Moved by Lord Robathan
Leave out from “that” to the end and insert “this House declines to approve the draft Regulations because no adequate impact analysis of the social, economic and health costs of the restrictions to address the COVID-19 pandemic, compared to the benefits of those restrictions, has been laid before Parliament.”
My Lords, this is arguably the worst crisis—certainly the worst economic crisis—of my lifetime. Yesterday, as my noble friend referred to, we had, I am afraid, a totally inadequate government benefit analysis, belatedly produced at very short notice to persuade MPs to back these latest measures. It is a very poor document, and, if anyone does not believe me, they should read it.
However, there are some costs that we know about, and all these decisions regarding the crisis should be based on evidence and facts, not fear or conjecture. The costs were listed by the Chancellor of the Exchequer last week in an excellent speech, and I shall not repeat his detailed points. His main point was that the
“economic emergency has only just begun” and that this will be
“the largest fall in output for more than 300 years”—[
There are pubs and restaurants in particular, as well as innumerable other businesses, large and small, that are closed now and will never reopen. Unemployment will rocket and the young will find fewer vacancies and opportunities for employment. The economy may recover relatively quickly, but future generations—our children and grandchildren—will be saddled with huge debts for decades. In brief, that is the cost: billions and billions. The restrictions we are discussing today are really another lockdown in all but name, and, as Dr Nabarro of the WHO said, lockdowns make
“poor people an awful lot poorer”.
What about the benefits? On
“hundreds of thousands of deaths”—[
Some were sceptical. If it were true, it would be a ghastly scenario and a consequence of not locking down. Last year, there were 623,000 deaths in the UK—hundreds of thousands; on average, 1,700 deaths each day, each of which is tragic and causes immense pain to family and friends who remain. I suspect that most of us have suffered similar pain.
According to the NHS and ONS statistics, a total of 3,123 people under the age of 60 have died from coronavirus in English hospitals. Of these, 349 did not have known pre-existing conditions. Among the under-40s, a total of 247 people have died from the virus in English hospitals, of whom 46 had no known comorbidities. All these deaths are tragic but, every day, an average of 450 people in the UK die of cancer, approximately half of whom are under 75. Suicide is the biggest killer among men under 45. In England and Wales last year, 2,135 men of that cohort killed themselves. Admittedly, coronavirus has only been recognised for some nine months, but younger people under 40 or 45 seem more likely to die from suicide or cancer than from coronavirus. Indeed, the total deaths attributed to coronavirus are dwarfed by deaths from cancer. To make matters worse, cancer-screening and treatment have been curtailed, suicides appear to be on the rise because of isolation, and mental health problems are certainly an increasing concern. If we are destroying our economy to save lives, we should look at all these facts—not vague assertions—and note that the total deaths in England in October were only eight more than in October 2019, which statisticians would call negligible.
Do lockdowns work? Many people suggest not; I do not know. I would imagine that total isolation must surely stop the transmission of infection, but in Leicester, which has been under stringent restrictions similar to lockdown for about five months, it is only now that positive cases are dropping. Why is that? I wonder whether my noble friend the Minister can enlighten me and the House. We were told that hospitals may be overwhelmed without these restrictions. Can the Minister tell us how many hospitals are completely full, and how many beds are occupied above the seasonal norm? Also, how many beds are occupied in the excellent Nightingale hospitals? I have been told that none are.
How many people have actually been infected? I would think that that is a critical statistic in determining policy to combat the virus. The Government’s figure for those who have tested positive is just over 1.6 million, but most people would accept that it must be a lot higher—what with Prince Charles, Prince William, the Prime Minister, half the Cabinet, both my children, et cetera, having had it. Can my noble friend give us any government estimate of the real numbers?
I saw media reports that the average age for Covid deaths in the UK was higher than average life expectancy. This had to be fake news, I thought, but I checked the ONS figures and, indeed, the average age for Covid deaths is 82.4, while average life expectancy is at 81.4. Can my noble friend confirm these figures, and that those dying from coronavirus will actually have lived longer on average than those dying for other reasons?
The Government are in a very difficult position. I understand. This unpleasant virus is highly contagious and killing many people prematurely. I am sorry to hear about my noble friend’s godfather. However, we do not know enough about the virus, so we have to go on the facts. I would be grateful for clear and prompt answers to my questions so that we can see whether there has been any weighing up of costs and benefits.
In the debate on
The Chancellor of the Exchequer said that we must learn to live with the virus and not fear it. My young female dentist, who I saw in early November, described the second lockdown as “nuts”. I will listen to the Minister’s response, but currently I intend to divide the House, since it seems to me that there has been no adequate analysis of the costs and benefits of this policy.
My Lords, this promises to be a very important debate, going to the heart of how we are handling this terrible epidemic. I do not support the noble Lord, Lord Robathan, but he is right to pose challenges about the Government’s management of the pandemic, which has been less than consistent. In fact, when one thinks of the Prime Minister’s ducking and weaving, the half promises and the hopes that relaxation will be lifted, it is not surprising that it has not inspired confidence among members of the public; I do not think the impact assessment published yesterday inspired confidence either. It looks very much like a cut-and-paste job, strewn with errors.
A much more accurate assessment of where we are was given in the Financial Times yesterday. It was a very sober analysis, which showed that the UK was spending proportionately more money than any other country in fighting the pandemic, and that we were languishing at the bottom of the league table of economic performance and virus deaths. The conclusion of that analysis is that, essentially, our poor performance came about because we allowed the virus to become prevalent in the spring before enforcing social distancing. That meant that the Government were ultimately forced to impose the more draconian restrictions that undermined the economy so grievously.
The noble Lord referred to the economic difficulties that we will face in generations to come. Noble Lords will know that the OBR said in its central forecast last week that the UK economy was set to shrink by 11.3% in 2020 with a deficit set to hit £394 billion. We are spending more than most G7 countries yet suffering a deeper decline in economic output than any of them —and, sadly, this does not seem to have saved lives, as the current total number of deaths per 100,000 people from coronavirus puts us at the bottom of the international league table. When reviewing the data, Jonathan Portes, professor of economics and public policy at King’s College, said the errors came in locking down too late in March, allowing the virus to spread in care homes and then delaying a second set of national restrictions well after most scientists had realised this was inevitable.
It is unforgiveable that the Government repeated their error in the autumn. At the 58th meeting of SAGE on
The advice from SAGE in the run-up to Christmas has once again been clear. It points to the potential threat of substantial mixing of people over a short period of time, representing a significant risk for widespread transmission. This is not the time to relax our guard or underestimate the pressures on the National Health Service.
I would like to suggest an answer to the questions raised by the noble Lord, Lord Robathan, about the NHS. I understand there have been a series of comments from Conservative MPs that the NHS is now under less pressure than it was a year ago and, essentially, has the capacity to cope with more patients from a relaxation of social-distancing rules. The analysis published over the weekend by Chris Hopson from NHS Providers offered a very strong refutation. As he said, the NHS is actually at full stretch, juggling the demands from Covid-related care with urgent and emergency treatment for other conditions. Stringent infection controls are required, so every hospital has to be divided into three areas. That has reduced their capacity from between 5% and 20% depending on the conditions in each local hospital. We know that demand for theatre space is hugely outstripping supply and that trusts in areas of high infection rates are losing large numbers of staff because of self-isolation, family responsibilities and staff falling ill with Covid.
Much of this would not show up in hospital demand and bed occupancy data, but the best guess is that today’s 85% total bed occupancy is the equivalent of the normal 95% rate when the NHS is probably overoccupied and going at full pelt. Similarly, ICU capacity is not a good indicator of hospital provision because it accounts for only a small proportion of a hospital’s total bed capacity, with many more Covid patients now being treated in general wards. As for the Nightingale hospitals, it would be fair to say that they were always intended as a last resort. Also, they do not have the staff there; staff would have to be diverted from our other hospitals, which would reduce the standard of care there, so it really is a last resort.
Frankly, the NHS is at full stretch. It has not yet hit the real winter pressures. Vaccines, more testing and new drugs offer us the way out. This is the last moment we should relax our guard. I should also say that a semblance of competence from the Government might help.
My Lords, we are debating more than 70 pages of changes to the Covid regulations with only 24 hours’ notice of the detailed impact statement that many sought and with which, as we have already heard from both sides of your Lordships’ Chamber, people are not happy; we heard from the noble Lord, Lord Robathan, that he is particularly unhappy.
From these Benches, we have some differing concerns. Ever since the pandemic made its presence known, we have pushed to follow the best scientific advice. We have pushed Ministers to lock down earlier and have not been heard. We have pushed Ministers to set up an effective test, trace and isolate system locally and fund it right from the start, following the excellent examples set in South Korea, Taiwan and Germany, all of which had a steadier path with Covid-19. Test, trace and isolate, to be kind to the Minster, is still a work in progress. Above all, we have asked for clarity and consistency of message to the public so that each and every one of us can play our part as citizens in the fight against the pandemic.
Despite the apparent reduction in cases because of the lockdown finishing tomorrow, we now face these tougher tiering arrangements. We agree that we have not yet got control of Covid. Perhaps these new arrangements would not have been necessary if the Prime Minister had approved a lockdown three weeks earlier when it was obvious to most of us that we were entering a second wave. People are confused about what they should be doing. A poll a couple of days ago showed that two-thirds of people are worried about how safe they feel under these arrangements.
Although we remain concerned that the Government still have not got a grip on the pandemic, we firmly reject the proposals from others who say that there should be no lockdown arrangements at all. Data yesterday showed a worrying rise in excess deaths. Those with disabilities and learning disabilities still face a particularly tough journey in the pandemic. Can the Minister confirm that those with learning disabilities, many of whom are clinically or extremely clinically vulnerable and appear to fall through the testing net, can now access regular testing?
More worryingly, we are picking up reports that young people with learning disabilities at school and college are being charged by their GPs for a letter to set out their specific category to their education institution. The Down’s Syndrome Association told me today that this is not about one or two cases; it is getting reports from all over the country. Shockingly, one young man was charged £38 for a letter to his college. This is disgraceful. Can the Minister take this up urgently and immediately instruct CCGs and GPs not to charge vulnerable young people?
I am afraid that the same is happening to adults with disabilities, who have been asked by their employers to produce evidence that they should work at home. Can the Minister ensure that there is no charge for letters relating to the pandemic for anyone in the clinically vulnerable group?
Finally, I return to one of my regular topics. The Minister knows that I am on the shielding list—now known as the extremely clinically vulnerable list—along with a million other people. Last Thursday, I looked up the new guidance mentioned in passing by the Prime Minister in his announcement a couple of days before about the new tiers. I wanted specifically to look at the advice about Christmas. I have said in your Lordships’ Chamber before that the previous iterations of advice to shielders were verbose—two-page letters with four pages of detailed explanations as an appendix—but they were short memos compared to the new guidance. It is 16 pages long and full of complex advice about tier 1, tier 2, tier 3 and Christmas. Even my eyes, used to reading formal guidance, glazed over. Therefore, I focused on the Christmas advice. As with previous advice, the message was “Please do not mix with people” and the greater risks were repeatedly evident.
Here I have sympathy with the scientists and civil servants writing this document. The Prime Minster wants families to get together. However, the advice is much more cautious. It says:
“If you do decide to form a Christmas bubble it is advised that you maintain social distance from those you don’t normally live with at all times, avoiding physical contact. Everyone should wash their hands regularly and it is important to keep the space where you spend time with those you don’t normally live with well ventilated and to clean touch points regularly, such as door handles and surfaces. You may want to think about who you sit next to, including during meals, and also consider wearing a face covering indoors where social distancing may be difficult as well as encouraging others to do the same.”
Grandma is going to be really popular, going around the house opening windows, wiping doors, wearing her mask and asking to be moved at the table because she is not convinced that Uncle John understands, or cares about, social distancing.
Will any letter to those shielding be made easier to understand and considerably briefer? Will it be available in all accessible forms, including an easy-to-read version for those with learning difficulties, so that everyone shielding can make informed decisions? If the real advice is not to visit family, please can it say so? Just do not show it to the Prime Minister.
My Lords, first, I apologise to the Minister because IT problems meant that I could not hear some of his introductory speech. What I did hear, earlier this afternoon, was some of the debate in another place on these regulations. No one listening could be left in doubt about the divisiveness of the proposals before us today, especially in relation to boundaries for the new tiers. These have created a deep sense of injustice and division between regions, areas and communities within regions.
For a variety of understandable reasons, the Government abandoned the clarity and sense of the whole nation being subject to the same constraints that we have had since early November. However, they have patently failed to convince people that the variants in restrictions are properly tailored and appropriate to the situations in the communities in which they live and with which they identify. A lack of respect for local leadership, knowledge and capacity has, I fear, been a recurring feature of the response to Covid, particularly in relation to test, trace and isolate. We must not make the same mistakes when it comes to the rollout of vaccinations.
When the tiers are reviewed on
For example, as others have said, the impact statement for today’s debate hardly engenders confidence in the very difficult, nuanced judgments the Minister and his colleagues are making, although I have huge sympathy for them. They can afford to be honest with the population. At the beginning of this pandemic, maybe there were many people who thought there would be an answer—that if they followed “The Science”, we would know what to do. We know that is not the case. We know that we must weigh up a number of factors and balance a number of different harms to try to find the least bad solutions to working our way through this. It is a complex and contested field, and the public are grown up enough to understand that.
I urge that in assessing what boundaries we use and the immediate effects on health—the dangers of Covid and how we protect people from it, as against the longer-term and indirect effects on health and well-being from unemployment and lack of access to normal health services—we respect individuals in our society enough to be frank about how those judgments are made and assessed.
Before I finish, I will say two things. First, most people want to do the right thing; they want to protect themselves and those they love. The Government need to help us do that. They need to empower us with access to testing, by ensuring that the test, trace and isolate systems are effective and working, and by making sure that people do not suffer from being good citizens and obeying what they are asked to do if they have been in contact with others.
Lastly, I was struck by what Dame Sally Davies said yesterday. We ask ourselves all the time why we have seen so many deaths and so much difficulty in coping with this as a country. She pinpointed the underlying public health issues this country faces: deprivation, obesity, dependence on alcohol and the issues that lead to social disadvantage and all that bundle of disadvantages that create ill health and vulnerability. When we review what has happened, I hope we will recognise social injustice as an underlying cause. [Inaudible.] This is not just about PPE but about reversing some of the social injustices in our society.
My Lords, it is a pleasure and honour to follow the noble Baroness, Lady Hayman, who was the first occupant of the Woolsack when we decided to have a Lord Speaker in your Lordships’ House. She made some incredibly important points. I was sorry we missed part of her peroration; that is a good reason for being in the Chamber rather than Zooming in. I also thought that the noble Baroness, Lady Brinton, spoke very movingly and sensitively about those like her who are shielded. She graphically illustrated what a confusing situation we face at the moment.
The noble Baroness referred to the 75-page document we have. Just before I left my office, there came up on the computer a list of things we should do—including read a 79-page description of the 75-page document. It also contained some rather interesting information. It told us who are here that we should not use the restaurants in the House of Lords, where the staff are working so very hard to ensure that we are given sustenance. It also told me that, living in London in tier 2, I can do various things; I can go to a gym—I do not normally—I can go to shops, I can get a tattoo—I do not want one of those—and I can stay in the pub until 11 pm so that I can leave in a staggered way.
That is all from the guidance that came via Conservative Central Office, which also made the point that the Labour Party was playing politics. That is a puerile and stupid accusation. I do not believe the Opposition are playing politics; if the Government think that, the best thing to do is to invite to a COBRA-style regular meeting the leader of the Opposition and the admirable John Ashworth, who has been a very good shadow Secretary of State.
It is exceptionally confusing. I can do all those things in London. I can summon a mechanic if some appliance goes wrong in my flat but I cannot allow either of my sons—one of whom lives in London—to enter it. When I go back to Lincoln, where we are in tier 3, I will be able—I am delighted and grateful for this—to go to the cathedral for services, but there are many other things I cannot do. I can go to a pub only for a takeaway. My son who lives in London will be breaking the law if he delivers Christmas presents to our home in Lincoln on
There is confusion worse confounded wherever you look. It is time the Government trusted the people by giving clear and simple advice. I called for clarity and simplicity four weeks ago as we entered this second lockdown, but we have not had it. We need not the vast number of pages that I and the noble Baroness, Lady Brinton, referred to but simple, clear guidance. If the guidance is that it is rather unwise for people to mix together as we normally do at Christmas, then say so clearly and sensibly and trust the people. That is a slogan our party used to have; I do not know what has happened to it.
We are now, as I have said before, living in a benign police state. Indeed, it is not all that benign when the police can issue fines for £10,000 without anybody being on trial. That is, frankly, disgraceful. The police could go into homes—I am sure they will have the good sense not to—and separate families until
“99 per cent of us may not let a friend, relative or neighbour cross our threshold”, apart from during those five days. It is more than sad—it is tragic—that we have come to this pass.
The Government take our most basic freedoms and demand trust, but they offer none in return. That is why I have tabled a regret Motion calling attention to the contrasts, the lack of simplicity and the lack of clarity. I shall listen to what the Minister says before I decide whether I move that or not, but, frankly, this will not do.
My Lords, when government Ministers have to spend two days explaining when and how you can eat a Scotch egg to help slow down the transmission of a deadly virus, you know the simplicity of the rules and the clarity of the message, so vital to the task, have been lost. It is an indication of the confusion that has been created by constantly changing the rules that both individuals and businesses must adhere to. This is not helped when the former senior adviser to the Prime Minister clearly broke the rules and the full weight of the Prime Minister’s office was used to defend breaking the law.
People want to do the right thing to protect their loved ones, businesses, jobs and the community they live in. However, listening to people, you get a real sense that they do not understand what they are being asked to do anymore. The Government have complicated not only the message but the rules people must abide by. These regulations, 70 pages long, with nuanced rule after nuanced rule depending on which tier you live in, will cause further confusion.
The next four weeks highlight how this is not about creating a sensible, calm, strategic set of rules to slow the transmission of the virus but a bureaucrat’s dream and Ministers trying to control things from a Whitehall office. On
The country requires richer, deeper understanding of the triggers that put an area into a set of restrictions and, just as importantly, the trigger points that release them from the most restrictive rules. The analysis that the Government have provided is not a serious attempt to explain. It is a commentary without the clear evidence that is required for people to understand and plan their lives. I asked the Minister: rather than a broad-brush approach, what empirical evidence will the Government bring forward to show how the triggers are adopted for an area going into and out of a tier?
In Sheffield, we are bewildered as to why we are in tier 3. The latest set of figures indicate we had, on
It is also worth noting that the department of the director of public health for Sheffield City Council has written to local care homes suggesting that lateral flow tests are not specific enough and that it is seeking government data and assurance. I ask the Minister: are the Government totally confident that lateral flow tests are safe and reliable enough to be used in care homes so people can visit?
The country has had a £20 billion failing national system. The Government highlight the number of tests, not their quality or the speed of the results. There is a very poor record on tracing and almost a laissez-faire isolation system that keeps leading us back to these types of regulations.
Dealing with this virus does not have to be like this, with ream after ream of confusing emergency law. Some of us have been saying since February that, to minimise disruption, a localised test, trace and isolate system is required. It is now time to do things differently. We need to localise the test, trace and isolate system within a national framework that supports local areas with the expertise and resources to deal with real hard tracing and have proper and resourced community teams supporting people who need to isolate. It needs to be underpinned by a government commitment to reward people for doing their civic and national duty of isolating, like they do in Taiwan, by paying people their full income while they isolate. I ask the Minister if and when this could be done.
The Government need to listen and refocus test, trace and isolate. They need to understand the results that local test, trace and isolate can bring, support that and underpin it with an income guarantee for those who isolate. If this is not done, we will be back here, fortnight after fortnight, confusing people, with the Government taking knee-jerk powers that affect businesses and individuals, causing debt, strain and worry.
We are reaching the end of the path of just nodding through emergency regulations; it is time to review the whole strategic approach of how the country deals with slowing the transmission of the virus, taking from international examples, such as South Korea and Taiwan, about how to minimise disruption by getting a proper local test, trace and isolate system. The Government need to understand that they are now on warning to radically change the way they manage this virus, or future regulations will not be nodded through so easily.
My Lords, I appreciate that the issue of reducing the spread of the Covid-19 virus is essential for the health of our population. However, while I broadly support the regulations before us today, I am extremely concerned that people in England are finding difficulty in understanding the correlation between the R rate in their local community and the tier in which those communities are being placed. Can the Minister explain why London should be in tier 2 when some parts of the north and the Midlands that have been placed in tier 3 seem to have similar R rates per 100,000 people in the population? We have been told that in many situations this is because of the pressure on hospitals. Is it the case, therefore, that there are sufficient empty ITU and vacant hospital beds to allow for an increase in the R rate that may occur associated with the social mixing allowed under tier 2 regulations in London compared to hospital bed availability in other parts of the country?
It is reported in the media that Ministers believe the adoption of the new tier system will enable a re-evaluation of tier allocation, depending, presumably, on the R rate, in as little as a fortnight. Members of the public might be in tier 3 from tomorrow, might move to tier 2 restrictions rapidly and might then enter the national relaxation in restrictions over the Christmas holidays. This concept suggests that if people adhere to the rules in tier 3, a rapid move to tier 2 is likely. Can the Minister confirm that, in the event of the R rate increasing in tier 2 areas over the next fortnight, these communities will be moved into tier 3 level restrictions prior to moving to the rules that are associated with the Christmas period?
We are told that these tiers are necessary to protect the NHS. In fact, the NHS is not just acute hospitals. Rather, the NHS involves public health, primary care and the long-term support of people with chronic health problems, in their own homes and in residential care settings, where there is inevitably close liaison with social care. Will the Minister inform the House what estimates have been made of the pressures on community mental health and learning disability services as a result of the pandemic, and what further interventions are being planned to support community-based services in tier 3 areas? Unless we intervene to tackle the effects of the pandemic on the most vulnerable in our society who do not require hospitalisation, we are in danger of doing more harm to the health of the population than we realise. The BBC “News at Ten” last night focused on the isolation and poverty that has been exacerbated as a result of the pandemic. It was a harsh reminder to anybody who watched it of the wider effect of the virus.
Finally, I remain concerned that, as the amendment to this Motion tabled by the noble Baroness, Lady Neville-Rolfe, states, “the restrictions being introduced” are not sufficiently
“informed by a wide and detailed analysis” of other factors. The UK continues to reduce inbound travel restrictions from a range of countries using a methodology endorsed by the four CNOs in the UK. It states:
“As UK infection rates rise, the relative risk to public health from imported cases decreases”.
The latest changes were agreed at the sixth statutory review on
“The rationale for this is that the impact of travel restrictions is expected to be greatest when UK infection rates are relatively low.”
Therefore, if we succeed in reducing the rates before Christmas, is the Department of Health and Social Care confident that the transmission of Covid-19 within the UK from people arriving in this country with asymptomatic disease is highly unlikely?
As a healthcare worker myself, I remain concerned that we have to face high levels of restrictions on social interaction to contain the disease and protect healthcare workers. The public do not wish to comply with our community’s restrictions only to have their own investment in disease reduction wasted as a result of people travelling from other parts of the world and unwittingly increasing infection rates in the UK again over the Christmas period.
My Lords, it is a pleasure to follow the noble Baroness, Lady Watkins of Tavistock, with her nursing expertise and her kind reference to my regret amendment on the Order Paper. This is concerned with SI 1374, which imposes restrictions on gatherings and businesses in England in tiers 1 to 3. I have an interest, living in Wiltshire and working in London, both of which should probably not be in tier 2 at all.
However, my main interest and the focus of my amendment is in cost-benefit analysis as a powerful driver of good public policy. I first learnt of its merits while at university, studying the case for the Victoria line, which turned out to be so much more beneficial than we expected. I am dismayed that the regulations did not include a regulatory impact assessment outlining, as a minimum, the economic impact of each of the tiers and hence explaining the choices that the Government are proposing. This is apparently because they are “temporary measures”. This is a disappointing claim. Inaction on such grounds may have been just about excusable in March, but not now. Worse, the analysis belatedly published yesterday of the health, economic and social effects of Covid-19 and the approach to tiering barely helps at all. A proper cost-benefit analysis—impact assessment, call it what you will—should be guiding the Government’s decisions and should not be cobbled together to placate Parliament after the event.
All policy decisions in government need to be informed by an analysis of the costs and benefits, which necessarily involves giving both numerical values. Sometimes this is a challenge, but with ingenuity we can ascribe values or a range of values to outcomes based on real-life analogy or widely accepted decisions. We need to measure not only the immediate, first-level effects, but those of a second order. To give an example, if hospital appointments are cancelled because of our Covid policy, we know that there will be problems, including extra deaths from diseases such as cancer and heart disease. This needs to be quantified. The responsible approach is not to ignore or downplay such inevitable consequences of our policy, but to put the costs into the equation.
Although the Government have not produced a proper analysis of the costs and benefits of their policy, others—distinguished others—have done so. I refer to the paper of August 2020 by Miles, Stedman and Heald. I shall summarise and simplify: they find that the costs of the Government’s policy on lockdown 1 probably amount to between three and 10 times the value of the benefits. Does that not give us some cause to reflect?
One problem is that the Government have not even claimed to seek the optimum overall outcome. Instead they have, from the start, been fixated on Covid only—the illnesses and deaths it causes, and the impact on bed capacity in the NHS. Of course analysis of the kind I advocate is difficult, but those of us in business or involved in regulation know that it is always worth making estimates and perhaps giving ranges, as the ONS has done for the economy. Its work is summarised in section 7 of the government analysis. It is terrifying: we are looking forward to, at best, flat output by 2025-26 and, at worst, minus 6% compared to the outlook in March. The adverse effects include the destruction of capital and knowledge from business failure, loss of human capital from unemployment and so on.
Take restaurants and pubs: they have invested hugely to allow groups of people to dine together, with social distancing, ventilation and contact tracing, yet a cost-benefit analysis appears not to have been done weighing the slight increase in infection in tiers 2 and 3 against the risk of their financial failure. In that case, the response to criticism has been to promise the businesses more money, but that could be a road to fiscal ruin.
The next category of loss is health outcomes, addressed in part 5 of the analysis. There is much talk of the health system being overwhelmed over the winter but, if true, why have hospitals not been preparing for this since April, building extra capacity, taking on extra staff—as promised in our manifesto—and serving as a beacon of good practice?
We also need to look at the social effects of Covid policy. There have been some positives in the Government’s approach, such as bubbles for single relatives and the continuation of schools and childcare, which the Minister rightly emphasised. But the list of negatives, all of which need to be costed, gets longer: care home rules leaving desperate children unable to connect with their parents; partners of pregnant women banned from scans; grandparents unable to see their children and grandchildren; the bankrupting of small businessmen in their 50s who are unlikely ever to get work elsewhere; and the special problems for the disabled, as was explained by the noble Baroness, Lady Brinton.
Finally, we need to consider the money that has been misspent and add that. Top of my list is test, track and trace, and that is £22 billion according to the Treasury spending review and another £15 billion next year. The Government should reflect on the fact that a loyal and committed supporter of theirs is so disappointed in their policies on this vital matter of proper cost-benefit analysis. It is my present intention to divide the House on an amendment with which I think a majority of the House will privately agree.
My Lords, a vaccine against Covid-19 is about to be rolled out to millions of people, so I was surprised by one or two of the arguments we heard this afternoon. I cannot, in particular, support the fatal amendment in the name of the noble Lord, Lord Robathan, because the consequence would be that England would have no restrictions at all after today. Having got this close to a vaccine, that would be irresponsible. I am doubtful too about the regret amendment in the name of the noble Baroness, Lady Neville-Rolfe, about which we have just heard. That is because restrictions are necessary to stop unnecessary deaths and pressures on the NHS this winter. She is right about the importance of impact assessments, however.
The R number may have gone under 1.0, and there may have been a drop in the level of new cases—about a third since the national lockdown began—but numbers are still far too high. In the week 15 to
My noble friends Lady Brinton and Lord Scriven said a number of things with which I strongly agree. There is a need for consistency of message. It is now time to do things differently, and we need an end to chopping and changing rules that the public cannot understand.
For me, this is all about the timing of the vaccine rollout. A lot of people are very frightened by the virus, want to get the vaccine as soon as they can, and are prepared to have their freedoms restricted a bit to achieve that. Those who object to restrictions during the pandemic should think carefully about the potential impact of no restrictions on other people. The fact that they themselves have not had coronavirus or, if they do get it, are not at significant risk from it, is secondary to the rights of other people, who may be more vulnerable, to be protected from it. We should add to that principle the very obvious fact that the winter period is when the NHS is busiest, so any action which knowingly weakens the ability of the NHS to cope with the virus in the winter and early spring would make things worse.
I cannot support the amendment tabled by the noble Lord, Lord Cormack, because the Christmas relaxation rules are actually quite strict, and a Christmas celebration would be good for many people’s morale. People will need to be sensible and avoid risks, but beating the virus still needs a degree of trust with the public.
What I have said so far should not be taken as support for the Government. This is because we need to know the strategy to roll out vaccines. We need a test, trace and isolate system that does not fail to make contact with 40% of close contacts. We need the full scientific evidence on which the tier system is based and a clearer exit route from a tier designation. I hope that the Minister might be able to commit to decisions on tiers and local rules being made jointly with local authorities, and that all decisions on tiers will be subject to parliamentary scrutiny.
I come to two further matters. First, community testing was supposed to be the way of moving out of tier 3, as in Liverpool, yet today we have heard that some areas may not get access to this testing until the end of January. Is that true? It does seem a long time.
Secondly, an improved package of financial support for retail, leisure and hospitality businesses is needed in the tier 3 areas—and I should say that I live in one of them. Many such businesses have one-third of their annual turnover in December. If they do not get more help, very many will not now survive. I suggest to the Minister that this should include a further payment holiday for business rates through 2021-22, with a one-off grant system based on rateable value to enable businesses to survive through the winter.
This week, we have heard that nearly one-third of England’s hospital trusts have now exceeded their first-wave peak. We owe it to NHS workers to reduce the stress placed on them over the winter period. The position that we are in today results from failures in the Government’s management of the pandemic over the last year, with constant changes to strategy and to lockdown rules, overcentralised structures and a tendency to act too late. That having been said, we must avoid another national lockdown in the new year. For that reason, further restrictions now are essential, and they do have broad public support.
My Lords, I am angry about the main instrument before us today. I am particularly angry—and hereby declare my personal interest—that the whole of my home county of Kent has been placed in tier 3.
Last Tuesday, the chairman of the Science and Technology Committee in the other place asked the Secretary of State for Health whether real patterns of community and movement, including the fact that in Kent movement is typically east-west and not north-south, would be reflected rigorously in decisions made on tiering. Three times in formal evidence he said, “Yes.” Two days later, the decision announced clearly did not reflect that. If that does not amount to misleading Parliament, I do not know what does.
The Government continue to take Parliament and the country for fools. Before the last lockdown, they used some graphs to scare us into submission. The basis of those graphs disintegrated once the underlying models and assumptions were forced into the public domain. It was so bad that the Office for Statistics Regulation issued a strongly worded rebuke. This time we have again been told that, unless the new tiered version of lockdown hell is voted through, NHS hospitals will be overwhelmed. This is clearly not a fact, as our hospitals are not currently overwhelmed. They are operating much as usual for this time of year, and the Nightingale capacity remains unused.
I was not surprised to hear the noble Lord, Lord Hunt of Kings Heath, telling a different story, but I just say to him that the NHS never says that it is not under pressure: it is almost a badge of honour to be under pressure at all times. Not only is it not a fact, it is not even a reasonable forecast, because when the R rate is already below 1 and cases are falling and not rising, nobody could forecast an overwhelming. The Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster tried an elaborate defence of that over the weekend, but it has already unravelled.
It looks quite likely that infections were already falling before the last lockdown, and they are certainly falling now. We were promised that if we complied with the current lockdown and got the R rate down below 1, things would be better from this week. That was a false prospectus. The vast majority of the population of the country from tomorrow will be in a worse position than at the end of October because of the indiscriminate use of tiers 2 and 3.
Many of us have complained, as my noble friend Lady Neville-Rolfe has elaborated, about the lack of a proper impact assessment for the various Covid measures. This impedes Parliament’s ability to decide whether the Government are making the right decisions. Late yesterday afternoon, the Government released a document which was supposed to provide this analysis. It is difficult to find the right words to describe that document.
“Uninformed” and “superficial” are the most polite that I could find. The document does not even scratch the surface of what Parliament ought to be given. It ducks the question of whether alternative policies would have resulted in better or worse outcomes. It proceeds on the basis that the only alternative is one of no action, which is a deeply flawed counterfactual advocated by no one. There is nothing concrete on costs and benefits in terms of health, the economy or the wider societal impacts. The lack of economic analysis, apart from a bit of lift and shift from the OBR last week, is really frightening. We learned from the Times this morning that further analysis does exist in Whitehall on the impact on business sectors, but that has been suppressed.
The hospitality sector has been brutalised by the various lockdowns and restrictions since March. Those still standing wonder whether they can survive tier 2 or 3, which will wholly or partly kill the profitable Christmas trading period. This morning the Government have promised £1,000 for pubs forced to close—but it would be a Christmas miracle if that had more than a marginal impact.
Nobody is pretending that it is easy to decide on the trade-offs between Covid and non-Covid health outcomes, the economy and wider impacts. The Government have a difficult task. But they are letting everyone down by constantly framing the arguments in terms of modelled extremes, such as overwhelming the NHS or exaggerated numbers of Covid deaths. We need a grown-up conversation. Society may well be better served by outcomes which increase short-term Covid deaths but do less long-term harm to the economy and to non-Covid health outcomes.
I wanted to be able to support the Government, as I normally do with enthusiasm, but I cannot do so in this case and will support my noble friend Lady Neville-Rolfe if she chooses to divide the House.
My Lords, I support the regulations. We understand well that neither this Government nor their predecessors prepared adequately for a pandemic of this nature, and initially the Government responded to the threat in slow motion. The result is one of the world’s highest death rates. However, I shall be more generous than others. In the last month or so, there has been a surer touch, with less bombast, more measured decision-making and a sense, at last, that the many cogs of the public sector—public health, local authorities, the Armed Forces and the NHS—are now finally meshing. As one who has been responsible for many challenging projects in the course of my career in both the public and private sectors, I do not underestimate this achievement.
There are those who bridle at the constraints that the Government impose on their freedom, like the man I encountered last Friday evening, who joined me in an orderly, rules-compliant takeaway queue and stood two feet away from me, breathing squarely in my face, defiantly maskless. To him and others like him, I say that we all value our freedom and, thankfully, we live in a country that over centuries fought for it and won it, but we also agree to constrain our freedoms when their exercise harms others.
The maskless man threatened my health. We do not allow cars to drive fast in pedestrian areas, we constrain freedom of expression with libel laws and we do not allow people into crowded pubs with loaded guns—and, for some, this virus can be as deadly as any gun. If you are over 75 and catch Covid, you have a one in 10 chance of dying: not great odds.
Infection rates have increased again since the summer because insufficient people have observed the rules. Swale in Kent is an area marked by lovely countryside, picturesque villages and handsome market towns, yet in November it had the second-highest infection rate in England, with 565 cases per 100,000—more than one in 20 of its population. The council’s leader, understandably, bemoaned that the rules in Swale were being “wilfully disregarded”.
The Prime Minister has acknowledged—I applaud his bluntness—that pre-lockdown tiers 1 and 2 failed to reverse the pace of growth of the virus and that even tier 3 did not succeed in reducing cases in all areas. So we must, with relief, welcome the fact that this second lockdown has put a foot on the brake and that across the country the R rate is probably now below one. But beware, my Lords: the ONS estimates that something close to 650,000 people currently have the virus, and they will not all be self-isolating.
I well understand why the Prime Minister did not want to be the Grinch that stole Christmas, but we will surely pay a price for this relaxation of holiday rules, for most certainly the virus itself will not observe a Christmas truce. Public Health England has warned that subsequently we will need five days of belt tightening for each day of Christmas loosening.
My parents lived through the Second World War—my father in the RAF, my mother working in a Liverpool Docklands canteen, bombed out of her home four times. But my mum and dad never complained. Like almost all their generation, they were stoics. With vaccines now in clear sight, we need to rekindle some of that wartime stoicism. Let us be tolerant of the inevitable anomalies created by blanket rules, and let us accept that, until a vaccine kicks in, we can surely endure a period of limited social interaction, for that short-term sacrifice will mean fewer victims of Covid, fewer deaths and fewer threats to the NHS.
If we can keep the lid on the pandemic until the vaccines ride to the rescue, more of the economy can continue to function, as we see in Asian countries. Those parts of the economy adversely affected by limiting social interaction, such as hospitality, deserve, and should receive, adequate and sufficient support to enable them to bounce back once the new normal returns, which it will.
Let us give thanks in this debate for the brilliance of our and the world’s scientists. Let us hold our nerve. There is every reason to be hopeful.
My Lords, the analysis of the effects of Covid-19 produced yesterday is, to say the least, disappointing. It does not add much to our knowledge and it gives the impression of a document written to justify a decision already taken, rather than an objective appraisal on which to make a considered judgment.
Given that the report was issued only yesterday, it begs the question as to whether the Government used this report to base their decision on what action to take post-lockdown 2. Certainly, it would have been helpful to have had earlier sight of the report and slightly longer to consider it. The review of the tiers in the middle of December is very welcome. Can the Minister reassure the House that further and better particulars of the information on which the review will be decided will be laid in the House in good time? That would enable noble Lords to properly consider the facts and if necessary to raise the matter in this House and hold the Government to account.
One aspect that the report highlights is the comparison of death rates by age. It shows that under the age of 44 there is virtually no risk of death, and under the age of 64 the risk is minimal—probably no worse than it would be in any event. Can the Minister explain why the Government do not allow life to go on as normal for younger people, and business and commerce to continue, as my noble friend Lady Noakes mentioned earlier?
The Government can advise the elderly to take precautions, and even go as far as offering them assistance if they cannot lead their lives properly if such assistance is required. It is worth noting that even someone of my age is five to one on to survive should I get the disease. That is what the table says; there are more optimistic figures.
I would be grateful if the Minister answered the questions put by me and other noble Lords. On occasions he has been noticeably reticent about giving answers. I remind the noble Lord, in a gentle way, that the purpose of debate in this House is for Her Majesty’s Government to provide answers to questions. It is what democratic government is about: sharing the reasons for taking decisions so that proper debate and scrutiny can take place.
My Lords, it is a pleasure to follow my noble friends Lord Howard of Rising and Lady Neville-Rolfe, whose regret Motion I am minded to support.
The Prime Minister has an unenviable task—that of balancing not just health and economic impacts, but conflicting evidence and views, the majority of which, I suspect, are opposed, within Cabinet and among his advisers, to his own instincts. He has been criticised for not imposing those well-known libertarian views on the majority in Cabinet. Prime Ministers are not, however, dictators. I remember Mrs Thatcher, after spelling out her support for a proposal, asking her Cabinet Ministers for their views, all of whom dissented, turning to Nigel Lawson and saying, “Am I alone in supporting this policy?”. To which he replied: “Yes, Prime Minister, but you are not without influence”. I am glad that some of the Prime Minister’s influence has been brought to bear, otherwise these regulations would be even worse.
But there are reasons we should be sceptical about these latest proposals. First, the Government claim to be “following the science”, but there is no such thing as “the science”—there are scientists, who have opinions, and there is the scientific method. That was explained by the great scientist Richard Feynman, who said: “You make predictions on the basis of your theory or model, you compare them with the facts; it doesn’t matter how beautiful your model is, or it doesn’t matter how smart you are, if the model doesn’t agree with the facts, it’s wrong”.
We know that the original assumption that coronavirus would behave like flu was wrong. We know that the Imperial model predictions of half a million deaths here and 85,000 deaths in Sweden were wrong. We know that Sir Patrick Vallance’s prediction of 50,000 cases by the end of October was wrong. We know that on the chart used to frighten us into lockdown on
Of course, we all make mistakes, but the second reason for being sceptical is that these mistakes have not been random errors. There have not been some too low, some too high, some too alarmist, some too complacent. All of them have been in the same direction: exaggerating the risks and dangers. I am sure that has not been deliberate, but when errors all point in one direction, it is a sure and certain sign of groupthink. Groupthink is a mindset which can grip any of us, especially if we are convinced that we are in the right and others are in the wrong. Those in the grip of groupthink tend to accept without questioning too closely any evidence which supports their beliefs and discount anything which casts doubt on them, and they tend to ignore the costs of their actions and exaggerate the benefits.
That brings me to the third reason for scepticism, which is that these proposals were not based on any systematic, quantitative analysis of their impact—positive or negative—nor of their costs and benefits. It is not just that the document the Government rushed out yesterday is, to put it mildly, less than convincing; it is because the Government did not even have such an analysis themselves when they reached their decision.
There is an underlying problem which lies behind the Government’s explanations. They seem to believe that R is a constant, and that consequently infections will double every X days—after X days there will be twice as many, after 2X days there will be four times as many, after 3X days there will be eight times as many, and so on. They seem to believe that infections, deaths and the numbers of people in hospital will slow down or decline only as a result of government restrictions, hence the official claim that national and regional peaks occurred after the new measures were introduced. It is simply not true: the peak occurred before these measures were introduced, and there are only two possible reasons for that. One is that R declines as the virus spreads, because the natural spreaders get it and cease to spread it thereafter, and because there is more natural immunity in the population than anything like herd immunity was expected to be. The second reason is that people began voluntarily to restrict their social interactions before they were compelled to.
Whichever of these reasons—and I expect both are the case—they are reasons for not relying on the Government’s projections, not relying on the restrictions being introduced in these measures and asking the Government to think again, which is why I am minded to support the amendment to the Motion in the name of the noble Baroness, Lady Neville-Rolfe.
Parliament: a word whose very definition means “to talk, to discuss”. It has come to mean, over the years, to take responsibility. Not so long ago, we fought a referendum on the basis that we wanted to return more powers to our Parliament. That is what the Prime Minister said then, and I want to take him at his word.
In a war, you are confronted by an enemy. You send in the drones and missiles, you decide to take the swine out using lethal force but, before you do it, do you not first stop to consider the potential unintended consequences and collateral damage? Will innocents suffer? How many will suffer? How long will they suffer? This is pretty basic stuff. The question behind every such decision is simple: is it worth it? Yes, we are told, we have to save the NHS, but we have not; we have sent the NHS into a spiral of inadequacy. We are infringing personal liberties on a massive scale, as sometimes has to be done in war. Then there is the massive economic and social damage, long-term mental health issues, the undermining of democracy and of Parliament itself. Again, is it all worth it? Perhaps it is, but that is why we have asked for a cost-benefit analysis, so that we can respond to the question, is it worth it. We know the cost of Covid; what we want to know is the cost of the cure.
Apparently, the oil lamps have been burning late inside the Treasury: officials have been running around with scissors and paste pots, and what they have come up with is a 48-page document, hurled so untimely and ill-formed into the streets during the dark hours of yesterday. It is filled with very pretty graphs and bar charts, lots of wiggly lines and wandering statistics, but, for a cost-benefit analysis, it is remarkably lacking in costs or benefits. It is a thing of shreds and tatters. We had been promised crystal clarity; instead, what we have is Ministers squabbling over whether people should eat Scotch eggs. I think Marie Antoinette said much the same thing.
We need information in order to do our duty as parliamentarians, and we do not have it, or not enough of it. I am not suggesting that the Government are trying to drag us like lambs to the slaughter but, at times, it feels a little as if they are trying to pull our own wool over our own eyes. In another world, at another time, the Treasury rushed forward to offer all sorts of terrifying predictions, stretching years into the future, about the monsters that would leap out and devour us if we dared vote for Brexit. So, today, we ask—and it is our duty to ask—what is the expected rise in unemployment? How many pubs and other businesses will close? How many non-Covid patients will die because they can no longer get prompt treatment? If Ministers cannot answer those basic questions, is it because the work simply has not been done, which would be astonishing, or because they do not want us to know the answers, which would be frightening?
This morning’s Times newspaper said that, indeed, there is an assessment—let us not call it a forecast, let us call it an assessment—that has been circulated within government, not for sharing with the public, in which a dozen different sectors are rated red: the disaster zones. So, I ask my noble friend: is there any truth whatever in that report on the front page of the Times? Does any such dossier exist?
I try to be a loyal Tory Back-Bencher; really, I do. I desperately want this Government to defeat this disease and move on with all their glorious ambitions for post-Brexit Britain. This is not the way to do it. We are not properly informed, we are not adequately consulted and it is clear that we are not trusted. Indeed, we are accused of shirking our responsibilities and wanting to let the disease rip. Those remarks are unworthy of any reasoned debate.
We are curtailing fundamental civil liberties in a way that is simply unprecedented in peacetime. We are damaging innocent lives on a massive scale. We are demanding sacrifices. We are starving our economy and our society for years to come. All I want to know is: is it worth it? I want to support the Government, but if I cannot wholeheartedly support them, I can at least encourage them. So, this evening, in order to do just that, I hope to have the opportunity to vote for the amendment in the name of my noble friend Lady Neville-Rolfe.
My Lords, I, too, try to be a loyal Back-Bencher in my party. I am not supposed to agree with dreadful right-wing Tories such as the noble Lord, Lord Dobbs, but I agree with a great deal of what he just said—in particular, that there are no costs or benefits in the analysis that the Government have produced. There is absolutely no analysis in it; that is the real problem. However, I told our Whips that I might vote for one of these amendments if I agreed with them, but none of them pass muster so I shall be a loyal Back-Bencher and abstain, which I do not like doing.
It has been amusing in a fairly horrible way to see people in the south of England get all upset about the fact that their areas have been put into tier 2, or even tier 3 in one or two places. Where I live, in east Lancashire, we have effectively been under strict restrictions, save a few weeks in the middle of summer, for more than eight months. It is getting very wearing indeed. The damage it is doing not just to the economy but to people’s mental health and social relationships really is dreadful. We were fairly low in the spring, then it all started up in August to a degree, then we had a huge increase in September and we became leaders in these dreadful national league tables. Now the rate is going down again. Despite what the Government say and the way that they try to match their policies and actions to the way it goes up and down and varies from region to region, I do not think that they have any clear idea of what is happening.
There was a wonderful article about Liverpool in the Manchester Evening News by Jennifer Williams, who knows more about this than most people, which I recommend everybody reads. It is 2,000 or 3,000 words long. The Government say that the restrictions and policies in Liverpool resulted in it all going down, which is why they can go down to tier 2, and it is all to do with the mass testing that has been taking place. However, the same trends have been happening in other boroughs in Merseyside, such as Knowsley and St Helens, as in Liverpool, and they did not have any of this mass testing. They certainly did not have the Army in the same way that Liverpool did. Jennifer Williams points out that the impression is being given to a lot of people that they are going to have a lot of soldiers in to organise this, but she quotes one of the directors of public health in the north-west saying that if that was going to happen across the north-west,
“we’d need an army the size of China’s.”
What will actually happen is more selective testing of people who need to be mass tested but not everybody. So, there is some hope there.
However, testing is no good unless it leads to tracing, isolating and support. Support is still not being given to people at an adequate level. An article in the Guardian today points out that a large number of people who are self-isolating are unable to access the £500 that the Government promised them for technical reasons, because of why they are isolating and, in some cases, because the councils are running out of money. In my own authority —where, as noble Lords will know, I am a councillor—there have been 538 applications for self-isolation grants. Some 217 have been paid but 321 were rejected because they do not fit the Government’s criteria, despite the fact that people are self-isolating, perhaps with their children too. In many cases, it is because they were told by the app to self-isolate but that does not guarantee the money or qualify them for it. My authority has already spent more money on the £500 grants than it is getting from the Government.
I could go on at great length but do not know how much time I have left. My problem is that I can never see the time. I have been told that I have a bit longer so I will say one more thing. If there is to be proper testing and tracing, we must not only forward-trace people’s contacts but back-trace them. In particular, if the numbers are going down, you have to stop new centres of infection or hot spots developing. You do that by finding out where people got infected. If there is a group of people all getting the infection from the same school, factory, supermarket or whatever, you go back to the source of infection and stamp it out. Local environmental health and public health inspectors are experts at that but this is not what they are being told to do by the Government. Unless the Government tell them that, it will all go down again then start to go up again. Where? We do not know because it will all depend on local circumstances.
My Lords, this is not an argument between tackling the virus and ignoring it, as my noble friend the Minister put it in his opening remarks. It is about whether, if one wants to change people’s behaviour, one chooses persuasion or compulsion. In this country, the theme behind our long migration from royal dictatorship to parliamentary democracy is that we think it possible to persuade people to do socially responsible things—not just because we recognise the rights and liberties of individuals but because it works better. Compulsion is often inefficient and counterproductive as well as cruel.
Why have we suddenly abandoned this for a purely authoritarian approach? Command and control, whether in the Ming Empire or in modern North Korea, always lead to misery, not because the commissars were not clever enough or not paid enough but because it is an impossible task to encompass in detail the complexities of deciding how society should be organised from the top down.
I fear that the current approach is taking away people’s agency, undermining their sense of responsibility and preventing them facing up to the challenge of stopping the epidemic through their own actions. As my noble friend Lady Neville-Rolfe said, all the hard work that firms did to make their workplaces safe has effectively been snubbed. We have Ministers and officials trying to devise minutely prescriptive rules about whether a scotch egg is a meal, whether Monopoly is safe to play, how long one can linger over a pint or whether one should take one’s own serving spoons to Christmas lunch with one’s relatives. I quote paragraph 14 of the legislation published yesterday:
“For the purposes of this paragraph, a ‘table meal’ is a meal eaten by a person seated at a table, or at a counter or other structure which serves the purposes of a table and is not used for the service of refreshments for consumption by persons not seated at a table or structure serving the purposes of a table.”
Konstantin Kisin, a comedian, said yesterday,
“I followed the rules during Lockdown 1.0 to the letter. I followed rules that made sense to me during Lockdown 2.0. I will openly disobey any further attempt at lockdown”.
Command and control stirs bloody minded recalcitrance, alienates people from the police and officials, foments conspiracy theories, fuels quack beliefs and boosts anti-vax nonsense. We need evidence that this authoritarian approach does more good than harm. SAGE published a document on
“No impact assessment has been prepared for these Regulations.”
As my noble friend Lady Noakes said, the impact statement rushed out this weekend erects a ridiculous straw man that the only alternative is chaos: an exponential increase in infection and the overwhelming of the health service. Yet the increase has not been exponential since early October at the latest. Just four hospitals are currently busier than they were this week last year. That is partly because many of the Covid cases in hospitals are being caught in hospitals. It need not be this way. There are lots of places in the world that are controlling this virus with moderate, pragmatic and flexible initiatives that focus on what matters and do not try to define scotch eggs. To quote this week’s Spectator:
“Sweden believes that people, if treated like adults, tend to heed advice—so compulsion and lockdowns are not needed to control a virus in a mature democracy.”
Sweden has had no more death than Britain per head of population, and a far less severe economic shock, a far smaller increase in debt, and a far less brutal impact on the physical and mental health of people. Other Scandinavian countries have been almost as flexible. The Danish people have rejected a dictatorial law. A new study in Frontiers in Public Health has concluded that neither lockdowns, nor lockdown stringency, achieve lower death rates. It analysed data from 160 countries over the first eight months of the epidemic.
The pattern of excess deaths this autumn, occurring in precisely those areas that largely escaped the virus in the spring, points to an obvious explanation: that the virus naturally depletes the more susceptible population and then fades with very little help from lockdown. I have great respect for my noble friend the Minister, and for this Government’s brilliant work on securing vaccines, but I think he and his colleagues have been badly let down by their advisers who, as my noble friend Lord Lilley said, bounced them into this second lockdown with the most misleading and outdated set of charts ever used to influence policy. Unless the Minister shows us clear evidence that these new tier restrictions will do more good than harm, I will be voting for a regret amendment tonight because I think there is a better way. As the young journalist Tom Harwood put it yesterday,
“We mustn’t forget all that makes life worth living. After this the govt must repay a debt of liberty—with interest.”
My Lords, I will indeed consider voting for either the fatal or a regret amendment. Despite this, I want the Minister to note that many of us here understand that he and the Government are under huge pressures. I also appreciate that in a period where “gotcha” blame games are the way we go in politics, politicians can become terrified, defensive and reactive. They often will not admit mistakes and therefore cannot learn from them. They make every pronouncement black and white, delivered with a definitive certainty with no nuance and certainly no room for disagreement. One tactic is to avoid blame by attempting to hide behind the science, and the reliance on what passes for irrefutable evidence. As we all get bamboozled by data, graphs, charts, forecasts and infection rates, no mention is made of the wider principles undermining decision-making. When evidence substitutes for judgments, policies are ring-fenced off from accountability and it can create a fatalistic mood in society where people are told that there is no choice.
It was not ever thus, even in this Covid period. Remember that, at the start of all this, hundreds of thousands of people were mobilised as NHS volunteers, eager to help to take on Covid. Even if lots of them never received an email, they showed that there was a willingness to actively create a shield around the vulnerable and act in social solidarity. Contrast that with now, when people are at the end of their tether. The Government’s policies have demobilised people, demanded passivity and compliance. People are told, “Shut up and put up—we know best”, but is that true? Surely in an emergency more than ever, politicians could do with a hand. I urge Ministers to draw on the resources, intellect, intuition, common sense and intelligent criticisms of millions of people in order to move forward.
I want noble Lords to imagine, for a minute, what it feels like to be in Wales at the moment. The people have endured a lockdown, and their reward from Welsh Labour is a 6 pm curfew—more puritan prohibition than science—with utter indifference to the destruction of hospitality jobs. By the way, I give a shout-out to the 100 north Wales publicans who banned the First Minister from pubs for 18 months—hear, hear to them. This illustrates the infuriating way that citizens are treated: they are victims of arbitrary diktats from on high and never involved in any debate—
You think I am mad? That is a good start to a civilised debate. Anyway, all this is unnecessary and not the way we should move forward, because I think that the technocratic approach is bad for science and democracy. Science is in danger of being turned into a dogma set in a stone tablet; the very strength of the scientific method is challenging and testing hypotheses, and it is being corrupted by an adherence to “the science”.
Those scientists who raise concerns about the official narrative have their professional reputations traduced as fake experts and shills, have their interviews censored and dubbed misinformation—and are heckled as “mad”. Surely with a new virus, we need to hear all scientific views, not just those of SAGE. All scientists, pro and anti lockdown, should be prepared to have their work rigorously scrutinised and critiqued. None should be silenced, or important questions will not even be asked, let alone answered.
The technocratic approach is also bad for democracy because it narrows down the debate to solely assessing responses to Covid through quantifiable measures. I confess that we all get dragged into reducing the debate to its most narrow parameters. We have all wasted hours on the minutiae of the differences between tiers 2 and 3 and what they allow. That crude, utilitarian approach even means that we are all tempted to parade death figures to make our case: pro-lockdowners state Covid deaths while anti-lockdowners emphasise neglected cancer patients, heart disease victims and suicides.
This counting-the-bodies approach is available only if the Government allow us to think of health, longevity and safety as the only value in this debate, but it means that we miss the bigger picture. Yes, we can count the horrifying number of job losses due to lockdowns, not Covid, but there are more immeasurable aspects to this: unemployment, losing one’s savings and bankruptcy. It is not just about money; it robs people of dignity, agency and sense of worth. It demoralises people: they feel useless.
Yes, we can count the number of elderly and vulnerable lives allegedly protected by lockdowns, but how do you measure the cruelty of locking up so many people in, effectively, solitary confinement, deprived of love and stimulation? You can count the rising number of Covid cases, but it is not a sign of libertine recklessness that millions are bereft because they are denied conviviality, civil society and time with their mates in the pub, football and so on—it is called civil society; it is called society.
However, the greatest value sacrificed is our attack on freedom: it is not just the frightening number of new laws, micromanaging our lives, or the relentless attacks on freedom of association in churches, our own homes or on protests; it is worse than that. It is political leaders behaving like little emperors, throwing the public scraps of freedom for good behaviour, expecting them to be grateful and then grasping them back for misdemeanours. Citizens are rendered helpless, expected to be happy that they have been given a mere five days as a Christmas dispensation. Do you know how demeaning and frustrating it is to feel that one’s destiny is in the hands of SAGE behavioural psychologists who believe that board games and Christmas shopping are an existential threat to society?
All this seems so counterproductive—that is my point. Remember, politicians are asking society to do something historically unprecedented.
My Lords, I thank my noble friend for his opening remarks, and for his passion for and dedication to his role. I understand that none of these decisions is easy and that nobody would have wished us to be in the position in which we currently find ourselves. Of course the Government must protect their citizens as best they can. They must make tough choices on behalf of the wider public and lead the country responsibly.
However, to make those choices it is vital to have the best information from a wide range of sources, not just one perspective. We all want to see success in our stewardship of the health, well-being, prosperity and security of our citizens. I want to see the Government make the right choices. However, while I have listened to the reasons given for the detailed measures we are debating, and the dramatic intrusions into people’s most personal lives contained in this 75-page document, we have still not been provided with any proper analysis to justify them.
My problem revolves around the lack of clear evidence for such confusing, seemingly illogical and draconian measures. I hope the Government can be persuaded to do better to ensure that measures are based on solid evidence, rather than apparently continuously erring on the side of caution with respect to one illness and its possible impact on the NHS, while risking many more lives that have already been and will continue to be lost from other illnesses, whether strokes, heart problems, suicide or cancer. We simply do not have the numbers to show how many people are forecast to die of, for example, undetected or untreated cancers that have already occurred since March 2020, as well as those yet to occur, but which are directly or indirectly attributable to the ongoing interruption of normal NHS services. I deeply regret the position we are in, but we need to be satisfied that the costs of these measures do not outweigh any benefits we are likely to see. Thus far, we simply have not been provided with such evidence.
I would understand that these measures could potentially be justified if we were dealing with a disease that killed 50% or 80% of those infected, but this unprecedented deprivation of liberty and intrusion into people’s everyday lives and family relationships, as well as the destruction of good people’s livelihoods, which will leave permanent scarring on our future growth, seems to be based on conjecture and warnings about future scenarios from people whose previous forecasts have been shown to be inaccurate. The quantitative modelling and analysis is simply nowhere to be found. How can we properly assess these measures without such evidence? Cost-benefit analysis is normally essential, yet the so-called Analysis of the Health, Economic and Social Effects of COVID-19 and the Approach to Tiering, published last night, contains no rigorous cost-benefit analysis in any formal, recognisable sense. My noble friend Lady Neville-Rolfe is absolutely right. Yet this omission seems to be excused by the statement that,
“it is not possible to forecast the precise economic impact of a specific change to a specific restriction with confidence”.
So, none is provided.
Figure 2 of last night’s document shows that, thankfully, the numbers of weekly deaths, each one of which is a tragedy, are way below the numbers in April this year. Yes, the numbers of deaths are rising but, as we go into winter, that is not surprising. Where is the context? What is the normal number of deaths from all causes at this time of year?
The document states that,
“the alternative of allowing COVID-19 to grow exponentially is much worse for public health.”
However, as other noble Lords have said, no one is suggesting that this is the only alternative. We have treatments for this illness. We also have a population that could decide for itself what is needed to be able to live with this illness. Most of the population is trying hard to be cautious and is keeping social distancing, and I believe we should trust them. There is significant behavioural evidence that compulsion and draconian restrictions are not the best way to control people’s behaviour. I also understand the sentiments of my noble friend Lady Noakes about the inconsistency of areas such as Kent, with its different tier restrictions that seem to bear no relation to the underlying data.
My feelings are of regret rather than of anger. I agree with the amendments in the names of my noble friends Lord Cormack and Lady Neville-Rolfe. Indeed, I have some sympathy with my noble friend Lord Robathan’s amendment. Without an analysis that quantifies the costs and impacts of the measures we are debating tonight rather than just bold statements that they will save lives and stop the NHS being overwhelmed, I do not believe we are in any position to judge these serious measures.
My Lords, I welcome the changes that the Government have made to Part 4 of the Bill, reducing the duration of the proposed regulation to
I remember a time when my generation could aspire to a higher standard of living than our parents. Now, we have to ask whether, with the debt already incurred, not only our children but our grandchildren will be able to enjoy a prosperity greater than ours. The rise in unemployment, family breakdown, child abuse, loneliness, mental health problems, leaving aside the damage to the economy and to education, increasingly poses the question of whether the cure is worse than the disease. We must approach the answer with humanity and humility. Science takes us only so far. The answer does not lie in statistics, data or graphs when the experts themselves cannot agree on their interpretation.
There are profound ethical and philosophical judgments to be made on the value of personal liberty, freedom of choice and the quality of life. Some fear, not without reason, that the draconian nature of lockdowns and tiers is taking us down the slippery slope to an authoritarian state from which we will never return. These value judgments go well beyond the realm of government—any Government. It is all too easy for commentators to say, from the rigid and unrealistic certitudes of their views, that the Government have no strategy, but name one nation that has a strategy. All over Europe, Presidents, Prime Ministers and Parliaments wrestle with the same problems and come up with the same answers.
The simple truth is that Covid-19 has a life of its own. It therefore holds the initiative. It is the fate of all of us to have to react to the unpredictable twists and turns of Covid. Mankind can turn the tables on the virus only with a vaccine that works. With the advent of such a vaccine, many of the fears and anxieties should fall away, but we must not count our vaccines until they are hatched. Before the first needle enters an arm, a vaccine must pass through the hoops of approval, manufacture, storage, transportation and distribution. That will take months, and, in the interval, we will have to put up with restrictions of one kind or another.
All I ask is for the Government to remember one thing: the more responsibility we are given, the more responsible we are. If we are treated like children, we will end up behaving like children. The British people are pragmatic and sensible. They are the Government’s partners in this confrontation and they should be consulted at every significant stage.
To follow up on what the noble Baroness, Lady Watkins of Tavistock, said about international travel, can the Minister tell us what the position will be over the Christmas period for people whose families live abroad? For example, will my children be able to visit us or will they have to spend five days locked in our flat in London?
This has been a fascinating evening, has it not? I wonder whether the Minister has any support. I also wonder what the Labour Party is up to, because they do not seem to be taking part at any level at all. We have had precisely two Labour speakers, and no more, one of whom is yet to speak and will undoubtedly tell us what is what.
I have a lot of sympathy for my noble friends Lord Robathan, Lady Neville-Rolfe and Lord Cormack, and I will support whichever of their proposals goes to the vote. I am sorry but this is becoming a complete shambles. We had a little family debate at the weekend about whether we should put granny by the window or whether we did not want her to get pneumonia. We decided that we wanted her not to get pneumonia, because who on earth would end up doing the washing up? When you have senior officials in the Government talking about putting granny by the window, you really know that you have lost something.
At the same time, there is a serious point here. There is a catalogue of misery within the health service of people who cannot see their relatives, of the disabled who are stranded and lonely in homes, and the NHS does not appear to care. Why do we have a Minister for vaccinating people but no Minister for sorting out the NHS—for opening hospitals, opening surgeries, and getting visitors back into homes where people have been isolated, often for months? They are not a compassionate Government; they are in the grip of a handful of so-called experts, one of whom I remember had the distinction some years ago of having half of the cattle in Britain slaughtered quite needlessly. I hope that he does not turn those latter abilities to the general population.
Last Saturday, the shroud-waver in chief, the Cabinet Minister Mr Michael Gove, told us that we would be physically overwhelmed, with
“Every bed, every ward occupied”, and all the capacity built into the Nightingales and requisitioned from the public sector too. Let me ask this of the Minister: as of today, how many Nightingale beds are full, both as a number and as a percentage? How many of the private sector beds are full, and how many are sitting there, not taking in private sector patients because they are getting big dollops of public money—I speak from some knowledge because I have a number of friends in the medical profession—for leaving the beds empty and not taking in patients? This is the rather sad state that we are in.
What do I propose, apart from what I have said already? We need a wider view among the people who make the decisions. Why are people like Professor Heneghan and Professor Gupta voices in the wilderness? With all their scientific abilities, why are they not at least in the room where the decisions are made? They would be a small minority, but at least they would be able to put forward their views. Why are we not listening to the Chancellor and to industry? We are bankrupting the country. We are running it into debts that it will take years to pay off because we are obsessed with a handful of supposed experts—I say “supposed” because I do not think they are. I also do not think that we can continue to bankrupt the country, which is what we are doing.
I am sorry for those in the Labour Party, but their answer is always, “Give us a chequebook”, and never, “Let us sort out how to get back to normal.” That is what I want to see. I also want to see something that has been alluded to many times in the debate, which is an end to the withdrawal of civil liberties and the chip-chipping away at everything that we stand for. Let me say this: half of the people of the city I live in, which is Cambridge, do not understand the regulations. The other half who do are interpreting them in their own way—and that does not necessarily mean that they are obeying them, because many are not doing so. The Army is now involved in vaccinating people. We are beginning to look like Poland in the 1980s and we need to step back from this. Will the Minister please take tonight’s debate as a serious contribution?
Also, and finally, we must stop persecuting people. Some 45 years ago, I first met Mr Piers Corbyn. When Labour had a leader called Jeremy, people used to say, “What do you think of him?” I would always reply, “You should meet his brother.” What I will say is this: you cannot conduct society on the basis of persecuting a handful of loonies who run around demonstrating. Please stand back, think about it, calm it down, and start all over again.
The noble Baroness, Lady Hoey, and the noble Lords, Lord Shinkwin and Lord Moylan, have withdrawn so I now call the noble Baroness, Lady Jolly.
My Lords, this has been an excellent debate. I found myself agreeing with many noble Lords on several issues. These regulations take us out of the national lockdown and into a revised tiered system. In theory, this is something that I agree with: a targeted approach which infringes on the freedoms of only those for whom it is necessary. I have some sympathy with my noble friend Lord Greaves in his admiration for the contribution of the noble Lord, Lord Dobbs, but I do not support the amendment of the noble Lord, Lord Robathan. At times, I agreed with his assessment of the Government’s handling of this: communication was poor and the level of dither was astounding.
I also welcome many of the revisions to the previous tiers, which impose tighter restrictions on aspects of social life while extending support bubbles for some households at highest risk of isolation. However, there are some serious issues that need to be considered.
My noble friend Lady Brinton mentioned people with a learning disability. At the beginning of the virus, there was a scandal about GPs putting “DNR” on to the records of people with learning disabilities without any consultation with family or care homes. Fortunately, the CQC intervened and made it clear without any equivocation that this was not ethical, acceptable or legal.
Many concerns have been raised about the criteria for tier allocation. Of course we need a system that takes a more nuanced approach than just the number of cases in the population but, when restrictions are so damaging to the local economy and residents’ mental well-being, we need transparent data and decision-making. Last week, the transparency data was published a day late and we still do not have the full scientific evidence behind the rationale for different tier restrictions. Many noble Lords have given the impact assessment the ridicule it deserves. It is crucial that the Government engage with local authorities that know what is happening on the ground to inform decision-making. How do the Government plan to engage with local authorities to ensure they can make informed decisions that go beyond just raw data? Can we also get reassurance that political pressure is not the hidden sixth criteria for tier allocation?
There have been concerns about the size of the geographical areas that are grouped for tier allocation. Areas with low infection rates are understandably frustrated, as they are grouped with nearby areas with higher rates. Countries with robust test-and-trace systems are able to target their restrictions with far more precision; that is what this Government should be aiming for. Can the Minister please tell the House what progress was made on improving test and trace during the national lockdown? Are the Government now beginning to recognise the amazing efforts of local test-and-trace teams who use their existing expertise? How much of the £7 billion in additional funding will go to local authorities to help them trace the most difficult cases? We all know that the first 80% or so are straightforward to trace, but it is the last 20% who are the problem. Local public health teams, who know the area, can find those out-of-the-way addresses.
Now I would like to consider the rule of six. Under national lockdown rules, children under five were exempt from the rules on one-to-one meetings. Will the Government now make children exempt from the rule of six? This issue is particularly pertinent for parents of young babies who were born in lockdown and have not had access to the usual support systems. Under the rule of six, new parents can meet only in groups of three, despite these informal support networks being so important to maternal mental health. I hope that the Minister will consider this and provide a response which will make England consistent with Scotland and many of our European neighbours.
The new regulations make the new tiered system more restrictive than that which came before. Combined with some specific easing over the festive period and adjustments to policies on support bubbles, this has the potential to be confusing, to say the least. There has to be a clear communications strategy that aims to reach particularly hard-to-reach communities. As these restrictions are being brought into law with significant fines attached, the onus is on the Government to ensure that individuals know exactly what they can and cannot do—and that if they do what they want, it should be clear how much it will cost them. This is rarely mentioned at Downing Street briefings; nor does it make the front page of the dailies or the evening news.
My noble friend Lord Scriven gave us a blow-by-blow breakdown of all the recent SIs laid in your Lordships’ House for us to debate. The seeming randomness of the measures in each subsequent SI was appalling.
Christmas is an emotive issue. Many of us miss our loved ones greatly and the opportunity to meet in person at Christmas is ever so tempting. Although in-person celebrations are allowed, this should not be confused with them being encouraged. I am pleased that we have managed to obtain national consensus on Christmas bubbles. I hope that, in the new year, we will see much more of this co-ordinated approach. How are the Government going to ensure that the message is clear? Remote ways of meeting are the safest and are recommended to connect with the family.
I know that in my household, we will have a virtual Christmas this year to protect each other and show solidarity with those whose religious celebrations could not go ahead in 2020—those who did not celebrate either Diwali or Eid ul Fitr. There will be a time when it will not pose a danger to see the ones we love, but now is not it. Taking this virus seriously means recognising those who will remain isolated this Christmas: care home residents are just one example.
The winter plan outlines a significant increase in the testing occurring in care homes, with specific mention of visitor testing and testing of staff. I welcome this, but I would press the Minister on how the Government anticipate that Christmas will operate in care homes. This morning, I received an email from the chief executive of Care England, a representative body for independent care homes, who said:
“The issue about visiting in and out of care homes goes far beyond Christmas, we want to craft robust guidance that deals with the short, medium and long term. The guidance needs to recognise the intricate balance between well being and safeguarding. Although the new testing regime is extremely welcome we need to face facts that it will be a while until it is entrenched and also needs to operate as part of a raft of other infection control measures.”
No additional resources have been announced to assist with this testing. The National Care Forum estimates that an average 50-bed care home will need to administer at least an additional 1,350 tests per month, amounting to an additional 450 hours of work or an extra 15 employees. This time is taken away from caring for residents, with no replacement. Care homes need additional resources and support to have the capacity to implement the testing that we have so long called for.
The restrictions we have all been living with have had a significant impact on our economy, mental health and well-being. Every person in the country has made a huge personal sacrifice and we cannot fall at the final hurdle. We now know that there is a get-out-of-jail-free card and, within a few months, many of us will be vaccinated with one of the growing number of vaccines. I would like the Minister to put to the department that the most vulnerable adults of working age are those with a learning disability. However, they were not even on the first list that I saw for early vaccination. For nearly a year, we have suffered lockdowns and other restrictions. Living in a tier 1 area, I will resist the Boxing Day trip to Staffordshire to see my family. We will leave it to spring and rely on a video Christmas. But this means getting restrictions right and keeping them so, then regaining the public’s trust so that they can confidently follow the guidance, knowing that they are doing the right thing to protect their family, friends and neighbours.
Perhaps I may say how pleased I was to see the noble Baroness, Lady Brinton, in the Chamber today, joining in our debates.
I thank the Minister for introducing these very important regulations to the House. I hope that he, like me, does not feel too second division, as the debate in the other place was opened by the Prime Minister and the leader of the Opposition, but I am sure that he and I can probably do more than justice to this subject. I think that his right honourable friend the Prime Minister might be feeling just a little worried at the moment because I gather that he had 56 rebels on the vote that has just taken place in the Commons.
This statutory instrument sets out that the Secretary of State must review whether each area that is part of tier 2 or tier 3 should continue to be part of those tiers at least once every 14 days, with the first review to be carried out by
The allocation of the areas of the revised tiers was announced on
“What’s certain is that the key to understanding the map is the underlying social and economic geography of England. To understand the changing medical geography of this pandemic, you must first understand how the country lives and works”.
There is the rub. If the Government do not have a real understanding of how people live their lives, the conditions under which they work, the security or otherwise of their jobs, the adequacy of their homes, the transport they rely on, their relationship with schools and local facilities and their reliance on informal support networks, it is difficult to see how the current proposals and the ones that have gone before can work effectively.
The combination of vaccines, mass-scale rapid turnaround testing and therapeutic advances offers a way out of the current Covid-19 challenges in the spring and early summer, but in the meantime, restricting social contact is the only way of reducing the pandemic, protecting our National Health Service and allowing it to do its job, as my noble friend Lord Hunt and the noble Baroness, Lady Watkins, explained. We can see some success, and I applaud that, but the Minister needs to understand that many people believe that the success in getting the R rate down has been achieved despite the Government and not because of them. Why do we need to be still learning the lessons of being too slow?
It is of course welcome news that the R rate is below one, but today we learned what that means—and it does not mean that we can return to any sort of normal life. The news on the vaccines is of course tremendously good. Like others, I am allowing myself to hope that one day I will be able to see my sisters, nieces and nephews in Yorkshire and to hug people. I am also hoping not to have to queue for the supermarket, and maybe I will be able to sit at the same table as my noble friend Lady Wheeler in the Guest Dining Room, rather than sitting six feet apart at separate tables.
However, we have been here before: overpromising and underdelivering. As my right honourable friend the leader of the Opposition said, we are now on plan 5. The slowness with which we have entered these different plans is the reason why the UK economy has been hit particularly hard. As the OBR reported, a sharp slowdown in activity meant that the UK experienced one of the larger falls and that activity was then slower to recover.
The shame of this is that the Government learned none of the lessons from the first wave of the crisis and failed to listen to SAGE—or to Labour, when we argued for a two to three-week circuit-break to coincide with half term. Instead, we have had a longer national lockdown and the economy has taken a bigger hit.
It is therefore vital that the tiers work, and that the relaxation of Christmas does not lead to a further spike and lockdown in the new year. How could that be done? We have a few ideas. We need to end the topdown, centralised model of testing, tracing, isolating and supporting. Local teams with local knowledge must be put in charge, and they must be given the resources to do the job. We need to get rid of Serco and give the testing, tracing, isolating and supporting to our local teams. Frankly, if the Government have spent £22 billion on this and it is still not working, there has to be an alternative.
We need to ensure routine testing for all high-risk workplaces and high transmission areas for NHS and care staff, of course, but those in retail, hospitality and transport, teachers and pupils in secondary schools should also have access to tests whenever they need them.
Furthermore we need to overhaul the failing support for self-isolation, for both businesses and individuals. We need to support our businesses. The Government’s approach to supporting areas under local restrictions is fundamentally unfair and risks a gulf in support opening up across the country. The idea that the Isle of Wight should receive the same amount of support as Manchester is patently unfair.
Businesses are in the dark about the future of the furlough scheme, which is up for review in January. What will happen next? The Chancellor is still refusing to help millions of people excluded from his support schemes for the self-employed, despite having had months to plug those gaps.
What about our students? What will be the impact of their return home before Christmas? What is the Government’s assessment of the risk of students contracting the virus between having the test—which I hope will be available in the universities—and returning home? What steps are the Government taking to ensure that transport capacity is not overwhelmed by the numbers of non-socially-distanced travellers next week? It is completely irresponsible for the Government to leave tier 3 areas across the north and the Midlands in the lurch again.
What about Christmas? What is the scientific assessment of the risk that five days of relaxation will entail? I raised this matter yesterday with the Minister, and I am still seeking an answer. Covid-19 cases have spiked across Canada in the past month, since Thanksgiving and Halloween. On
Does the Minister believe that the three-tier system provides for the necessary post-Christmas restrictions, or is a third lockdown inevitable? Given the prediction that cases will increase after Christmas, what plans are in place to prepare the NHS and safeguard services in the coming months, until a vaccine allows life to return to normal? Front-line resilience is already at a premium and will be critical over the next weeks and months, particularly after Christmas, especially if we do not wish to look back on those activities with very deep regret.
With regard to the amendments to these Motions proposed by the gaggle of Conservatives, I sort of feel sorry for the Minister. It is noticeable that yet again the Government find themselves under fire from their own side. As I have said at least twice to the noble Lord, Lord Robathan, he has form in being a Covid restriction objector and seems prepared to risk people’s lives instead of supporting them to do the right thing. This is my view of the noble Lord’s—
Well, that is my view; I think it is right. I think that is what will happen if he gets his way. The noble Lord does not seem to understand that, until his Government actually manage to build and support the systems that will contain the virus, particularly in deprived communities, his proposal would only cost lives—and they will be the lives in our poorest communities, the BAME and the vulnerable.
I believe the other two are legitimate regrets and at least show consistency from the movers. However, as we have in the past, we on these Benches will abstain if any of the movers choose to test the opinion of the House.
My Lords, it has not been the most comfortable two and a half hours of my life, but I have profound sympathy for a huge amount of what has been said in this debate; I really do. I completely understand where the Opposition Benches are coming from on some of the major themes raised. I will go through some of those in detail, but I will summarise briefly before moving on.
On test and trace, I understand the frustration that those on the Opposition Benches have voiced, but I would like to reassure them that the numbers have come up dramatically, that Thursday’s numbers were incredibly impressive and that this Thursday’s will be even more impressive. A massive amount has been done to address the concerns they have quite reasonably voiced in the past.
Huge strides have been made on collaboration with local authorities in the last few weeks. The publication yesterday of the community testing document and the process around that is proof that those commitments are sincere. I have been held to task on the clarity of government communications many times over the last seven months. The way in which even these restrictions have been communicated has had a lot of thought and has landed very clearly indeed.
On my own Benches, there have been extremely clear messages that I personally agree with wholeheartedly on a sentimental basis. Who would want to stand at the Dispatch Box today putting a restraint on the liberty of the British public of the kind we are looking at in these statutory instruments? This is a joy to absolutely no one, and it is done with a huge number of reservations, with concern and with a full understanding of the implications.
On the economic case, I do not need to be told by anybody about the implications of these restrictions on our economy. I know from my own life, my friends and those I love what they mean to our economy. I feel that very harshly indeed and assure noble Lords that those matters are taken fully into account when we put these statutory instruments before the House.
On the complexity of some of these statutory instruments, we are dealing with a difficult and complex situation. Noble Lords have rightly ridiculed the language used, and I have greatly enjoyed some of the language used in tearing into these statutory instruments, but I cannot hide from noble Lords the fact that to be effective they have to be legal. Legal language is sometimes funny but always necessary. We need to do things in a thorough, thoughtful way.
I have sat in more meetings with experts in the last eight months than anyone else in this House, and they drive me nuts, but we appreciate and value the scientific dialectic. We have approached it with an enormous amount of transparency, and there is no point in scapegoating those who posit the best ideas they can. It is up to us as the decision-makers to make our choices, not to blame the experts for the advice they give us.
Lastly, on the democratic element, I have stood here and apologised for the late arrival of statutory instruments and the retrospective nature of some of these debates. But I remind everyone that I am standing here ahead of the application of these statutory instruments and, as the noble Baroness, Lady Thornton, just reminded us, next door—in the other place—they have been approved by a vote of 291 to 78, which is an emphatic win for the Government.
Before I move on, let me tackle a couple of the key questions; I cannot possibly address all the issues that have been raised today. My noble friend Lord Robathan covered an enormous number of points, and I very much value the challenge he brings to the Government in these matters. I remind him that we are all sobered by the statistics that he cited on suicides and cancer, and, of course, those numbers are far too high. I cannot help thinking that, at the end of all of this, we are going to rethink the value of life and think about how much more we can do to address questions like suicide and cancer. But no one is suggesting that we are facing a tsunami of either cancer or suicides that threatens hundreds of thousands of lives in the next few months, or that it might overwhelm the NHS. Therefore, the parity he suggests is not right.
I completely sympathise with the points that my noble friend Lady Neville-Rolfe made so eloquently and thoughtfully on the impact of regulations such as these on the economy and, in particular, on the hospitality sector. I reassure her and all other noble Lords who have raised, quite reasonably, the impact on the economy of these regulations that we absolutely think about education, business and the secondary health impacts of these regulations on the country.
However, when asked about the impact assessment, I remind noble Lords of the very important work done by the ONS, the Home Office, the Department of Health and Social Care and the Government Actuary called Direct and Indirect Impacts of COVID-19 on Excess Deaths and Morbidity. That is a detailed analysis of the various impacts of a strategy of letting the disease take its course, and if anyone wants any guide to what the alternative looks like, that report spells it out extremely clearly indeed. I am extremely disappointed whenever people raise the question of cost-benefit analysis and government analysis that this report is not cited more, because it is an excellent piece of work, and I highly recommend it.
My noble friend Lord Lilley speaks of an institutional bias and groupthink. I respect his challenge enormously. He is entirely right to warn any organisation, particularly one in the grip of a serious pandemic, about falling into the trap of any kind of groupthink. But I remind him that there have been moments when the groupthink went the other way. I remember very well at the beginning of this pandemic, when people told us that Covid was going to be like flu—and then many millions have died around the world. I remember when people said that it would never come to Britain and that it would stay in China where it started, but then the cruise ships showed that the disease did travel, and when it started travelling, it would not stop.
There were those who initially denied that the lockdown in March was necessary, but I think there are few people who would make that case right now. There were people who said that antibodies and T cells would somehow mean that large sections of the population would be resistant to the disease. That has been seen not to be true and, in fact, antibodies in the UK—now that we have tested hundreds of thousands, or millions, of people—are rarely more than 10%, and show every sign of fading away in some people. There were those who thought that the disease might just blow itself out and mutate into something that was harmless, and that the second lockdown was unnecessary. Professor Spiegelhalter has predicted 20,000 deaths before Christmas, and I am afraid that the second lockdown absolutely has been necessary.
I completely understand my noble friend Lord Howard of Rising’s aspiration of somehow segmenting demographics. He makes it sound easy, as if we could somehow split older people off from the rest of society. However, it is not only the view of SPI-M that this is impossible but the view of every single country in the world. Not one country has managed to do what he suggests. It is simply not possible. He may not like this answer and feel that I have not answered him completely but, as on the 180 times I have stood at this Dispatch Box in the last eight months and in the 1,000 letters I have replied to, I am afraid that this is one of those cases where I have sought to answer his question, even if he does not like the answer.
I completely agree with my noble friend Lord Ridley that persuasion is of course better than compulsion. That is exactly the approach we have taken. We have tried to use consent wherever possible. If you speak to the police force or any of the agencies of the state, you will find that that is absolutely the principle we have taken. I also completely agree that the authoritarian approach of China, Korea or Taiwan may suit those cultures and political systems, but they are not for us. However, he is completely wrong to think the public are not with us on our approach. In September, 62% of the public supported our rules; in October, it was 72%; and in November, it was 73%. Some 89% support the wearing of masks and 77%, even now, support the rule of seven. And 76% support the closing of bars and restaurants where necessary. I fear that, sometimes, noble Lords in this Chamber are out of step with the heart of public opinion. While I agree ideologically with the points they make, it is wrong to suggest that they are speaking on behalf of the public in these matters.
I am extremely glad that my noble friend Lady Meyer and the noble Lord, Lord Birt, mentioned the vaccine, because that is very much the focus of our efforts. These restrictions are merely a bridge to get there. No one wants to live under the terms of these statutory instruments. I can report that progress on the vaccine is extremely encouraging; I am grateful to the scientists designing it and those involved in its deployment.
The noble Baroness, Lady Barker, speaks with so much truth and wisdom in her interventions, but I push back slightly on her remarks on the shielding letters. I know my noble friend Lord Cormack thought that they were wise. The shielding letters are extremely clear because people asked for them to be clear. We work very closely with stakeholders to make sure that they are right, and they are passed to stakeholders for their consent before they go out. The 76-page documents are very long because people want to know the answers to detailed questions. When we ask them what kind of detail they want, this is exactly it. The extract the noble Baroness read out seemed to me a model of clarity and exemplary in the wisdom of its advice.
I am afraid to tell the noble Baroness, Lady Hayman, that, if you are going to have boundaries, they must lie somewhere. Regions need boundaries. When you live on the side of one, that is always uncomfortable, but I know no other way of dividing the country.
Where I completely agree with the noble Baroness, Lady Hayman, is on her reference to Dame Sally Davies, who has a point when she says that social deprivation, bad diet and bad living habits have undoubtedly contributed and hit the country hard in this epidemic. Sally Davies is completely right that there is a social justice issue here. Levelling up, which I campaigned on in the last election and which the Prime Minister has evangelical support for, means health outcome equality, if it means anything at all. I completely share the aspiration that a benign outcome of this awful disease would be a national commitment to this agenda, not only for the principles of social justice but, pragmatically, for national resilience.
I will say a few words about trust and authoritarian measures to my noble friend Lord Cormack, who had extremely harsh words about the Government’s motives and their actions. I respectfully remind my noble friend that the Government are not conspiring to separate families, isolate the vulnerable or close businesses but this awful virus. That is what is causing the trouble, and it is our commitment to protect the vulnerable, businesses, the health service and, thereby, to protect the economy and the very fabric of society that leads us to this point. I completely sympathise with his frustration and I take his concerns about liberty seriously, but he is aiming at the wrong target.
The noble Lord, Lord Scriven, asked about the accuracy of lateral flow tests, and I would be happy to enter into correspondence with him on this. It is a short measure. I reassure him that these are an extremely effective screen. We have been using millions of them up and down the country and have become extremely experienced with them. They are not the tests we would use if you were going to go into an operating theatre, but they are the tests we would use if you were going to see Granny.
The noble Lord, Lord Scriven and my noble friend Lord Cormack asked about public understanding of government measures, which is a relevant, pertinent question. I reassure them both that the Centre for the Mathematical Modelling of Infectious Diseases has found that mean contacts—the number of contacts each original case study had—increased gradually from early April to July, which is exactly what we learned during the summer, when contacts began to grow. Since then, contacts peaked in mid-September and have come down, which is an indication that people are taking more seriously the strictures of the Government to socially distance and reduce social contact.
The noble Lord, Lord Greaves, spoke with great humanity about the plight of those in Pendle and the north. I reassure him that we do not think that it was only community testing that led to the decline in Liverpool but the commitment of the political leadership and a terrific civil effort on the part of the whole city. However, community testing did help. It not only helped break the chain of transmission but helped focus minds on the disciplines of epidemic control. He is right that the Army cannot do everything and that the priority is to test people who are most likely to have the disease. On the £500, it has undoubtedly been a struggle for both councils and individuals to claim the money, but we have, as of yesterday, made it accessible through the app, which I hope will change matters considerably.
The noble Baroness, Lady Thornton, and others asked about support; we have provided unprecedented levels of support to businesses and individuals. That includes helping to pay the wages of people in 9.6 million jobs across the country through the Coronavirus Job Retention Scheme, protecting jobs that might otherwise have been lost, and supporting the livelihoods of 2.7 million self-employed workers. Businesses have received billions in loans and tax deferrals.
By way of summary, the noble Lord, Lord Birt, made this central public health insight that we have all learned throughout this pandemic. My health is no longer a private matter. What I have realised is that I might have Covid, therefore, I might infect my neighbour. If I get ill, I will take up a bed in a hospital, and that bed will not be available for you. In other words, this is a classic liberal dilemma, which a number of noble Lords referred to. Of course, we respect everybody’s freedom and liberty but at this stage, with this horrible contagious disease spreading around the country, I am afraid we are all dangerous to others, and that is why we have to bring in statutory instruments such as the one we are looking at today.
Around 633,000 people in Britain have Covid today. We are doing our best. Some 246,298 were isolated by track and trace between 22 and
My Lords, my noble friend the Minister has been a bit on his own this evening—actually, he has been entirely on his own—but I will say that he has made a pretty good fist of defending these regulations. However, when he says that 78 people voting against the Government in the Commons is an emphatic victory, as a former Whip there, I would say that since most of them are Conservative Back-Benchers, the Whips’ Office will be pretty worried.
I said earlier that this is the worst economic crisis of my life, and possibly the worst crisis of my lifetime. I think the nation is engaged in a most extraordinary act of self-harm. However, we need to look at this in the round. Before I sit down, I just say to the noble Baroness, Lady Thornton, that I think it is unworthy of her to say of me that I wish to see people die, because that is not the case. I thought about giving my view of her—I will, if she wishes—but I thought it would be unworthy and I shall show some restraint.
I have been listening to wiser counsel than my own, and there is not an appetite to force my fatal amendment to a Division. I think it might undermine the better vote we have had in the House of Commons of those who are unhappy with the way government policy is going. I am used to putting my money where my mouth is; however, on this occasion I will not divide the House and I will please the House, and especially the Chief Whip, by saying that I have made my point and I am unlikely—although it is not impossible—to table another fatal amendment. I think he knows what I think.
Lord Robathan’s amendment to the Motion withdrawn.