My Lords, I first thank all noble Lords for their contributions. As always, we had some very important and vital speeches. I have taken careful note of all the points made. I particularly enjoyed the proposal made by the noble Lord, Lord Singh, about the “rule of Sikhs”. Obviously this is a tragic situation, but it is important to retain our sense of humour at this time. The noble Lord also made some important points. I would say that many of our guides remind employers of their responsibilities under equalities law, in particular on protected characteristics. The noble Lord, Lord Stevenson, moved an amendment expressing regret, yet the need for approval during this pandemic is, in our view, vital. I will address the key points that were raised, both here and outside this forum.
As the Prime Minister said, these regulations were not rushed through quickly. They are not draconian measures. We are faced with an unprecedented pandemic. Were we to delay bringing these regulations into force, using normal procedures with a draft before each House, the virus could unleash its proven potential for exponential growth. Therefore, I believe that it is right that we act with due haste against it. As has been discussed, the test for the use of the emergency procedures under Section 45R of the enabling legislation—that is, the Public Health (Control of Disease) Act 1984—is that of urgency, and I can think of no greater issue of urgency than the health and lives of many people in this nation.
The nature of this virus means that incidence rates can change very quickly, which is why we have had to act—and with speed—to prevent further spread. We are, therefore, correct in moving these regulations forward and taking the actions that we have taken. As I said earlier, the spread of the virus over September is ample evidence of the need for these regulations. Clear rules increase compliance. They also make it easier for those rules to be enforced, and the police have been clear that simpler rules help them do their job more effectively.
A number of noble Lords rightly raised the important issue of the 10 pm closing time. My noble friends Lord Cormack, Lord Bourne and Lady Wheatcroft, the noble Baroness, Lady Benjamin, and the noble Lord, Lord Bilimoria, all highlighted this point. Early data suggests that a significant proportion of exposure to the virus is seen in the hospitality sector, and it is even more pronounced in younger age groups. We will continue to gather evidence and, of course, to monitor the data, but this is why we are putting in place these restrictions on operating hours. Alongside the other measures, this action will help to reduce the potential for unnecessarily close contact with people that you do not usually meet. We have seen how effective operating restrictions can be from the example of Belgium, where a marked decline in case numbers was seen after early closing measures were introduced. Other countries are taking similar steps: the Netherlands, Denmark and about half of Spain’s regions also have 10 pm closing areas.
My noble friend Lord Lilley made a very important point about the use of masks. I can tell him that all the measures we have introduced follow the science. Of course, we also recognise the pace of new developments; we must therefore act quickly to follow further evidence as it becomes available.
I reiterate that these measures are not intended to penalise our vital hospitality businesses through errant focus. Many—indeed, most—are complying with our Covid-secure measures. However, one or two have not and, in the future, may not. These regulations will give enforcement authorities the additional powers that they need to help address and deter breaches that could cause coronavirus to spread—and spread quickly.
I will now respond directly to the points made by the noble Lord, Lord Stevenson, about support for the hospitality industry. We do not act without sympathy for and understanding of those affected by the regulations. We recognise the impact that additional measures, as with past measures, place on affected businesses and their customers. Many noble Lords—my noble friend Lady Altmann, the noble Baronesses, Lady Uddin, Lady Benjamin, and Lady Ritchie, my noble friend Lord Moynihan and the noble Lord, Lord Rooker—asked about similar issues. We have put in place an unprecedented package to support impacted businesses, including over £11 billion which has already been paid out through the small business grants fund and the retail, hospitality and leisure business grants fund to over 897,000 businesses across the country, with a further £617 million available to councils to use at their discretion to support small businesses that are not eligible for the main grant system.
As well as the Eat Out to Help Out scheme earlier this year, we have put in place through our comprehensive plan for jobs a wider package of hospitality support that goes beyond the summer. We have also cut VAT to 5%, and we have been paying the wages of furloughed staff, as well as business rates relief and billions in tax deferrals and loans—all helping to protect nearly 2 million jobs in the hospitality and tourism industries. And, of course, noble Lords will be well aware that we will constantly keep this package of economic support under review and will not hesitate to take further action if that is required.
In direct response to the question asked of me by the noble Lord, Lord Stevenson, about the possibility of further measures, I will say that we are seeing coronavirus cases rise across the entire country. However, they are rising faster in my home region of the north-east, as well as in the north-west. We are keeping the data under close review and considering a range of further options to reduce the spread of the virus in order to protect communities and, ultimately, to save lives.
If time permits, I will deal directly with a number of the questions that I was asked. The noble Lord, Lord Loomba, and the noble Lord, Lord Blunkett, asked about the rule of six. We realise the impact that these regulations have on people. We aim to minimise the impact wherever possible, and where the science allows us to limit the risk of transmission. We are especially concerned with reducing the impact on children, while also limiting the number of innately social activities that take place in higher-risk settings.
The noble Baroness, Lady Benjamin, asked about hospitality venues. As the Secretary of State for Health and Social Care explained on
My noble friends Lord Cormack and Lord Robathan asked about the “rushing through”, as they put it, of these regulations. In the other place, my right honourable friend has made a commitment to greater parliamentary scrutiny and said that regulations such as these with a national impact would be brought before this Chamber, and the other place, before they are laid. I remind noble Lords that it is up to the usual channels to programme the business of the House, and the Joint Committee on Statutory Instruments reviews SIs such as this before they come to the House.
My noble friend Lady Warsi made some important points about vulnerable groups. Of course, we conducted an equalities impact assessment on all these measures and our guides highlight the importance of an employer’s duty in this respect. The noble Baroness, Lady Donaghy, and my noble friend Lady Wheatcroft raised points about the test and trace system. These measures are working. One in eight people in England have now been tested for coronavirus at least once since the service launched. As always, our top priority is making sure that tests are allocated where they are needed most to save lives, where they protect the most vulnerable and where they support critical health and care services. We have strengthened our support for regional contact tracing, with dedicated teams of contact tracers for local areas. Some 68 local authority contact tracing teams are now live across the country, with more due to come online over the coming weeks. Of course, we will also continue to review processes to make sure that we can match demand in the test and trace service.
The noble Baroness, Lady Warsi, and the noble Lord, Lord Blunkett, highlighted the vexed issue of dancing at weddings. I take on board and accept the points that they made but these are difficult circumstances. We try to be as accommodating as possible, which is why we have allowed the all-important first dance at weddings. As always, we keep these measures under constant review.
The noble Baroness, Lady Ritchie, talked about applying lessons learned in Northern Ireland to the rest of the UK. She will of course understand that public health is a devolved issue. However, we are working with all four nations of the UK to tackle this virus and will continue to do so as the fight progresses.
The enforcement of the regulations was raised by the noble Baroness, Lady Walmsley, the noble Lord, Lord Stevenson, and, most recently, by the noble Lord, Lord Greaves. The regulations will be enforced by authorised persons including officers of trading standards, environmental health, local authorities and ultimately the police. Enforcing officers will have the ability to issue fixed penalty notices immediately upon the breach occurring.
I am now being told that I have to wind up. I thank noble Lords for paying attention during the debate, I thank everyone for their contributions and I commend the regulations to the House.