My Lords, it did not have to be like this. When historians look back at this period, they will point to one of the biggest strategic mistakes in getting the balance right between freedoms and keeping the economy going as much as possible: the lack of an effective and localised test, trace and isolate system. As my noble friends Lady Walmsley and Lord Greaves have said, the way to minimise restrictions in these regulations is with microprecision: to take the virus out of circulation by getting directly to individuals, tracing their contacts speedily and then supporting them with appropriate isolation services and an adequate financial safety net. The Government have not done that effectively so far. I know they will come out with reams of figures, but that will not wash any more. Real people’s experiences in communities up and down the land are more of a guide than a set of well-rehearsed statistics.
Talking of real people’s experiences, I bring to the Minister’s attention real issues on people’s minds. I will give real examples using Chesterfield, which is in the medium category, and Sheffield, which is in the high category. These two areas are just down the road from each other, and real people travel between them for work, leisure and shopping, and have families in both areas. Can the Minister answer these questions that people back there are asking—real questions and real people’s concerns?
“I live in Sheffield and am 10 years old. My grandparents live in Chesterfield. Why can I go to my school in Chesterfield, in the same class as my nephew who lives in Chesterfield, but after school cannot see my grandparents inside for a meal, when my nephew can?”
“I live in Chesterfield. Why can I go to a pub in Chesterfield at 6 pm with five of my friends but, when we go to the comedy club performance in Sheffield at 7.30 pm, we are not able to sit together? Why have I become more infectious at the Sheffield border?”
“I live in Sheffield, but work in a small office with four other people in Chesterfield. Why can I sit in an office with them all day but, at the end of the day, cannot go for a drink and sit with them, when they can sit together? This is madness and makes no sense.”
“I own a coffee shop in Sheffield. It is my legal responsibility, with the possibility of a fine if I do not do this, to make sure that linked households sit together. How will I know and manage the situation, if three people living at two addresses in linked households want to sit together? How do I know they are linked households?”
The answers to these questions are important because, for people to trust and carry out what is asked of them, they need to understand why they are being asked to make sacrifices. Regulations made up in offices in Whitehall have serious implications for people and businesses many hundreds of miles away, with consequences that the London-centric lens does not see.
My next point concerns why this is emergency legislation. It was obvious that a new wave was coming and that the country needed a way to deal with it. If this had come through normal primary legislation, the issues people are raising that I mentioned, and the unintended consequences, could have been teased out much earlier. The rules would be much more realistic, and businesses and people would have had time to prepare for what was expected of them. This rush-and-push-it-through type of regulation is not acceptable, so I ask the Minister why this strategic framework for dealing with more localised lockdowns was not brought before this House and Parliament months ago, as it should have been. It is too late to wait until the surge is upon us, as the Government have yet again done in this public health crisis.
As a number of my noble friends, including my noble friend Lord Beith, have said, a gaping hole in these regulations so big it can be seen from outer space determines the criteria used to put an area into and bring it out of the high category. Again, it is vital that this is understood and public, so that people and businesses can plan and prepare. Nottingham has 834 cases per 100,000 people, but Mansfield has 81 per 100,000. Both are in the high category. So can the Minister inform us what criteria are being used to decide which area to put in the high category? The regulations say that the Secretary of State will review every 14 days and decide if the whole area or part of it will be released from the high category. Again, can the Minister tell the House what criteria the Secretary of State will use?
Noble Lords on these Benches are not libertarians. In a public health crisis, we do not believe that people have a free right to act in a way that has the potential to harm others. We believe that, in such circumstances, evidence-based and proportionate rules are required, but they need to be introduced with public understanding, genuine local involvement and in a way that allows normal democratic scrutiny and accountability to be exercised. We feel that these regulations should not have been introduced as emergency legislation, but as normal primary legislation. The Government are now solely culpable for the unintended consequences, both to businesses and people, because they refused to work in genuine partnership to make support packages and laws effective.
If we, as a country, are to get through this public health crisis with the least amount of restrictions to freedoms and long-term damage to businesses and the economy, the Government need to stop playing catch-up with emergency legislation, take stock, follow the science and put in a temporary circuit break, while using all at their disposal to implement a locally based test, trace and isolate system. That is the way to minimise harms, both to people and businesses.