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 5:16 pm on 14th October 2020.

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Photo of Baroness Thornton Baroness Thornton Shadow Spokesperson (Health) 5:16 pm, 14th October 2020

My Lords, the pertinent question that has been asked by several noble Lords, and indeed by the noble Lord, Lord Scriven, is why this is emergency legislation. We knew this was coming. We should be grateful that we are doing this on the day it is being enacted, not three weeks later, as I have already said. But the high tier already affects 20 million of our fellow citizens, so this is extremely serious.

Areas already under additional local restrictions are automatically in the “high” alert level, which means bans on households mixing indoors are extended to include hospitality venues. Noble Lords have already asked questions on the illogicalities involved. I think the Minister realises that this is not simple or straightforward. As several noble Lords have said, the criteria on which local lockdowns are enacted remain a mystery to us. Regions with similar infection rates are being treated differently. The criteria by which an area will move from one to another, down to “medium” or up to “very high”, also remain a mystery.

The problem that causes, apart from a lot of confusion, is that there will always be a suspicion that a political choice is being made. It is another reason why a local partnership to create safety locally is so important, as those suspicions still exist. The Minister and other members of the Government have said that we should not take too much notice of what is being said in the media by local politicians when, behind the scenes, you are all working together and it is all going extremely well. Too often, it is clear that that is not the case. Those questions remain.

This is very important, as many people in high-risk areas are on tenterhooks following the announcement last night that the Government are set to hold a Gold Command meeting today to discuss whether Greater Manchester and Lancashire need to be reclassified into tier 3. The Minister said that negotiations with local leaders are key to deciding whether an area moves into a higher level of restrictions, and presumably a lower level as well, as we move forward—hopefully.

I would like to ask the Minister about the Prime Minister’s suggestion that Manchester was not placed in tier 3 because the local authorities refused. The Prime Minister said:

“I also hope that Opposition Members who are calling on me to do more in Greater Manchester will prevail on the authorities there to come into tier 3 and to help us to get there.”—[Official Report, Commons, 12/10/20; col. 32.]

Can the Minister explain to us how that works and what is happening?

As other noble Lords have said, and indeed as we said in the last debate about the “very high” statutory instrument, testing and tracing is absolutely vital. Jamie Driscoll, the North of Tyne Mayor, whose area is also in the second-highest risk tier, said the new system was

“like whack-a-mole without knowing where the moles are”,

because of failings in the test and trace system in his area. Can the Minister confirm that the contact-tracing app for England and Wales has sent only one alert about a coronavirus outbreak in a venue since it was launched two weeks ago, despite being used for millions of check-ins? This is despite the Government stating that hospitality settings such as pubs, bars and restaurants are a “significant” source of coronavirus infections, with data shared by the CMO suggesting that more than 30% of coronavirus exposure is in fact in pubs, bars, restaurants and cafés. Does the Minister accept that the absence of targeted venue alerts is undermining the core principle of this system? Will he devolve further responsibilities for test and trace to local leaders in the high tier, to help them take the action they need to avoid the economic damage of being placed in the highest tier of restrictions at a later stage?

Does the Minister share my concern that the focus on areas causing the most concern means that areas with comparatively lower infection rates risk being overlooked? The key word here is “comparatively”, because the goalposts keep moving as infection rates increase in certain parts of the country. Bristol’s case numbers, for example, are considered to be “low”, but would have been considered “horrific” two or three weeks ago. The noble Lord, Lord Scriven, was quite right: we have not had time to discuss real cases and real issues. These tiers may be the right way forward, and we certainly will not oppose these restrictions, but we have not teased out all the problems that are caused by the lack of real consultation and discussion.