Health Protection (Coronavirus, Local COVID-19 Alert Level) (High) (England) Regulations 2020 - Motion to Approve

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 4:29 pm on 14th October 2020.

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Photo of Lord Bethell Lord Bethell The Parliamentary Under-Secretary for Health and Social Care 4:29 pm, 14th October 2020

My Lords, we are here to debate the middle, or “high”, tier of the new three-level system of local restrictions that we believe will be simpler for the public to understand, and therefore adherence will be higher.

Before I move on to that, I take a moment to pay tribute to my noble friend Lord Moylan, whom many of us know already. I really should have given the kind of testimony that a fantastic maiden speech in the earlier debate deserves. He did a very rare and precious thing: in just two minutes he established his credentials as “Mr Infrastructure” or, should I say, “Lord Infrastructure”. He got across the sense of wisdom, expertise and his phenomenal network, which he will undoubtedly bring to bear in the House and will be hugely valued for it. We give him enormous thanks for his pithy and effective speech.

This pandemic is the most important public health emergency that we have faced in a generation. We knew that our response would require a phenomenal national effort, but that we would also need to work closely with local authorities to control the transmission and spread of the virus. For their ongoing and substantial contributions to these regulations, I would like to thank local council leaders and other participants who have engaged intensively and constructively with the Government.

I have already outlined the strategy for the local Covid alert levels approach in the debate earlier this afternoon. The important objective is to enable easy-to-understand consistency in the application of restrictions across the country, rather than the localised variations which may have created confusion in the minds of some of the public. This should also allow the public to plan and prepare for stricter measures and understand the consequences of non-adherence.

This is necessary because the numbers tell a worrying story. The doubling time for the UK is currently between eight and 16 days, although this differs considerably across regions. As set out in the minutes from the SAGE meeting on 24 September, positivity is increasing, which similarly indicates that incidence is likely to be increasing, even when operational constraints mean that the number of confirmed cases may not be increasing quite as quickly.

The second wave is starting in the home. Recent statistics indicate that a total of 65,829 new Covid-19 cases were identified in the week to 6 October. Of these cases, 51,661—or 78.5%—occurred in private residential settings. The statistics demonstrate that once the virus is in a household, there is a strong chance that others in the household will catch the disease. There is very little we can do about this. The restrictions we are debating today primarily aim to reduce or stop the virus getting into the household in the first place. They reduce household-to-household transmission by seeking to prevent any indoor meeting of two or more households, which we know to be a key source of transmission.

The differences between local alert level medium, which we will debate next, and local alert level high, are focused on the need for reductions in the number and frequency of social contacts. At local Covid alert level high, people will no longer be allowed to meet with anyone from outside their household in an indoor setting; nor will support or childcare bubbles be permitted to meet indoors, except where exemptions apply. This measure includes private homes and Covid-secure hospitality, leisure and retail venues.

The rule of six will apply in all settings outdoors, including private gardens, pub gardens and recreational parklands. Everyone within the affected areas can continue to travel to venues and amenities that are open, for work or education, but they should look to reduce the number of journeys if possible. People are advised to walk or cycle whenever possible, or to plan their journeys to avoid busy times and routes if using public transport.

Additional support will be made available to local authorities to enable access to national systems in order to establish effective local tracing teams. A dedicated team of national tracers will be ring-fenced for their local area.

We want to see local enforcement teams using the full weight of the new rules and regulations. Environmental health officers and trading standards officers should be using their powers to ensure that businesses that are breaking the rules feel the full force of the law, working with the police when necessary. But more generally, enforcement of the rules will continue just as it does now, so businesses should ensure that they are complying with the rules. It is for them to ask their customers to do so in the first instance, and they can ask people to leave. But of course, as now, they can also escalate to the police if necessary.

Areas subject to local Covid alert level high are to be reviewed every 14 days to consider whether they are still at the correct alert level. In addition, the relevant regulations will be reviewed every 28 days, and will expire automatically after six months. In reviewing alert levels, the Government will make proper consideration of the best available data and the details pertaining to the local situation, including the incidence and test positivity, as well as the growth rate in infections, hospitalisation rates, the effectiveness of local measures, the weather, and other factors.

Fundamentally, this change is about putting in place the right balance of measures to reduce the spread of the virus. As the Prime Minister made clear in Monday’s press conference, our strategy is clear: to save life and protect the NHS while keeping in mind other priorities, including keeping our children in school and protecting people’s jobs and livelihoods. We are taking a balanced approach to tackling the virus where it is most prevalent by working closely with local leaders to take stronger action in order to save lives.

I take this opportunity to reassure the House that every day, week in, week out, we are in constant dialogue with local areas to make sure that there is local support on the ground for any extra measures and that the local perspective is combined with the wealth of data we now have, and share, on the spread of the disease.

The people of this country have been asked to make significant sacrifices in the Government’s efforts to combat this virus and its effects. The additional protections afforded by these changes deserve the support of this Chamber. I look forward to hearing your Lordships’ contributions in the course of this debate, and I hope that I will be able to respond to any concerns raised. I beg to move.