Moved by Lord Robathan
At end to insert “but that this House regrets the failure of Her Majesty’s Government to provide the scientific evidence used to inform these Regulations and other restrictions put in place to address the COVID-19 pandemic, including the imposition of a 10.00pm curfew on businesses.”
Some noble Lords may have noticed that I have my reservations about the government policy regarding this pandemic. Of course, there are many different views. Yesterday, we had the somewhat surprising and unlikely juxtaposition of both the leader of the Labour Party and the Conservative leader of Essex County Council calling for tougher restrictions. They may be right.
I have great sympathy for the Government because they are in a very difficult position. They have the hugely difficult task of balancing public health needs against the needs of society and the economy in their policy. They may be right, as we wait with bated breath for the vaccine cavalry to come over the hill. Apparently, though—according to Kate Bingham, the chairman of the Vaccine Taskforce, today—the likelihood is that the vaccine will be only 50% effective.
There are different and opposing views on how to deal with this public health crisis. Of course, I may be wrong. It may not surprise your Lordships to know that I have occasionally—perhaps on many occasions—been wrong in the past. However, this amendment is not concerned with my views or the opposite views.
First, let me ask: what is the purpose of Parliament and this House? Are they just talking shops? The tribunes of the people in the other place should hold the Government to account but we, too, have a role to play, primarily as a revising Chamber. Frankly, we often do rather a good job of that. Also, as I recall from my days at school studying for the British constitution alternative O-level, we act as a check on an unaccountable or overly powerful Government—especially one with a big majority in the Commons—and the arbitrary abuse of power. We should not overstate that role but we can point out the wrongs of untested government decisions.
My amendment concerns the 10 pm curfew in particular. Surely Members of the House of Lords and the House of Commons can legitimately ask about it, because the curfew will do grave damage to an already fragile hospitality industry. Restaurants will struggle without two sittings per evening. Pubs are seeing a slump in sales while, incidentally, supermarkets are seeing an increase in the sale of alcohol to be consumed at home after 10 pm. Crowds are being ejected on to the streets at 10 pm, which rather ruins the idea of preventing large gatherings. There will be a reckoning in terms of closed pubs, bankrupt restaurants and, of course, unemployed staff.
So why 10 pm? Why not 11 pm or 9 pm? There is a sense that the figure was possibly plucked out of the air. What is the reasoning behind it? I doubt that any of your Lordships would disagree that the Government should tell us—more especially, the Commons and, indeed, the British people—the answer, yet I have seen no evidence or real response. There are a lot of assertions but little concrete evidence or informed debate. I want to see the opinions of economists, scientists and others, not just of those urging circuit-breakers and the like. I want to hear a balanced discussion on the merits of the case, including the social, economic and behavioural advice. I want to hear a discussion about whether the current policy, which I understand SAGE urged, is working because, as my noble friend just said, infections are increasing yet we have, and have had for some time, lots of local lockdowns.
By nature, I am a rather boring loyalist. I have a fond, perhaps naive, belief that a Conservative Government usually make the right decisions, and I support them even when I have reservations. Can the Minister tell the House what evidence and reasoning the Government have, and can he please share it with us? If the House receives a satisfactory explanation, I will see no reason to press my amendment to a Division.
My Lords, my amendment says that
“that this House regrets that Her Majesty’s Government have failed to implement an effective test, trace and isolate regime for COVID-19 and calls upon Her Majesty’s Government to give all local authorities the resources they need to operate an effective contact tracing system in their areas; furthermore notes that these measures may not be sufficient to address the impact of the COVID-19 virus; and calls upon Her Majesty’s Government to provide the support local businesses and communities need to have confidence in responding to the COVID-19 pandemic.”
I speak to my amendment with a sense of real regret and sadness because, as the Minister tells us from time to time—and I believe him—he and his colleagues are working hard to deliver test and trace and fight the disease on our behalf. I recognise what a huge job the Government have. I wish to make it clear to the Minister that we will not vote against the regulations, but we will see whether we test the opinion of the House on this amendment. However, it is time to come clean. What follows is a sad account that justifies the House expressing an opinion of regret.
I hope that the Government have a plan to make test and trace, as well as investment in local communities, work. When NHS Test and Trace was launched in late May, the Prime Minister promised that it would help “move the country forward”—that we would be able to see our families, go to work and stop the economy crumbling. In the absence of a vaccine, the Prime Minister’s “world-beating” system would be worth every penny of the £10 billion-plus that the Chancellor announced in July would be spent.
This week, we learn that the Government’s SAGE scientific advisers have concluded that the current test and trace system is not working. They say that too few people are getting tested, results are coming back too slowly and not enough people are sticking to the instructions to isolate. They say that the system is having a “marginal impact” on transmission as a result and that, unless it grows as fast as the epidemic, the impact will only wane.
Tasked this spring with rolling out millions of coronavirus tests, the Health Secretary, Mr Hancock, opted for a centralised system using private firms. The business consultancy, Deloitte, was handed a contract to run testing through local drive-in and walk-in test centres, with swabs being sent for analysis at a network of national laboratories, many of which were also outsourced. Serco was also handed a deal to run contact tracing, subcontracting work to other firms as well. I am not making an argument for public versus private; it is a case of the Government not taking cognisance of the assets they already had to carry out this function.
At the same time as this was happening, local efforts were forbidden, not funded or sidelined and ignored. Local directors of public health knew much from their experience of tackling sexually transmitted diseases and food poisoning outbreaks, but their role was being limited, leaving many of them exasperated. The stakes are very high. The Imperial College study found that if test and trace worked quickly and effectively, the R number could be reduced by up to 26%.
As the system got up and running over the summer, ONS surveys of the virus’s prevalence suggested that NHS Test and Trace might be picking up only a quarter of actual cases. In July, one of the system’s senior civil servants, Alex Cooper, admitted privately that the system was identifying only 37% of the people
“we really should be finding”.
The clamour from mayors and local public health officials for a bigger role was growing. Finally, this week the Government admitted that cities and regions should be given help to do more—something that some of us have been advocating literally since February and March.
In the last week of September, the percentage of close contacts reached fell to 68.6%, the lowest level yet. Dido Harding—the noble Baroness, Lady Harding, who is the system’s head—said last month that the number of people wanting tests was three to four times the number available, while the national Lighthouse Labs in Milton Keynes, Cheshire, Glasgow and Cambridge had hit capacity. There were website warnings that no tests were available, exposing the British public on an almost daily basis this summer, especially in September when the schools went back and we saw people being sent all over the country to get tests. The scale of the task was shown when the noble Baroness told MPs that around half the available tests were actually being used by NHS patients and social care and NHS staff.
The need for testing will only increase as the virus grows and winter comes upon us. Of those transferred to the contact-tracing system in the week ending
As far back as May, SAGE experts said the speed of the results had a significant impact on the reproduction rate of the virus. The Prime Minister pledged on
“tests turned around in 24 hours”,—[
We have heard embarrassing stories about contact tracers making no calls for days on end. By contrast, local public health officials have been setting up their own call centres and deploying environmental health officers and sexual health experts with local knowledge. Being properly trained to do the job, they reckon that they are tracing up to 100% of the contacts. If they want to back a winner, it seems that that is the winner the Government really need to back.
All of this leads to the Motion I have tabled. The Government have to move quicker; that is clear and has been since March. They have to stop overpromising, share information and data more openly, trust local leaders to know their patch, and support local businesses and communities more readily when they face restrictions. The question of who gets the extra resources to be able to test, trace and isolate, and support local communities, should not depend on their alert level—that is a perverse incentive if ever I heard one. Everyone in all these communities needs to have a level of local support; then, we might see the R number reduce.
My Lords, I agree with what my noble friend Lady Thornton said, as these regulations need to be seen in the context of a failed and still failing government policy. There is still no coherent government strategy. “Where is the plan?”, the Labour leader Keir Starmer rightly asked. The introduction of a mass-testing programme, checking everybody for the virus on a regular basis, would be one way to endure the crisis while minimising the damage to the economy and the risk to life, but there is still absolutely no sign of such a programme. When people are tested they have to wait ages to get their results, often making the tests out of date. In September, nine in 10 care home tests in England got back late.
The Government are pinning all their hopes on a vaccine but cannot say when there will be one. Nobody can; the answer cannot just be locking down continually, given the large economic and social cost this involves. A recent Lancet peer-reviewed paper identified three key elements essential for bringing the virus under control; none of them is really happening. As Professor Devi Sridhar, chair of global public health at the University of Edinburgh, has written:
“Most important is a robust system for testing, tracing and isolating, where test results are returned within 24 hours, at least 80% of people’s contacts are reached and there is high adherence to a rule of 14 days’ isolation for those exposed to the virus.”
We will otherwise be locking down, lifting and locking down continually, with massive economic and social costs. I fear that these regulations do not address that key question.
My Lords, I speak on this statutory instrument as a Liverpool city resident and, for eight years, the leader of its city council. Liverpool’s people have a strong sense of community and justice, and what is fair and right. If there is a wrong against the city and its people, they will always join together to fight that wrong— as our Prime Minister has found, to his cost. The agreement hammered out by Boris Johnson and the city’s regional mayor to put Liverpool in tier 3 was tough and has major consequences for the economy of the city region and the jobs of its people. Liverpool has seen cases of Covid-19 rise and rise, although not to the highest in the country. Intensive care units at Liverpool’s main hospitals are now at 95% capacity.
The deal hammered out by the Prime Minister and Labour’s mayor Rotheram is certainly tough; it has put Liverpool City Region as the only region in tier 3, with all the restrictions that entails. This puts a real strain on the whole community and its cohesion, with families separated, people’s jobs and livelihoods lost or put at risk and the city’s economy in danger of going back to the 1980s. Given the severity of the situation, the people of Liverpool are entitled to ask questions and expect straight, honest replies.
Why was Liverpool put in tier 3 when areas of the country with a higher rate of infection were not? What does the Chief Medical Officer mean when he says that these tough restrictions will not be sufficient without tougher local action? Will we get the resources to have a proper test and trace system in place, as the current system has badly let us down? Does the Minister not agree that it would be sensible for all the schools to have a two-week half-term now? Liverpool has 70,000 university students, the majority living in residential communities. Does the Minister consider there is a case for students to study online from home? How many so-called Covid marshals have been recruited in the region? Finally, travel restrictions are tough: they advise not travelling out of the city region and certainly not staying overnight. Are the Government making arrangements so that the city region’s MPs can work and vote from home?
My Lords, government gets harder by the day, but the released SAGE report is shattering because all that it predicted is being seen. Will the Government use half-term as a circuit break and stress, over and over again, the two-metre rule for all places, avoiding indoor shared workplaces?
How many complaints have been received about test and trace? With local lockdowns happening, is all testing and tracing now being handed over to local public health with a transfer of funds from the current outsourced system? Is accompanying the seriously ill and dying still allowed, especially if the relatives have either had Covid clinically or want to take the risk? The guidance seems silent on this. The mental health harm of banned visits will haunt us for years. I declare that I chair the Commission on Alcohol Harm; we have heard how pushing alcohol consumption into homes with cheap supermarket booze pushes up domestic violence.
What of the app? Some 79% of adults are thought to own smartphones, but the figure falls to 40% for the over-65s, and not all smartphones are compatible with the Test and Trace app. In tier 3 areas, what proportion of the population have a smartphone that is compatible with the Test and Trace app versus the old NHSX app? Of the 1.5 million QR codes registered with the Test and Trace app, why has only one notification to isolate been sent? Is the app failing? How much money has been spent on trying to get this Google/Apple app to work?
Two-metre distancing, proper mask wearing, soap to wash hands and a circuit break will be far cheaper in the long run and could cost fewer jobs and fewer lives.
My Lords, since being introduced to your Lordships’ House last week I have been treated with generosity and kindness by noble Lords on all sides of the House. I am particularly indebted to my two supporters, the noble Lord, Lord St John of Bletso, and my noble friend Lord Borwick, and to all the staff who have been so helpful since I appeared here—not least, and in fact especially, the doorkeepers.
Many people can point to a career that is a sort of linear progression, whereas mine has been more a series of happy stumbles. At the core of it is 28 years spent in local government—something that I stumbled into in 1990, becoming a councillor at that stage. That gave me the opportunity to have an insight into much of the hidden infrastructure, the amenities that make our civilised life possible—everything from waste disposal and parks management to roads, railways and aviation, all of them important to us and all fascinating operating businesses in their own right.
In 2008 the Conservative candidate was elected Mayor of London and he asked me to be the deputy chairman of Transport for London. There was a great deal to learn there as well, not only about the operation of railways but about tunnelling, construction and, most painful of all, automatic signalling. Meanwhile, back at my local authority I was writing a local plan and promoting development and new housing.
Now I have stumbled into your Lordships’ House, and I hope while I am here to be able to draw on my experience to give support to the Government as they pursue an ambitious and very necessary infrastructure strategy for the country. I will also be very keen to support them as they manage our exit from the European Union in such a way as to make us a properly self-governing country.
I turn to the matter in hand. Many noble Lords have spoken wisely. It is a matter of immense difficulty and delicacy for the Government at this stage to deal with this pandemic. At some point they will need to stand back and tell us that we can make our own decisions again. That moment is not now, but we must hope that it is not delayed for too long, or beyond the point that is good for us. For now, however, I am content to support this measure.
My Lords, I am delighted to have this opportunity to congratulate my noble friend Lord Moylan on his maiden speech in your Lordships’ House. It was delivered in record time, so he was unable to do justice to his considerable achievements.
I had the pleasure of knowing my noble friend when up at Oxford. His presidency of the Oxford Union provided a platform for him to display outstanding intellect and considerable debating skills, which he has put to good use in the City and local government for many decades. Despite his modesty, he has never stumbled but has moved seamlessly from challenge to challenge as a natural leader of people, with strength of purpose, a deep knowledge of the local government challenges to be faced and, above all, an instinctive ability to understand how local government impacts the lives of local people—a subject very relevant to today’s business before the House. I am certain that the House will be the beneficiary of his experience and insights for many years to come. He is warmly welcome.
I turn to the SI before us. The Minister will not be surprised if I make one comment about active lifestyles. It is well known that one of the strongest measures that we can take to tackle Covid is to reduce obesity, increase opportunities for sport, recreation and an active lifestyle, and ensure that we are as fit as possible. An active and well-balanced campaign to be physically and mentally strong is the best way of dealing with Covid. The campaign led by ukactive to keep gyms and leisure facilities open should have the total support of the Government. While it is critical to seek improvements in the way that we treat patients suffering from Covid-19, it is equally important that, where gyms and leisure facilities can be safely opened, they should be. I call on the Government to recognise that and not to close them during this pandemic.
My Lords, it is also a pleasure for me to welcome the noble Lord, Lord Moylan.
This debate concerns a proud northern city that has pulled itself up from the high unemployment of the 1980s to be a vibrant, multicultural city with a reputation for hospitality and culture. It is refreshing to hear its mayor, the Metro Mayor of the Liverpool City Region and the leaders of the city region’s five authorities speaking inspiringly about their city and about how the problem of Covid needs to be addressed by balancing the well-being of the residents and that of the economy, recognising that Liverpool needs restrictions to save lives, but not without compensation to save livelihoods.
A note of exasperation is coming in at the lack of organisation in the Government’s approach. It has been clear for some time that locally controlled test-and-trace systems are more effective than a national one. I fully support my noble friend’s amendment. Will the Minister confirm how much this national system has cost so far, including the salaries of those in charge of it? Could that money have been better spent on direct needs?
I have huge reservations about how enforcement will work and the danger of overwhelming already stretched police forces. Can this be made clearer?
Leaders in Liverpool point out that austerity measures in Liverpool over the past 11 years, with cuts to public health, the NHS and local government, have left a high correlation between the highest Covid infections and the areas of disadvantage. It is estimated that by Christmas there could be 20,000 unemployed. Three hundred leisure and hospitality venues have closed since March. They insist that, if more closures are to happen, there must be appropriate support for staff.
Liverpool politicians ask the Government for acceptable solutions, with a clearer final settlement that enables forward planning and the ability to set budgets. If this funding crisis is not resolved, there will be no economy to come back to. Mayor Anderson said recently:
“At a time of crisis, people need hope”, and,
“lockdown, yes; on the cheap, no.”
Liverpool has been practical and imaginative. Will the Government give it the financial and practical support to help it solve this grave problem?
My Lords, there is possibly nowhere else in the country more lacking in confidence and trust in Boris Johnson’s Government than Liverpool. Previous Conservative Governments spoke about “managing Liverpool’s decline”—but Liverpool fought back, and what the city needs now is a managed recovery from the Covid pandemic. Almost everyone in Liverpool recognises that, with intensive care units at 95% capacity in the main hospitals, saving lives is paramount. The question is how best to do this, and people know that saving livelihoods is vital for the long term, too. As the Echo said yesterday:
“Many of us will feel frightened, isolated and lost amidst the tangle of seemingly contradictory rules and support packages—barely providing a sticking plaster to cover the deep wounds to our region’s economy.”
The problem is that there is simply no confidence that Boris Johnson’s policies are soundly based on science or that there is a proper plan for making sure that lockdown measures do more than just postpone the spread of the virus and ensure that people’s livelihoods are protected. The Government expect to be trusted but they have not trusted local authority leaders or local public health services, which could have done a much better job with test and trace.
People see Boris Johnson’s Government as incompetent and uncaring. They sense a whiff of corruption as contracts are inexplicably awarded to friends of those in government without normal transparency rules. They hear from journalists about briefings from a “senior government source” and assume that this must mean the man who goes to Barnard Castle for an eye test. There should be an end to such anonymous briefings.
People in Liverpool feel singled out. They feel that they are being told to walk alone, but the people in Liverpool never will.
My Lords, it is a pleasure to welcome the noble Lord, Lord Moylan. I draw attention to my interests as listed in the register.
I support the principles informing this statutory instrument, yet citizens need to be aware of how compliance will enable restrictions to be downgraded from very high to high and medium, and vice versa. The public need to understand the criteria which are used, and will be used in the future, to inform a change in tier levels. Knowledge is vital to gain buy-in to the measures to protect lives and livelihoods. For example, will indicators be considered in addition to those that we have just been informed of, including rising levels of local unemployment and mental health crisis referrals, to inform local and national discussions regarding the application of tier-level restrictions by area? The SI’s associated guidance for visitor access to residential care homes is far from transparent. It simply states:
“Closed to external visitors other than in exceptional circumstances.”
I welcome the announcement of testing healthcare students on clinical placements, particularly as they often work with vulnerable, frail residents in care homes. The test and trace system has limited resources, yet surely it is time to include essential visitors for each care home resident. In evidence to the Health and Social Care Committee, Helen Whately, Minister for Care, acknowledged the challenges associated with the restriction of visitors to care homes. Can the Minister assure the House that testing of at least two regular visitors per resident will be organised this winter? It is a basic human right to see, touch and reassure a loved one. We must learn to live with Covid and promote the health and happiness not only of care residents but of their families and loved ones if we are to remain a compassionate society during this pandemic.
My Lords, I congratulate my noble friend Lord Moylan on his maiden speech, and I particularly welcome a fellow Brexiteer to our ranks.
I have my name down to speak on all three sets of regulations this afternoon. I would have preferred to take all three together, as was done in the other place, so that we could make more considered interventions, but the horrible hybrid House rules prevent this.
I support the amendment put forward by my noble friend Lord Robathan. The Government have said that they base their decisions on scientific evidence, but it is not clear that they are doing this. The advice from SAGE on
The most interesting thing in the record of the SAGE meeting was as follows:
“Overall, the evidence base on which to judge the effectiveness and harms associated with different interventions is weak”.
There we have it. There is no real evidence for the biggest infringements of civil liberties in peacetime, no real evidence for a harsh penalties and enforcement regime, no real evidence for the biggest act of self-inflicted economic harm, and no real evidence for the actions which have caused so much collateral damage for the mental and physical health of non-Covid patients. I shall be saying more about that in the next debate.
My Lords, I have a certain sympathy for the Minister. These are very difficult judgments. Within a global pandemic, there are no silver bullets, and I do not doubt that Ministers have done their best. However, in my view they have made a very grave misjudgment—here, I disagree totally with the noble Baroness, Lady Noakes—in ignoring the SAGE advice of
In the chaos of crisis, stuff happens and things go wrong, but a wilful decision to ignore the best available scientific advice without explanation at the time is a very serious criticism. That is a pity, because I think that the three-tier system is in principle a good idea. A differentiated approach with an emphasis on local action is right. I welcome the noble Lord, Lord Moylan, to the House as a fellow enthusiast for local government, if not a fellow enthusiast for our membership of the EU. The Government should have put more emphasis on remedying the obvious failings in their track, test and trace system; they should have pursued stronger integration of the national and local systems; and they need to give decent resources to councils, as well as proper compensation to businesses and employees.
We have lost a lot of ground in the last month, and I believe that Keir Starmer’s proposal for a circuit break is all that we have left in the present situation.
My Lords, I very much regret the statutory instrument that we are debating this afternoon. Like other Members of your Lordships’ House, I am acutely aware of the need to be able to deal effectively with Covid-19.
I declare my interest. I might go by the title of Baroness Smith of Newnham, which is in Cambridge, but I am of Crosby in the county of Merseyside, which I believe Her Majesty’s Government have now renamed Liverpool City Region. I am from Sefton. On Friday, I was planning to travel to visit my father, as well as my optician. That might of course be seen as simply “doing a Dominic Cummings” but I had anticipated doing so. I have talked to my family and asked what they think about the tier system and, in particular, the question of visits by members of the family who no longer live in the city region. Officially, we can visit but we cannot stay—or maybe we can, although it is advised not to.
I have looked at the three statutory instruments that we are dealing with today—unlike the noble Baroness, Lady Noakes, I propose to speak to only one of them—but it is not clear how people are expected to engage between the three tiers. It is not necessarily clear to people in Sefton and others parts of Merseyside why they should be in the “very high” tier, when infection rates are lower than in Manchester, Nottingham or Newcastle-upon-Tyne. If it is because of the capacity of the local hospitals being reached, that needs to be made much clearer.
Given that I am from Crosby, I should be most grateful to be told whether outdoor locations where people are permitted to meet include a beach. To me, that is outdoors and possibly a place where I am allowed to meet my father. However, in terms of trust and understanding the Government, can the Minister explain why this approach is being taken now rather than their having proposed something clearer and more self-explanatory three weeks ago, when SAGE put forward its suggestion for a circuit break?
My Lords, we have heard that these restrictions are necessary to save lives, but which lives? Lockdown is assessed to have caused thousands of deaths from non-Covid causes. As hospitals in an area fill up, can our National Health Service not accommodate patients elsewhere, including in the Nightingales? Imposing these further, very high restrictions will undoubtedly damage family life and overall quality of life, yet Parliament has not been offered evidence to demonstrate the effectiveness of these measures. It is not clear how they defeat the virus, nor how many lives will be saved by ongoing lockdown.
In addition, I share the concerns of the noble Lord, Lord Robathan, about the dangers of the 10 pm curfew and the ineffectiveness with regard to crowds coming out at the same time. I also share his sympathy for my noble friend the Minister. None of this is easy, and I know that my noble friend is dedicated to his brief. But balancing public health needs with the needs of society, albeit a horrendous challenge, surely needs to be based on sound data. How does a draconian lockdown, or indeed a circuit-breaker, defeat Covid? Will locking down and opening up, followed by new Covid transmissions, perhaps cause more deaths than lives saved from coronavirus? Estimates suggest that the number of people dying from non-Covid causes due to staying away from A&E, and inadequate social care, is, so far, 42,000. I hear that imposing these further restrictions will increase fatalities and, without effective test and trace or a vaccine, they do not offer a remedy.
Since March, 350,000 people have not been referred for urgent cancer checks. Many of those people will die. This is not just about saving lives from Covid—it is about saving lives overall, and our way of life.
My Lords, the system of testing that is the basis for these three SIs has failed completely, as many noble Lords have said. It is in total disarray: the data comes late, is unreliable and does not, in my view, support any kind of three-tier lockdown. My noble friend Lady Thornton has called for local delivery, properly financed, and that is absolutely essential. It is time to get that implemented, and the two weeks that people are talking about now is much too short.
Let us take a step back. Covid-19 is going to be here for months, if not years. Many people will catch it next week or next year, until there is a vaccine that everyone can have. These restrictions are there to ensure that there are enough hospital beds, but they should also allow business and leisure to continue, on a restricted basis. We are not going to beat the virus, as such, unless or until we get a vaccine, so we have to learn to live with it.
Where is the data to support the 10 pm closure of pubs, as the noble Lord, Lord Robathan, asked? Communities will survive only if there is credible local delivery, with local finance, and it is about time that the Government responded to this and acted on it, because the essential work has to be done locally. In the meantime, it might actually reduce the costs—so far, I believe, £12 billion, which the Government have given to their friends on a national basis to take things forward, without any competitive tendering.
My Lords, I fully support the local approach to this very difficult situation. We have learned a lot since the virus came and hit us. We could do with being told more about what has been learned, particularly by the front line.
We need to remember that we live in a democratic society governed by consent, and we are facing unprecedented circumstances. In these circumstances, how do we assess the Government’s response? This regulation makes some claims—that it will simplify matters for the public, contribute to controlling the virus and stopping its spread, and prevent the NHS being overwhelmed. It is quite difficult to be too confident about any of those statements, and much else. Cases lead by arithmetical progression from hospital admissions to death.
In all of this, where is the statement about the balance being struck between all the competing economic and social issues, along with the virus? We keep being told that there is a balance being struck, but we do not know what it is. Can we confidently expect to be told about this assessment, certainly in time for the four-week review of this regulation, so that we can all see how the balance is being reached and all do our own assessment of our responses to it?
My Lords, I welcome the maiden speech of the noble Lord, Lord Moylan, delivered under difficult, compressed circumstances.
As with the other SIs with regional impact, I have consulted with Green Party councillors in Liverpool, currently the only place where “very high” is applied, and heard from them, unsurprisingly, about the huge personal strain that they see so many individuals suffering, and the great worry for businesses and staff, as the noble Lord, Lord Storey, testified. Before we get to the technical debate, we need to rest our thoughts with their suffering and acknowledge the need for sufficient support to help them to keep going. Understandably, Liverpool feels unfairly singled out, and has a basis for this conclusion, as the noble Baroness, Lady Smith of Newnham, explained. Of course, this is something that Liverpool has experienced before, as we learned in retrospect that there was a current in the Thatcher Government that wanted the city in managed decline, as the noble Lord, Lord Rennard, noted.
This is part of a national plan and package, and it needs to be acknowledged that, although this SI has reached us more quickly than previous ones, it is already being overtaken by events. The last position from the Prime Minister that I have seen—and I do not know whether this flailing Government have already been overtaken by events—is that there is an 80% chance of an English lockdown soon. We need to reflect on that. While we are seeing general and scientific support for that position, it is also crucial to highlight the need for measures to make sure that the lockdown works and that we get somewhere close to catching up with Covid-19. That means fully funded local track, trace, isolate and support, with money freely supplied, without blackmail, from the Government to local authorities, plus proper financial support for all individuals who need it and consistent, evidence-based, sober communication with the public. Please let us have no more promises of moonshots, which turn out to be pie in the sky. In the meantime, I express the Green group’s support for the amendment in the name of the noble Baroness, Lady Thornton. I am making it a public versus private argument.
My Lords, I support my noble friend’s amendment. Just before this debate began, I was downstairs at home, switched on my television, and Andy Burnham was on, the Mayor of Manchester. His concern was that Manchester might shortly be put in the “very high” category, and he made the plea that local government should be properly involved and consulted in those decisions, as opposed to being bypassed, which seems to have been the plea of local authority leaders for several months now. It is time that the Government trusted local authorities of whatever political complexion. They should also trust scientific advice. I have listened to earlier discussions today and other discussions in the Commons, too, and I have yet to hear one argument why the SAGE advice was not accepted at the time, on
Somebody asked what the advantage would be of a circuit-breaker. I think that the advantage is that it would buy time to properly implement a trace and test system, which we do not have at the moment.
I want to make two other points. One is about smartphones. I have one, but it is too old or not of the right type to be part of this track and trace system. So apart from the many people in this country who do not have a smartphone at all, there are also many of us who have smartphones that are too old, and that will cause a problem.
My other point is that there is a real uncertainty about what travel is appropriate or being advised against. The Welsh Government are concerned about people moving into Wales from higher-risk areas. What is the Government’s advice about travel, not just within very high category areas but from one to another?
I finish by saying that we should trust local authorities and scientific advice, and trust the people of this country to do the right thing.
My Lords, the Government have alternately claimed to follow science and to want to save the economy. They have managed to do neither efficiently, because they have not followed science faithfully ever since this crisis started. They delayed the first lockdown and then did not implement it properly. They want to release the economy but they know that, in some cases such as the hospitality sector, relaxing rules is harmful. When they try to implement a lockdown, they do not do it efficiently; they have failed to do the testing and tracing properly. The IT performance has been abysmal, almost shameful. I have seen nothing as badly incompetent since the Heath Government of 1970 to 1974.
As the amendment in the name of the noble Lord, Lord Robathan, says, what is the magic about 10 pm that makes it so sacrosanct? Indeed, if you say 10 pm you increase the chance of overcrowding and of too much contact between too many people. You need to find way to manage these closures in a staggered way. That would be a more sensible way of controlling Covid and encouraging the economy than what has been done.
I strongly support the amendment in the name of my noble friend. The country deserves better than the performance of this Government, who are probably the worst in all developed countries.
My Lords, the Government’s enormously challenging task is to balance competing public goods: our health, our wealth, our future and our happiness, which comes from social interaction with friends, colleagues and loved ones. In a pandemic, though, if you focus hard on any one you risk all the rest. The least damaging, and most beneficial, action would surely be for us all to take heed of the rules on intermingling, and of the “hands, face, space” mantra, in every aspect of our lives. However, many do not. Every speaker in this debate could cite multiple examples from their day-to-day lives of the widespread and flagrant disregarding of Covid guidance. Are we doing enough to persuade, not with earnest homilies from the Dispatch Box but with a drive on mass media, using the best creative minds and targeting every part of the community? We succeeded with seat belts and smoking; why not with masks?
Secondly, are we doing enough to dissuade? Do we not now need to focus on tighter enforcement, underpinned by sanctions? We press down on speeding and unlawful parking; why not on oversized groups, social distancing and the wearing of masks? Attacking the root behavioural causes of the spread of the virus is surely the most painless way of halting the drift towards more and more areas of the country joining my home city in tier 3.
My Lords, I welcome the noble Lord, Lord Moylan, to your Lordships’ House. For someone who has extensive experience in railways, he was pleasingly on time, something this House greatly appreciates. He is most welcome.
On these Benches, we have said for several months that assessments of the proportionality of measures must be up to date, based on the latest scientific evidence, and formulated as a result of a precautionary approach to minimising overall loss of life. The Government must be transparent in justifying their decision-making, including in explaining how they have balanced the competing interests and the evidence on which the balancing decision has been made. Today, yet again, they have not done so.
Six months ago, the Secretary of State said that test and trace was the “single most important thing” that we could do to conquer the virus. Then, on
It is telling that the scientists who have been advising the Government have been damning about this “world-beating” test and trace system, which is having only a “marginal impact”. We said from the very beginning that the fundamental basis of the Government’s actions was wrong. They believed that they did not have to take into account the expertise in local government, public health and public services such as the police. They could build and introduce their own world-beating tech system. We now have more evidence than we will ever need of how wrong that is. They have just been winging it.
On top of that, we have had confused messaging for six months. Even today, noble Lords could go on to GOV.UK and read an explanation of the three different tiers that is utterly confusing. When will the Government publish the contracts given to companies run by friends of Dominic Cummings and Michael Gove to advise on messaging? Taxpayers appear to be paying a lot of money for old rope.
When the Government are in a corner, they always pray in aid the Joint Biosecurity Centre as the source of the intelligence on which their actions are based. We have now got to a point where they can no longer shield themselves behind that organisation. It is now time for them to release more of that intelligence, so that local directors of public health and environmental health—people who have detailed knowledge of their populations, who know what is about to happen in their areas that could have an impact on the transmission of the virus—have it to work with. Examples are the presence of students in Liverpool and the knowledge that the next three months are the run-up to a holiday season in which people will want to celebrate Christmas and Hanukkah and mark other religions. That is the sort of thing that people on the ground are used to doing and have a great deal of expertise in.
People want a break from gimmicks such as marshals, world-beating bluster, blunt instruments and lockdowns being inflicted on wider and wider areas and impacting on greater numbers of people. When will the Government build on the expertise of local civic leaders and public service professionals, and build resilient public health test, trace and isolate systems that can maintain people in isolation safely for the weeks that will be needed? Only then can we get to a point where we are not merely in another short lockdown, to contain a curve and prevent admission to hospitals, but can begin to build a level of community containment with which we can all live safely live.
It will be no surprise whatever to the noble Lord, Lord Robathan, that we will not be supporting his amendment. We sometimes end up in the same place, but for entirely different reasons. We do believe that there is a role for evidence-based, proportionate restrictions on businesses and individual movement in these dangerous times. If the noble Baroness, Lady Thornton, chooses to test the opinion the House, we will on this occasion support her.
However, all this is immaterial. We need to take some of the money away from this track and trace system which is not working and put those resources into the hands of local professionals, where they can make a real and lasting difference and where we really can begin to beat this virus on a sustainable basis.
My Lords, I am enormously grateful to noble Lords for an incredibly thoughtful debate about measures that were laid only recently and have come into force today.
I start by addressing the two big, chunky issues that were raised by noble Lords. The first is the connection between Test and Trace and local efforts on the ground. I want to take a moment to reassure noble Lords about our commitment to a really strong connection between the national efforts of our test, trace and isolate programme and the work that goes on on the ground. Test and Trace and Public Health England work incredibly closely with the Association of Directors of Public Health, the Society of Local Authority Chief Executives and Senior Managers, the Local Government Association and UK chief environmental health officers as part of this programme. Those conversations happen daily on an institutional and personal basis.
The challenge was put to me that the contact tracing does not include public health experts. That is not quite right. There are 1,000 tier 1 contact tracers working within the core contact tracing service and in health protection teams and field services right across the country. More recruitment is under way. In fact, we have more than doubled the size of local health protection teams since the pandemic began, precisely because of our commitment to the partnership between the national and local efforts.
It was suggested that we should do more to work with local clinicians. We do an enormous amount of work with local clinicians. Thousands of NHS clinicians have signed up as contact people. They are in touch with those who have tested positive and talk them through the process to find out where they have been and who they have been in contact with. They do an incredible job every day and are the expert bedrock of the contact tracing process.
We absolutely depend on and mobilise local know-how, which we do through data sharing. Local public health officials can use the data provided by NHS Test and Trace to follow up cases that the national service has been unable to reach. Together, we can increase the numbers who are reached. More than 90 local authority partnerships across the country have gone live with locally assisted contact tracing, and more are coming on every week. The results are enormous. In England, we have reached more than 650,000 people and advised them to self-isolate. Everyone who tests positive is contacted by Test and Trace.
On the testing service, we are doing 310,000 swabs a day—22 million tests in all. There are five Lighthouse labs, 96 NHS labs and a total of 500—I repeat, 500—local testing sites. As a result of the tracing numbers, last week, 51,000 people tested positive, 34,000 of whom went into the contact system—and we should bear in mind that many would have been in the care service and therefore do not need to be transferred. Of those, 25,000 were reached and it was suggested to 21,000 that they isolate. Without that system, the epidemic that we have today would be worse than it is, and we owe enormous thanks to those involved.
A number of noble Lords asked about the app. There have been some 16.9 million downloads. That is 29% of the over-16 population, and the costs up to
My noble friend Lord Robathan challenged me about the evidence base for the curfew at 10 pm. My noble friend Lady Noakes quite rightly cited the SAGE notes that make the clear point that I made here yesterday when discussing masks: it is very difficult to put together the precise clinical trials and detailed modelling for individual measures that are brought to bear on the epidemic. But my noble friend Lady Noakes misrepresented SAGE when she implied that there was no evidence for the restrictions overall. The huge growth in the epidemic in recent weeks demonstrates the urgent need for these restrictions. The impact of the epidemic is not just on those who have Covid; it is also on those who find that the hospital beds they need are filled and on those who are put off going to hospital and therefore incur either delays or an impact on their current illness. There is also an impact on those who suffer as a result of any kind of avoidance of medical practice. The impact of Covid is not just on those who get it; it is on all those who seek medical attention. That is why, with the disease growing exponentially, we have to lean into it extremely heavily.
The noble Lord, Lord Birt, asked about the mass media campaign. I reassure him that we have invested massively and applied the best behavioural science to convey the restrictions as clearly as we can, and that that is backed up with quite severe sanctions, fines and police action.
The noble Baroness, Lady Watkins, raised, quite rightly, the challenge of getting visitors to social care settings, many of whom perform really important care duties for those in social care. We are completely live to the challenge of getting a regime of testing for those very important visitors. There are challenges in identifying exactly which visitors should qualify for such a scheme. We are building up our testing capacity to have enough tests available to them, and I shall be glad to update the noble Baroness when we have made progress.
My noble friend Lord Moynihan mentioned gyms. I completely endorse his commitment to fitness regimes, whether inside or on a beach. But it is true that local authorities in Liverpool suggested that closing the gyms would be a helpful way of restricting the epidemic.
We have been asked about balance. The Government’s strategy is one of balance. It is to contain the virus in any way we can while protecting the NHS, our economy and our schools. We are working extremely hard on the vaccine, on therapeutic drugs and on mass testing, which we believe will provide a route out of this horrible disease.
My Lords, I thank particularly the noble Baroness, Lady Noakes, and my noble friend Lady Altmann for their support. They will not be surprised to know that I agreed with every word they said. I regret to tell the Minister that I have not heard a satisfactory explanation of the 10 pm curfew, and I understand—I heard this only in the last 10 minutes—that the SAGE minutes from
I want to see courageous political leadership in these difficult times, and I do not want to make the Government’s very difficult task any worse. So I am sorry to disappoint those who have offered to support me in a Division. I should state, for the avoidance of doubt, that I have not been put under any pressure, and I would hate to be thought pusillanimous or, indeed, wet in these things. It is not in my nature. But I will not, on this occasion, seek to test the opinion of the House, and I beg leave to withdraw my amendment.
Lord Robathan’s amendment to the Motion withdrawn.