Health Protection (Coronavirus, Restrictions) (No. 2) (England) (Amendment) (No. 4) Regulations 2020 - Motion to Approve

– in the House of Lords at 1:15 pm on 6th October 2020.

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Lord Bethell:

Moved by Lord Bethell

That the Regulations laid before the House on 14 September be approved.

Relevant document: 27th Report from the Secondary Legislation Scrutiny Committee

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

My Lords, I will start by summarising the changes to the regulations. These regulations, which were made on 13 September and came into force on 14 September, amend the Health Protection (Coronavirus Restrictions) (No. 2) (England) Regulations 2020. They mean that people may not participate in social gatherings, in any place, inside or out, in groups of more than six. The exceptions are members of the same household, two linked households, or exceptions that apply such as for work and schools. This is the measure we call the rule of six; its sole purpose is to halt the spread of the virus by breaking the chain of transmission.

Our message is clear. Those who flout the rules cannot do so with impunity. However, for those who follow the rules, we will provide support and encouragement. That is why the regulations gave police powers to enforce these legal limits, including issuing fines to a maximum of £3,200. It is also why we have introduced financial support for those in isolation.

After a period in the summer of reduction, or stabilisation, in the transmission of the virus, the headline numbers were clear: by mid-September we were seeing daily case numbers rise rapidly in most parts of the country. For example, on 14 August 2020, 1,168 confirmed cases were announced; whereas a month later, on 11 September, 3,286 confirmed cases were announced. That is why the Government, the Chief Medical Officer and the Chief Scientific Advisor jointly agreed the changes we announced.

We know that an increase in infections leads to increases in hospitalisations and deaths, and early indications were of hospital admissions increasing. For example, on 14 August, 99 patients were admitted to hospital; whereas on 11 September, 219 patients were admitted to hospital. We also looked at international data on the feedback on the transmission of the virus in large groups from contact tracing and the advice of infection control teams on the local front line who said the old rules were clearly being flouted. That is why we took the decision to act promptly to introduce these changes.

Regulations such as these are meaningful only if people comply with them. We recognise that in the last eight months the sum of all our regulations had become confusing for many people. Anecdotally, local leaders told us that the term “households” was not well understood—and could be misunderstood as including people’s extended family, whether or not you lived with them—and that a numerical limit was likely to be better understood. Our instincts and these anecdotes were supported by evidence from the Health Protection Research Unit at King’s College London, to which we owe thanks. That is why we have moved to the rule of six: one number; in all settings; inside and out; at home or in the pub. Clear, easily understood guidance, based on clear principles—that is what we have sought to do.

To be clear, in this instance, the buy-in of the public and adherence of the majority are more important than the epidemiological transmission analysis and fine-tuning points of the committees of experts. Breaking the chain of transmission is all that matters. We tightened the regulations so they exactly reflected the guidance, rather than there being one set of numbers in guidance and another set in the legal framework.

I accept that there are seemingly many inconsistencies, injustices and perceived unfairnesses in rules such as these. I have heard many of them already. Probably everyone in this Chamber has an instance where the rules do not seem to make sense. We cannot legislate for every scenario. The virus does not respect special circumstances, however moving. However, there is wisdom in simplicity and there is effectiveness in being easily understood. That is why the rules were simplified and strengthened: so that they were easier to understand, people knew where they stood, the police can act without hesitation and we can get the virus under control. If we achieve that, it is our sincere hope and expectation that the measures will be effective, and we can potentially lift the restrictions.

Let me say a few words about the impact of the measures—I note of course that they have been in place for only three weeks. We have seen the proportion of people who have socialised with six or more people from outside their household at the same time reduce by over a third to 7% last week, compared to 12% in recent weeks.

Let me say a few words about the impact of the measures by giving some examples of where local lockdowns have worked. In Northampton, the weekly incidence rate on 21 August was 116 per 100,000, mainly because of an outbreak in the Greencore factory. We brought in measures and the prevalence rate was brought down to 25.8 per 100,000. Swindon was put on the watchlist, the rise there being linked to a large-scale workplace outbreak and car-sharing issues. These were addressed and the prevalence was brought down to 15. I could go on. I accept that the picture for local lockdowns is complicated, and there are places where the numbers have gone up and have come down, but where measures have been supported by communities, we have broken the chain of transmission.

I want briefly to say something about the way these measures were introduced. Our natural inclination is to lift restrictions wherever and whenever we can. In the summer, we were hopeful that the country had got the message, that our exhortations on hands, face and space had got through and that, except for some local outbreaks, we had basically got a lid on it. However, the numbers told another story. It was therefore essential that the Government moved quickly. As in the past, we used the powers under the public health Act. Our lawyers diligently crossed every “t” and dotted every “i”, so the paperwork was not laid until hours before the measures became law.

None of this is ideal. The Government accept that parliamentary scrutiny has an important role to challenge the detail and to build support. That is why the Secretary of State for Health and Social Care told the other place last week that, for significant national measures with effect in the whole of England, the Government would consult the House of Commons wherever possible and hold votes before the regulations came into force.

I reassure noble Lords that the Government have heard the message on this point and that we are building on the success of these regulations to take them forward. For that reason, I beg to move.