Motion to Approve
My Lords, I beg to move that these regulations, originally tabled by my right honourable friend the Secretary of State for Health and Social Care, be approved.
I will start by summarising the changes to the regulations. The Health Protection (Coronavirus, Restrictions) (No.2) England) Regulations, which I will refer to as “the national regulations”, were laid on 4 July. There have been five changes to the national regulations, the first of which were debated and approved in both Houses before the recess. Today’s debate will focus on the second, third and fourth amendments to those regulations.
The second and third amendments to the national regulations continued to ease business closure restrictions. The second amendment to the national regulations permitted the reopening of businesses and venues from 25 July, including: indoor swimming pools, including water parks; indoor fitness and dance studios; and indoor gyms and sports courts and facilities. Alongside these changes the Government produced supporting guidance advising that the most high-risk activities within those business and venues, such as saunas and steam rooms, should not reopen.
From 15 August the following venues were permitted to open: bowling alleys; indoor skating rinks; indoor play areas, including soft play areas, with several adjustments advised in guidance, such as the closure and removal of ball pits; casinos; and exhibition halls and conference centres, with guidance advising that this is only to enable government-endorsed pilots for the time being.
Alongside those regulatory changes, there was also a series of non-legislative changes to allow close-contact services, including treatments on the face, to resume. These included: allowing socially distanced and outdoor performances to take place; pilots for large crowds in sports stadia and business events; and the relaxation of guidance on wedding and civil partnerships to allow receptions of up to 30 people.
As set out above, these amendments opened businesses and venues that had been required to close, with Covid-secure guidance developed with industry and medical advice to ensure that they opened in a safe way. This has meant that now, nationally, only nightclubs, dancehalls, discotheques, sexual entertainment venues and hostess bars are required to remain closed. These are considered to pose a high risk of transmission due to the close proximity of those attending them.
Regarding the fourth amendment on strengthening enforcement of national regulations, although we were able to successively ease business restrictions over the Summer Recess, we also now better understand how the infection is transmitted and the role of social activity within this. That is why the Government have acted quickly to strengthen the enforcement and restrictiveness of social distancing measures against the backdrop of a slow but steady increase in infection levels nationally.
The fourth amendment to the national regulations, which came into force on 28 August, created a new offence of holding or being involved in the holding of an illegal gathering of more than 30 people, giving the police the power to issue a fixed penalty notice of £10,000 to deter the most egregious breaches of social distancing measures.
I want to say a word about the justification for using emergency powers and give an explanation of how decisions are made. We have needed to use the emergency powers to amend these regulations so that we can respond quickly to the serious and imminent threat to public health posed by coronavirus. I know that these national regulations have caused disruption to people’s lives by placing restrictions on who they can see, what they can do and where they can work. Just as the Secretary of State has a legal obligation to protect public health, he is obliged to ease restrictions as soon as it is safe to do so.
The Government continue to pay close attention to the measures, assessing them to ensure that they continue to be necessary and proportionate. These regulations set out that a review of these restrictions must take place within 28 days. However, the Secretary of State for Health keeps their necessity under constant consideration between these formal review points. The question to be considered is whether the “restrictions and requirements” contained within the regulations remain necessary for the public health purposes of the regulations.
Each restriction must be judged by reference to its continuing necessity as the crisis develops, and be based on the available information, at each stage, about the effectiveness and impact of the measures. We use the best available science, along with consideration of the most up-to-date data available at the time to inform decisions. Central to this continues to be a robust assessment of the rate of transmission and infection. However, this Government have also undertaken significant wider analysis and evaluation of the national regulations, including consideration of economic impacts, the level of compliance with the measures, the amount of enforcement needed and impacts felt by local authorities. Understanding the full impacts of these regulations is key to continuing to improve our approach to controlling the virus. This shows the Government’s commitment to ensure that restrictions are in place only for as long as necessary, and the evolution in our understanding and approach to tackling the virus.
Perhaps I may say a word about local restrictions. Over the Summer Recess we have combined tightening restrictions in areas with outbreaks with the easing of business restrictions nationally. As welcomed in the debate just a few weeks ago, we have given local authorities powers to act quickly in response to local outbreaks by closing specific premises, shutting public outdoor spaces and cancelling events. We want to build on this trusted partnership with local government so that we can have a more targeted and localised response to any future outbreaks. We asked all councils to develop dedicated local outbreak plans. We gave councils £300 million in new funding to support this and published the Contain framework, providing further guidance on managing local outbreaks.
Where regulations have been required, the Government have worked with local partners to develop tailored and proportionate restrictions based on the best scientific evidence available, varying from a single factory to an entire region. These interventions have been underpinned by scientific evidence—[Inaudible]—to analyse this local data and provide the scientific advice—
My Lords, with your permission, I shall complete the Minister’s opening speech. May I say something about local restrictions? [Laughter.]
Over the Summer Recess, we have combined tightening restrictions in areas with outbreaks with the easing of business restrictions nationally. We have given local authorities powers to act in response to local outbreaks by closing specific premises, shutting public outdoor spaces and cancelling events.
We asked all councils to develop dedicated local outbreak plans, gave them £300 million of new funding to support this and published the contain framework, providing further guidance on managing local outbreaks. Where regulations have been required, the Government have worked with local partners to develop tailored and proportionate restrictions based on the best scientific evidence available, varying from a single factory to an entire region such as the north of England. These interventions have been underpinned by scientific advice and local data provided by a combination of Public Health England, the joint biosecurity centre and NHS Test and Trace.
On Monday 14 September, noble Lords will have seen the rule of six come into effect. This change brought the gathering policy from guidance into regulation, mandating that people can gather only in groups of six. This applies both indoors and outdoors. Single households or support bubbles of more than six are still able to gather, and there are a small number of exceptions, such as for work, schools, weddings and organised sports activities. As the Prime Minister announced last week, these measures are not a second national lockdown but are aimed at preventing the need for one.
It is thanks to the public and their continued effort that we have been able to slow the spread of the virus and start cautiously to return to life as normal. Although time has passed since the peak we saw in the spring, the threat posed by the virus has not gone away. Now, with winter approaching, we will keep doing whatever it takes to keep it under control. I am grateful to noble Lords for their valuable contributions to these debates and for continuing to challenge us to do better in this vital area of public policy.
I believe that we have met the bar set for us in these debates. These regulations are a proportionate and necessary use of the powers that Parliament has asked us to use. I commend them to the House.
I thank the Minister and the noble Baroness for the statement and understand that we are playing catch-up here. We have two minutes for life and death issues. That means that I shall have to focus on two questions. First, why has COBRA not met since 10 May? Secondly, what are the Government doing to create a testing and quarantine procedure at airports that is effective and will help our economy?
The Minister said that the Government would strain every sinew to give NHS emergency wards and care homes what they need. I believe he is sincere. However, the impression given is of a Government responding to the latest daily crisis, making impossible promises and failing to deliver. Regular meetings of COBRA, where strategy and resources can be discussed, with clear decision-making and communication, might just improve government competence.
Of course, the Government have to prioritise, but the effect on travel and the failure to adopt an appropriate quarantine policy is catastrophic for the economy. Months ago, an official SAGE report showed that testing of passengers on arrival at airports and then five days later would detect 85% of those infected. We need trade deals and we need our air transport. According to IATA, we will lose our place as the third-biggest global market unless we solve the testing and quarantine issue. One journalist compared the efficiency of the system at Keflavik Airport in Iceland with that of the UK, which he said felt “haphazard, inefficient and negligent”. When will the Government save airports and promote trade?
My Lords, I declare my interest as a vice-president of the Local Government Association. The Government need to understand that these regulations are working only in a very specific and limited way. I say that as any rational person watching this debate will not understand the logic of Parliament discussing the opening of parts of the economy and the rule of 30 when in the real world discussions and actions of government are about the rule of six, local lockdowns, the lack of effective test and trace, and the possibility of a two-week circuit break. It is a waste of time in the fight against the virus; it is potentially confusing to those who see or hear these debates, and it makes a total mockery of the need for sharp and effective parliamentary scrutiny of legislation and policies to help save lives and livelihoods.
The Whitehall ministerial pen that flows so freely for emergency legislation is now becoming less effective when it comes to releasing local lockdowns, as different areas have different R rates and need a much more flexible approach. Whitehall does not always know best. Today we hear that in Yorkshire the city of Leeds asked for one very limited restriction to deal with the virus, but the Government said no, as they did not think that it could work or would be best for that area. Why was this the case?
We now require a Bill that should place proper delegated powers with local areas and not diktats from Whitehall that rely solely on emergency regulations. Of course, these regulations will go through today, but I now urge the Minister and the Government to bring forward proper legislation to deal with lockdowns and local restrictions and their lifting, and not to rely on this kind of farcical and retrospective debate.
My Lords, I intend to focus my remarks on the exemptions made in paragraph (4)(b) in Regulation 5B in Part 2 of Statutory Instrument 2020/907, where
“the relevant gathering is necessary for the training of or competition between elite sportspersons”.
While this is welcome, many sports event organisers are in the dark and unable to fully prepare for the impact of the restrictions and readily work out what they can, and cannot, lawfully do. If the idea of the more recently introduced rule of six as applied to elite sport was to simplify the law for the general public, does my noble friend accept that recent announcements regarding grouse shooting and polo imply that any recognised sport or recreation can be exempt, whether or not elite?
There was an announcement under the rule of six that sports gatherings for people who are not elite sportspersons to
“take part in any sport or other fitness related activity”
are also exempt from the gathering limits, provided they are run by businesses or other organisations and operate Covid-safe protocols. Can my noble friend confirm that any such gathering can now be exempt over and above elite sportsmen and women, providing they are run by a business, in its widest legal definition?
Are the Government comfortable with the word “elite” in this legislative context of sport? Many sports and pastimes are now rapidly looking to rebrand themselves as elite—currently the only level of competition allowed to resume save behind the closed doors of defined places, including schools. Is there a clear definition between playing sports formally and informally? If so, it would be useful to understand it. Am I right in understanding that, while formal training with a football team, for example, is permitted, a social kick-about in the park with more than five friends is not, unless it is run by a business or a self-appointed sporting body?
Recreation is critically important in times of local lockdowns, and we need legislative clarity where sport and recreation are concerned.
My Lords, like others, I find playing the game of legislative scrutiny catch-up unsatisfying and less than we should be doing as parliamentarians. I address my remarks to the rule of six, which was mentioned at the end of the Minister’s speech, and to one specific provision: the decision, in England, to include primary school-aged children in the total of people allowed in the gathering of six.
The other countries of the UK have taken a very different position on this issue. It is clear that young children are not at serious risk themselves. Equally, the evidence suggests that they do not pose a substantial risk of transmitting the virus to others. In any case, the children who will be caught by these regulations are already, in almost every case, members of families that are included in the total of six. So if I am no longer able to meet my son, daughter-in-law and their three children together, I can exclude one of the twins, perhaps, from that gathering to comply with the law. However, if I and my husband meet my four individual sons, themselves heads of households, that will not be illegal, but the risk of that is infinitely greater than the risk of including children.
I understand that this has been done in the interests of simplicity and clarity, but we have also to act in the interests of logic and common sense. I hope that the Minister will assure me that we will monitor the effects in the other countries of the UK and change if necessary.
My Lords, I entirely agree with the points made by the noble Baroness, Lady Hayman, but I want to concentrate my remarks on this very unsatisfactory way of dealing with these great issues. We have heard this morning that it really is essential that the Minister presenting this should be at the Dispatch Box, so that everybody can see and hear him or her. But this is not a debate—it is a series of short statements that cannot be challenged. There can be no opportunity to question the Minister. The whole thing is unsatisfactory. We are suffering from government by fiat. We have to get this right.
This is the gravest crisis to grip our country since the Second World War. It is going on and on, and we need to have a proper debate on the role of government and what should be done to try to get away from this retrospective legislation, which is already out of date by the time we debate it. This will not do. I ask that we have a full day of debate, as soon as possible, on the pandemic, and I would like to follow it by another full day’s debate on the malign influence of Mr Dominic Cummings and special advisers. Ministers are accountable, but special advisers have been elected by no one to anything and are not accountable to anybody. They should not have such a great influence on the Government of our country.
My Lords, I echo the remarks of noble Lords who queried the point of having such retrospective debates. Many of the public, who already feel confused, would be even more confused if they were to listen to our activities this morning. And is it surprising that the public is confused, given the contradictory nature of the rules that currently cause confusion in the country? The noble Baroness, Lady Hayman, pointed towards the illogicality of the rule of six and how it will impact on families. I do not doubt that, before very long, the Government will decide that children under the age of 10, 11 or 12 no longer should be counted in that number. Meanwhile, untold agonies are being caused to families as planned celebrations and family gatherings have to be abandoned.
There is also confusion over the ruling on wearing masks. Why is it obligatory to wear a mask in a library or a public reading room, yet people are supposed to go into offices free of masks? It is not surprising that people are not rushing back to work in offices when they feel unclear about what is safe. Perhaps I could also query the logic in allowing gyms to open and not insist on those who use them wearing masks. If ever there was an environment, no matter how hard the operators try, in which this deadly virus could be passed around, it seems to me that a gym—an indoor space in which people are exercising hard—must be one of the most vulnerable.
My Lords, I rise to welcome in principle SIs 788 and 863 on opening up leisure facilities such as swimming pools, casinos, skating rinks, conference centres and so on. But one important point that I wish to echo is that it is a pity that it has taken so long to consider there important matters.
I regret SI 907 and its restrictions on gatherings of more than 30 with fixed penalties, including a gargantuan fine of £10,000. Even more concerning, as the noble Baroness, Lady Hayman, has explained, is the subsequent SI imposing a rule of six on gatherings inside and outside. This will no doubt also be backed up by big fines and will steal half-term and Christmas from many, notably larger, families across our country.
These are examples of controls being brought in without proper parliamentary scrutiny or stakeholder consultation, as my noble friend Lord Cormack has said so eloquently. They are three of a huge pile of regulations, most of them valid for six months. I disagree with the approach reflected in SI 907 and the later rule of six one. These SIs will have major adverse effects on the economy and on treatment for other fatal diseases, at least until we have a vaccine—and that may take a very long time. When will the Government develop a new and more thoughtful strategy, which encompasses a degree of protection for those most at risk while restoring to others the possibility of an economic and social life that makes life worth living? Killing the economy, when so few people are likely to die now that treatments have improved, consigns our children and grandchildren to a needlessly bleak future.
This is a time of national emergency, and the Government need to step up to the mark.
My Lords, yet again the Government are using this House as a rubber stamp. This is not what should be happening in a democracy. Despite repeated insistence from government Ministers that this will not become routine practice, it has become precisely that. All these regulations remove citizens’ rights and freedoms, so it is essential that parliamentarians can question them. For example, how many fines have been imposed on organisers of peaceful protests of more than 30? What criteria are used to determine whether the organising body is a political one and therefore exempt?
These regulations were laid only one or two days before they came into force, giving the public and business owners little chance to understand and prepare for them, and they have now been superseded. Is it any wonder that people are confused?
I want to ask the Minister about an aspect of the messaging that came up in evidence to the Lords Science and Technology Select Committee on Tuesday. It is clear that a proportion of people who have had the virus continue to have serious health issues long after the initial infection is over. These include chronic fatigue, damage to lungs, heart, kidneys, liver and central nervous system, as well as mental health issues. Yet the impression has been given, especially to young people, that patients might feel unwell for a couple of days or weeks, or maybe not at all, and then they will become immune. That is not the end of it for many people. Will the Government change their messaging to emphasise that this virus can have serious long-term effects with which the NHS will struggle to cope? What preparation is being made to allow the NHS to cope with long Covid?
My Lords, it is, of course, unsatisfactory that we are debating these regulations some time after they have come into effect. The Government may say that there is no alternative. We are sometimes giving venues too little notice to take advantage of any relaxation. My key point is lack of clarity. If we want public support for what we are doing—and it will not work without it—then the public have to understand what is happening and why. I talk to people and they do not know. Sometimes they ask my advice and I am not an expert on this at all. Unless we are clear, the public will not respond, and we cannot expect them to. That is a big gap in what the Government are doing.
Next, we are being unfair to the police. Things change very quickly, and the police are being asked to operate in the most difficult circumstances, when there is a lack of knowledge and sympathy for what they are trying to do. We are putting a totally unreasonable burden on the police and we should not be asking them to do it. If we had a bit more clarity, the police might be able to respond better. It is hard to know how people should behave. I have been told of occasions when people were sitting on trains without wearing masks, but the train staff said nothing. It is not only the police; other officials are being put in a very difficult position. They do not want to have a bust-up or a row, so I urge that we be much clearer.
Lastly, it is not at all clear when the rule of 30 applies and when the rule of six. I would welcome some clarity from the Minister on that.
My Lords, I will make three points. First, neither the regulations before us nor the original provisions being amended have had an impact assessment or been underpinned by any similar analysis. We only ever get a single view—the Government’s—on the coronavirus impacts but never an analysis of the impacts on the NHS beyond the virus, or a considered view of the economic impact, and we certainly never get anything on the wider societal impacts of the Government’s actions. Crucially, we never get an analysis of alternatives. This is arrogant and undermines parliamentary accountability.
Secondly, while the original regulations might have justified the made-affirmative procedure on the grounds of a serious and imminent threat to public health, it is perfectly ludicrous to suggest that the regulations which relax the restrictions are urgent on health grounds. This is an abuse of the statutory power in order to bypass normal parliamentary processes.
Lastly, the rules restricting gatherings are profoundly illiberal. I welcome anything which will stop disruption such as that caused by Extinction Rebellion, but the rules introduced by the regulations have a chilling effect on the type of society I thought I lived in. We now have the crazy rule of six, which several noble Lords have already referred to. I am grateful to my noble friend Lord Lamont for tabling his motion to decline approval of that provision, and I look forward to a fuller debate on the extent to which society will allow the Government to interfere in the ordinary lives of citizens.
My Lords, I recognise the pressures facing the Government as we play catch-up with the virus, but these regulations were out of date even on the day they were being scrutinised in the other place. That day, the rule of six superseded the rule limiting gatherings of people to a maximum of 30. Some areas were under even more restrictive local measures. No one doubts the necessity of dynamic action to curtail the virus and the importance of this type of legislation, but we need to look at faster ways of getting it through the parliamentary process. We have seen just how fast changes can be implemented to long-established norms, such as the introduction of the furlough scheme and, even in this place, the Hybrid House and the voting app. We should look at a new parliamentary procedure mechanism to fast-track statutory instruments such as these, so that we can uphold our constitutional responsibilities. I echo the sentiments of the noble Lord, Lord Cormack.
My Lords, I do not envy the Government the range of advice they get minute by minute from experts everywhere. It must be difficult to reach conclusions from that.
I want to raise an issue that does not seem to have been discussed much in the last three or four months: how different Sweden’s policy is. Have the Government used the UK model to examine what the rate of infection and mortality in Sweden ought to be by now? The presumption is that it would be much higher than in this country, and in other European countries which have followed a similar approach. However, my own rough calculations suggest that it is actually lower in Sweden. That begs a big question about the approach taken in Sweden, where all the over-70s have been advised—pressured—to self-isolate but the rest of society has tended to operate in a much more normal way than in the rest of Europe. There are things we could learn from that. We certainly need to able to answer that question.
A second pressing issue arises from what may well happen in Sweden, where it gets darker much earlier. Our lockdowns and the big wave of the virus happened as we came into warm weather in the spring, when every day was getting longer. The public mood was much easier then than it will be going into winter, when every day it gets darker earlier. The effect on children, in particular, will be quite different when people do not want to use gardens or open spaces, even if they are allowed to, because of the darkness and the weather. I hope the Government will look at this issue.
My Lords, these regulations seem reasonable to me, given the need to adapt quickly to control this ever-changing pandemic, the details of which we know so little about. As the last speaker said, Sweden is managing very well indeed; we need to learn from everyone. The restrictions on the size of gatherings seem sensible, as are the exemptions. Inconvenient as they are, we must abide by them, especially as we see the rapid increase in the virus in the north of England.
As a doctor, I am of course very concerned about preventive medicine, and I would like to say a few words about that. Early on in the pandemic, it was clear that the majority of those afflicted had many medical conditions that made them much more vulnerable to Covid. Obesity and Covid is a very dangerous combination, because obesity impairs the immune system. The reason for the high mortality in the UK is that the majority of people are obese, the population is the densest in Europe and, moreover, the UK is the travel hub of Europe.
Blaming the Government for the high mortality is, therefore, one of the most despicable allegations that I have heard in this pandemic. That kind of propaganda simply demoralises the public. Keir Starmer has said that he wants to help the Government fight the pandemic; does the Minister agree that, if he really wants to help the British people, Keir Starmer should join the Prime Minister’s campaign to reduce obesity now in order to reduce the mortality in future pandemics?
My Lords, getting the (Amendment) (No. 2) and (Amendment) (No. 3) regulations is somewhat academic, since the (Amendment) (No. 4) regulations came into force at one minute past midnight last Monday morning. There are various illogicalities and serious constraints on human rights in all these regulations and I look forward to the fairly imminent report from the Joint Committee on Human Rights, of which I am a member.
Our Secondary Legislation Scrutiny Committee commented in its 19th and 24th reports on the problems caused by regulations being laid less than 12 hours before they came into effect. In the case of the (Amendment) (No. 4) regulations, they were published only about 12 minutes before they came into effect—at, as I say, one minute past midnight. Can the Minister confirm my understanding that they were laid only after they came into effect?
I welcome the fact that, finally, the guidance and the law coincide. I believe that the Government’s language in the last six months has created a lot of confusion, including for the police. They have used the term “must” about both law and advice. I imagine this was because Mr Johnson was coy about the “nanny state”, but the obfuscation was very unhelpful. It would have been much better to say, “This is what you must do, because it is enforceable law, and this is what you should do, because it is your civic responsibility to show respect and care for your fellow citizens.”
It is my belief that the overwhelming majority of people would respond to such clarity by following both law and guidance if they diverge. Better, though, to bring the two together, which I believe the (Amendment) (No. 4) regulations finally do. Why has it taken six months for the Government to do that?
Lastly, I observe that, on the Tube in the last couple of weeks, I have observed almost 100% observance of the requirement for a face covering. I attribute this to the clarity of the requirement and to the fact that Londoners are law-abiding and care about their city. As internationalists and majority remainers, they were once labelled “citizens of nowhere” by a former Prime Minister. I am glad to say that Londoners have demonstrated that they are very much citizens of somewhere.
My Lords, I very much regret the retrospective nature of this debate. It is sad, but it reflects an all too cavalier attitude to the law that seems to permeate thinking at present and needs to stop.
These regulations indeed seem out of date. The memorandum refers to a falling rate of transmission, which it is not; a falling rate of hospitalisation, which it is not; and a falling rate of fatalities: alas, that is not the case. What we really need is some clear strategic thinking, which is absent. I very much agree with the noble Baroness, Lady Donaghy, about the importance of Cobra and some strategic thinking behind our whole approach to this disease. That seems lacking. As many noble Lords have said, we also need more parliamentary scrutiny and proper involvement of both Houses in the way that the approach develops. The Government really need to start grappling with these points. Perhaps I might ask my noble friend the Minister what has happened to the review that is supposed to happen every 28 days. Indeed, I think two reviews are probably due by now.
I welcome the localism approach, which is something that should be extended. People trust their locality; it is familial. They trust their neighbours, they trust local community groups and charities, and often they trust their local authority to have a better handle on what is happening—so that is clearly needed. But I part company with the Minister when he talks about a slow, steady increase in infections. It is more than that—it is inexorable, and we need to begin to grapple with this with a strategic approach and proper parliamentary scrutiny.
My Lords, it is a pleasure to follow the noble Lord, Lord Bourne, and I agree with him in entirety.
Approval for retrospective regulations does not bode well for the mother of Parliaments when some 10 million people, including 2 million in the north-east, are facing lockdowns. Multigenerational and extended families cannot meet in homes or gardens as before, but we can group in pubs and restaurants. Most people I have spoken to have said that this is confusing and does not make sense at all, given that children have returned to school, where thousands—including teachers—are waiting for testing. We are also about to experience the consequences of 500,000 university students returning.
I acknowledge the extreme pressures that the Government are managing, but it does not allay the fears and confusion of the ordinary public when they witness conflict between the Chief Scientific Adviser warning us to plan ahead and those responsible for planning pronouncing that demands could not have been foreseen. This is not acceptable. Clarity of leadership is absolutely critical to garner public compliance and even respect for these many necessary restrictions, particularly to tackle the danger of by many younger people not adhering to social distancing and the wearing of masks.
I am at one with the noble Baroness, Lady Hayman, in asking the Government to review counting children in the current cluster of six.
Finally, how are the Government ensuring a robust plan to protect care homes from further unnecessary fatalities in the upcoming months and also to avoid at all costs any disproportionate impact on those from minority ethnic backgrounds with different conditions, including poor housing, and poor-quality health and social care? We have all known about it and have been warning the Government constantly about it, but I have not heard one iota of response, which I find totally abhorrent.
My Lords, I regret that these regulations are necessary and urge the Government to consider their approach. In justifying emergency powers a few months ago, Parliament accepted that this was meant to be exceptional and was necessary for public health.
Subsequently, however, enforcement has been strengthened, yet it remains the case that the various iterations of the lockdown have never been in place with full parliamentary approval. Not only has Parliament not been in engaged in scrutinising these new laws, members of the public and the police have been given little chance to see and understand the new laws they are subject to. Every subsequent amendment has entailed parliamentary scrutiny being delayed and devalued. Despite repeated insistence from Ministers that this will not become routine practice, it has become precisely that.
We are supposed to be easing measures as soon as it is safe for public health to do so, but can my noble friend explain this concept of public health, which seems to have been interpreted strangely in the narrow manner of risk of catching one illness? Can he explain why the focus seems to be wholly on this one risk, when the number of deaths from other illnesses may be higher than those from Covid-19? If scientists are asked to assess the risk of this one virus, given how new it is, their risk/reward equation is bound to lead them to advise against opening up, easing restrictions or mingling. Even if they are wrong, they can claim success. It is important, therefore, to bear in mind the other elements of public health involved in these draconian measures.
My Lords, I do not know why we are having this debate. These regulations have been in force for some time, and nothing we say today will alter that. What is more, the Covid situation has changed drastically since they were first introduced. I think the debates demonstrate the farce, frankly, of Parliament’s present role. Parliamentary accountability is an essential part of democracy. Decision-making by Governments is improved as a result of debate. The point of opposition is not just to score points, however legitimate, against one’s political opponents; it is to expose arguments and debates that lead, ultimately, to better decisions. In the Covid crisis, the system of parliamentary accountability is letting the country down. It is no good having debates after the Government have made up their mind—after policies have been announced and regulations drafted, laid and put into effect. We need a radically reformed system of prior parliamentary consultation and full debate. We particularly need it because of the loss of public confidence in government over Covid.
We pride ourselves in this country on being the mother of Parliaments, but we are now an elderly parent who may still have great wisdom but has lost control, not just of the power of decision but of the power of effective influence. The European Parliament and German Bundestag would not allow themselves to be put in this position by the Executive. This is a question of fundamental importance: how do we rebuild the confidence in our political system that the erratic behaviour of the present Government is badly eroding? It is time to call a halt and we can easily do this.
As we have heard this morning, these regulations are complex and, at times, confusing. I believe that much more should be done to greatly increase public awareness of the dangers of this painful killer disease. I am particularly concerned about the rising incidence in areas with large subcontinental populations, such as Leicester, Sandwell, the north-east and now Lancashire. Here, because of genetic factors, many carry a greater than average risk. Many are not avid listeners to or viewers of the BBC but regularly watch dedicated TV channels catering for them. Will the Minister use these to create greater awareness in this part of our community, which is at greater than average risk?
My Lords, I declare an interest in that my wife and eldest son are doctors, and for 12 years I led on health matters on the Public Accounts Committee. I have some practical questions. Why, in the sporting world, are we continually seeing pilots cancelled? The purpose of a pilot is to find out what happens. Why are there not testing centres in every major hospital so that our hospital staff can get priority? Why are the inspectors of care homes not required to have had tests? Why are care homes never given priority? The result is that, if staff have a test on a Monday or Tuesday, they do not get the result until they have to do another test. Why continue to promote, through advertising this week on the radio, that people should go for a test? Why boast that we have the most testing in Europe when we do not have sufficient testing ability underneath to qualify? Why did nobody think about modelling the schools and universities properly? And why, after Leicester, did we not go straightaway to a model for the inner towns of our country, with terraced housing? Why on earth have a major overhaul of Public Health England in the middle of the biggest pandemic we have seen in our lifetime?
My Lords, I am a member of Pendle Borough Council and I have to say that I consider today’s proceedings something of a farce. If my council ran proceedings like this, the Government would come and close us down. Nevertheless, it is one of the councils in the country and in Lancashire that is trying to get a grip. I have not been directly involved, but local people are very disappointed by the Government, who they see beset by general chaos—a shambles day by day, with confusing and confused messages as far as they can see. We have to cope with national rules, Lancashire-wide rules, borough-wide rules and even rules that apply to particular wards. How people are supposed to understand all these different rules for different places is not clear to me. An inordinate amount of time is spent understanding and publicising the rules and then negotiating with the various levels and the confusion of bodies.
This is a process that takes place every week. At the beginning of the week, the local task force starts looking at what should be done with the next round of changes that the Government want to make at the end of the week; then it goes to various county-level bodies. I have not got my mind around the number of different county-level bodies involved, and what their responsibilities are, but there is something called Silver that seems very important—I am not quite sure who is on Silver, but there it is—then it goes to national level, to Gold. I asked, “What is Gold?” and was told, “Oh, it’s Matt Hancock”. All I said was, “All that glisters is not gold”.
We used to be top of the league; we have got it down now, so we are going down, but the Government have pulled the plug on everything we are trying to do.
My Lords, it seems that this House will be spending our Fridays far into the future debating new government diktats after the fact, producing outcomes that, as the noble Lord, Lord Scriven, said, could be seen as farcical, a view that many other noble Lords have reflected. Is centralised decision-making the right approach, even putting aside the democratic concerns? The situation in different parts of England is fast-moving and the economic, geographic and demographic make-up of different regions, cities, rural areas, et cetera, is very varied.
While we in your Lordships’ House spend much of our lives glued to news feeds, most people do not, and the general state of the nation is confusion. Have the Government considered instead creating a clear framework of levels of lockdown—as, for example, was done from the start in New Zealand—providing practical, straightforward guidance about personal risk reduction, as the noble Baroness, Lady Ludford, suggested, and then leaving it to the local authorities to decide, day to day, how to implement and communicate them, guided by local health officials given appropriate resources? That would be a radical change from our usual centralised decision-making—taking back local control—but would be a move, I suggest, to a new and more thoughtful strategy, as the noble Baroness, Lady Neville-Rolfe, said. At the same time, given the excellent results from local test and trace, why not give the entire responsibility for that to local teams, provided with the appropriate resources?
My second question concerns the limits on family gatherings—the rule of six—and, in particular, its impact on childcare. Have the Government assessed the impact on NHS workers and other essential workers with younger children or children home from school? Have they made an estimate of the numbers affected? If so, will the Minister inform the House of that, either today or by letter? This is a limited but terribly important impact assessment, although provision of the broader types of impact assessment, referred to by the noble Baroness, Lady Noakes, would be extremely welcome.
My Lords, we are witnessing the strange death of parliamentary democracy in this country. There is no other way to describe the charade in which we are involved today. Many of these regulations, as so many colleagues have pointed out, have long since taken effect. What are we meant to do? This is government by press release; in some cases, as pointed out by the noble Baroness, Lady Ludford, the regulations had taken effect even before they were laid. Why are we not discussing the rule of six regulations today? That is the issue of the day—why are we not discussing it? Why do we not even know the date on which they will happen?
Why do we have a Minister who does not even have the courtesy to turn up to the House to deal with these important regulations and who does not answer questions? We had a Statement earlier this week; I asked why the rules were different in Scotland and in England and what it was about English children that made them more likely to be a risk. My noble friend the Minister said in his reply that
“we celebrate the differences between our two nations in this.”—[Official Report, 14/9/20; col. 1006.]
I do not celebrate the differences which mean that I cannot visit my grandchildren in London, but they could get in a taxi, on the Tube, or on a plane or a train and come to Scotland perfectly legally. How do you explain that to people? What prevents the Government getting together the various Chief Medical Officers from the devolved regions, agreeing a common policy and implementing it, if it is all supposed to be based on scientific evidence?
Furthermore, when asked difficult questions such as the one from the noble Lord, Lord Taylor, who asked a very reasonable question about his family, the Minister replied:
“that is the pub-quiz question of all pub-quiz questions”—[Official Report, 14/9/20; col. 1004.]
and referred him to the regulations. There is no accountability for what the Government are doing. Parliament is being bypassed. We are not in a position to debate these regulations; we cannot intervene in speeches; it is absolutely unsatisfactory and needs to be put right.
My Lords, these SIs give local authorities powers relating to the control and prevention of coronavirus. They require approval from both Houses. They came into force on 18 July 2020, but if they are not approved by the House of Lords they will cease to apply. These are important powers to control the spread of coronavirus. In these difficult times, it is important to give powers to local authorities to close down certain properties such as bars, restaurants and shops. We have witnessed various flare-ups of the pandemic in towns, and the powers given to local authorities have helped close premises before it spreads further.
Communities and local government work together and help ensure that people wear masks, keep social distancing and regularly wash their hands. Local authorities must have powers to fine individuals and premises which do not conform to the regulations. Repeated breaking of the regulations should involve heavy fines and perhaps imprisonment. We must realise that such powers will be for the safety of public health. These powers are fair and proportionate in the present circumstances. I trust that both Houses will ensure that politics does not interfere with these regulations. Lives can be lost in these difficult times.
My Lords, as I expected, this has been a fascinating debate. I have drawn the short straw and will wind up; unfortunately, my noble friend Lady Brinton is still not well enough to join us, but I sincerely hope she will be back in her place soon. I am also sorry that the Minister is not in his place. I hope he is not unwell. It is not always helpful to have a Minister with dodgy connections—
I shall just carry on.
When I was trying to put together what to say today, I started with the regulations and the Explanatory Notes. They are pretty dense, so I went to Wikipedia—the noble Baroness laughs, but it laid out extremely well and clearly how these three instruments work and fit together. So, there is a tip, because I think we will be doing this a few more times.
These three SIs are all derivatives of SI 684; we debated that on 24 July, but it was actually laid on 3 July—some 10 and a half weeks ago. Everything is so much after the event. I looked back at our debate in Hansard; the Minister outlined the key points because we had only a minute each. He was not given the challenge and scrutiny the public deserved. It is the same today. If we have to do this—I understand that we do—we need more time to do it justice.
In that debate, I asked the Minister about the Bournemouth beach crowd. It was topical at the time and, as my home is a notorious area, I really wanted to know the answer. The Minister was not able to give me one, but neither did I get a letter from his office picking up on questions not responded to. I appreciate that many questions are asked in the sort of debate we are having now. The Minister is pushed for time, but his competent and helpful staff should be able to put together a letter to all Peers covering issues raised and not responded to. This could be emailed to participants—possibly not put in the Library at the moment, but maybe both.
To give a bit of the detail, SI 788 allows swimming pools, indoor water parks, indoor fitness and dance studios, indoor gyms and sports courts to reopen. SI 863 allows indoor casinos, skating rinks, play areas, bowling alleys, conference centres and exhibition halls to reopen—perhaps we could have had our party conferences after all. Nightclubs, dance halls, discos, sex venues and hostess bars remain closed. My next point is quite serious—what about bingo halls? For an awful lot of people, bingo is really quite important. They get together and get away; it is a cheap way of having a bit of fun with your friends. I am sure they could be socially distanced, but these regs are silent on bingo.
SI 907 imposes a fixed penalty of £10,000 for gatherings or raves of more than 30 people. I wondered whether you can have a rave with fewer than 30 people —I am sorry the Minister is not here as I know he is the expert on raves. There are geographic restrictions as well, but some expired even before we had the debate. I apologise to the House if I sound grumpy, but debating these regs so long after they are laid is a silly way of doing business.
I have asked the Minister before about how effective a deterrent the fixed penalties are. My noble friend Lady Walmsley asked about fines as well. I would be grateful for an answer to that question. The noble Lord, Lord Hunt of Kings Heath, who is not in his place today, put the whole thing really well at the last airing of SIs. He got grumpy too, and I think we should.
What is bothering the population at large is the testing situation. If we are going to get through this pandemic efficiently, we will need to step up population testing in schools, workplaces, care homes and local drive-in centres. We should also, following on from the noble Baroness, Lady Donaghy, look again at airport testing. Data will help us beat this virus. Ignorance will not.
We are again debating these measures retrospectively. We are in strange times, but we live in a parliamentary democracy. That should not mean we have to accept a loss of parliamentary oversight. The noble Lord, Lord Bourne of Aberystwyth, put it very well: we really need proper parliamentary scrutiny, but this is not it.
My Lords, when the noble Lord, Lord Forsyth, my noble friend Lord Liddle and many other noble Lords across the House express their frustration in the trenchant way they have done today, the Government really need to listen.
I am particularly struck by the fact that the noble Lord, Lord Lamont, has in his indignation put down a negative Motion against the rule of six, which I think we will discuss in a few weeks’ time. It is in the green sheets if noble Lords want to find it—I found it this morning. That must tell the Government that this House really is very dissatisfied and very frustrated. This is not the way that Parliament should be doing its job and we need to find a better way forward.
One noble Lord said that all of these orders were not emergencies, because they were lifting emergencies, so there should have been time—I think it was the noble Baroness who said this—for these to have been discussed pre being put down and taken in an orderly fashion across both Houses of Parliament. We have many of these SIs to go before the end of September, so we are going to get used to each other.
I need to talk about things that are relevant today, before I mention any of the orders that we are actually discussing, because the whole of the UK is much more worried about what is going to happen next. Listening to the news as I was writing my speech, I heard a discussion about whether a circuit breaker will be required across the country: a two-week partial national lockdown. Local restrictions are becoming regional. Coronavirus cases have been doubling every seven to eight days in England, according to the study by Imperial College. The R rate is up, the number of people being hospitalised is growing and care homes, as we know, are in the news again because they are so concerned about what is going to happen. The Financial Times reported that one SAGE scientist said that if the R number continued at the same rate it would “break the NHS”.
We warned from these Benches months ago that unless the Government spent the summer fixing the testing regime, we would face a bleak winter. Notwithstanding the remarks of the noble Baroness, Lady Harding, at the Select Committee yesterday, that in her view the test system was not failing, it is ludicrous that a surge in demand was unexpected. The truth is that the Government ignored the advice that a robust test and tracing system was vital when our schools and universities were back and when people went back to work. So could the Minister confirm reports that a two-week national lockdown in October has been proposed by the scientists of SAGE and the Scientific Pandemic Influenza Group on Modelling? Is it true, as my noble friend Lady Donaghy said, that COBRA has not met for several months?
I suppose that we need to turn to these statutory instruments. I echo other noble Lords in asking why we are not seeing any impact assessments at all, on any of these statutory instruments. Surely that must be possible, and it is not respectful of Parliament and accountability that those have not been forthcoming. Not only has Parliament not been engaged in scrutinising these laws, but members of the public and the police forces have been given little chance to see and understand the new laws they will be subject to, and they are having to learn as they go along. It is regrettable that we are only debating these regulations weeks, and even months, after they came into effect.
Last time we discussed the issue of fines for gathering, I asked the Minister whether the legislation had been used to stop legitimate political protest, which, I said,
“this country prides itself on allowing to happen, even in its most bonkers forms”.—[Official Report, 3/9/20; col. 485.]
The Minister did not answer this, or any of the numerous questions on where the right to protest currently stands under the health protection regulations, citing a lack of time. How many demonstrations and gatherings have been refused? Who has been fined—we know certain people have been fined—and who is facing criminalisation? If the Minister does not have time to answer these questions today, perhaps he could write to me and put the answer in the Library.
Other noble Lords have very adequately covered the issues about swimming pools and the lateness of the regulations, arriving 24 hours before they were due to be enacted. I think businesses are owed an apology by the Government for being given detailed regulations 24 hours before they come into force. That is not reasonable at all. That includes ice rinks, swimming pools and so on. Now we have the regulations for the rule of six, designed to make the rules easier to understand and follow—but, as other noble Lords have said, that is simply not the case. It is particularly not the case when the four countries are operating these in different ways.
I hope that we will not continue this somewhat arid process, a mockery of the parliamentary process. I hope that when we come to review the emergency legislation, as we are due to do by the end of this month, that will change.
My Lords, this has been a moving and emotional debate. I would like to start, before I go on to my scripted speech, by addressing three key points raised by noble Lords. First, I would like to thank noble Lords for their patience for my not being in the Chamber today, and for, as was described, my “dodgy connections”. I would have liked to be there, and it is my intention to be there in future.
Two themes have been raised time and again, which I would like to address. One is the processing of regulations. Before I talk formally about this, perhaps I may share with the House the fact that decision-making in Government over the last six months has turned on a penny. We have often been in situations where we thought we were going to do one thing at the beginning of a meeting, we have come out of the meeting with new data and new insights, we have made a completely different decision and have had to implement that decision later in the day. This has been extremely tough in many ways, and it has been tough when it comes to scrutiny and bringing regulations in front of the House. I reassure the House that parliamentary scrutiny is valued by the Government, by Ministers and by everyone who brings regulations to the House. It is a massive priority for us that these debates are taken seriously.
Secondly, in response to the many touching personal testimonies of noble Lords during this debate, I say that the individual impacts of these regulations on people in the country are not underestimated by anybody. The stories of grandchildren, parents, split families, the difficulties over childcare and practical matters—these are terrible impacts of this horrible disease. We work extremely hard to try to minimise those impacts, and we try to design the guidelines so that they will have the smallest possible impact. We value enormously the feedback we get from Parliament, from civic groups and from representations, and seek to tweak the guidelines accordingly. I would just like to put those sentiments on the record.
I now turn to the questions posed by noble Lords. My noble friends Lady Neville-Rolfe, Lady Altmann and Lord Forsyth, and the noble Baroness, Lady Hayman, all touched on the frustrations of the public, and I think I have just addressed that. The personal testimony of all of them was extremely moving. I reassure the noble Baronesses, Lady Thornton and Lady Donaghy, and my noble friend Lord Bourne that we do bring the full force of government behind our decision-making. The process of COBRA has given way to the processes of COVID-O and Covid Gold. These are extremely well-managed processes; they are on a weekly roster and have made a huge impact on government.
On parliamentary scrutiny, I completely recognise the concerns of a great many noble Lords, including my noble friend Lord Cormack, the noble Lords, Lord Liddle, Lord Dubs and Lord Scriven, and others. They have all raised concerns about the way in which we are using Section 45R of the Public Health (Control of Disease) Act 1984.
Arrangement of business is a matter for my right honourable friend the Chief Whip and the usual channels. Standing Order 72 prevents us from taking affirmative SIs until the JCSI has reported on them, and that does create delays. Where regulations have to be debated, those debates take place in light of the reports of the JCSI. I reassure my noble friend Lord Bourne of Aberystwyth that regulations are reviewed every 28 days. The first review was on 31 July, the most recent review took place on 28 August and the next one will be on 25 September. I remind the House that Ministers have provided Oral Statements in relation to the introduction of new measures or significant changes, and Written Ministerial Statements following amendments when Parliament is sitting.
The noble Baronesses, Lady Walmsley and Lady Jolly, and my noble friend Lady Neville-Rolfe all asked questions about the £10,000 fine, which is a significant amount that reflects the seriousness of the new offence. I reassure noble Lords that this is an extremely defined offence. It is anticipated that the fines will be small in number but huge in impact. The Metropolitan Police has responded to 1,000 unlicensed events between June and the middle of August. This has created a massive public health threat, which we take seriously. To answer the noble Baroness, Lady Jolly, I had no role in any of these events, but I reassure her that bingo halls have been reopened.
On the economy and Covid-secure guidance, I reassure my noble friends Lady Neville-Rolfe and Lady Noakes, and the noble Baroness, Lady Wheatcroft, that the Government are committed to lifting the regulations as soon as it is safe to do so, enabling the economy to restart in a way that keeps people safe. Covid-secure guidance has been developed in close collaboration with industry and medical experts to help keep businesses open wherever we possibly can, and at every stage we have looked to support business and people returning to life as normal, but striking a balance between that and public health commitments. We have seen the positive news from the ONS that in July the economy grew by 6.6%, meaning that GDP is now 18.6% higher than the April low.
On the NHS, the noble Baroness, Lady Walmsley, raised an important point about capacity, particularly on caring for those who are experiencing the long-term effects of Covid. We are extremely focused on the effects of long-term Covid, particularly for those who have not displayed symptoms, and the Government are providing an extra £3 billion of funding for the NHS.
The noble Baronesses, Lady Hayman and Lady Uddin, asked about children and the rule of six. We have set up clear and consistent limits on the rule of six for children of any age in any settings. This makes things easier to understand for the public and easier to enforce by the police and public health officials. We will keep this under review but the CMO has been clear that children are unfortunately a vector for infection, and a national outbreak among children would have a profound impact on the whole country.
The noble Baroness, Lady Uddin, and the noble Lord, Lord Singh, asked about the severe impact of the disease among the BAME community. I reassure them that we are doing everything we can to market our public health messages to these communities and research the effects of this disease among them, putting in place the appropriate protections wherever we can.
The noble Baroness, Lady Bennett, raised an important point. I can confirm that there is a legal exemption to the rule of six for the purpose of formal childcare provided by a registered provider and in settings not formally registered that provide wrap-around care, such as school clubs, breakfast clubs and sports clubs, as well as for children’s youth clubs. When childcare is provided informally, gathering limits should not be exceeded.
The noble Baroness, Lady Walmsley, asked about the right to protest. I reassure her that we are clear that peaceful protest is a vital part of a democratic society and is a long-standing tradition. She asked who was responsible; those who organise the protests are responsible for them, and it is their responsibility to ensure that they comply. The police’s role will be to check that they are complying and to disperse them if they do not. On this, I would be glad to write to the noble Baroness, Lady Thornton, on her detailed questions about fines.
On sport, my noble friends Lord Naseby and Lord Moynihan raised important questions about being able to exercise within the rule of six. There are exemptions for organised sports and licensed physical activities, including 30 exempted sports. Outdoor activity is safer from a transmission perspective and it is often easier to distance, but not all sports can be Covid-compliant.
I reassure the noble Baroness, Lady Hayman, that these measures are kept under review, and I understand the tough decisions made by families.
On inconsistencies regarding face coverings in gyms, I can confirm to the noble Baroness, Lady Wheatcroft, that we have mandated the wearing of face coverings in indoor settings, as it is not always possible to maintain social distancing.
This is an extremely fast-moving and changing situation which the Government have moved swiftly on to protect the public health. The state of the infection is changing very quickly, as my noble friend Lord Bourne rightly pointed out. The rate of infection has been affected by the return of school and the return to work, and we can see in countries overseas the impact that has on hospital attendance, ventilation rates and, in some places, on death rates. We are moving quickly to adapt.
I completely understand the frustrations. However, we have seen huge achievements from the implementation of these regulations in tackling the spread of the virus, and these regulations before us today, those we will see later and their predecessors have been a major part of that. Although we have significantly progressed in our fight against the virus, now is not the time for complacency, particularly as we head towards winter and prevalence rates are rising. More regulations will be coming but we will keep under review the way in which those are handled. I beg to move.