Health Protection (Coronavirus, Restrictions) (Steps and Other Provisions) (England) (Amendment) Regulations 2021

Monday 7th June 2021

(5 months, 3 weeks ago)

Grand Committee

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Department of Health and Social Care

Considered in Grand Committee

Moved by

Lord Bethell Portrait Lord Bethell
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That the Grand Committee do consider the Health Protection (Coronavirus, Restrictions) (Steps and other Provisions) (England) (Amendment) Regulations 2021.

Lord Bethell Portrait The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Department of Health and Social Care (Lord Bethell) (Con)
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My Lords, on 17 May we moved to step 3 of the road map, which seeks to maintain a balance between our social and economic priorities. We need to save lives and prevent a surge in infections, and we need to relieve businesses that have suffered from closures and restrictions on social contact.

As ever, the decision to move to step 3 was informed by data from the Joint Biosecurity Centre, the Scientific Pandemic Influenza Group on Modelling and Public Health England. I express profound thanks to the analysts and academics who support these efforts. The surveillance evidence, epidemiological modelling and policy analysis that support these decisions are a tribute to the highest standards of the British Civil Service.

I want to seize this opportunity to set out some of the very latest data that has been presented to Ministers. As noble Lords will remember, there are four tests. The first is that the vaccine deployment continues successfully. As of 6 June, vaccination uptake is at 76.6% for the 18-plus UK population for the first dose and 52.5% for the second. These figures are aligned with the Government’s published plans and they are a remarkable achievement, but there is more to do.

The second test is that the vaccine continues to be effective at reducing hospitalisations and deaths. Data available at step 3 suggests that two doses of the Pfizer vaccine reduced overall symptomatic disease by up to 80% or 90%, hospitalisations by 90% to 95% and deaths by around 95%, with a similar effect reported for the AstraZeneca vaccine. This is hugely encouraging. In the week ending 21 May, when we moved to step 3, the weekly registered deaths had reduced by 70%. More recent figures show that between 31 May and 6 June there were 59 deaths within 28 days of a positive coronavirus test. That is clear evidence that the vaccine works. However, we must not be complacent. As restrictions ease and social distancing measures are relaxed, we must continue to be vigilant.

The third test is that infection rates do not risk a surge in hospital admissions, putting undue pressure on the NHS. This risk is massively mitigated by the progress of the vaccination programme across the UK. Daily hospital admissions continued to fall throughout March, April and early May. Since we moved to step 3, the number of infections has also been increasing. This is what we expected when lifting some restrictions on social contact. For the seven-day period ending 1 June there were 25,888 new cases across the UK, at a rate of 38 per 100,000. There are some regional variations, with particularly high case rates in parts of north-west England. Despite that rise, the positivity rate in England remains low and is currently at 1.3%. There were 151 daily hospital admissions in the UK on the last complete collection date of 1 June. It is steady as it goes.

The fourth test is that our assessment of the risks is not fundamentally changed by variants of concern. For the seven-day period ending 19 May, there were 2,111 new cases of the delta variant recorded, making 3,424 total confirmed cases. In the same seven-day period there were 7,066 new cases of the alpha variant, making 249,637 total confirmed cases. At this point, the delta variant made up less than one-third of all VOCs.

With cases, admissions and deaths continuing to fall, surge testing in place, the vaccine rollout on track and vaccines proving effective, we judged that the tests to move to step 3 had been met. This does not mean that there is no risk. Indeed, we are extremely alert to the potential for new variants of concern to lead to a rapid worsening of the pandemic.

The assessment from SAGE and the evidence from PHE is that the delta variant is much more transmissible. We deployed a widescale test and trace response across the areas affected by the delta variant, including surge testing in areas such as Bolton and Blackburn. In addition to the existing test and trace support payment, local authorities have significant discretionary funding to offer additional financial support to those who need it. In Blackburn and Bolton, this will include trialling broadening eligibility during surge testing, so that all those who are required to self-isolate, who cannot work from home and earn under £26,000, receive a £500 payment. As ever, we continue to keep the data under close observation, and the Government will not hesitate to take firm action if necessary to protect lives and livelihoods.

That is the context of the decision, and it is a decision that has led to a real lift in the mood and optimism across the country, as a result of the changes made by these regulations. Many businesses have reopened and people are enjoying greater freedoms; they can meet more friends and family and more people can now attend funerals to say goodbye to their loved ones. Weddings, receptions and other commemorative events can be bigger, and we have moved from legal mandating and government rules to guidance which asks people to take personal responsibility when meeting friends and family. The regulations also made some important changes on face masks and table spacing, and we listened to the expertise of the Joint Committee on Statutory Instruments and made some minor technical changes to clarify drafting.

I regret that we are debating these regulations only now, and I regret that they were not laid before they came into force, but, despite our best efforts to lay out a clear and timetabled road map with a predictable parliamentary programme, events moved very quickly—much more quickly than the processes of parliamentary procedure. Noble Lords will remember that the Prime Minister addressed the nation on 14 May to set out that the delta variant was more transmissible and there were some important unknowns. This gave us good reason to consider very carefully our approach and to fine-tune arrangements, and that delayed the smooth running of this process.

I know more than anyone the frustrations felt by noble Lords about those delays, but I very much hope that noble Lords will remember the concerns of that time and appreciate that we waited to have the appropriate data to make these vital decisions. We have sought to expedite these important regulations as much as we can while juggling a difficult situation. The easing of restrictions thus far is hugely welcome and, while we must continue to be cautious, we have good reason to feel optimistic about the future. We will remain vigilant and continue to manage the risk to safeguard the benefit of our collective effort so far.

Finally, I thank once again every person and organisation who is supporting the fight against coronavirus and colleagues here for their contribution to this Committee sitting. I commend the regulations to the Committee.

Lord Scriven Portrait Lord Scriven (LD)
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My Lords, if ever we wanted an example of the farce that parliamentary democracy has become, these regulations should be an example that is studied for years. The Government had known for months that the date of 21 June was coming, yet still they decided to use emergency legislation to get their own way. Then they laid these regulations on the day they were to become law—in fact, at 11 am. Then they had to redraft them because parts of them were wrong.

This is a pattern of behaviour by the Government, using whatever means they decide to push through emergency legislation on Covid and using the signature of a Minister’s pen as a substitute for detailed parliamentary scrutiny and amendment. Emergency legislation was required on some issues, but not on this issue. The House and the other place need to stop nodding through this kind of emergency legislation as a matter of course.

An example of the potential unintended consequences of these regulations is the expiry on 20 June of the Health Protection (Coronavirus, Restrictions) (Local Authority Enforcement Powers and Amendment) (England) Regulations 2020. I declare my interest as a vice-president of the Local Government Association. These are the regulations that give local authorities the power to enforce Covid restrictions and give fixed penalty notices for breaches. As we move to a situation in which local lockdowns will become more important if we see clusters of cases around new variants, what powers will exist to ensure that local authorities can make sure local restrictions will be adhered to? Or will we have the perverse situation of more knee-jerk emergency legislation every time we see a local outbreak so that local authorities can fulfil their duties? Will the Minister please clarify this issue?

The reason all this matters is that Covid-19 will be with us for years to come. It is moving into the endemic stage. Emergency legislation is not acceptable, or indeed desirable, for managing an endemic. The Government now need to bring forward legislation about how we live with Covid as an endemic and stop relying on such regulations. The endemic means we move away from binary extremes and have legislation that is much more subtle and nuanced about how we deal with the complex issues for freedoms, health and the economy and that finds a new balance in this Covid world—a way of trying to keep as much open as we can while keeping the virus circulation and harm as low as possible. We have done it before with other diseases.

Very sensitive issues will have to be addressed as to what level of death the country accepts, as we do with flu, before more serious public health restrictions are enacted. Issues of ventilation and how it affects building standards and building control are important if we are to see large parts of the economy remain open every time we have a new variant or local surges.

What are the new ways of working for education, to keep access to knowledge and learning open and ensure that young people have access to their education? Again, the endemic stage will require changes that will have legal implications about when, where and how education takes place. At what stage is government thinking on this? When will proposals be brought forward for the legal implications for health, the economy and our freedoms of living in the endemic stage of Covid?

It also has big implications for the effect of self-isolation, which is an issue that has yet again to be raised because of the total lack of support, both financial and practical, for many who cannot afford to isolate for the whole period. I note that the Minister agrees that the present system is not acceptable, and that is why local authorities are piloting, but we need a national system of people being paid their salary, as in other countries, so that they can afford to remain isolated for the total period. What percentage of people asked to self-isolate carry out the full period of isolation required? How do the Government measure that? If the Government will not bring forward full financial support, such as paying people their wages, when all the evidence now shows that it is a barrier to people self-isolating for the full period, why not?

After 16 months of the country living with Covid, it is time for the Government to stop treating it as purely a public health emergency. They must bring forward detailed plans and legislation that deal with the ongoing implications of Covid as an endemic. The longer the Government refuse to do this and continue to bring forward only emergency legislation, the more the country will suffer and not be equipped to live with the long-term effects of Covid.

Lord Lansley Portrait Lord Lansley (Con)
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My Lords, I am glad to have the opportunity to follow the noble Lord, Lord Scriven, although I will not follow him in the criticism of process. I think the need for rapid legislation from time to time has meant that we are always catching up on some of the processes. I want to use this opportunity—which my noble friend has highlighted—to look at where we are and where we need to go in the week or two weeks ahead.

My first point, which I think my noble friend rightly emphasised, is that we are at the stage where we should move from legislation to guidance. One problem associated with the latest step 3 shift is that the public thought that everything the Government are asking them to do has to be in legislation. The enforcement of that has been quite burdensome from time to time. At the same time as moving to step 3, the Government added guidance, for example in relation to the eight local authorities that had the delta variant present. They did not publicise the guidance sufficiently and the confusion that arise from that was really regrettable.

Likewise, on 17 May, the ban on international travel was relaxed but at the same time Ministers were talking about the absence of international travel in ways that suggested that they were still enforcing a ban on non-essential travel. That was not the case. It is quite understandable that the public have become very confused. When the announcements are made for 21 June, we should stick with that date and make it very clear that we are shifting from a position where legislation has been required to one where guidance on future social distancing and preventive measures should be much clearer and consistent.

We should not be emphasising that from 21 June we are lifting all restrictions—we are moving to a new phase. In that respect, the noble Lord, Lord Scriven, is right, but I do not think that we need permanent legislation for this purpose. We need permanent adjustments in behaviour. We should be encouraging people to do things such as wearing masks, social distancing, working from home, ventilation, or having outdoor gatherings much more than indoor ones.

We have made enormous progress. I echo what my noble friend said about that. Obviously, vaccination is a really impressive achievement. Where testing is concerned, I do not share so many of the criticisms. The problem was not that test and trace did not expand its capacity but that people overestimated what it was capable of doing last year. We are at risk of underestimating what it is capable of doing this year.

When we shift the guidance, we should make large-scale lateral flow testing freely available, as we are doing now. On the basis of what we have seen in schools, we should encourage workplaces and employers to use lateral flow tests every other day to enable them to be confident that their staff are free of the infection. On that basis they can return to work, they can meet and they should be able to undertake international travel.

At this stage we need to make a distinction between travel for leisure and travel for work. British companies should be able to send people abroad and bring them back without long periods of isolation as long as they are having lateral flow testing. We have to get away from four PCR tests. That is a very burdensome thing to ask people to do, whether for leisure or for employment purposes. It is something approaching £400 per person, per visit and that should not be applied over the months ahead. We have a substantial vaccination programme that is giving people a high degree of protection. We are seeing every hope that we are breaking the link between infection, severe disease and hospitalisation. To the extent that that happens with doubly vaccinated people, we should go with it.

Finally, on international travel, I ask my noble friend why are we not including some countries on the green list? Look at Malta, for example. It now has no cases and the best vaccination record among European Union countries. It is iniquitous that we are not distinguishing those countries that should be on the green list and giving them the benefit of that designation.

Baroness Tyler of Enfield Portrait Baroness Tyler of Enfield (LD) [V]
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My Lords, at the risk of sounding like a broken record, I start by pointing out that we are yet again debating whether to approve a statutory instrument that came into effect three weeks ago, as part of a road map that was set out months ago. At this point in the pandemic, the urgency rationale just does not hold water, so it has become either a bad habit that the Government are unable to kick or simply contempt for parliamentary scrutiny. Neither is a good sign for a healthy democracy.

Turning to the substance, it feels somewhat ironic that these regulations bring back international travel for leisure. In recent days we have witnessed chaos over last-minute changes to the green list, causing huge problems for passengers and the travel industry alike. With long queues at packed airports in Portugal as people try to purchase tickets, often at vastly overinflated prices, on planes packed to seating capacity, and with people reporting difficulties getting pre-departure tests, is this really the best we can do?

As far as I can see, the amber list is simply causing confusion as to whether or not it is okay to travel to a country for leisure. We would not want to encourage people to drive through amber at traffic lights, so why are we giving this option for travel? Is not a straightforward “Yes, you can travel there” or “No, you can’t” easier for all to understand and plan around? Can the Minister say what plans the Government have to review the effectiveness of the traffic light system and our border control measures, including verifying test results for international travel?

Like others, I am sure, I was interested to read that the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster is now participating in a pilot offering daily lateral flow testing for seven days as an alternative to isolation, following his trip to Portugal. It appears from press reports that other football fans receiving similar such texts from NHS Test and Trace were told to self-isolate for 10 days. Can the Minister explain the criteria to qualify for this pilot, when it was introduced and when its results will be published?

Test, trace and isolate remains a hugely important weapon in our armoury for fighting this virus. As restrictions ease, surely we should adapt our isolation support and testing strategies to incentivise isolation. From these Benches, we have called time and again for financial support to enable people on low incomes to isolate effectively. With cases now thankfully at lower levels, can the Minister say what resources are being provided, and to which local authorities, to allow the isolation pilots he referred to—he referred to payments of £500—to happen?

Much store is being placed on the announcement the Government will make on 14 June regarding step 4 of the road map, currently scheduled for 21 June. Over the weekend, some leading scientists have been calling for the easing of restrictions to be delayed. We have been repeatedly told that the Government will be driven by the data on the four tests, including the risks posed by new variants of concern, rather than simply the dates in the road map. With some regulations due to expire on 20 June, as my noble friend Lord Scriven pointed out, what is the scope for extending these regulations if the data requires it? Will we have fresh legislation? What is the contingency plan? Finally, what additional resources are being given to handle variants of concern? I hope the Minister can reassure me on these points in summing up.

Finally—I think I am in very much the same place as the noble Lord, Lord Lansley, on this—the stark truth is that the virus, with its inevitable mutations and variants, is not going away any time soon. Like it or not, we will have to find a way of living with Covid-19 for some time to come. That will mean changes in how we conduct our everyday lives, including how we do our business in this Chamber. This may be an inconvenient truth to some, but the alternatives are far worse. We need to get away from the current narrative that a so-called freedom day is coming fast and that everything can go back to precisely how it was pre-pandemic. We will have to learn to do things differently, and that needs a more grown-up, nuanced conversation which does not revolve around the two extremes of dropping all measures immediately or returning to lockdown. I think that is what most people want and expect.

Lord Bourne of Aberystwyth Portrait Lord Bourne of Aberystwyth (Con) [V]
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My Lords, it is a great pleasure to follow the noble Baroness, Lady Tyler of Enfield. I very much agree with her concluding comments about the fact that there is no freedom day: we will not go back to normal, certainly not in the short term. It is, as my noble friend Lord Lansley also said, a matter of accommodating our processes and adjusting to the new realities. I also thank my noble friend the Minister for setting out so clearly and concisely, as he always does, the effect of these regulations and for updating the Committee on the four tests or factors affecting the lifting of regulations.

I support the regulations but I regret that we are not seeing them in advance of their coming into force. I hope my noble friend can say something about a future scenario where we can perhaps expect that, as we move to a position where the regulations will not be so restrictive. It would be good to hear my noble friend’s views on that.

I support the regulations and the policy of stepped moves out of lockdown. That seems the right way forward. The easing of restrictions on outside gatherings and those attending funerals is absolutely appropriate. It is right that this phased approach is taken towards restrictions and that they are relaxed as the evidence demonstrates that a letting up on restrictions is appropriate. That is the right approach.

Like others, I congratulate the Government and my noble friend on the success of the vaccination programme. It has been outstanding. It is only fair that that should be acknowledged. It is at the centre of the Government’s success in this area and a tribute to the National Health Service, volunteers and all those concerned.

What remains a major challenge, as identified by others speaking in the debate, is international travel. This area of activity is relaxed by these regulations too. I will press my noble friend on this. A potential weakness identified previously is represented by travellers coming into the country from high-risk countries, who might pass on the infection before they are quarantined. This presents a challenge principally, though not exclusively, at Heathrow. I am pleased with the red country terminal arrangements at Heathrow. Could my noble friend update the Committee on their success and how they are working? Are we ensuring that special arrangements are made to split passengers from red list countries from other destinations at other airports too, where there is unlikely to be more than one terminal? It would be good to hear that these sensible arrangements are being applied across the country.

What arrangements are being made to ensure co-ordination with the devolved Administrations, particularly in this important area of travel and the operation of our UK airports, where a consistent approach is clearly needed? Could my noble friend comment on the recent summit between the Prime Minister and the First Ministers of the devolved Administrations, and any discussion that there was on co-ordination on coronavirus actions and policy?

Lastly, I make a plea for continued efforts to ensure that COVAX is working successfully to help countries across the world, particularly those unable to act as speedily and effectively as we have done. I know that my right honourable friend the Prime Minister has this very much at the centre of his approach and is making it a central plank of the G7 summit coming up in Cornwall. It would be good to hear my noble friend’s thoughts on this. With those comments, I am very pleased to support the regulations.

Lord Bhatia Portrait Lord Bhatia (Non-Afl) [V]
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My Lords, this SI has been prepared by the Department of Health and Social Care. The instrument revokes and replaces the health protection regulations 2020 and contains the legislative framework that will implement steps 1 to 3 of the Government’s road map out of lockdown in England. This instrument enables a number of public measures to be taken to reduce the public health risks posed by the spread in England of severe acute respiratory syndrome coronavirus 2, which causes the disease Covid-19. The SI also amends a number of other coronavirus regulations.

This SI is made under the emergency procedure set out in Section 45R of the Public Health (Control of Disease) Act 1984. Furthermore, this instrument is made without a draft having been laid and approved by a resolution of each House of Parliament. It is the opinion of the Secretary of State that, by reason of urgency, it is necessary to make this instrument without a draft being laid and approved, so that public health measures can be taken in response to the serious and imminent threat to public health posed by the incidence and spread of severe acute respiratory syndrome coronavirus 2.

This instrument was laid and published and came into force on 29 March 2021, and the measures will expire at the end of 30 June 2021. This instrument will cease to have effect at the end of the period of 28 days, beginning on the day it was made, unless during that period it is approved by a resolution of each House of Parliament. The Secretary of State must review the need for the restrictions imposed by this instrument at least every 35 days, with the first review taking place by 12 April 2021.

I support this SI as put forward by the Minister.

Baroness McIntosh of Hudnall Portrait The Deputy Chairman of Committees (Baroness McIntosh of Hudnall) (Lab)
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My Lords, the noble Baroness, Lady Gardner of Parkes, has withdrawn, so I call the noble Baroness, Lady Brinton.

Baroness Brinton Portrait Baroness Brinton (LD) [V]
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My Lords, I declare my interest as a vice-president of the Local Government Association. As my noble friends Lord Scriven and Lady Tyler have said, once again we are reviewing and considering these regulations weeks after they have been implemented and published, in that order. It appears that even the routine renewal of SIs is a total surprise to the Government—or they may be treating our democracy with contempt.

The Secondary Legislation Scrutiny Committee noted:

“These national provisions came into effect on 17 May. However the Government published guidance on 21 May which said that to combat ‘the Indian variant’ people … should meet outside wherever possible and travel in and out of those areas should be avoided. This change was not publicised by the Government and caused considerable confusion … It appears that this situation was in part caused by continuing confusion over the status of government guidance and in part by failures in how the advice was communicated.”

The committee says:

“Recent events have illustrated why this is a significant problem: Guidance associated with both the travel regulations and the changes to restrictions in certain areas … have this week caused confusion for the public and have given rise to questions about enforcement, both of which undermine the effectiveness of the advice given.”

The blurring of lines between guidance and regulation, combined with poor communications, is a serious error that made the regulations unworkable, as the Government discovered to their cost.

These SIs will expire on 20 June, as other noble Lords have said—when Ministers, members of SAGE and scientists are all saying to us on a daily basis that the complete ending of restrictions is now very finely in the balance because of the steady increase in Covid delta variant cases over the last month, with cases back up to over 5,000 a day. Is this the right time to lift the ban on pupils wearing masks, when we are now seeing evidence of high spread in schools, including in Cherry Tree Primary School in my home town of Watford?

We agree with the Government that data, not dates, must rule the next set of decisions. What additional resources are being given to local authorities and local resilience forums to help them handle surges in variants of concern? Our local directors of public health are doing an excellent job but, in the areas of high surge, there are requirements for substantial intervention, which costs money. Can the Minister say whether those areas of high surge are receiving extra resources over and above the planned allocation for this year?

The Minister knows that on these Benches we believe in the importance of test, trace and isolate to keep people safe. I was slightly surprised this morning to hear the noble Baroness, Lady Harding, say on “Woman’s Hour” that she was dismissive of its key importance. We believe that it is clearly a vital tool to manage new variants and outbreaks.

The noble Baroness, Lady Harding, like Matt Hancock, talked a great deal about the progress of vaccination, and we applaud that progress. However, over the weekend the Secretary of State said that vaccination had “severed” the Covid link but “not broken” it. Pardon? The dictionary definition of “sever” is “break off”. Can the Minister explain what “severed but not broken” means?

The regulations are silent on advice for those people who, despite shielding being formally ended by the Government, are still under strict advice in letters from the Secretary of State to stay at home wherever possible, to get others to shop for them and not to go into any environment where social distancing is likely to be breached. The Government have been totally silent, but the charities Blood Cancer UK and Anthony Nolan have repeatedly asked for clear guidance for those who are immunocompromised and who have been told that, despite having two jabs, they are unlikely to have the antibodies for long. Will the Minister agree to meet me, them and other noble Lords interested in this issue? What provision is being made for this group of people, their families and friends to guide them through the next stage of learning to live with Covid? Total silence from the Government puts them in an impossible position, and possibly in unsafe surroundings.

We note that the regulations bring back international travel for leisure. We have repeatedly asked for clearer, broader rules, but today all we see is chaos at airports in Portugal as people rush back to avoid having to quarantine. Is this really the best way to do things? Can the Minister say whether the previously ineffective border measures—leading to queues at airports, people jumping on public transport to get home and people having to leave quarantine to get their tests done—have all now been resolved? In particular, are there improved checking arrangements to find forged test results?

The Minister has mentioned the pilots on isolation. Can he give us more details on those? What are “considerable payments”, and who is eligible? On the problem of people coming forward to self-isolate, the noble Baroness, Lady Harding, said this morning that the problem was getting them to come forward to say that they had had a lateral flow test in order to be able to go on working because they needed to earn money. Surely now is the time to reassure people by paying them their wages for self-isolation rather than asking them to go through a ridiculously complex means-tested application procedure.

If the Minister cannot answer all my questions now, please will he write to me with details?

Baroness Thornton Portrait Baroness Thornton (Lab)
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My Lords, by now the Minister must realise that we are very fed up at being asked yet again to retrospectively approve significant legislation that impacts on individual liberty, well-being and livelihoods, three whole weeks after they came into effect. Are we fed up? The answer is yes. However understanding and apologetic the Minister might have been in his pre-emptive words about this, it is time that this came to an end and the usual practice of accountability was reinstated.

My first question, which I suspect the Minister will say is above his pay grade, is: can he give the Grand Committee a date from which we can expect to discuss these important matters in advance of them being enacted? The noble Lord, Lord Scriven, and other noble Lords are quite right that it is time to stop using emergency legislation for these issues and to use it instead when there is an emergency. The regulations were made on 14 May and came into effect on 17 May. While admittedly that is progress, it still falls woefully short of the threshold for using emergency-made procedures.

Of course, like the Minister and other noble Lords, I welcome the vaccine rollout and its increasing effectiveness. The regulations allow six people or two households to gather indoors, and up to 30 people outdoors. Weddings and funerals are now permitted, and all remaining outdoor entertainments and indoor hospitality can now reopen. All those things are of course enormously welcome.

The statutory instrument amends the Health Protection (Coronavirus, Wearing of Face Coverings in a Relevant Place) (England) Regulations to provide an exemption for gatherings for specified education and training purposes in community premises. This mirrors the policy for schools and further education providers. But given that cases in many hotspot areas are concentrated on school-age children and young adults who have not yet had the opportunity to be vaccinated, does the Minister think it might be premature to announce that face coverings will no longer be required in secondary school classrooms and communal areas from 17 May?

I am asking this because we can see that a number of local public health authorities in the north-west have issued recommendations to secondary schools about using face masks again due to the rising Covid-19 transmission rates across the community, largely due to the delta variant. That underscores the need for greater powers for local authorities to introduce measures as and when needed. In a way, that echoes the remarks from the noble Lords, Lord Lansley and Lord Scriven, about the transition we need to be in to live with this. That might mean that, in some areas, you might need to wear masks in some schools and not in others, for example.

I turn to the confused mess that is international travel, as mentioned by most speakers. These regulations remove the prohibition on international travel and the requirement for individuals to declare their reasons for travelling abroad. If this is a shift from regulation to guidance, it really has not worked. We on these Benches believe that the traffic light system, where the Government are advising people not to do what is allowed, coupled with very lax quarantine requirements when they come back, is flawed. Indeed, the Prime Minister said:

“It is very, very clear … you should not be going to an amber list country except for some extreme circumstance, such as the serious illness of a family member. You should not be going to an amber list country on holiday.”—[Official Report, Commons, 19/5/21; col. 692.]

Yet, travellers are allowed to travel to amber list destinations without proof of an essential reason and some holiday companies are offering holidays to amber list countries. Indeed, the confusion over the amber list has led to reports of more than 50,000 people travelling to the UK daily from countries with rising Covid numbers and only a tiny percentage going into hotel quarantine. Does the Minister accept that the system is leaving the door wide open to new strains of the virus and risks undermining the lockdown sacrifices of the British public and the success of the NHS vaccine?

I am sorry that the Government seem not to have learned from their previous mishandling of travel restrictions. We needed robust quarantine measures in place for people coming back into the country. Moving Portugal to the amber list is not the answer. Surely the answer is that the amber list should be scrapped—either countries are red or they are green.

We need the Government to be more vigilant about emerging threats. I want to talk about the C363 variant, which is linked to Thailand. It was designated as a variant under investigation on 24 May and 117 cases have been identified in the UK, with over 37% of cases originating from travellers into the UK. Vietnam is also experiencing a significant rise in cases, potentially as a result of this new variant. It seems that the delay in adding India to the red list made us vulnerable. I hope the Minister can assure us that Thailand and Vietnam should urgently be added to the travel red list.

Given that Ministers have promised to provide a week’s notice of changes, and with 14 June being next Monday, when will we hear from the Prime Minister about what happens next? Can the Minister assure the House that we will have the chance to see and debate these regulations before they come into force? We all know by now that lifting restrictions will lead to further spread. What is less clear is whether the increase in Covid hospital admissions will be a wave or a ripple. What is the Minister’s view?

Lord Bethell Portrait Lord Bethell (Con)
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My Lords, I am enormously grateful for a very thorough debate on these regulations and I will try to pick off the key points. One point is the question of guidance versus law, which almost all noble Lords spoke about. My noble friend Lord Lansley put it extremely well. He is right that it is the British way to seek to use guidance and to appeal to people’s best nature wherever we possibly can; it is our default setting in this country. I for one very much welcome the move from legislative impetus to guidance. I think almost all have welcomed that principle.

However, I am afraid that it is an inevitable consequence of moving from law to guidance that you leave a degree of interpretation up to the British people. That is a dilemma we have to wrestle with in government. I acknowledge the communication challenges. I have said from the Dispatch Box and that I thought one or two things might have been done better, but we have given the British public discretion on how they interpret some of the guidance, particularly on travel.

The truth is that the British public are very clear about the guidance we have provided and are incredibly consistent in their behaviour. Despite the suggestion made by some noble Lords, there has not been an explosion of foreign travel. Quite the opposite: the number of people who went to Portugal while it was open was relatively small. Adherence to isolation, which was raised by the noble Lord, Lord Scriven, remains incredibly high. For positive cases it is around 90%, and for contacts of positive cases it is around 85%. The British public are much clearer in their heads than perhaps some would give them credit for. The public understand that the Government sometimes allow people to do something while not recommending it, much like with smoking.

We are at a stage of the pandemic—the infection rate is currently relatively low—where it is proportionate and reasonable to use guidance over the law and to accept that there are some friction costs to that, but they are within the range of acceptable risk. We are at a stage where things are generally getting better. We hope that we are on a journey out of this dreadful pandemic. It is therefore entirely right that we seek to move away from legislation wherever we possibly can.

My noble friend Lord Lansley made the point on testing, and the noble Baroness, Lady Brinton, raised my noble friend Lady Harding’s comments earlier. My noble friend Lord Lansley is right: the capacity of testing to make an impact on the infection is possibly underestimated at the moment. I cite the example of schools, where 65 million LFDs have been used since the beginning of the year to huge effect. We were extremely concerned about infection rates in schools on their return, and the presence of a new, highly transmissible variant is something we watch extremely closely indeed, but pupils, parents and teachers have worked incredibly hard to use the latest technology to keep a lid on transmission rates. That has worked incredibly well. I note my noble friend Lord Lansley’s points about business travel and will take them away with me. The cost of tests is coming down dramatically, and I would be glad to share details of that with him.

The noble Lord, Lord Scriven, and others spoke about the late arrival of these regulations, for which I express genuine personal regret, but I push back against noble Lords who express outrage and concern. I remember the run-up to 14 May extremely well indeed. I have in front of me, on my computer, the chart of the growth of the Indian variant. Even now it puts chills down my spine as I look at it. Naturally, we were extremely worried about a relatively unknown variant for which we did not have a genomically sequenced example. We had no idea about its impact on hospitalisation and death, but we kept our nerve. We waited for the data to come in from the clinics and for the virologists and biologists to do their work. In the end, we had made the right decision and were able to proceed with these step 3 regulations as intended, and as very clearly outlined in the road map. Although there was a delay in the paperwork, we were able to deliver on our commitments in that area.

There is no way we can ignore the data. In fact, in other matters noble Lords are absolutely emphatic that we should follow the data. This is just a direct and unavoidable consequence of that commitment. We face the same dilemma today. We are not fully clear about the serious illness and hospitalisation impacts of the delta variant. We are waiting for NHS statistics to come in. The CMO has made it clear that he feels we will have significantly more information on that at the end of next week. Until then, we have to hold our course. This is the pattern of these waves and will continue to be so. The fact that our constitution allows us to have agile legislation that adapts to the circumstances is a benefit, not a disbenefit, of the British way of doing things.

I reassure the noble Lord, Lord Scriven, that the Coronavirus Act will last until March 2022. The PCMs to which he referred are largely driven by Section 2 of the 1984 public health Act. Analysis of emergency powers is currently being undertaken by the Constitution Committee, to which I have already given evidence. I recommend that the noble Lord engages with it.

The noble Baroness, Lady Brinton, talked about the immunocompromised, a subject that I am extremely concerned about, as I know she and other noble Lords are. I pay tribute to the work of Birmingham University and the Octave trial. This is a huge challenge for those who have little by way of an immune system. The vaccine clearly will not work in the same way as it does with those with a fully charged immune system. There are huge opportunities from therapeutics and antivirals. We are chasing those down very actively, but I would be glad to meet with her, Anthony Nolan, Cancer Research UK and any other charities she would very helpfully like to convene.

My noble friend Lord Bourne spoke about travellers from the red list. I pay tribute to the managed quarantine system. Last week, there were 115,000 passengers into the UK. Only 9,000 of them were from the red list; 92% of those were through Heathrow. I pay tribute to Heathrow and the creation of its new red terminal. We have to accept that the red list may well be here for some time, but I am very optimistic that we can make huge progress on foreign travel. The mutual recognition of double vaccination protocols is being discussed at the very highest levels and offers a way out from the impact of this awful pandemic. I am optimistic that foreign travel will be able to start soon.

By way of a wind-up, I shall address the noble Baroness, Lady Tyler, who said that the pandemic is not going away anytime soon and give evidence of how dramatically our lives will change, largely for the worse. I am much more positive. Ultimately, the vaccine does work. If it works on the variants we have today, there is every reason to hope that it will work on future variants. We have learned a huge amount about therapeutics, antivirals, diagnostics, tracing, surveillance and treatment of the ill. Where we have a challenge as a nation is in public health, which has been found wanting. The health of the nation is far too poor. We weigh too much, smoke too much and drink too much, and we go into illness in a poor condition. That is the challenge we face as a nation, and the one we will turn to once the pandemic is out of the way.

Motion agreed.

Sitting suspended.