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 5:22 pm on 14th October 2020.

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Photo of Lord Bethell Lord Bethell The Parliamentary Under-Secretary for Health and Social Care 5:22 pm, 14th October 2020

My Lords, the noble Baroness, Lady Thornton, is correct that it is a shame that we do not have time to go through each and every one of the local situations that have been brought up in the Chamber today. I would love to sit down with the noble Lord, Lord Scriven, to talk about Chesterfield, the noble Lord, Lord Greaves, about Pendle, and the noble Lord, Lord Beith, about Berwick. Each of them has articulated incredibly thoughtfully the complex and challenging local situations, where the interest of one community is at odds with that of another community, where dialogue between a small council and a higher council is at odds and where dialogue with the national authorities is challenging and difficult.

I will step back, if I may, because I cannot possibly comment on all the examples cited. If the Chamber will forgive me, I will take an optimistic view of all this. What coronavirus is doing is forcing all of us to work together to beat the epidemic. In my experience as a last-minute Minister on the front line of the battle against coronavirus, this is what I have seen time and again. I hope that noble Lords will forgive my sentimentality in this but, whether it is in the triple helix of the NHS, the business community and universities working together on test and trace, whether it is the partnerships I have seen between hospitals and social care working for the best interests of those in care, or whether it is the scientists working with the pharmaceutical industry to develop new therapeutics, I have seen amazing progress made in the spirit of collaboration. I have seen barriers broken down and relationships that should have been there getting stronger. The pain that we see and the anger that we hear on the television and radio in the blame game that is going on are, for me, the sound of people learning to live with each other, collaborate and beat it all together.

I feel the frustration of the noble Lord, Lord Hunt, but I am confused by his challenge because, on the one hand, he wants rapid action but, on the other, he wants agreement and engagement; I am afraid to say that those two things do not always sit together. I hear the pain of the noble Lord, Lord Beith, in Berwick, but I have to inform him that the decision to combine Northumberland and the north-east was taken very much with the participation of all the authorities, because they recognised that, with 200 per 100,000, they all needed to work together on the epidemic.

I pay tribute to the noble and gallant Lord, Lord Craig, who raised the challenge for all of us of the spirit of partnership and the sounds of Britons getting to know each other. I very much hope that we can get a benefit out of Covid, which will be that our levels of government get to know each other a lot better and work out how to collaborate in the fight against Covid.

A number of Peers mentioned the economy and the hospitality sector. I completely and utterly endorse the deep-seated and genuine concerns of those, including my noble friends Lady Warsi and Lord Lilley, about the economy generally and in particular the hospitality sector, which has been most graphically and acutely hit by the kind of restrictions we are talking about today.

I am enormously grateful to my noble friend Lady Noakes for describing me as a “puritan”; after spending a lot of my life on the wrong side of the curfew, it is a very redeeming moment for me personally. But my experiences in the night-time sector give me, I think, authority to speak on this subject, and I must share with my noble friend the insight that, after 10 pm, when young people mix with alcohol, I am afraid that intimacy and contagion are absolutely more likely. I am afraid to say that it is that insight that it is helping to inform our decision on the lockdown.

Meanwhile, we have done absolutely everything we can, in answer to my noble friend Lord Lilley, to help the hospitality sector with business grants, the Job Support Scheme, the sophisticated QR code contact-tracing system and trying to keep open the hospitality sector wherever we can, including by putting in special provisions for weddings. We will continue to work with the industry to do what we can.

On universities, I reassure the noble Baroness, Lady Walmsley, that the postcode challenge that she described is not one that is a material flaw in the plan. When they book their tests, students put the postcode of where they are living into the system, not their GP’s postcode—and we use more insight than simply postcodes to make our decisions.

I say to my noble friend Lord Lilley that the frustrating thing about this wretched virus is that it can sit in your body for 14 days without making itself apparent to any form of test—either PCR, lateral flow or Covid dog. That is why the instant test that you might get at somewhere like an airport can be only 7% predictive of whether you will have the disease at some time in the following 13 days.

I say to my noble friend Lord Lucas, “What excellent insight—absolutely top of the class in terms of epidemiological perceptiveness”. Cluster-busting is very much at the top of our list; we are deploying the latest artificial intelligence and genomics to try to do the backward testing that he described. Perhaps I may share this insight: instead of thinking of “superspreaders” as people, we are thinking more in terms of “super- spreading events”—such as the Rose Garden event—where, somehow, the way in which people are configured encourages contagion. And we are absolutely looking at low-sensitivity testing devices, as he described.

By way of conclusion, I pay tribute to the insight of the noble Baroness, Lady Thornton. Exit strategy is absolutely key. We are here debating the setting-up of these regulations; they are important regulations, and we are going into a second wave, as the deputy chief medical officer made crystal clear in his briefing to Peers yesterday. But an exit strategy is critically important. The kind of partnership that the noble Baroness, Lady Thornton, referred to and that I described at the beginning will be absolutely key to that. Local government and national government working together at all tiers will be the way in which we can establish the behaviours that are necessary to keep a lid on this contagion. That is very much the priority at the next stage of our thinking.

Motion agreed.

Sitting suspended.