Spring 2021 Covid-19 Road Map — [David Mundell in the Chair]

Part of the debate – in Westminster Hall at 7:12 pm on 22nd March 2021.

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Photo of Nigel Huddleston Nigel Huddleston Assistant Whip, The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport 7:12 pm, 22nd March 2021

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Mundell. I am grateful to my hon. Friend Nick Fletcher for bringing this debate on a range of important subjects that cross multiple Government Departments. I really appreciated the way he eloquently articulated the concerns of the petitioners, as well as those of his constituents. Each petition has been signed by at least 100,000 people—some by many more—which speaks volumes about the importance of these industries and sectors to people right across the country, and it is therefore an honour to respond.

These petitions have been grouped but, as I said, they cover multiple Government Departments. Although I am representing DCMS here today, I assure hon. Members that Ministers and officials in other Departments are listening too. It is also worth noting at the outset that, since these petitions were initiated, the Prime Minister has announced a road map that will lead us out of the current lockdown in England—subject, of course, to the latest data and scientific advice. I mention that because the road map is relevant to each of these petitions. It seeks to balance our key social and economic priorities while preserving the health and safety of the country. It gives us a prudent and pragmatic pathway out of national restrictions, and it also supersedes the tier system to which some of the petitions debated this evening refer. May I also say that I appreciate the tone of today’s debate? I think that our constituents appreciate it when we take the party politics out of things. There is a great deal of agreement across parties on the issues raised, and I think we all share similar goals in these matters.

The first petition calls for the repeal of the Coronavirus Act 2020. It is no exaggeration to say that the pandemic has had a profound impact on the lives of everyone in the UK. The Act, passed in March 2020, is vital because it provides the legislative framework for managing the pandemic. It also introduced emergency powers to support individuals and businesses and enabled critical public services to function during the pandemic. For example, the Act successfully removed unnecessary barriers to allow suitably experienced people, such as recently retired NHS staff and social workers, to rejoin the workforce during the pandemic. It also provided financial support to individuals and businesses, and it enabled essential public services to function.

The Government made a commitment that powers will be in place only as long as is necessary and proportionate for managing the current pandemic. Where measures have been put in place, they are often subject to additional checks and balances, such as sunset clauses or fixed review points. Petitioners will be interested to know that debates will take place in both Houses of Parliament this week, on 25 March, on the non-devolved aspects of the Coronavirus Act, and votes will be taken on their renewal.

I turn now to the second e-petition, which calls for all nurseries and early years settings to be shut during lockdown. It was with great reluctance that we restricted attendance at early years settings during the first national lockdown in March last year. However, the restrictions put in place as part of the most recent national lockdown enable us to continue to prioritise keeping nurseries and childminders open, supporting parents and delivering the crucial care and education needed for our children. Early years settings have therefore been open to all children since 1 June 2020, and there is no evidence that the early years sector has contributed to a significant rise in virus cases within the community. Current evidence suggests that pre-school children are less susceptible to infection and unlikely to be playing a driving role in transmission.

The petition specifically raises concerns about the risk to nursery and early years staff. The Department for Education has worked extremely closely with the Department of Health and Social Care, and with Public Health England, to develop guidance, including a system of controls, for early years settings to follow. This aims to create an environment for children and staff where the risk of transmission of infection is substantially reduced.

The guidance includes, for example, enhanced cleaning, regular hand-washing, staff wearing face coverings in communal areas, minimising mixing within settings, and the isolation of the close contacts of positive cases. Rapid testing is also a key part of the controls, and all years staff can now access lateral flow home testing. We continue to listen carefully to the latest scientific and medical advice, and we keep our guidance under review to make sure the right controls are in place.

I turn to the three remaining petitions, which dominated today’s debate and are more relevant to my role as sport Minister. The first calls for golf to be allowed under appropriate safety measures, the second calls for gyms to reopen now and the third calls for a work out to help out scheme.

The importance of sport and physical activity to the nation’s physical and mental health has never been more apparent. That was mentioned in the speeches given today by the hon. Members for Ilford South (Sam Tarry), for Vauxhall (Florence Eshalomi), and for Strangford (Jim Shannon), by my hon. Friends the Members for Buckingham (Greg Smith) and for Keighley (Robbie Moore), and by all the Opposition spokespeople, so everybody recognises it.

Sport and physical activity are a powerful defence against the covid-19 pandemic, and that has been reflected in the Government’s approach in each of the lockdowns, with the importance of regular exercise being recognised and highlighted. Grassroots sport has been prioritised in the Prime Minister’s road map above the return of every other part of the economy, as was recognised by my hon. Friends the Members for Buckingham and for Keighley. Our national life is going to come back stronger and healthier as a result of this focus.

The road map introduces a step approach to the return of outdoor and indoor sports areas across England, including the reopening of golf courses, gyms and exercise studios. Most immediately, and subject to the latest data, sport returns from 29 March, which is when outdoor sports facilities can reopen. That will broaden the options for outdoor exercise and recreation for us all. I know that all who signed the petition to allow golf to reopen will be pleased to know that they can take to the greens and fairways again in England in a week’s time—including in four-balls.

The SNP spokesperson, Martyn Day, spoke about the importance of sport in helping with our physical and mental health, and he mentioned the economic importance of sport, including golf. We had a similar debate recently in Westminster Hall, highlighting the hundreds of millions of pounds that sport brings into the economy. Golf tourism alone is worth well over £400 million, and I assure hon. Members that in my combined role as Minister for sport and tourism, I am very aware of that.

Formally organised outdoor sports for all ages can also restart from 29 March, including team sports, individual sports and organised sports participation events. These will not be subject to the gathering limits, but should be compliant with guidance issued by national governing bodies. We appreciate the work that national governing bodies have conducted over the last year to create that guidance, while working very closely with Government.

Step 2 will commence no earlier than 12 April, when we will see the reopening of some sections of our indoor economy, including gyms and fitness centres for individual use. Exercise classes will be able to resume as part of step 3 of the road map, no earlier than 17 May. Unfortunately, we cannot open everything at once, although I hear the appeals of hon. Members who wish exercise classes to reopen as soon as possible. I believe this is a reasonable step forward. Of course, the intention of all in Government is to try and get as much open as possible as soon as possible, but in a safe way.

On that note, I would also like to express my appreciation for and applaud the work done by the gyms and leisure sector, as mentioned by many hon. Members today. The sector has put considerable time, effort and expense into making sure that facilities are safe, and that is hugely important in building members’ confidence as well as showing that it wishes to protect staff. I welcome the return, in a secure manner, of the many hundreds of thousands of people who are absolutely passionate about going back to their gyms. I cannot wish to compete with the hon. Member for Ilford South in his bench pressing, but I think we all share his passion to see gyms open again as soon as possible.

I understand why so many have supported the petition to introduce a work out to help out scheme—in a similar vein to the Chancellor’s eat out to help out scheme, which was launched last summer—to support the fitness and leisure sectors through this time. People are, understandably, very keen to do their bit to help struggling gyms and fitness centres, as well as keeping fit themselves. I understand the sentiments behind the proposal, but the Government have provided support in other ways, including through tax reliefs, cash grants, employee wage support and loans, to ensure that these facilities survive and can open again as part of step 2 of the road map.

Hon. Members have suggested other measures, and we have had conversations with ukactive and others about whether the current VAT cut for tourism and hospitality could be extended to the leisure sector. I could never make commitments or promises on behalf of the Treasury, as you well know, Mr Mundell, but I can say that conversations are taking place. Such things are, of course, always subject to Treasury decisions. This is a challenging area, but I hear the appeals made today by hon. Members, ukactive and others, as I am sure do the Treasury.

The Government have provided more than £100 million to support 266 local authority leisure centres, and Sport England has provided more than £220 million to community sports clubs to promote them and ensure that these facilities can open. The Opposition spokesperson, Alison McGovern, who I have a great deal of respect for, raised several questions about priority. We have seen throughout the last few weeks the Government’s emphasis on sport and physical activity. I assure her that that is a focus of mine, too, as would be expected of a sport Minister.

The hon. Member was right to mention the work of Sport England, the arm’s length body for grassroots sport, which promotes sport and activity levels across the country. Sport England plays a pivotal role in the Government’s sport and activity strategy, and it will continue to do so. It has articulated its 10-year plan, which we completely support, and the Government will be articulating their strategy. Today, for example, I spoke to a Minister in the Department for Education about the importance of sport and physical activity at school. We will also be refreshing the school sport and activity action plan. There will be lots of work and focus from Government, across Departments, as we continue to focus on the importance of physical and mental health and the benefits of sport and physical activity.

I am delighted that sport and recreation are at the forefront of hon. Members’ minds as we begin to open up our society and economy after the devastation and destruction of coronavirus, which has impacted all our lives. The pandemic has also been an opportunity to reflect on the sort of country that we want to build in the future—the sort of Britain that we wish to rebuild. As sport Minister, I will work hard to make us as healthy and fit a nation as possible so that we come back stronger than ever. I look forward to working with colleagues on both sides of the Chamber to achieve just that.