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 Lord Newby Lord Newby Liberal Democrat Leader in the House of Lords 1:05 pm, 14th October 2020

My Lords, I thank the noble Baroness the Leader of the House for responding to questions on the Prime Minister’s Statement. Although we are discussing a Statement barely 48 hours after it was made, things on the ground, as the noble Baroness, Lady Smith, has said, have moved on apace since Monday. Infections have risen, deaths have risen rapidly, and people have become more confused and more worried.

In the Statement, the Prime Minister said the Government are seeking to balance the

“objectives of saving lives and protecting the NHS while keeping our children in school and … protecting jobs and livelihoods.”—[Official Report, Commons, 12/10/20; col. 23.]

What he did not do was level with the British people about what his scientific advisers have been proposing. We now know that last month, SAGE urged an immediate circuit breaker of more restrictive measures, because, as the noble Baroness said, and in its words,

“not acting now … will result in a very large epidemic with catastrophic consequences.”

That was several weeks ago. No action was taken, and we do now have a “very large epidemic” on our hands. That is why my colleagues in the other place and those on these Benches support the leader of the Opposition’s proposal for a short circuit breaker, to give time to get firmly in place some measures to get the virus under control, in the hope that we might have some relaxation—albeit possibly temporarily—at Christmas. I have never seen the Prime Minister as one of nature’s Roundheads but as things stand, he looks set to succeed and follow Oliver Cromwell by cancelling Christmas as we know it.

The one welcome change in the Government’s position over recent days is that they have been willing, for the first time since March, to have a serious dialogue with civic leaders in those areas most heavily affected by the virus. This is extremely welcome but long overdue. However, it needs to go much further. The national test, track and trace system is failing, and failing badly. A large proportion of people who have been in contact with someone who has tested positive are still not being contacted. Some 27% of those asked to isolate do not do so. Will the Government now effect a step change in the role they give to all local directors of public health to implement the track, trace and isolate system in their areas? Will they do so across the country and not only, as currently envisaged, in very high-alert areas; and will they give them the resources they need to do the job properly? If they do not, I fear we are simply going to see a large increase in the number of areas requiring the highest level of restrictions.

The Prime Minister’s Statement seems to bring clarity to an extremely confused picture, but it simply does not. It is completely unclear, for example, on the criteria the Government will use to decide which areas fall into the “very high”, “high” and “medium” categories. Can the noble Baroness tell the House what those criteria are?

The Prime Minister said the measures announced on Monday could lead to additional measures if local government leaders agreed. What measures do the Government have in mind? What happens if the Government think additional measures are needed and local leaders do not? Equally, if local authority leaders think that more restrictive measures should be imposed in advance of any government initiative—as is now the case with Essex County Council, and which is, I believe, the policy of the Mayor London—what will the Government’s response be?

The Government have briefed that they are preparing to open some of the Nightingale hospitals. It is widely believed in Yorkshire that, as far as the Nightingale hospital in Harrogate is concerned, this will not happen, because the hospital simply does not have the staff available to allow it to operate safely. Can the noble Baroness assure the House that this is not the case?

The country is now at a very dangerous point. The Government are at odds with their own scientific advisers, many council leaders and many of their own Back-Benchers. Their rules are complex and, in some cases, perverse. Track and trace is a shambles: it has lost the confidence of the majority of the population. It is time for a reset.