Government Response to Covid-19 — [Sir Charles Walker in the Chair]

– in Westminster Hall at 11:22 am on 3rd November 2020.

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[Sir Charles Walker in the Chair]

Photo of Richard Drax Richard Drax Conservative, South Dorset 2:30 pm, 3rd November 2020

I beg to move,

That this House
has considered the effectiveness of the Government response to the covid-19 outbreak.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Charles, for the first time. First, I want to make it crystal clear that I do not underestimate this nasty virus. I have friends who have had it, friends who have got it, and a friend who nearly died from it. I also want to state that I have a lot of sympathy for our Prime Minister, who faces an unprecedented challenge, contradictory advice, and a tough call to make, but that must not extinguish debate. As we hurtle towards another lockdown, I would be doing my constituents a disservice if I did not question the wisdom of repeating what has already been implemented and failed.

Lockdowns, in most people’s view, do not work. They simply delay the inevitable—the re-emergence of the virus when lockdown ends, as has been shown. To paraphrase Franklin D. Roosevelt in 1933, we have nothing to fear but fear itself. I do not know about you, Sir Charles, but after three long years of project fear during the Brexit debate, I am tired of fear. I long for optimism, hope, aspiration, courage, and our long-departed friend, common sense. Instead, we have been force-fed a diet of death and destruction on an almost hourly basis for month after month, and we face more, although who would not have capitulated after Saturday’s presentation when we heard that deaths could peak at 4,000 a day by Christmas?

Photo of Bob Seely Bob Seely Conservative, Isle of Wight

Is my hon. Friend aware that already the case for the 4,000 deaths, the sombrero of doom, is falling apart, and even the researcher who put the research together now says we should not be using it?

Photo of Richard Drax Richard Drax Conservative, South Dorset

I have heard that. I thank my hon. Friend for his intervention. I will come on to more statistics later, although they are not always helpful.

I was interested in a recent article written by The Telegraph’s Ross Clark in which he asked whether anyone had been able to read the small print at the bottom of the graph, which states:

“These are scenarios—not predictions or forecasts.”

He added that it was odd that there was no source listing for the graphs. I would think that the best guide to future deaths is numbers of infections, but even those are a difficult yardstick as they are falling in some parts of the country and rising in others. It is also important to acknowledge that the more we test, the higher the infection rate. It is encouraging that the death rate has halved as effective treatments have come into play. Let us not forget Professor Neil Ferguson’s dire warning in March of 250,000 deaths. The truth is that—my hon. Friend has hinted at it—predictions, modelling, forecasts and scenarios change, and with them the Government’s policy. What is that exactly? The modus operandi appears to be a roller coaster ride of lockdowns and release until a vaccine is found. But why, when we have a virus with a 99% survival rate? Last month the virus was the 19th most common cause of death. Have we overreacted? Yes, I think we have. A draconian, onerous and invasive set of rules and regulations now govern our very existence. Lord Sumption calls it a form of house arrest, and I concur. Interestingly, he also points out a section in the minutes of SAGE, the body advising the Government, where behavioural scientists advise the Government that

“Citizens should be treated as rational actors, capable of taking decisions for themselves and managing personal risk.”

Instead, unfortunately for all of us, coercion was selected.

This interference in our personal freedoms has not been seen since the war. Imagine then if we had predicted the human cost; we would have surrendered immediately. I am 62 and I cannot recall a moment in our proud island history when our nation has been so cowed, to the extent that it is now. Today, a police officer can issue a fixed penalty notice of £10,000 to those “involved” in a gathering exceeding 30 people. Initially aimed at raves, that power has now been used for other purposes. That and other draconian rules, such as the 10pm curfew and the rule of six, further enhance the sense of oppression.

Photo of Chris Green Chris Green Conservative, Bolton West

Does my hon. Friend share my concern that the rationale and reasoning for the rule of six and the 10 pm curfew have not been backed up with evidence?

Photo of Richard Drax Richard Drax Conservative, South Dorset

The good reason why a few of us voted against those measures was that there was no evidence to support them.

The 10 pm curfew only further destroyed the hospitality sector, while the rule of six broke up families. I cannot think of a modern crisis in which family and families are more essential and more important. Surely, their support is common sense, despite the risks. It is for them to make decisions about who they see and when, not the Government.

Depressingly, we have been warned that this lockdown might go on after 2 December, putting family gatherings at Christmas at risk. Nowhere in the debate, as far as I can recall, have we heard the word “risk”. The reason, I fear, is that we have become risk averse. Personally, I think that has made the sleepwalk into an invasion of our civil liberties even easier.

All appears to hang on the introduction of a vaccine, but the history of vaccines does not bring much comfort. An all-out effort is being made to create a vaccine, but how effective will it be? Who will it help? When will we actually have it? All these questions are still unanswered, although I welcome every effort to get one. I have spoken to quite a few medical experts and they tell me that pandemics end naturally, mitigated by better treatment of those who suffer, a vaccine and immunity in the population. Like flu, we must learn to live with this virus and not let it destroy us.

In the meantime, we are leaving a devastated landscape, economically, financially, physically and mentally. My own constituency of South Dorset, the prettiest in the country, relies heavily on the hospitality sector. Those in that sector responded to calls to make their facilities safer, only to now see them shutting again.

Photo of Daniel Kawczynski Daniel Kawczynski Conservative, Shrewsbury and Atcham

My hon. Friend mentions the financial aspects of the crisis and the financial devastation we are going through. Does he recall that, in the last 10 years, the Labour party has repeatedly lambasted us for what they call austerity, which was us trying to balance the books, reducing the deficit from £152 billion a year to £20 billion a year? Does he agree that if we had not pursued that fiscal discipline the situation now would be catastrophic?

Photo of Richard Drax Richard Drax Conservative, South Dorset

I am always delighted to hear from my hon. Friend. He sounds like the former Chancellor of the Exchequer on Radio 4 just the other day. I concur; when there is no money in the coffers, savings have to be made or taxes raised. I pay tribute to the coalition Government, who did their best to get our economy back into a place to face circumstances such as we face today.

Photo of Rachael Maskell Rachael Maskell Shadow Minister (Digital, Culture, Media and Sport)

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for initiating today’s debate. Will he also note that had the Government not stripped our NHS so bare that it did not even have enough PPE to protect its workers, we would not be in this catastrophic mess and we would not have seen our incredible NHS workers die?

Photo of Richard Drax Richard Drax Conservative, South Dorset

I do not entirely concur with the hon. Lady. The NHS has record amounts of money. Let’s face it, many care homes are privately run and responsible for PPE themselves, as is the NHS. Not that long ago an exercise was run and warnings given that were a pandemic of this sort to come, the NHS should prepare. I am not criticising the NHS, for which I have huge respect, but it is up to the organisations themselves and not, perhaps, individual Ministers, to ensure that they have the right equipment. I am not going to go further down that road, if the hon. Lady will forgive me.

I go back to people opening and shutting their businesses. Business owners are furious at this chop and change, which places their livelihoods at risk, some after years of hard graft and sacrifice. Many of my constituents who are on low wages and struggling to survive depend on these jobs to get by. There is no doubt that another lockdown will see many jobs disappear; many already have. The huge take-up of universal credit will get even larger. Not one of my constituents has asked for this. They are proud people who do their level best to contribute. Signing on must be utterly soul destroying.

Let us not forget the welfare bill. Along with the furlough scheme, which is now to be extended—I welcome that in the circumstances—it has soaked up hundreds of billions of pounds we do not have. How and when will it be repaid? It will be repaid by my children—our children—that is who.

We will have to treat this spending spree in the same way we treated our wartime debt. Raising taxes would cripple those who survived these shutdowns, and who, let us remember, pay for our public services through tax. I mean no disrespect to those who work in the public sector, but on the whole their jobs are secure. It is the companies, entrepreneurs, small businesses and self-employed in the private sector who are bearing the brunt of this blunt tool and who must not—I urge the Minister for whom I have huge respect—be hit by taxes when we emerge from this pandemic. More of tax on another day.

What is an alternative path? I am a signatory to the Great Barrington declaration, to which I would like to add eight thoughts. First, the virus is not an indiscriminate killer, as portrayed. We know it mainly targets the elderly, especially those with serious underlying conditions. All our resources should be aimed at protecting them and those in care homes and hospitals. I hope that the Government respond positively to those who rightly say we should be allowed to visit family and friends there during this next lockdown. No one should suffer or die alone. Human touch is not only essential but it saves lives. Test and trace is vital and must be expanded nationwide as soon as possible.

Secondly, we must and should have expanded services in the NHS. Because that has not happened over recent months, many seriously ill patients have forgone hospital treatment either for fear of catching the virus or because beds have been put aside for the predicted surge of those suffering from covid. I have huge admiration for all those working in the NHS and thank them from the bottom of my heart for what they do. But the Government’s slogan “Stay Home, Protect the NHS, Save Lives” has the wrong emphasis. The NHS is here to protect us, not the other way round.

Thirdly, sadly, we must accept a certain number of deaths although, as I have just said, everything must be done to keep the figure as low as possible. Every death is regrettable.

Fourthly, it is time to publish everything we know to counter the current lack of transparency, especially the number of deaths caused by lockdown. Too many inquiries are met with silence or referred to freedom of information requests.

Fifthly, we must abandon lockdowns. They are destructive, divisive and do not work. Sixthly, while protecting the most vulnerable we must let the majority of the nation get on with their lives. Seventhly, that majority should adopt common-sense precautions where appropriate.

Finally, we must get the nation back to work, continue to keep our students at university receiving the education for which they have paid and not virtual education, and our schools must remain open.

I conclude as I started. I sympathise with the Government, but I and others must be allowed to question the direction of travel, especially one that clearly is not working. With signs of unrest growing here and in Europe, I urge the Government to look seriously at another way forward. I am genuinely shocked at how easily people’s hard-earned liberties have been taken away from them without so much as a by your leave. We are in this House to serve, not to dictate. I have learned in life that there is never one solution to a problem. An appreciation of our current situation would throw up several courses of action. May I urge the Government to study the alternative courses before theirs is beyond recall?

Photo of Taiwo Owatemi Taiwo Owatemi Labour, Coventry North West 2:43 pm, 3rd November 2020

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Charles.

I thank Mr Drax for securing this important debate. All of us here today are saddened that we are heading into another lockdown without the Government having done everything in their power to limit the loss of lives and infections in this second wave. I worry that thousands of lives will be lost and that our health and social care sectors will be pushed to breaking point once again. While I commend the Government for listening to the Opposition and to SAGE and for following the science, I am concerned that it has come a little too late.

We are here to discuss the Government’s effectiveness in dealing with the crisis, and I would not be telling the truth if I did not say that the Government have fallen short in navigating us effectively through the crisis. But here we are, and I look forward to working collaboratively with all Members in the House to move forward and mitigate the worst of what is to come.

The Government have rightly said that the NHS will get whatever it takes to deal with covid-19, and I am sure that the hon. Member for South Dorset agrees that it should be the same for the social care sector. It is imperative that weekly testing of care home residents and staff is prioritised in order to save many lives. As I speak about my friends and colleagues in the health and social care sector, I am sure that the hon. Member for South Dorset would like to join me in paying tribute to all the frontline workers who have put their lives on the line during the pandemic.

Statistics show that 1,320 healthcare workers have died from covid. One life lost is too many and 1,320 represents a dereliction of duty on our behalf. Delays in the early stages of the pandemic meant that healthcare workers were forced to work without the requisite PPE. Staff with pre-existing conditions are still working, despite evidence showing that they are more likely to die, or become very ill, from the disease. The sacrifices that they have made makes it incredibly painful that our nurses and colleagues in the social care sector are not being paid a fair wage. There are about 759 nurses living in my constituency who will be expected to work during the deadly second wave. One way this Government can show us that they value the work of our nurses is by increasing their pay now. It is unfathomable that nurses should still have to wait until April to receive better pay for the important work that they do.

As for social care staff, I hope that the hon. Member for South Dorset will agree that those on the minimum wage should also receive increased pay. A pay rise will not compensate them for the missed birthdays, school plays and other memories not shared with their loved ones, but it will give them—nurses and social care workers—dignity in their work and help them to provide for their families, which is help that they deserve.

I wonder whether the hon. Gentleman will join me in asking the Government to ensure that just three things happen: first, that healthcare workers do not run out of personal protective equipment; secondly, that they receive a pay increase; and, thirdly, that healthcare and social care staff with pre-existing medical conditions are better protected and shielded during the second wave.

As I said, it is really important for us to learn the lessons of the first wave and to work together for all our constituents.

Photo of Charles Walker Charles Walker Chair, Administration Committee, Chair, Administration Committee

We are now going to try to keep colleagues to five minutes.

Photo of Rachael Maskell Rachael Maskell Shadow Minister (Digital, Culture, Media and Sport) 2:51 pm, 3rd November 2020

It is a pleasure to serve under you in the Chair, Sir Charles.

On 31 January, the first case of coronavirus occurred in the UK, in my constituency. At that point, we had real engagement with the Government, and I was grateful for the discussions I had with them and officials about how we could manage the pandemic. However, the plans put in place then certainly have not lasted throughout the crisis. That is why it is really important to return to some of the principles that were established early on.

We now know that over a million people in our country have contracted the virus, and 46,853 of them are no longer with us. Therefore, we cannot continue to take the risks that have been taken up to now. Although I heard what Richard Drax said, the situation we are in means that we must put people’s lives at the forefront, which means protecting both their physical and mental health.

It seems to me that the virus is always a step ahead of the measures being put in place to control it. Therefore, this lockdown period will be absolutely vital for us to catch up with, get ahead of and then get on top of the virus, so that we can lock it, rather than people and the economy, down.

That was the plan on day one; that was part of the discussions that I had earlier this year. I was told that meticulous contact tracing was absolutely essential to track down the virus. However, after talking to public health officials locally, it is clear that there is so much delay in the process that contact tracing has been ineffective.

Let me give some statistics. When it comes to getting the test results themselves, 16% are provided within 24 hours and 60% within 48 hours. Within 72 hours, we get 96% of the data. Often, however, the data coming through is incomplete, because it has not been properly entered into the system. On top of that, we know that Serco then holds that data, often for 48 hours, as it has a national contact tracing system. By the time local authorities get the data, we are into day five, six or even seven of the virus. That is not how we lock down the virus tightly and move into the isolation and testing process. That is what must change.

We know that the ability of Serco to deliver good contact tracing falls below 50%. However, local authorities are turning that situation around. Yesterday, the statistic for York was 83.7%, and local officials say they would get to 100% if they had complete data. Let us just imagine it: the local authority controls the testing process, so when somebody turns up at a test, local officials input the data, and the test results could then be delivered overnight. That could be done in York if the Government supported local providers, such as the university and local laboratories, to turn those tests around overnight. Then, in the morning, the local public health team would be tracking down the virus and there would be contact tracing the next day, locking down the virus and therefore ensuring that the rest of the economy is working well.

That turns the whole debate on its head, from assuming that everybody is contagious to allowing us to have our freedoms. That is what needs to happen in the next month, because the accuracy local authorities can achieve comes from their local knowledge and the precision they have through their professional training. There are also just simple things, such as using a local phone number and knocking on doors to lock down the virus. That works, and it is essential that we go through that process.

I also want to raise an issue about the economy. At the moment, broad sweeps are taken, with different parts of the economy and different sectors shutting down. If we took a public health approach, as we do with all other public health issues, and instead made sure that workplaces and venues were covid-secure, we could certify them as such and ensure that there is enforcement. If they were not, they would be subject to an improvement notice or closure. Again, taking that public health approach means that we are not ruining the economy; we are just putting good practice in place. That is how we can manage the pandemic into the longer term, and I trust the Government will respond.

Photo of Steven Baker Steven Baker Conservative, Wycombe 2:56 pm, 3rd November 2020

Sir Charles, I am absolutely delighted that you are in the Chair, and I am sure my right hon. Friend the Minister is glad too. I congratulate my hon. Friend Richard Drax on securing the debate, and I am glad that he did so.

Having had the privilege of being a Minister with cross-Government responsibilities, I want to begin by reflecting on just how magnificently effective the Government have been in many ways in responding to the covid-19 outbreak. I regret that I will not be able to enumerate in five minutes all the ways in which they have been high performing, but I will touch on a few.

Starting locally, Buckinghamshire Healthcare NHS Trust has been absolutely outstanding. It is under the leadership of Neil Macdonald, and I could not have asked for more from our local NHS, which has responded flexibly, kept services going and looked after the public. I do not mind putting on the record that even though I am fine and I got the all-clear, I had a genuine cancer scare in the course of the first lockdown. I was therefore delighted that cancer services were continuing and that I was able to have the necessary tests to discover I was fine. However, it was a frightening moment, and I was grateful to the healthcare trust for making its services available uninterrupted, as far as I experienced them, throughout the crisis.

Buckinghamshire Council is so effective and dynamic that I could almost become an advocate of the ephemeral term “the entrepreneurial state”. I have been delighted with how the council has risen to the challenge of looking after local people, whether that was those who needed food delivered, local children or the homeless. I am delighted by the council’s performance. Fire, ambulance and GPs have all also risen to the challenge. This is about Government effectiveness, so I will not touch on the private sector, but I am grateful to it too. I have been delighted, both personally and on behalf of my electors, by the performance of the full spectrum of local public services.

The Treasury’s performance in delivering economic support has been absolutely tremendous. The gaps in support have been well rehearsed and argued over, and I will not go over them again here. I suspect it is futile to ask my right hon. Friends to close the gaps in support, but I particularly plead for the self-employed earning just over £50,000 a year. They have been especially hard hit, and there are a number of other groups, which we do not need to go through now. However, I encourage the Government to close those gaps. The key point with the Treasury is how easy it is to forget just what a stellar performance it was to get the furlough scheme, the self-employed schemes and the various loan schemes in place as fast as it did. It was an absolutely incredible performance.

We could also talk about the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government getting the homeless off the streets, apart from those who did not want to be reached, as far as I can tell, and about the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, the Cabinet Office, the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy and the Department for Education.

However, I want to press one issue with my right hon. Friend the Minister, which is PPE supplies. It has been raised already, and it has rather dropped off the radar between waves. I hope that in the next wave we do not find we have any shortages of PPE. I do not think the public will take that kindly at all. In the Department of Health and Social Care, there has been tremendous success with testing, and we are now looking forward with energy and enthusiasm, I think, to a further expansion of testing, particularly in Liverpool.

In my remaining minute and a half, I want to touch on some suggestions in terms of areas for improvement. I have four, if I can rattle through them. The first, which is possibly the one that has been most alive in our minds this week, and which hon. Friends have touched on already, is the communication of complex data. In particular, the modelled death projections have quickly been shown to be out of date, never accurate and not the most relevant factor to the decision—yet they are repeatedly put to us. I use those three factors because those are what come out of the answers I have been given. Every time officials and Ministers have shown us those charts, it has been like sunshine on the morning mist—the importance of the charts has just evaporated when prodded. That is regrettable; I will try not to go any further than that. This Government are supposed to be very good at communicating complex data. There are some exceptional data scientists in the Government—it has been my privilege to have contact with them over the last week, and these are really impressive people—but something went wrong when those charts came out.

The second area is expert advice. I have made some proposals for competitive multidisciplinary expert advice with red teams. I thank the Government for letting me be a red team. Modelling also needs to be improved; I will make some suggestions. Finally, there is cost-benefit analysis. It might be practically impossible to give us a cost-benefit analysis, but in the context of these momentous decisions, we really should be looking at some figures to help inform our choices.

Photo of Jim Shannon Jim Shannon Shadow DUP Spokesperson (Human Rights), Shadow DUP Spokesperson (Health) 3:01 pm, 3rd November 2020

I thank Richard Drax for the opportunity to speak in this debate. I might have a slightly different focus in relation to where we are going.

As I said in the main Chamber last night, I am not a scientist, and I am certainly not a strategist. I understand my limitations in relation to covid-19, and I depend on others to keep me right about where we are. That allows me to accept that, during the first wave, the Government did what they could with the information they had, to fight the virus and the effect it had on this country. I am not going to cast any aspersions on the Government for that. I thank them and Ministers for all that they have done in a very difficult and trying time.

I also want to put on record my thanks to nurses and care workers, and I will make a plea, as Taiwo Owatemi did, for the nurses. The Royal College of Nursing has contacted me, as it has contacted every MP, asking for a wage increase. I have told them I will support that; I have written to the Minister about it, and I want to make sure that that is in Hansard today.

We are now in a second wave, and we thankfully have more information. We have more knowledge and experience, and with the additional support comes an additional demand to get things right—as the Scripture says, to whom much is given, much is required. That being the case, the nation is watching and will hold us to a much higher standard. We have to get this right this time round.

I have lost a loved one very close to me. My wife’s mother died from covid-19 just two weeks ago. My sister-in-law was also getting oxygen. My wife’s aunt and uncle have both had it as well. I understand all too well the human aspect that is faced. I see the torment of those who cannot be with their loved ones at the end, who cannot choose the outfit and cannot have a normal funeral. Funerals are limited to 25 people, who then have to go home separately to their homes to grieve. The human cost is massive. What I suggest to everyone here—I say this honestly and respectfully—is to not underestimate the impact of covid-19 and the harm and the deaths that it brings. We all have to find a way to mitigate that as best as we can. Speaking personal, covid-19 is the most horrible, unfeeling and cruel disease. It robs families of their loved ones and their dignity.

However, the human loss in terms of the worst recession this nation has faced will be great too. There are cancer diagnoses missed by people who are afraid to go to the doctors. There is the inadequate funding that will come when budgets are slashed, which will mean that mental health services are lost. Every one of us is pleading for that focus on the national health. We see cutting-edge technology as a faraway dream, and we see all those things that are taken for granted—our welfare state—decimated due to decisions made in this House. The pressure to get it right is immense. Those who are on the minimum wage and those whose hours have been cut find themselves in a dire financial position. We cannot ignore these things—they are happening. We cannot ignore the self-employed, as Mr Baker said. We all know those people as well.

Local businesses in my area have gone all out to ensure that they mitigate what is happening as much as possible. I have seen small businesses taking such steps as supplying free masks at the door. Small businesses understand that the mortgage payment is due. Their ability to invest in stock is on the line, unless they do all they can to stop the spread. It is for those people that I ask the Government again to assess the transmission data, and pinpoint where transmission happens, rather than blanket banning all shops.

Christmas is the time when the local high street makes the money to keep it going for the year. We all know that, and I know it is true for the towns in my constituency. That all hangs in the balance—on a thread. There are also the hairdressers and barbers; the Government want to get the R rate down to 1, but they get it down to 0.02 and they are all closed. Why is that? Children can go to school—in Northern Ireland, they went back to school on Monday past, which is good news. I also make a plea for churches. People want to worship and pray together. I would like to know where the data is that says churches must close, because I am not quite sure it is there.

It is important that we are here to do our job. I wholeheartedly agree with the Leader of the House, but it is vital that shops can be open in a safe way to do their job. We must get that right and ensure that lockdown gives us time to get opening and safety measures right, so that we do not find ourselves in this situation again, with the spikes that we are told will happen, in February and the spring. Our economy and the future health of the nation simply cannot take it. How do we do it? We do it together. We deal with health and the economy together. We support our Government and our Minister to try to make that happen.

Photo of Bob Seely Bob Seely Conservative, Isle of Wight 3:06 pm, 3rd November 2020

I thank my hon. Friend Richard Drax for securing the debate. It is a pleasure to follow Jim Shannon, and I am sorry for his recent loss.

I do not want to be negative, but I am going to be quite negative, so I apologise up front. There is a lot that the Government—especially Treasury—have done that is extremely good, and I know that all Ministers are working as hard as they can, but I am concerned that people are losing faith in their use of data and science. Because the debate is such an important one, I want to focus on that and to park a lot of the good stuff, although I am not ignoring it.

First, scientists are becoming increasingly sceptical about the use of lockdowns. Edinburgh’s Professor Woolhouse says that lockdowns are a strategy that is “visibly failing”. Oxford’s Carl Heneghan—thank God for him—says that lockdowns push peaks into the future, just requiring more lockdowns. Anyone who thinks we are all coming out of lockdown on 2 December is living in a parallel universe. One can dream about it, but frankly the reality is slight. Sunetra Gupta has said:

“Lockdown is a blunt...policy that forces the poorest and most vulnerable people to bear the brunt of…coronavirus.”

Everyone making decisions about coronavirus is in a well-paid job with a cushy pension. There are many people who are suffering about whom one cannot say that. The WHO says that lockdowns are a last resort.

So disturbed are Heneghan and Tom Jefferson by the use of Government stats—the predictions, projections and illustrations—that they have said that the Government’s use of them is “abysmal”. I would love to know from the Minister why she thinks that senior independent scientists are being quite so caustic about the Government’s use of facts.

One reason, as far as I can see, is Professor Ferguson and Imperial College. I shall be careful what I say, because they are professionals and worthy of respect, but Professor Ferguson has for 20 years had a history of predicting mass death from almost every public health emergency. I am not a scientist, so I will not quote myself; instead, I will quote a bunch of other people, because it is strongly in the public interest that the Government, as a matter of urgency, conduct a peer review of the evidence that they have been receiving.

Johan Giesecke, Sweden’s former chief epidemiologist, said Ferguson’s model was “not very good”. In academia that is fighting talk. The Washington Post quoted him as saying that the forecasts were almost hysterical. Lund University applied Ferguson’s models and found a massive difference between his predictions and what happened. Professor Angus Dalgleish said that there had been “lurid predictions”. Viscount Ridley has criticised Ferguson’s modellings. Professor Michael Thrusfield of the University of Edinburgh said that Ferguson’s modelling on foot and mouth was “severely flawed”. John Ioannidis of Stanford University said that

“major assumptions and estimates that are built in the calculations…seem to be substantially inflated”,

although he did say that the Imperial team seemed to be professional.

Other experts whom I have spoken to say that Imperial’s work is almost always an extreme outlier to normal forecasts. Yet it seems that the Government, because of their risk-averse nature—which I understand—have taken outliers as the norm, which they categorically are not. Let us look at Ferguson’s predictions: 150,000 deaths from foot and mouth disease, when the figure was between 50 and 50,000; 150 million worldwide from bird flu, when 282 died; and 65,000 British deaths from swine flu, when 457 died. I know that mitigations take place afterwards, but the Government need to look into some of the advice they are getting, because I think it is highly dangerous. Members of SAGE yesterday were arguing for a total shutdown, including schools, and I really wonder whether the Government are losing the plot over this. We are obsessive about the risks of covid.

Photo of Steven Baker Steven Baker Conservative, Wycombe

I had a meeting earlier, which my hon. Friend knows about, with Sir Jeremy Farrar. One thing that he explained to me is that if schools are left open, that adds 0.3 to 0.4 to R, so if we are going into lockdown for a month, it is a big compromise. The Government needs to explain why their strategy is consistent with leaving schools open, much as I applaud the fact they will be there.

Photo of Bob Seely Bob Seely Conservative, Isle of Wight

Where is there any sense of balance? I speak personally, and I know Jim Shannon lost somebody recently. Over the last decade, both my parents died of winter respiratory flu, and that was really upsetting for me. Three years ago, 22,000 people died of winter flu. According to the logic of some hon. Members of this House, we would effectively have to shut down our lives for six months of the year in case people die. A bizarrely dangerous precedent is being set, whereby the Government now believe they can effectively halt death.

Once upon a time, we would go to someone’s funeral when they hit 85 or over—my dad made it to his mid-80s—and talk about a life well led. Now, if someone dies of covid several years above the national average lifespan, politicians are saying it is the greatest disaster facing humanity and must never happen again.

I understand the virulent nature of covid, and I understand the impact on the NHS, although I thought the NHS was there to protect us, not the other way around. We need some semblance of balance; if the Government were using statistics honestly, openly and transparently and, on balance, came down on the side of lockdown, that would be fine. However, lockdown is a dubious tool and the way we are presenting the data is a hazardous way to approach the subject.

Photo of Daniel Kawczynski Daniel Kawczynski Conservative, Shrewsbury and Atcham 3:13 pm, 3rd November 2020

I pay tribute to my hon. Friend Richard Drax for securing this important debate. I want to spend my five minutes touching upon how devolution stands up at a time of national crisis. Many of us had severe reservations about the devolution process when Mr Blair started to change our national makeup and constitution. I speak as someone who represents an English seat that borders Wales.

In Shrewsbury we are very proud of being the gateway to Wales. We have so many Welsh people living in our constituency that when England and Wales play against each other in rugby, we have both flags flying side by side throughout the town. Many people in our community have homes, businesses and land on both sides of the border; most importantly, many have families on both sides of the border. It has been devastating to see increasing divergence between the jurisdictions of London—of Westminster—and Wales, throwing up a great deal of uncertainty, misery and paralysis for border communities such as mine. It was really brought home to me by Councillor Hignett from Pontesbury, who has grandchildren just across the border. He can see some of his grandchildren who are on one side of the border, but not others, although Powys and Shropshire have an almost identical R rate.

I am also very disappointed with the Mayors, and the one I am most disappointed with is Andy Burnham. I believe that his grandstanding, pontificating conduct on the television has destabilised to a certain degree the tiered system that was starting to show results. Has his conduct contributed to the fact that the United Kingdom is now moving from a tiered system to a full-blown national lockdown? I would argue that the sheer refusal from him and his like to understand the common need to come together in a national crisis has contributed to making sure that areas such as mine with low R rates are now being forced into a national lockdown.

Photo of Charles Walker Charles Walker Chair, Administration Committee, Chair, Administration Committee

Order. It will have to be quick, otherwise we will run out of time.

Photo of Richard Drax Richard Drax Conservative, South Dorset

This is devolve and divide. Would it not be wise for the Government not to go down the mayoral route in the future for other areas of the country?

Photo of Daniel Kawczynski Daniel Kawczynski Conservative, Shrewsbury and Atcham

I absolutely agree. This is something that historians will be looking over for many years to come. We have to learn from these mistakes during the national crisis.

We have a very low infection rate in Shropshire in comparison with other parts of the United Kingdom. We are a large rural county that is very spread out. Salopians—people from Shropshire—have been following the rules, but as a result of what has been going on in other parts of the United Kingdom, we now have a lockdown, which will have devastating consequence for many of our businesses. I will be voting for the legislation on Wednesday, but I am sure, Sir Charles, that you have listened to your constituents and many small businesses, which have put so much energy and effort into creating livelihoods. So much is at risk now, and it really pains me to see that suffering.

As I said earlier, I am proud of the fact that when we came to office we reduced the annual structural deficit that we inherited from Labour from £152 billion to £20 billion a year. My hon. Friend the Member for South Dorset will remember the vilification to which we have been subjected for the past 10 years, with talk of savage Tory cuts and austerity. My goodness me, at a time when we are borrowing more than £200 billion, when we have a debt ratio of more than 103% of GDP, when we are already spending £53 billion of taxpayers’ money on debt interest and when the crisis has not even finished, I dread to think of the economic situation that we would now be in if we had followed the policies of the now suspended former Labour leader and gone for massive borrowing when we did not have a crisis.

I want to ask the Minister about something that a Conservative candidate in the forthcoming local elections has asked. Mrs Susan Coleman wants confirmation that everything is being done for ladies who are pregnant so that when they go through the process in hospital, their partners are given covid tests as quickly as possible and can be present throughout the whole process of giving birth to the child.

Finally, the leader of the Conservative group in Shrewsbury Town Council wants me to ask what happens if the R rate falls below 1 during this lockdown. Will it be possible for it to be lifted sooner than 2 December?

Photo of Charles Walker Charles Walker Chair, Administration Committee, Chair, Administration Committee

Mr Hunt will get 5 minutes if Mr Green takes just 5 minutes and colleagues do not intervene on him, and then everybody will be treated fairly.

Photo of Chris Green Chris Green Conservative, Bolton West 3:19 pm, 3rd November 2020

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Charles. I congratulate my hon. Friend Richard Drax on securing this incredibly important debate.

My principal concern is the somewhat erratic nature of the Government’s approach to dealing with the covid crisis. At the beginning, we were in a very difficult position because we knew very little about covid, its impact and how it spread. It is not like flu, which we can understand by looking at last year and the year before that, and we cannot really look at what other countries are doing to see what we should be doing, because each country is different. We do not have that comparative process, but as we move forward we can reflect on what we have done, reflect on our successes and failures, and adapt as we go along. I was hopeful that once we had the tier system in place, we would be able to see the impact in the respective tiers. In Liverpool, for example, the Government would say that tier 3 was having a positive impact.

There were drawn-out negotiations in Greater Manchester that lasted 10 days. I would not want to apportion the blame for that to the Mayor or the Government. On one hand, we understand that this is an incredibly urgent situation, requiring decisive and quick decision making. One the other hand, negotiations can take 10 days, when in other circumstances the lockdown features have been imposed centrally.

The current approach to lockdown has us going from the tiered system—before it has been proven to work or to fail, and without seeing what evidence we can take from it—immediately into another national circuit-breaker lockdown. We have had one of those before, for three weeks. This is a milder version, because schools are not included, but it is happening in winter, in more difficult conditions. As my hon. Friend the Member for South Dorset suggested, this lockdown should be more severe, because winter presents a more difficult environment in which to achieve a reduction of the R rate and control transmission to allow the test and trace system to work.

In Bolton, we have been through the national lockdown restrictions, the Greater Manchester local lockdown and the Bolton economic lockdown. We came back out into the Manchester lockdown and went into tier 2, then tier 3. Before we know it, we will be in another national lockdown. I am not sure that there has been sufficient reflection on the often devastating impact on people’s lives, livelihoods and education. Questions over civil liberties have not been looked into a great deal over the course of the pandemic, which began months ago.

There has not been enough time for reflection. Throughout this crisis, and especially since Bolton has been in such a difficult position, I have been asking for information from the Government. What has been happening? What is going on? What reports and assessments have been produced, and can I have access to them? Can I explain to my constituents what they have been through and why, and what the problems were? I have also asked what the successes have been. What successes have the Government learned from in Bolton that can be applied to the national lockdown or introduced to the tiering system? I would love to know.

Unfortunately, the Government have not communicated the basics. We are now going into a second national lockdown, and we need people to have confidence in the Government and their actions. We heard on Saturday about the figure of 4,000 deaths per day—four times the figure at the previous peak of the pandemic—but it largely does not reflect our experience over the last six or seven months. Our doctors and hospitals are far better prepared, and they have far greater knowledge than they did. According to the Government, however, the median figure in that report of 4,000 deaths a day could increase to 6,000. Many of my constituents are looking with disbelief at what the Government say. If people do not believe what the Government say or believe in their approach, people will not follow the law or the guidance.

To conclude, I would like to raise a couple of points. Regarding places of worship and gyms, what evidence is there to say that they should be closed down? What impact assessments have been made on the closure of gyms, particularly for women? People are concerned about running in the dark, and I think that will have a greater impact on women. The question should not be what assessment the House has made of the Government’s actions on covid, but whether the Government have really considered their own actions.

Photo of Tom Hunt Tom Hunt Conservative, Ipswich 3:24 pm, 3rd November 2020

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Charles. I spoke yesterday at the general covid debate, where I covered lots of issues that I feel strongly about. Today I will talk specifically about NHS Test and Trace and some of my concerns about low levels of compliance, the mental health implications for people who are asked to self-isolate and the impact on their financial circumstances. I know a fair bit about this, because I was recently asked to self-isolate for 11 days. I immediately went to the guidelines, which said that a person will be asked to self-isolate if they have been exposed to somebody who has tested positive for covid within 48 hours of them developing symptoms. For me, I worked it out and it was 62 hours, and yet I was asked to self-isolate. According to the NHS Test and Trace guidelines, I should not have been asked to self-isolate. However, I was and I did. It was not pleasant, but we got through it. I got a very bad cold, which I thought was a cold and not covid. Then I thought I might have covid and a cold at the same time, so I did get a test and it was negative, but I still had to self-isolate for nine days afterwards.

I mention this because it got me thinking about the low levels of compliance. In the debate yesterday, I think my right hon. Friend Jeremy Hunt suggested that the figure for compliance was only around 20%. I have heard similar figures mentioned in the media. That is a concern, because if we are going to have a successful test and trace system, we need really high levels of compliance. The question is: are we asking too much by requiring people to self-isolate for 14 days, and are we getting very low levels of compliance because we are asking too much? Would it be better to be more realistic, by perhaps asking people to self-isolate for seven days and getting about 90% compliance? I happen to think that would be better, and that there would be higher levels of compliance.

We have heard about the financial impact faced by those who are asked to self-isolate, and how self-isolation not only impacts them financially—I know that financial support is available, and whether that goes as far as it needs to is a different question—but disrupts their working life. Their lost income and the disruption to their working lives need to be taken into account.

The other point is about the circumstances in which people live. Not everybody has a nice big garden, not everybody has a terrace and not everybody has a balcony. When we are asking people to self-isolate for 14 days, we should never lose sight of the significance of what we are asking them to do. Some people live in circumstances that mean that they really would not want to be confined in their flat for 14 days, because of the impact on their mental health and the sense of being imprisoned and unable to escape or even to go out for a breath of fresh air.

If we are going to have a successful test and trace system, we need guidelines that are easy for people to follow and buy in to. I do believe that the vast majority of people in this country get it and want to play their part. If they are asked to self-isolate, they need to understand the rules and the guidelines, and those rules and guidelines need to be followed—in my case, they were not. It needs to be realistic about what it is asking people to do. If that means being pragmatic by saying seven days instead of 14 to drive up the rates of compliance, that is better than the status quo where it seems like so many people are not following the guidelines.

We have heard all about test and trace, but we have not heard enough about the implications for people of being asked to self-isolate for so long, or from the perspective of our liberties. Yes, it is necessary to have a test and trace system and yes, self-isolation is necessary if someone has tested positive, has had symptoms or has been exposed to someone who has tested positive. When we are discussing local authorities sharing data with the police force, the great concern I have is that some individuals might not get a test when they have symptoms. They may think, “If I get a test, not only will I have to self-isolate for 14 days, but potentially nine or 10 people I know will have to as well,” and that might impact their lives in all manner of different ways: financially, mentally and psychologically.

Let us have a test and trace policy driven by pragmatism to get high rates of compliance, but also one that never loses sight of the significance of what it is asking people to do. That is incredibly important, and I thank all the NHS workers who are working on this. We need to have a system that is easy to follow, realistic and drives high rates of compliance.

Photo of Alison Thewliss Alison Thewliss Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Treasury) 3:29 pm, 3rd November 2020

It is a pleasure to see you in the Chair, Sir Charles.

I am grateful for the opportunity of this debate on the Government’s response to covid-19, which was not particularly effective. Unusually in debates in this place, there is cross-party agreement that their response was not particularly effective, albeit perhaps not always for the same reasons. Conservative Members and I might not agree on many other things, and we might not agree today, but there is agreement in this room that the UK Government’s response to coronavirus was not particularly effective.

We can see that in the figures, the latest of which appeared today and showed over 1 million cases recorded across the UK and 46,853 deaths. Those figures should chill us and give us cause for reflection. We could always have done more to prevent those deaths and the upset and suffering caused to so many people. My thoughts go out to everybody who has been affected, including my friend Jim Shannon, who spoke of his family circumstances. It diminishes those deaths to say that we should get back to normal. We should not do that. We should try to protect more people in the weeks and months to come.

The UK has among the highest number of deaths and of cases in the world, so we have done something wrong. I fully accept that we did not know what we were dealing with—everyone muddled along and did the best they could—but we have now had many months to get this right. The UK Government spent lots on Serco’s ineffective track and trace system, and money has been thrown at the wrong kind of PPE that could not be used, yet we still do not have a proper plan. We saw the image of the Prime Minister hustling on to the television and disrupting Saturday night’s TV schedules because his plans had been leaked, only for him to announce lockdown not because of Wales, Scotland, Northern Ireland or northern England, which had asked for and needed it given what they were going through, but because the south of England needed it, showing the chaos the Government are in.

The Government were told time and again to plan ahead. Only the other week I asked the Chancellor to plan ahead, to extend the furlough and to accept that things are not going back to normal any time soon. Businesses in our constituencies need that additional support in the weeks and months ahead because we cannot go back to normal.

Sectors of the economy—hospitality, leisure, tourism, transport, culture and the arts, conferences and exhibitions, weddings; the list is endless—cannot go back to normal because it is not safe for them to do so. In many cases, the Government seem to have ignored that reality, but they should not do so.

The other issue raised by my friend on the Treasury Committee, Mr Baker, is the gaps in support. The Committee highlighted those gaps in its work and offered suggestions on how they might be addressed by the UK Government, who of course have the powers and the money to do so. The gaps remain. Those who run their own businesses—company directors and freelancers—have been advised by the UK Government to take up freelance roles and organise their businesses, only for them now to find themselves with no support and no prospect of it, because following the Prime Minister’s announcement at the weekend it does not seem as though those gaps will be plugged. The Government know about this. They have been told about this. They have been offered solutions, yet still they ignore a significant group of at least 3 million people. How the Government expect those people to pay their bills and feed their kids I do not know, because they cannot.

The hon. Member for Strangford mentioned the financial pressures of people on the minimum wage, who cannot survive on two thirds of their wages—nor should they be asked to do so. People on benefits are struggling. There has been no guarantee that the welcome £20 uplift to universal credit will be extended. It was not extended to people on legacy benefits—many millions across the UK—who are struggling and need that additional support.

I welcome the announcement made today by the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions on extending the minimum income floor to April, I believe. If that extension has been made and the DWP has accepted that there needs to be a change to the minimum income floor, why not to everything else? Why pick this one aspect that needs additional support and extend it to April, but nothing else? The furlough for the self-employment scheme runs until December. Why not extend it? Why not look at the reality we face? If the Government do not need to use it, that is fine, but it would be in place if it was needed. That is crucial in enabling families and businesses to plan.

I was disappointed to hear the comments made by Daniel Kawczynski. He accused devolution of being about division, and the Mayors—particularly Andy Burnham—of grandstanding. They are not. They are representing the people who elected them. That is their job. That is their duty. That is their role. It is the UK Government’s role to listen. If the UK Government had listened and reacted in kind, there would have been no need for that grandstanding, and no need for those Governments to be calling for more. It would have been something that would have been put in place in partnership. It should not be that these things have to be conducted in the media. These things should have been agreed well ahead of that having happened. The Government failed by not listening to those directly elected Mayors and devolved institutions, and that is why we have ended up in this situation.

I dispute the point made about the ten years of austerity that we have seen. I read an article on the website of the British Medical Association, which said that austerity had actually made the UK more vulnerable to coronavirus and its effect. In an article about experiences from the front line, it described austerity as “covid’s little helper”. That should also give cause for thought.

Photo of Daniel Kawczynski Daniel Kawczynski Conservative, Shrewsbury and Atcham

You always run out of other people’s money.

Photo of Alison Thewliss Alison Thewliss Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Treasury)

It is all of our money. The Member talks about other people’s money. It is all of our money. We all pay in and we all deserve to have things when we need them. Part of the situation we are in is because of that. I shall wind up, Sir Charles, because I can see the clock.

There is much talk of scientists and different scientific opinions, and that is fine. Scientists are the experts in many ways on this. We should not judge them too harshly, because we have been finding out more all the time. Those scientists have the experience and qualifications that most of us in this room do not. We can have our opinions on which scientists we want to believe, but in the end we have to take the best possible evidence, do the best we can, and try to prevent any more people from losing their lives to coronavirus in the weeks and months ahead.

Photo of Charles Walker Charles Walker Chair, Administration Committee, Chair, Administration Committee

Ms Hayes, if you take 10 minutes and the front Bench takes 10 minutes, Mr Drax will get two minutes at the end and we will have landed this thing perfectly.

Photo of Helen Hayes Helen Hayes Shadow Minister (Cabinet Office) 3:37 pm, 3rd November 2020

It is a pleasure to see you in the chair, Sir Charles. I congratulate Richard Drax on securing this important debate. It is right that in the midst of this deadly pandemic, which has cost over 46,000 lives and prompted the deepest recession since the 1930s, the Government are held to account for their response. It is welcome that hon. Members have had the opportunity to do so today.

My hon. Friend Taiwo Owatemi spoke powerfully on behalf of nurses and social care workers and about the extraordinary sacrifices made by so many of them, as well as the need for them to be properly paid and protected. My hon. Friend Rachael Maskell rightly highlighted the vital role of test and trace in enabling as many people as possible to live as normally as possible, and the failures of the Government’s privatised Serco system to do so. I want to add my condolences to Jim Shannon on the sad loss of his mother-in-law to this horrible disease. Bob Seely spoke about the Government’s use of data, saying that they have not made the best use of it, and Chris Green described the Government’s approach as erratic: I agree with both of those statements, though I fear not so much with the rest of their analysis.

The Labour party supported the Government in introducing necessary measures to respond to the coronavirus pandemic to save lives and to prevent the NHS from becoming overwhelmed. We are now at a point, once again, at which R is rising in all regions and across all age groups, so we do not agree with hon. Members who have expressed the view that lockdown restrictions are not necessary, or that a whole-country approach should not be used at this point in time. Nor do we agree with hon. Members seeking to trade off the impact on the UK economy against coronavirus spread and impact on health.

Photo of Helen Hayes Helen Hayes Shadow Minister (Cabinet Office)

I am afraid that I will not, as time is short. The consistent pattern across the world is that the countries with the highest levels of coronavirus infections also have the worst economic impacts. The two are linked. An effective approach to infection control is also protective of the economy. The tragic reality is that the UK has both the highest number of deaths of any European country and the deepest economic recession of any G7 country. The key question at this point is why the Government’s response has been riddled with so many failures. The UK entered the pandemic with a PPE stockpile which had been depleted and without emergency supply chains in place, leaving health and social care workers unprotected at the frontline of infection control. Despite the horrific data and dire warnings from Italy, Spain and France—and the knowledge that the pandemic in the UK was running just weeks behind them—the Government were too slow to introduce the first lockdown.

When faced with the challenge of PPE and ventilator procurement, and the need to establish a test, trace and isolate system, the Government instinctively turned to outsourcing companies—many without any proven track record of delivering the goods and services required but, on too many occasions, with strong links to the Tory party—instead of looking to public services. Documents leaked this week reveal Cabinet Office contacts and others were helping VIPs sell PPE to the Government outside normal procurement channels. Contact tracing—the critical tool in preventing infection spread—was suspended in mid-March, at which point the Government lost control of the virus. Since it started again, the privatised Serco test and trace system has entirely failed to reach the baseline hurdle of reliable—still less the promise of world-beating—while much more effective contact tracing has been done by hard pressed local public health teams.

Tom Hunt highlighted issues around compliance. Yet in failing to hold his closest adviser, Dominic Cummings, to the same rules that he had ordered the public to obey, the Prime Minister himself undermined public trust and confidence in his approach, confirming in the minds of residents across the country that we are not all in this together. For months, the social care sector was left entirely abandoned, without PPE or access to testing, but was forced to accept patients who were covid positive, resulting in huge numbers of tragic, avoidable deaths. Unlike in Wales, social care workers in England are not entitled to full sick pay if they need to self-isolate, forcing many to choose between health and safety and putting food on the table. Now the Chancellor has increased the tax on PPE by reinstating 20% VAT, affecting people buying face masks. Why have the Government introduced a mask tax in the second wave of a pandemic?

The Government were warned weeks ago that a short, sharp circuit break would be effective in limiting infection spread and mitigating the impact of a second wave. If anybody has any doubt about the need for that, I invite them to make—as I did just a week ago—a visit to their local hospital, to see how exhausted staff still feel coming into this second wave. When we talk about the need to protect our NHS, we are talking about those staff being overwhelmed by the numbers of patients who are so sick and who they have to treat. But when Labour called for a short, sharp circuit break, the Prime Minister ridiculed the idea, and the Chancellor doubled down to block it. It is clear that the delay has cost both lives and livelihoods, and has deepened the scars to our economy. We now face a much harder lockdown with a far higher cost, because the Government have once again acted far too late.

While the Government have our support for the additional measures this week, their response to this deadly pandemic has been characterised by a lack of preparedness, dither and delay, prioritising who they know over who is best placed to deliver, and failing to heed and act on the advice of scientists. Families and communities across the country are paying a devastatingly high price for their incompetence.

Photo of Charles Walker Charles Walker Chair, Administration Committee, Chair, Administration Committee

Paymaster General, could you leave two minutes at the end for the proposer of the debate? Thank you.

Photo of Penny Mordaunt Penny Mordaunt Paymaster General 3:43 pm, 3rd November 2020

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Charles. In making a speech, the advice is usually say what you are going to say, say it, and then say what you have said, but I am going to start by saying what I am not going to say, because I understand that the specific rules around this next lockdown were signed off during the course of this debate, and will be published at around 5 o’clock this evening. Some hon. Members have mentioned specifics for places of worship, golf, gyms, and so forth. So as not to give Members duff information, I will not go into detail on that, except to say that I have had daily calls with Members. I have been listening to concerns from many Members about those issues and ensuring that those taking decisions and designing policies are very aware of the concerns of Members on both sides of the House, as well as the importance of things such as exercise to people’s wellbeing, alongside the importance of visits to family members in homes and the isolated elderly in particular.

I am also not going to go into detail about the general issues that my hon. Friends the Members for Ipswich (Tom Hunt) and for Wycombe (Mr Baker) and the hon. Members for Coventry North West (Taiwo Owatemi) and for York Central (Rachael Maskell) have raised about testing, track and trace and PPE. Those issues have been well rehearsed, and those Members’ points have been well made and will certainly be listened to.

I want to get to the heart of this matter, and of the issue that was raised by my hon. Friend Richard Drax, who secured this debate. I thank him for having done so and, in response to his opening remarks, I will not say that that any Member who has spoken today wishes to let this virus rip. I regret those accusations that have been made in the past about people who are sceptical of the Government’s approach. None of wants to let this virus rip. All of us understand how devastating it is; many of us have had bereavements as a consequence of it. We have all been touched by this virus, and my sympathies go to Jim Shannon. Given that there is no silver bullet on the horizon, hon. Members are rightly asking whether this is the right course of action. That is a completely legitimate question to ask; in fact, it is our job in this place to ask those kinds of questions.

The question is whether we are paying too high a price to push infections out. As hon. Members will know, the Prime Minister has been trying to avoid a second lockdown, and has instead been pursuing local and regional lockdowns in the first instance. However, he has reluctantly decided to take this decision, and outlined his reasons for doing so at the weekend and yesterday in the House. I realise that it is incredibly bad news for many hon. Members and their constituents. I understand that people who are in areas of the country that have very few infections or none will be very aggrieved by this situation, and I also understand that there are parts of the country that have not just had the double whammy of two lockdowns—one gone and one to come—but have been under other restrictions in the interim. That is a very painful place for them to be.

Why are the Government pursuing this strategy? At the heart of it is the NHS. The aim is simple: to avoid hospitals buckling under the weight of covid patients, and to prevent deaths. Shortages of bed spaces and staff in certain parts of the country mean that the system is already under pressure, and we are told that the whole system capacity, including the additional Nightingale capacity, could be overwhelmed by Christmas if we do not take this course of action. Of course, there are costs to healthcare and the NHS of pursuing that strategy. Many hon. Members have spoken, not just today but previously, about the consequences of the first lockdown. We know that there were people who did not seek help —who did not access healthcare. We know that treatments were delayed, and we know that there is a real human cost to delaying those treatments and surgeries.

In social care, too, there has been a price to pay: isolation for many of those in their twilight years, but also—this is often not spoken about—adults of working age, such as those with a learning disability who have seen their care packages cut because of the provisions understandably put into the Coronavirus Act 2020. Mencap’s survey of carers across the UK revealed that 69% of people with a learning disability have experienced cuts to their social care during the pandemic. That is not for any malicious reason: it is because they could not access daycare centres and have the social contact that was so critical to their care. Of course, there will be an economic hit, too: if people are poorer, they are likely to suffer the long-term effects of mental and physical poor health.

However, the Government argue that the price of not pursuing this course of action would be greater than the damage I have outlined. The bottom line is that if the NHS becomes overwhelmed, deaths from covid and other diseases will soar, with doctors unable to treat everyone. The bottom line is that if the NHS becomes overwhelmed, then deaths from covid and other diseases will soar, with doctors unable to treat everyone. That is the worst outcome from the negatives I have outlined.

The strategy that the Government are pursing would indicate that that also has consequences for the future of healthcare spend and policy. Whatever criticisms are levelled at the NHS, it is a very efficient system. People often argue that it could have better outcomes, but it is a lean and efficient system. What it has, it uses. There will undoubtedly be questions in the future about capacity and staffing levels. Lessons must be learned about the future shape of policy in the NHS, as well as the specifics of the pandemic, not just in health but in social care too.

How effective will this lockdown be? It will drive down infections, but by how much depends on who is making the estimate, as we have debated today. Some models show infections being reduced to a quarter of what they are now, but others show reductions of just 10%, in which case the NHS will still be under strain. It will be a fortnight, at least, before people see change. I am afraid to say that those who may sadly lose their lives from covid at the end of November, probably have the virus today.

The Prime Minister and his team think that doing this now will provide the optimum outcome. They are hopeful about being able to unlock in December, but, as they have said, they are being driven by the data. Once lockdown is lifted, as Members have said, cases will rise. It means that a high proportion of the population will remain vulnerable to infection, which is why some scientists expect a third or more waves of the virus to be managed by repeat lockdowns.

Others argue that the need for future lockdowns is evidence that they do not work, but that is to misunderstand what they are there to do. As the Health Secretary has stated, this approach buys us time and is the optimum use of the healthcare we have in the meantime, while capacity is built and vaccines are sought. I thank hon. Members who have paid tribute to those working in health and care, in track and trace, in testing, in the heroic search for a vaccine and in improving treatments.

My hon. Friend Daniel Kawczynski, made some comments about devolution. I think it is a good thing, but the price of devolution is divergence and diversity. I know that it has had very real consequences for border communities, particularly for businesses that have been asked to lock down one side of the border and not on the other. We have to learn lessons about better co-ordination from that, and we might try using the same app in the future. Devolution is a good thing and diversity is the price.

Many hon. Members have spoken about the hit to the economy and the human consequence of that. About a quarter of GDP was erased in quarter 2, but in quarter 3 there were signs of a sharp recovery. A number of factors were involved in that, including confidence in the drop-off of cases but also pent-up consumer demand and the Chancellor’s measures to stimulate the economy, which Members have mentioned. I know that Members do not want that choked off. That upturn shows that we have an incredibly robust and innovative private sector.

All of us are impressed by how businesses have adapted swiftly, to carry on and live with this virus, from investing in signage, PPE and sanitiser, dealing with fewer customers, moving online, changing shift patterns and introducing one-way systems in stores. I understand that those adjustments had real costs and, having invested in them, how aggrieved businesses must be to have to close down. We must not forget that.

Before I close, I wish to say a few words about the authoritarian nature of the lockdown, as people have described it. I say that knowing that the British people like rules. Anyone familiar with the off-side rule or the Duckworth–Lewis–Stern method will testify that British people like their rules. They like clarity and fairness, but I understand that they also like to be able to choose to follow rules. I know how uncomfortable many of us are in having to take these measures. I was asked by the Department of Health to take through the Coronavirus Bill and I remember the emotional state of my hon. Friend Mr Baker, who was kind enough to say that he recognised that I might be in a similar state today.

I know that we have asked our constituents to do very painful things, and there has been real material harm to people’s livelihoods and emotional well-being, including, as my hon. friend the Member for Shrewsbury and Atcham said, women having to give birth on their own. I can assure Mrs Coleman that, in great part due to the efforts of my hon. Friend Alicia Kearns, those guarantees were secured for women giving birth and, I think, were announced at the weekend.

We are asking our constituents to do very difficult things, and that is matched by how little agency Members of Parliament feel they have over this situation. You, Sir Charles, alluded to this, saying that you felt the only thing you could do was to vote against the Government. However, I think that whatever seat we occupy, whether junior Minister, Secretary of State or Back Bencher, there is always something that we can do. What I will take away from this debate is to feed back to the Government the need for better and clear data. I looked at what the House of Commons provides Members with as well as what Government provide, and there is room for improvement. I will do that, recognising suggestions that hon. Members have made. If there are specifics on data, please let me know. As hon. Members know, I take calls with all MPs every single day, and I want to hear their ideas if they think policies are not working. I will continue to take that forward.

We also need to think about the future and our economic recovery. My hon. Friend the Member for South Dorset, in whose name this debate stands, called for low taxation. We need to think about the future—not just about how we can ensure that we stick to our agenda of levelling up but how we can, through the G20, lead the global recovery as well. We are well placed to do that.

Finally, I think everyone in this debate will agree that we have to learn how we can live with the virus. I know my hon. Friend Sir Bernard Jenkin has suggested that we need a White Paper on that topic, and I will report back. I thank all Members who have taken part in this debate. If there is a lesson we should have learned in this place over the last four years, it is that when politics and politicians are in tune with the British people’s character, success follows. That is a lesson that we should bear in mind in the coming days and weeks.

Photo of Richard Drax Richard Drax Conservative, South Dorset 3:58 pm, 3rd November 2020

That was a typically courteous and thoughtful reply from my right hon. Friend, for which I am most grateful. As I said, she and the Government are not in an easy position, and I offer them huge sympathy. I am not rebelling in this instance—I am just seeing another way forward. My right hon. Friend mentioned living with the virus. We are going to have to live with the virus. It is here, perhaps, for the rest of our lives, like flu and other diseases. It will slowly reduce over the years and we can mitigate in the ways I suggested in my speech, but we cannot afford to shut down the economy and cause the devastation that we are currently doing. It will take many years to repay; that is what really concerns me.

My right hon. Friend talked about deaths. We regret every single death. I disagree with Helen Hayes, who said that this was a trade-off between the economy and covid. It is not. There is no such thing as a trade-off. As my right hon. Friend said, none of us wants people to die. We want to protect those who are under threat from this disease while allowing others, within reason and using common sense and all the precautions that we know about, to get on with their lives and to keep this country running.

I offer my deep condolences to my hon. Friend Jim Shannon for his loss. Many others have lost people through this ghastly disease, and I offer all my sympathy to them, too. No one wants anyone to die, but at the same time we do not want our country to be destroyed economically, with all the consequences, including for health, that would be involved.

In closing, I urge my right hon. Friend to consider at least another option along the lines that many others, including eminent people, are suggesting.

Motion lapsed (Standing Order No. 10(6)).

Sitting suspended.