Covid-19 Update - Statement

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 1:05 pm on 14th October 2020.

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Photo of Baroness Smith of Basildon Baroness Smith of Basildon Shadow Leader of the House of Lords, Shadow Spokesperson (Northern Ireland), Shadow Spokesperson (Cabinet Office), Shadow Spokesperson (Cabinet Office, Constitutional and Devolved issues) 1:05 pm, 14th October 2020

My Lords, I doubt that the Prime Minister, Boris Johnson, shares my admiration for Harold Wilson, but even he will recognise that his oft-quoted comment that a week is a long time in politics is very relevant today. With the pace of events over the last couple of days they must have felt like at least a week. I expect that the noble Baroness the Lord Privy Seal might be relieved not to be repeating the Statement made by the Prime Minister in the Chamber today.

The Statement on Monday, announcing a three-tier system of restrictions, is already wilting under close examination and the publication of the scientific advice received by the Prime Minister. In the Statement, the Prime Minister said that we needed to “go further” than the existing restrictions. He is right to consider and announce further actions, but the scale and rate of infections is increasing. There are now more people in hospital, including ICU, than there were in March when we went into lockdown. On the positive side, our knowledge and ability to treat have improved, but we have a clearer understanding of how devastating this illness is for so many.

The Prime Minister referenced the Government’s advisory body SAGE in his announcement, but if you go back and read it again there is a very serious omission. This was clearly no accident; it was calculated and deliberate. Unlike earlier Statements from the Prime Minister and members of his Government, this one makes no reference to following the scientific evidence or to evidence-based policy-making. We now know why. The minutes of the SAGE meeting of 21 September, published after the Prime Minister’s Statement on Monday, are very clear about the scale of the challenge and the action needed—not suggested—to tackle it. Its warnings are stark:

“not acting now … will result in … catastrophic consequences in terms of direct COVID related deaths and the ability of the health service to meet needs.”

The report then lists a range of short-term measures to be considered for “immediate introduction”. That was on 21 September, three weeks ago, and it said “immediate”: not next week or next month.

Since then, the Prime Minister has made two announcements of new restrictions but has failed to act on, or share with Parliament or the public, the advice that his Government have received. Let us be clear: any restrictions are difficult; none is pain free. But surely the worst kind of restrictive measures are those that are piecemeal. They fall short of what is required and, therefore, go on longer without the level of impact that is needed. The Prime Minister has, therefore, twice announced measures knowing that they fall short of what the scientific advice says is essential.

The seriousness of this cannot be overestimated. He knows that his measures are inadequate, as evidenced in an article in today’s Telegraph that says that the Government are now considering the circuit break that was recommended by SAGE three weeks ago and called for by my colleague and Leader of the Opposition yesterday. At the same time, the world-beating test, trace and isolate system that the nation was promised has failed to materialise. After the Government have spent £12 billion, SAGE has concluded that that is having “marginal impact”.

For those who are suffering lockdowns, desperately missing and worrying about loved ones, worried about their own and their families’ health; for the self-employed, the now unemployed and struggling businesses, to go through that pain without the gain, with the Government ignoring the scientific advice, is deeply shocking and unacceptable.

It has to change. The stop-start approach has failed; we have to break that cycle. It is so much harder to deal with the economic consequences unless there is public confidence in the Government’s ability to protect the nation’s health. I get upset and quite angry when it is suggested that this is a binary choice between our health and the economy. That is plain wrong. It is so evident that they are two sides of the same coin and totally interlinked.

Last night, having considered the scientific evidence and consulted widely, Keir Starmer called on the Government to reset their approach—to introduce that circuit breaker alongside the other measures deemed necessary by the scientific experts, along with the essential economic support, and to get a grip of the test, trace and isolate system. That is not a single measure; it is a complete package of health protection, economic support and future planning.

I have a couple of questions for the noble Baroness, who is a member of the Cabinet and of Cabinet committees. I appreciate that the details of Cabinet discussions are not published, but can she confirm that members of the Cabinet were informed of the SAGE advice of 21 September? Following that, can she explain the rationale, which must surely have been discussed in Cabinet, in ignoring that advice?

Too often, the Government’s approach has been very centralised, and effectiveness has been lost through a failure to properly engage, consult and support local authorities. What action is being taken now to ensure local capacity, knowledge and experience is being effectively utilised, particularly in test, trace and isolate, with the necessary resources being provided for that? I refer to all local authorities, not just those in tiers 2 and 3, because this has to be a nationwide engagement.

The costs of tackling the crisis and preparing for the post-Covid future are huge. Obviously, we need to ensure such large amounts of money are used to the greatest effect. Many in your Lordships’ House have been in government or in positions of authority where difficult decisions have to be taken. No one is pretending this is easy, but it is even harder when members of your own party are pulling in different directions. There is only one thing to do in those circumstances; it is not possible to steer a middle course and try to placate different views. You just have to do what is right, because that is what true leadership is really about.