Justin Madders (Ellesmere Port and Neston) (Lab)
It is a pleasure to see you in the Chair, Mr Mundell.
We are here today to consider these regulations during yet another critical phase in the fight against coronavirus, and of course we all wish that they were not necessary, but sadly we know that these restrictions are required due to the ongoing and serious threat to public health that we face. The virus has not gone away and it is right that we take all necessary steps to protect our citizens.
Of course we want the Government to succeed in defeating this virus and in minimising the impact that it has on our lives and on the country, so we will continue to be supportive where that is appropriate. Equally, however, in wanting the Government to get this right, where we have concerns we will continue to raise them, and it is right to say that we have concerns.
First of all, we are having the right debate, but we are having it at the wrong time. I want to place on the record our concerns about the procedure for considering these regulations. As the Minister said, these regulations were created and signed into law on 14 May. It is now 10 June. It is far too late for anything that we say to make any difference to these regulations.
The Minister has said that it is right that the rule of law be maintained, and of course we agree with that, but I fear that by debating these regulations retrospectively, we are treading on the wrong side of that. Of course we accept that the initial regulations had to be hurriedly introduced, in response to the rising number of infections. However, as I stated when we debated those initial regulations back on 4 May—some six weeks after they had been introduced—given that Parliament was up and running again by that time, there should have been sufficient time to ensure that future changes were debated and had democratic consent before they were introduced. Debating them weeks after the event, and when in fact they have already been superseded, as we have heard today, is frankly an insult.
There is no excuse for this situation now. As we have heard, the regulations require there to be a review every three weeks, as the Secretary of State has a duty to terminate any regulations that are not necessary or proportionate to control the transmission of the virus. That means that all along we have had a clear timetable and sight for when new regulations might be created, which should have allowed plenty of opportunity for parliamentary scrutiny of those regulations.
Yet here we are again today, debating regulations that came into effect weeks ago. That is not good enough. I want to ask the Minister this: what would happen if the Committee voted against these regulations today? Would all the fines issued under them have to be repaid? I imagine that would be a minimum step, but the Minister will be pleased to hear that, at this stage, that is a hypothetical question, because we are not going to vote against these regulations. However, this is the issue—it is the way that these regulations continually come to us late. Moving forwards, we cannot carry on in this way and the Government accept our indolence at their peril.
That is because we are not only debating these regulations too late but, as we have heard, we are debating them when they have been superseded, as the next set of regulations has been introduced. As we heard, the review that took place on 28 May, with regulations being laid on 31 May, came into law on 1 June, and a debate on those regulations is set to take place on Monday—again, long after the event. Does the Minister agree that debating regulations when they are already out of date makes a mockery of the process?
As we know, and as the Minister told us, the regulations have changed the requirement for a review to take place from every 21 days to every 28 days. Given that the next review must take place before 25 June, if that review does envisage an introduction of more relaxations, can the Minister commit today that those new regulations—any introduced off the back of that review—will be debated before they are implemented, and not retrospectively, as has been the case today?
The Minister went on to say that the regulations are, in fact, constantly reviewed; I should be grateful if she would clarify exactly what she means by that. Is there a formal process by which that is taking place, or are there, in fact, just the three-weekly reviews that have been set out in the regulations?
As for those reviews, where are they? In a written question that I put to the Secretary of State for Health and Social Care, I asked if he would publish the reviews carried out on 16 April, 7 May and 28 May pursuant to these regulations. I received a reply to that question at half-past 9 last night, which said:
“The Department of Health and Social Care has indicated that it will not be possible to answer the question within the usual time period.”
I find that absolutely incredible, and, regrettably, the failure of the Department to provide me with an answer to what I would have thought was a pretty important and obvious question leads me to one inevitable and damning conclusion: there has been no proper review.
Here we have the most far-reaching impositions on the life of this country in peacetime—necessary actions, but ones that have had unparalleled and far-reaching economic and social impacts—and the Government have not, as required by law, conducted any review of those regulations that we can actually see; or if they have, they have decided that we do not deserve to see them, which is equally reprehensible.
I understand, from what the Minister said in her introduction, that there were several more reviews on 22 April and 7 May. Again, if the Minister had not been good enough to tell us today about those reviews, we would never have known that they had taken place. We need far more transparency than we are seeing at the moment. We cannot go on like this. If we are to defeat the virus and carry with us public confidence and trust that the tough decisions being made are the right ones, the Government must be transparent and open and let us see the outcome of the reviews as a matter of urgency.
It is because of their wide-ranging effect that these measures demand full parliamentary scrutiny. I am sure that many hon. Members agree that a 90-minute debate by a small parliamentary Committee, weeks after the fact, cannot possibly be sufficient to provide the level of examination and scrutiny that such important laws require. As we have seen, great efforts have been made by staff to get Parliament up and running again. We should not demean those efforts by turning these debates into a procedural formality, a rubber-stamping exercise to create the veneer of a democratic process. We should be better than that. We should not be debating the measures late and without the full extent of the information on which the Government have made their decisions.
When it comes to the regulations themselves, not only has the legally required review of them not been disclosed to date; they have not had any kind of impact assessment carried out. Again, to be fair to the Government, we understand why, in the first instance, that was not possible. However, we did make it very clear, the last time the regulations were debated, that we did not want that to become the norm, especially for regulations such as these, where we know that the impact will have been huge. The second and third set of regulations have apparently had no impact assessment, either.
How can the Government continue to issue new laws with such sweeping powers as these when they cannot tell us what their impact is? As the time between reviews and updated regulations extends, will the Minister commit to undertaking impact assessments for future regulations and publishing them alongside the regular reviews of the regulations that they undertake?
The public have made huge sacrifices. Like us, they have supported the lockdown. It is right that we take a moment to acknowledge the sacrifices that they have made in the interests of public health and to thank them for that. However, it is simply unacceptable for the Government to continue to issue regulations but then to make no attempt to measure their impact.
We have always argued that restrictions need to be eased gradually and in a safe way. Of course we want to see society reopen, but that has to happen safely. We need a structured approach to easing and tightening restrictions, which needs to be done in an open way, backed by the science and alongside a published impact assessment. That is the way to take people with you.
The Government have confirmed that all the proposed easings of restrictions have been modelled and that that showed that the R value remained below 1, but we of course have not seen that modelling. We still see thousands of new infections each week. Indeed, I understand that we still have the second highest infection rate in Europe. We need to see all the scientific evidence for the decisions that have been taken. Any easing of restrictions should be accompanied by publication of the Government’s full scientific evidence and should involve advance warning, to allow adequate time for planning. It should be done in conjunction with all nations, regions, local authorities and elected Mayors. The decision at 5 pm last Friday night suddenly to announce that everyone in hospitals should wear face masks was a classic example of a headline-driven agenda that fails to acknowledge that decisions need to be taken in consultation with those who will have to deliver on them.
The Government should be clear that they would rapidly reintroduce targeted restrictions where necessary should infections increase and the R rate increase above 1 in the whole or in parts of the country. They should also spell out how they would do that. That is essential to ensure that we maintain public confidence and safety. We have heard talk of localised lockdowns, but the Government have not spelt out how that will work in practice. Who will make those decisions? Who will monitor and enforce the lockdown? And who will be responsible for dealing with the economic fallout from such decisions?
Will the Minister commit to publishing written guidance on defining what a “local lockdown” is, how it will be enforced and what resources and powers local authorities and other agencies will be able to draw on in enforcing it? We know from what Ministers have said that they are looking at the scientific advice across the board, but we do not know what that science is, because we have not seen it. What we have seen in recent weeks is various members of the SAGE committee popping up on TV to raise their concerns, while at the same time those experts have mysteriously disappeared from the nightly Downing Street briefings. Is it any wonder, in those circumstances, that we might want to have some more detail about the basis on which decisions are being made? I hope the Minister will take the opportunity today to reiterate the Government’s commitment to following the science. Of course, the simplest way to show that commitment would be to publish it all.
We also consistently hear concerns about the Government’s strategy in communication from the royal colleges, membership bodies and NHS bodies. Only last weekend, the chairman of the Royal College of General Practitioners called for a strategy for test and trace, for PPE, for the use of technology, for maintaining covid services and opening up non-covid services, saying that
“there’s no sense of direction as to where we’re heading.”
Those are not small concerns. Senior clinicians, frontline NHS staff and public health experts are not convinced that there is a plan to deal with a potential second wave of covid-19 infections, more than 80 days since lockdown began. That is about as serious as it gets. The Government say they have met their own five tests for the easing of lockdown rules, but as I have set out, there are considerable concerns from people on the frontline that we are woefully underprepared to deal with a spike in cases. Can the Minister point to a document that sets out the Government’s assessment of the five tests? Can she explain why the relaxations have already happened when the joint biosecurity centre has not reduced the threat level?
I come to the substance of the regulations. As we have heard from the Minister, the regulations further amend the original lockdown regulations and give further reasons why a person can leave their home. The explanatory memorandum describes them as
“a number of small relaxations”.
I would not dissent from that description, nor will I recite them all here, but I will draw attention to the new permission that has been granted by amending regulation 6(2) of the Health Protection (Coronavirus, Restrictions) (England) Regulations 2020 to include sub-paragraph (n)—namely, the ability to visit a waste or recycling centre. I mention that because when we debated the first set of regulations, I contrasted the permitted reasons to leave home at that stage with the statements made by the Secretary of State for Housing, Communities and Local Government, who had said in April that people were permitted to leave their homes to visit waste or recycling centres. Clearly, he should have said at the time that he meant that people could do that after 13 May.
On fines, the regulations significantly increase—from £60 to £100—the amount that can be charged as a fixed penalty notice for people over 18 who breach the lockdown restrictions. What is the reason for that increase? What evidence has the Minister had to suggest that there needs to be a higher level of punishment? Is a greater deterrent needed? Will she also provide an update on the representations that the Secretary of State for Health and Social Care made to the Treasury on the fines issued to people whose childcare issues may have been why they breached the rules?
In the context of public compliance with the rules, it would be remiss of me not to raise concerns that the actions of Government in recent weeks have negatively impacted on public confidence in such measures. The Government have allowed the public health message to be undermined because the Prime Minister, for reasons best known to himself, would not take firm action against his senior adviser for breaking the lockdown. No one wants to feel as though there is one rule for them and another for those is power. That should not be the case. We want to keep the public on board and adhering to social distancing, to keep everyone safe. It is vital that Ministers rebuild trust in their strategy and that ministerial statements in the media are without bias and reflect the rules and official guidance.
There are concerns about the issuing of fixed penalty notices. We have seen some worrying data showing that black, Asian and minority ethnic people in England are 54% more likely to be fined under the regulations than white people. According to 2016 population figures, BAME people account for 15.5% of the population in England. However, according to National Police Chiefs Council data from 15 May, they have received at least 22% of the coronavirus lockdown fines. Will the Minister confirm that she is aware of this issue? What steps are the Government taking to address the disproportionality?
We also know that racial and health inequalities amplify the risks of covid-19 and that people in the poorest households and those of colour are disproportionately affected, with black, Asian and minority ethnic people more likely to die from covid and more likely to be admitted to intensive care. However, the Public Health England review published last week made no recommendations on how to reduce the impact of covid-19 on BAME communities. As the lockdown is eased, will the Minister confirm what steps the Government are taking to mitigate the risks faced by such communities and to protect them, in order to ensure that no further lives are lost?
One message that has been coming through clearly from the experts is that the key to easing lockdown safely is a properly functioning testing and tracing strategy. The Opposition have concerns about that: we have been too slow on testing, and now it seems we are too slow on tracing. The Prime Minster promised a “world-beating” system by 1 June, but that date has come and gone, and we are now told that it may not be fully operational until September. We do not know the numbers of people tested each day or the numbers of contacts traced. We do not know whether mailed tests are completed and we do not know how many care home residents, care staff or NHS staff have been routinely tested, or whether they are symptomatic or not.
We take no pleasure from the fact that the system is in chaos and that the UK Statistics Authority has been forced to intervene over concerns about testing data, or that the Association of Directors of Public Health has called on the Government to delay easing lockdown until the tracing system has been proved to be more robust and there can be confidence about what the impact will be on continuing trends in infection rates. I raise those issues because we want to get things right. If we do not, we will risk another spike in the number of infections, with a second lockdown, costing many more lives and causing untold damage. We must do everything we can to ensure that that is not allowed to happen.
I hope that the Minister will be able to confirm when we will have a fully functioning, effective test, trace and tracking system, with a fully functioning app. I hope that she will commit to introducing a covid test guarantee, so that no one will have to wait more than 24 hours to receive a test, and then no more than 24 hours to receive the results—for all tests, without exception and with immediate effect. I hope that she will also commit to delivering a working app that will enable councils to contact everyone at risk, with a cast-iron guarantee to the public that they can feel secure that their information will not be disclosed to third parties.
None of us wants a sharp rise in infections or the R rate. We are at a critical moment. The Government must demonstrate that they have got a grip of the testing and tracing strategy, to restore public confidence in their handling of the pandemic. The Government have taken the decision to lift the restrictions. It is for them to demonstrate that they are listening to experts and publish the full scientific evidence and the rationale behind the decisions that they have taken. We want society to reopen, but that must happen safely and in a way that follows the science. We remain committed to working constructively with the Government. That requires them to work constructively and openly with us and others. We hope that the Government will confirm that that is their intention on those important issues, because only with constructive working, where the Government listen and respond to concerns, can we all beat the virus together.