and help deter people gathering in larger numbers. Local knowledge is invaluable.
The restrictions on gatherings are eminently sensible and appropriate, as is lifting the regulations as soon as conditions are safe. Those conditions are changing on a nearly weekly or—dare I say?—daily basis. I support the regulations.
My Lords, I was born and brought up in Darwen long before its amalgamation with the neighbouring town of Blackburn. I am sorry that I could not be involved in yesterday’s debate.
The Minister talked about targeted interventions on the ground. That is good. He might be aware that local political leaders in Blackburn with Darwen, including MPs and local councillors across the political parties, wrote to the Prime Minister very recently saying that they are facing a series of challenges that can be resolved only by the Government. They asked for funding and resources for local testing and tracing, and more financial help for affected councils. I know from the local press and from friends in Darwen that many businesses are in serious trouble—for example, six local pubs are closing due to bankruptcy. Juggling lockdowns in adjacent wards must be a nightmare when action is suddenly needed. Darwen is very different from Blackburn in many ways—for example, in ethnic diversity. Is funding available from the Government to take account of diversity?
I want to say a word about testing and tracing. Some reports predict that approximately only 10% of people will use the NHS app. Can the Minister comment on this and say how this percentage could be increased, especially in diverse communities? Can he also say, if possible, why only those above the age of 16 can take part in this initiative? Surely, it is important to involve all generations in the fight against this pandemic.
My Lords, it is a pleasure to follow the noble Baroness, Lady Massey of Darwen, and to hear her speaking up for her community.
I thank the Minister for bringing forward these regulations, which I strongly support. Like others, I recognise the incredible workload that he is carrying at the moment. He really should be protected by a Geneva convention.
I very much approve of the partnership between localities and central government but, as I said yesterday, I wonder whether we have the balance right. Experience in other countries tends to suggest that more local action within a national framework is likely to be more successful than the experience we have seen to date.
I strongly support these regulations but I regret the retrospective nature of these debates, some seven weeks after the regulations have been made. I regret it not just because of the lack of parliamentary scrutiny that there should of course be, but because I want to give support to my Government, which is what I, with many others, would be doing across the party. That is to be regretted.
Yesterday, I raised the issue of BAME communities in Leicester, and I do so again in relation to many of the areas that we are protecting today. Because this disease has a disproportionate effect on those communities, I ask whether lessons have been learned from what has been happening.
Perhaps I may ask the Minister about the experience of test and trace locally. Is there spare capacity? What is the situation on the ground in these communities? Perhaps he could extend that to the national picture. Do we publish the daily figure for testing throughout the country and at different centres? If not, why are we not doing it? I think that we should, so that people can see what the spare capacity is and take heart from the fact that more people are being tested day by day.
My Lords, I declare my interest as a vice-president of the Local Government Association.
The Minister, in introducing these six statutory instruments, said that they had “Done so much good”. I certainly would not deny the level of effort from the public right through to Westminster, but what is inescapable is a sense of a Government flailing around, laying down statutory instruments, changing them shortly afterwards and acting as though Westminster knows what is best—from Leicester to Lakeside and Newcastle to Newquay. In the meantime, the virus keeps advancing.
I note that what I am about to say reflects the thoughts of Pendle council, as shared with us by the noble Lord, Lord Greaves, and that it also reflects what the noble Lord, Lord Beith, said about clearly dividing laws and guidance. We need a set of alert levels, with enforceable laws that operate for businesses and groups, and a practical guide for action for the police and officials—to act on, for example, an illegal rave or a pub failing to collect contact-tracing evidence. That should be combined with guidance for the public.
As we said in this House on Wednesday, the rule of six means that many households could legally mix in one day, which would obviously be unwise. This is not useful guidance for action, let alone a practical rule. People are making up their own rules, sometimes for want of clarity and useful rebuttal from the Government based on the infodemic that the noble Baroness, Lady Bull, outlined.
Deciding on local alert levels and communicating them should be in the hands of local government, as should contact tracing and support for self-isolation, with appropriate resourcing from the centre. General, practical guidance to all on how and why to minimise risk can be distributed both nationally and locally, while acknowledging the practical difficulties in childcare, for example, as noted by the noble Baroness, Lady Bowles. Will the Government now consider—after stepping back, drawing breath and taking time to think, as the noble Lord, Lord Dobbs, said—a COBRA meeting to help them divide laws from guidance, stop focusing simply on testing numbers and look at testing effectiveness, and give back control to local authorities, which understand the demography and geography of how to control the virus in their area?
My Lords, there is no doubt that we have already entered a phase of increased coronavirus infections and deaths. I am pleased that the Government have lost no time in bringing in a variety of new rules, regulations, guidance and laws for us to follow and adhere to so that the second wave of this terrible disease does not get out of control. However, there appear to be differing views among experts in their analysis of future projections for the anticipated growth in the number of infections, subsequent hospital admissions, and then, sadly, deaths, without measures such as these in place. Can the Minister say how we can reconcile these issues to give the public more confidence in restrictive measures?
My Lords, as other noble Lords have indicated, to be debating the statutory instruments now puts us in an Alice in Wonderland situation. However, for those who have been subjected to the swathes of new regulations, it is the illogicality of the Government’s messaging—their policies and policy changes—which generates confusion. For instance, in areas where households are not allowed to mix, they are still able to go to the pub or a restaurant as long as they leave by 10 pm.
This morning, I listened to the Deputy Chief Medical Officer, Professor Van-Tam, who made it very clear that the hospitality industry did help fuel the spread of the disease. At the beginning of this debate, the noble Lord, Lord Blunkett, raised the question of whether Eat Out to Help Out had played a part in pushing up infection rates. Then there is the confusion over test and trace; not just the availability of the test—although that remains a huge issue—but the purpose. On Tuesday, in the other place, the Prime Minister said:
“Testing and tracing has very little or nothing to do with the spread or the transmission of the disease. The spread and the transmission of the disease is caused by contact between human beings and all the things that we are trying to minimise.”—[Official Report, Commons, 22/9/20; col. 822.]
If testing and tracing has very little or nothing to do with the spread or transmission of the disease, why are we putting such an effort and so much stress on it? I would much appreciate it if the Minister could explain that.
Finally, we are being told to work from home “if we can”. But what is the Government’s own interpretation of that? What are they saying to civil servants? Earlier this year, we demonstrated in this House that we could work remotely very effectively—certainly as effectively as we are doing now with the hybrid House. So, can the Minister explain why there are noble Lords who are in the Chamber today instead of working from home?
My Lords, I support the common sense of lockdown measures being managed on a local and regional basis. As we are all aware, new rules on social gatherings are required in certain areas of the north; that is what we are engaged in today. Regulation 5 of 2020/828
“prohibits gatherings of two or more people from different households (apart from linked households) in private dwellings in the protected area and prohibits people living in the protected area from participating in a gathering in a private dwelling outside the protected area, unless those meeting are from linked households.”
Regulation 7(4) prohibits indoor gatherings of more than 30 people but permits more than 30 people in a public outdoor space under defined specific conditions. I have just read all this. Can things not be drafted in a more straightforward and understandable way? No wonder there has been confusion. I call upon the Government to explain why there is this unnecessary complexity to the organisation of regulations.
My Lords, great progress is being made on the vaccine. For example, Oxford and AstraZeneca, together with the Serum Institute of India, are making great inroads with their trials. We are keeping fingers crossed and hoping that they will get approval soon after the phase 3 trials so that this vaccine will be available. I believe that AstraZeneca and the Serum Institute are producing hundreds of millions of vaccines in anticipation, at risk, for the benefit of all of us around the world.
However, this will take time to come through. In the meantime, does the Minister agree that the solution to our situation is mass testing? I have asked many times why the Government are not updating us more on the progress being made—whether you call it Moonshot, or the Prime Minister announcing that he wants 10 million tests a day by the beginning of next year, or Matt Hancock, the Secretary of State for Health, saying that we have £500 million now allocated for mass testing. Professor Alan McNally at the University of Birmingham, where I am chancellor, said that, if we could use that £500 million, we could have 30 million of the existing type of PCR tests being conducted in this country.
I have also mentioned time and again that, in the United States of America, Abbott Laboratories have brought out the BinaxNOW test, which is the size of a credit card. From a swab sample, you can get an answer in 15 minutes as to whether or not you have coronavirus. This antigen test is 97% to 98% accurate and costs $5. They are producing 10 million of them this month and 50 million next month. Why are we not able to produce such a test, which would be a game changer? What progress have we made in developing an affordable test like this, where, in theory, the whole population could test themselves twice a week? Anyone testing positive could have a confirmatory PCR test and isolate, while the rest of the economy could carry on. People coming into the country, universities, schools, factories and workplaces could all be tested regularly and people who have the disease identified. Why can we not do that? Can the Minister update us on mass testing in detail, please?
My Lords, I congratulate my noble friend the Minister on his boundless stamina. I repeat my general concern about the lack of flu vaccines. It is now impossible to make an appointment, even in the first few days of appointments being open. I know that the Minister will address this issue.
It would appear from what the noble Lord, Lord Blunkett, said that these regulations have been democratically approved by the local authorities in question. Can the Minister tell us whether that is the case for all local restrictions—including, in particular, the one relating to the north-east? I declare an interest as I have a residence in County Durham.
In relation to the restrictions in the regulations before us today, can my noble friend explain why rural areas are being lumped together with urban areas, when the incidence and spread of the virus is lower in rural areas? I would be particularly interested to know—although it is not before us today—why an urban area such as Tees Valley has been excluded. Why was that agreed but not for rural areas, as I raised previously? Overall, I support the thrust of these regulations and I welcome the opportunity to debate them today.
My Lords, there have been a staggering 6,634 cases. Will the Minister write to me with some information on the breakdown by age and ethnicity of those numbers?
The hospitality sector will once again take a massive hit, just as many, including the British curry industry, felt some hope of survival.
While I agree that we face extreme choices of balance between living safely and ensuring that families and communities do not face economic collapse, I continue to object in the strongest possible manner to the rising amount of fines. I ask the Government to review the amount of that imposition.
What strategies and action are the Government taking to protect women of minority heritage from the disproportionate disparities identified by the Public Health England report three months ago? Three months on from the publication of Beyond the Data, what progress have the Government made in implementing the seven recommendations? The review confirmed significant health inequalities and highlighted staff experiencing discrimination, although noble Lords and I have differing views on that. The review is substantiated by the many public pronouncements and statements made by professionals.
Men of Bangladeshi heritage are four times more likely to work in a sector facing restrictions and have fallen to this disease at twice the rate of others, while other minority groups are 50% more vulnerable. As pressures mount on services, can the Minister assure BAME staff and the House that doctors and nurses of minority heritage are not being “pushed” disproportionately to work on the front line of Covid management without sufficient PPE—more so than their white counterparts?
As the Minister said, overcrowding and multi- generational housing are causes of concern. Does he agree that long-term poverty and a lack of clarity and coherence in messaging may also be significant factors?
My Lords, I too thank my noble friend for all his dedicated work.
I recognise that information about this virus is incomplete. I sympathise with the Government, who cannot be expected to get the responses right all the time. However, sitting here today, do we have sufficient evidence to justify these extraordinary ongoing— seemingly never-ending—repressive restrictions on basic freedoms, family life and our parliamentary democracy? Parliament is expected to rubber-stamp measures with comprehensive evidence and impact assessments not having been presented even weeks after the regulations have already been imposed.
My noble friend talks of a crisis level of infection. What does that mean? When will Parliament be presented with a balanced, comprehensive analysis and data to identify, for example, the most recent correlations between infection with Covid, admission to hospital due to Covid and deaths from Covid-19 relative to deaths due to the effects of lockdowns and ongoing Covid restrictions?
The Government say they hope to ease the measures when infection or transmission falls. What constitutes success here? What is the endgame? Will we continue to lock people down, rejoice at reducing infections, relax draconian restrictions and, though I can hardly believe I am saying this, allow people to see their friends and loved ones again without risking arrest? Then what? The virus will not have disappeared. Does this whack-a-mole strategy just start again?
Parliament should be able to judge the data. What is the risk to life of a Covid infection relative to the risk to life of missed cancer treatments, mental breakdown, stroke and heart failure, all of which lockdown worsens? Indeed, do we know to what extent the increased testing rates in the areas of the restrictions that we are debating today, which my noble friend mentioned, contributed to the rise in reported infection rates that led to these measures?
My Lords, with coronavirus cases doubling every week in a rapidly changing situation, there is sometimes a need to take urgent action but, despite assurances, the Government are still ignoring opportunities to bring new regulations to Parliament in a timely way. For example, all this morning’s regulations have been overtaken by the so-called rule of six, yet, despite having yesterday’s planned business cancelled because the Agriculture Bill was finished on Tuesday, the Government failed to put the new regulations before the House yesterday so we now find ourselves discussing old regulations that have been superseded. Little wonder that noble Lords have taken the opportunity today to ask the Minister questions about the new rules and other matters related to the virus.
Before I come to those, I want to say something about the new app. All these ever-changing local lockdowns have created such confusion among the population about the rules that now apply to them that many people have given up trying to follow them. That is dangerous. I downloaded the app yesterday and at long last, as well as being able to learn if I have been near someone who has tested positive, which is crucial, I am now able to find out the rules that apply in my area at a click. I hope this will help the residents of Pendle, Bolton and all the areas affected by local lockdowns. This is what we have needed for many months, especially since the national lockdown was lifted and local lockdowns imposed. I very much welcome the app, but I regret that it has taken so long to be available following the withdrawal of the first abortive attempt. Other countries have had a working app for months. Why not England and Wales?
Before I leave the subject of the app, will it help local authorities to track back to the source of new clusters of infection? Do they have the powers to enforce closures or whatever else is needed? I echo the noble Lord, Lord Blunkett, in asking how lessons have been learned from whether or not the local lockdowns have worked in reducing the incidence of the virus. As my noble friend Lord Greaves pointed out, local lockdowns have been very stressful for local government.
I turn to related matters. The noble Lord, Lord Alton, and others asked about clarifying the rule of six. It seems that people could have several sets of contact with five others during a single day, as my noble friend Lord Newby pointed out yesterday. Would it not be better to advise people about a maximum total number of contacts that they could have in any one day other than their own family?
Many noble Lords have asked about the test and trace system. As my noble friend Lord Greaves pointed out, unless the system is working properly, Pendle and other areas will be stuck in local lockdowns for ever. Are the local lockdown areas now getting appropriate access to tests?
Vulnerable groups have particular needs. I welcome the £500 payments for quarantine, but how do the Government determine low income? Is someone monitoring how quickly people are getting the money? They need it right away if they cannot go to work. Are local authorities getting the resources needed to support people who feel they need to shield in areas of high incidence of the virus? Is any extra work being done in the local lockdown areas to ensure the safety of children in households where social services are aware that their home circumstances may be either neglectful or violent?
Several noble Lords have raised the plight of care homes. My noble friend Lord Willis asked about the availability of tests for staff in care homes. I echo his demand for a guarantee of timely tests for staff in care homes. I also echo the question of the noble Baroness, Lady Andrews, about why inspectors are visiting care homes without being tested. If family members cannot visit their loved ones, why allow inspectors in without being sure that they are not importing infection?
The noble Lord, Lord Moynihan, asked about students and young people. They have been hit hard. My noble friend Lady Bowles asked questions about childcare that I hope the Minister can answer.
This week the Science and Technology Select Committee heard about the increase in mental health issues during lockdown, especially among the young, where incidence was rising anyway. Witnesses were concerned about the lack of research into the extent and effects of this. Are the Government doing any additional research? Are any additional resources for mental health support being provided in areas of local lockdown, where not only have they had many months of national lockdown but they now have extra restrictions on their freedom to socialise? Many have lost access to their usual therapies. This is bound to have had an effect on people’s mental health problems, especially those who had existing problems.
As we have heard, there are many questions to ask about these regulations but I share the view of many noble Lords, such as my noble friend Lord Beith, that it would have been much better if Parliament could have asked them before they were six weeks old and had been overtaken by others.
My Lords, I first thank my noble friend Lady Donaghy for her very kind remarks to me, and indeed to the Minister. I also thank the Minister for the regrets he expressed at the beginning of his remarks when he introduced these regulations.
While we are all too familiar with the unfortunate practice of debating regulations that have already been in place for some time, and even amended by subsequent regulations, we charted new territory yesterday, it has to be said, when the House debated and approved regulations that have already been revoked. I look forward to seeing what comes in front of the Chamber in those circumstances. I felt that it was mitigated for me personally, because I am always happy to have the opportunity to talk about my beloved Bradford and discuss the steps that we have been taking in relation to the spike in infections. I am pleased to learn that we will not see redundant debates timetabled in this manner in future.
Similarly, today, we are tasked with debating and approving regulations that amend and refer to revoked instruments. Thirteen instruments have been revoked since
My noble friend Lord Blunkett and the noble Lords, Lord Forsyth and Lord Beith, made some interesting remarks that we will probably need to address on Monday when we look at how the future will unfold in terms of regulations and so on. I thank my noble friend Lady Andrews, who was absolutely correct about the issues she raised regarding care homes and testing.
The Government first imposed lockdown measures on parts of northern England in July. All regulations in this group were laid under the affirmative procedure, so while we broadly support these measures and understand the urgency, the Minister is well aware of the concern expressed by the House on many occasions that what we are discussing now comes long after the fact, when the situation has changed considerably. Other regulations have come into force before being revoked and Parliament has therefore never had the opportunity to discuss their merits. Regulation 4 of the first set of regulations requires a review at least once every 14 days, so there must have been three since they came into effect. Can the Minister commit to routinely publishing these reviews in future for accountability and transparency? That would help us to evaluate their effectiveness.
The Minister said that the decision to act on each occasion was not driven by numbers alone, it was a judgment about the overall situation—as indeed it should be—taking into consideration not only the epidemiological evidence but local insights and views. This is perhaps a generous spin, given the well-publicised tensions between the Government and local leaders in many of these areas. For example, council leaders and the Mayor of Greater Manchester, Andy Burnham, were dismayed by the decision to lift Bolton and Trafford out of local lockdown restrictions against their and the borough councils’ wishes. They warned the Government that is was too early and urged them to wait for more evidence of a sustained downward trend in positive cases, but were overruled. My understanding is that Conservative MPs in the area were consulted on the lockdown decisions by the Health Secretary and many pushed for the restrictions to be lifted. At the time, I asked the Minister about that and expressed my concern that the process seemed to have been politicised. It was only at the 11th hour that the Government finally began to listen and made yet another U-turn—the right U-turn, as it happened.
This brings to mind what my noble friend Lady Lawrence said; she was quite correct about the need for clarity. If urgent decisions need to be taken quickly, people need to understand why and what motivates them. I hope the Minister can assure the House that the Government will now listen to local leaders and local expertise from the start. While the onus is on the Government to take these decisions, they should not be seen to be overruling councils. Does the Minister believe that the decision-making process and pandemic response would definitely be improved if there were greater regional representation at COBRA and other meetings where these decisions are being taken? It would improve dialogue with government and speed up decision-making.
I underline what a noble Lord said about these decisions not being politically driven, so let us show that they are not politically driven. Regardless of the political control of the councils involved in this, let them be involved in these decisions and bring to bear their local knowledge. It is clear to me—I agree with the Mayor of Greater Manchester, Andy Burnham—that we cannot carry on like this. He said:
“There has to be a reset moment here in the way the government is making these announcements, because the government is losing the public. We can’t afford to lose the public going into such a challenging autumn and winter.”
He is absolutely right.
The local leaders in the north of England have also called for more resource to support contact tracing, which clearly is not properly. What consideration have the Government given to utilising the police and fire services, which have indicated their willingness to put forward front-line staff to help get in touch with local people who need to isolate? We clearly need to bring to bear all the resources of these local communities where they are willing.
My Lords, I too thank the noble Baroness, Lady Donaghy, for her very kind words. Let me please make it plain to the Chamber: it is an absolute honour to stand here—to have some time to consider these SIs and to do our best, as a Government, under difficult circumstances, to bring in complex regulations and laws that have a huge impact on people’s everyday lives and to try to bring the best possible parliamentary scrutiny that we can under the current rules.
I am completely aware of the concerns of my noble friends Lord Forsyth and Lord Dobbs, the noble Lord, Lord Beith, and the noble Baronesses, Lady Donaghy and Lady Thornton. They all rightly express concerns about how this could be done better. We are committed to the process that we have: we listen to these debates as they happen and I take back to the department the comments made in this Chamber.
I say to my noble friend Lord Forsyth, on the Civil Contingencies Act, the issue is that the Act is expressly concerned with threats that we could not have expected. Unfortunately, we are at a stage with this epidemic—indeed, even at the very beginning of the epidemic—where the lawyers have judged that this kind of regulation does not fit under that definition. That is why we work through the public health Act of 1984. If he has any further questions on that, I would be glad to answer them through correspondence.
The noble Lord, Lord Blunkett, asked a very important question: what have we learned? I will try to tackle people’s points through that lens as quickly as I can. In terms of the north, we learned many things but three stand out. First, this virus moves incredibly quickly through social mobility. My noble friend Lady McIntosh asked why rural areas are tied in with town areas. The truth is that people move between different areas to a much greater extent than would normally be visible. That is one of the challenges we have had to deal with. Secondly, the mixing of households has a profound effect on transmission of the disease. That is why that is a focus of these regulations. Thirdly, getting testing and tracing into hard-to-reach communities can be extremely difficult. My noble friend Lord Bourne asked what we had learned in terms of getting testing into key areas—we have learned that it is very difficult. We have put new resources into it and gathered new expertise and have sought advice from people who understand these things well.
A number of noble Lords, including the noble Lord, Lord Blunkett, asked about hospitality. If a hospitality venue, such as a pub, has good contact tracing on arrival, socially distanced seating, table service and booking, there is no reason why it should present a threat. However, not all pubs abide by those disciplines, with mass crowding either inside or outside, late-night intimacy and mixed groups. That is where the disease spreads, which is why we have cracked down—including through the 10 pm curfew, which sends a clear signal to hospitality venues that they must abide by the regulations. I make these points in answer to my noble friend Lady Wheatcroft and the noble Baroness, Lady Uddin.
We have learned four key things on the macro basis. The first and most important of them was alluded to by a number of noble Lords, including my noble friends Lady McIntosh and Lord Bourne, and the noble Baronesses, Lady Thornton, Lady Bennett and Lady Andrews: the importance of local collaboration. I was asked a large number of detailed questions about the nature of local collaboration. I assure noble Lords that it is happening on an incredibly energetic basis. New systems that completely redefine the wiring of government in this country are being put in place in response to this epidemic. People who did not have each other’s telephone number before now speak every day and collaborations are happening across party grounds. There is the occasional grinding of gears—of that I have no doubt—but the spirit of collaboration is extremely strong. I assure my noble friend Lady McIntosh that local leaders in the north-east met the CMO today and made their representations to the top of government very clearly.
A second learning has been on the sharing of granular data, which we have discussed in other debates. The third learning, in response to the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Manchester, has been on the use of local languages and cultural sensitivity. I completely recognise his points about the impact of bringing in some of these measures around Eid. I have held round tables with community groups in the north; I heard people’s concerns loud and clear. We thought that we were leaving the time of lockdowns; it was only when the data showing that infection rates were rising emerged that we had to apply the handbrake and do a sudden turn. We learned a lot about the bruising impact of that sudden decision and its impact on trust, and we have moved on.
Fourthly, a number of noble Lords, including the noble Baroness, Lady Lawrence, and my noble friend Lord Flight, mentioned simplicity. It is key. The public’s understanding of the regulations is absolutely essential to changing their behaviours. If people do not understand it, there is no point in regulating. That has been seen through recent regulations, such as on the rule of six and the curfew, where the impact of the regulations has been well thought through.
The noble Lord, Lord Greaves, and the noble Baroness, Lady Massey, asked about money for businesses and quick money. I completely agree with their points. The money that has gone to Pendle included £1.8 million to the council and £21.8 million to Pendle businesses. That indicates both the impact and the level of money that we are distributing to make these regulations effective.
The noble Baroness, Lady Bull, my noble friend Lady Redfern and the noble Lord, Lord Loomba, all mentioned communications. I completely recognise the threat of an “infodemic”—we have one in this very Chamber—and we are working extremely hard to make interventions clearer, as the noble Baroness, Lady Walmsley, called for. The app is a really good example of that and I am extremely encouraged that the noble Baroness, Lady Massey, is able to see the status of her community and the regulations in that community through the app: that is exactly why we designed the app and I am incredibly excited that she cites that as an example. I am completely live to the threat of conspiracy theorists and those who seek to undermine the validity of our vaccine. We have a substantial rebuttal unit that crosses many departments of government. It is probably not wise for me to go into detail, but I reassure the noble Baroness, Lady Bull, that we have put the full weight of government behind that.
The noble Lord, Lord Willis, and the noble Baronesses, Lady Walmsley and Lady Andrews, raised social care. I am extremely proud of our commitment, at a time when pressure on testing capacity is extremely intense, to have 100,000 tests a day for social care. It is making an impact. A lot of people are frustrated, and I wish those testing levels were higher, but we believe that we are winning and we have capacity to bring in more.
On childcare, the noble Lords, Lord Alton and Lord Singh, and the noble Baronesses, Lady Bowles and Lady Walmsley, all gave extremely good examples of why childcare is so important. We have listened, those regulations have been changed and new statutory instruments were brought in on Tuesday that made some of those changes. I reassure the noble Lord, Lord Bilimoria, that we are looking at the Abbott test. I can tell my noble friend Lord Flight that Section 7 has been revoked.
Finally my noble friend Lord Moynihan, the noble Earl, Lord Erroll, and the noble Baroness, Lady Walmsley, and others talked about the long-term impact on young people and the country as a whole. We recognise the impact of these regulations, but it is the virus that is the cause of this; it is not the Government’s fault that we have to bring in these regulations to slow the spread of the virus. In response to my noble friend Lady Altmann, our objective is to get our lives back, and we will know we have succeeded when we get our lives back. I beg to move.