(6 days, 15 hours ago)Lords Chamber
Motion to Approve
That the Regulations laid before the House on 12 October be approved.
Instrument not yet reported by the Joint Committee on Statutory Instruments
My Lords, we are here to debate the middle, or “high”, tier of the new three-level system of local restrictions that we believe will be simpler for the public to understand, and therefore adherence will be higher.
Before I move on to that, I take a moment to pay tribute to my noble friend Lord Moylan, whom many of us know already. I really should have given the kind of testimony that a fantastic maiden speech in the earlier debate deserves. He did a very rare and precious thing: in just two minutes he established his credentials as “Mr Infrastructure” or, should I say, “Lord Infrastructure”. He got across the sense of wisdom, expertise and his phenomenal network, which he will undoubtedly bring to bear in the House and will be hugely valued for it. We give him enormous thanks for his pithy and effective speech.
This pandemic is the most important public health emergency that we have faced in a generation. We knew that our response would require a phenomenal national effort, but that we would also need to work closely with local authorities to control the transmission and spread of the virus. For their ongoing and substantial contributions to these regulations, I would like to thank local council leaders and other participants who have engaged intensively and constructively with the Government.
I have already outlined the strategy for the local Covid alert levels approach in the debate earlier this afternoon. The important objective is to enable easy-to-understand consistency in the application of restrictions across the country, rather than the localised variations which may have created confusion in the minds of some of the public. This should also allow the public to plan and prepare for stricter measures and understand the consequences of non-adherence.
This is necessary because the numbers tell a worrying story. The doubling time for the UK is currently between eight and 16 days, although this differs considerably across regions. As set out in the minutes from the SAGE meeting on 24 September, positivity is increasing, which similarly indicates that incidence is likely to be increasing, even when operational constraints mean that the number of confirmed cases may not be increasing quite as quickly.
The second wave is starting in the home. Recent statistics indicate that a total of 65,829 new Covid-19 cases were identified in the week to 6 October. Of these cases, 51,661—or 78.5%—occurred in private residential settings. The statistics demonstrate that once the virus is in a household, there is a strong chance that others in the household will catch the disease. There is very little we can do about this. The restrictions we are debating today primarily aim to reduce or stop the virus getting into the household in the first place. They reduce household-to-household transmission by seeking to prevent any indoor meeting of two or more households, which we know to be a key source of transmission.
The differences between local alert level medium, which we will debate next, and local alert level high, are focused on the need for reductions in the number and frequency of social contacts. At local Covid alert level high, people will no longer be allowed to meet with anyone from outside their household in an indoor setting; nor will support or childcare bubbles be permitted to meet indoors, except where exemptions apply. This measure includes private homes and Covid-secure hospitality, leisure and retail venues.
The rule of six will apply in all settings outdoors, including private gardens, pub gardens and recreational parklands. Everyone within the affected areas can continue to travel to venues and amenities that are open, for work or education, but they should look to reduce the number of journeys if possible. People are advised to walk or cycle whenever possible, or to plan their journeys to avoid busy times and routes if using public transport.
Additional support will be made available to local authorities to enable access to national systems in order to establish effective local tracing teams. A dedicated team of national tracers will be ring-fenced for their local area.
We want to see local enforcement teams using the full weight of the new rules and regulations. Environmental health officers and trading standards officers should be using their powers to ensure that businesses that are breaking the rules feel the full force of the law, working with the police when necessary. But more generally, enforcement of the rules will continue just as it does now, so businesses should ensure that they are complying with the rules. It is for them to ask their customers to do so in the first instance, and they can ask people to leave. But of course, as now, they can also escalate to the police if necessary.
Areas subject to local Covid alert level high are to be reviewed every 14 days to consider whether they are still at the correct alert level. In addition, the relevant regulations will be reviewed every 28 days, and will expire automatically after six months. In reviewing alert levels, the Government will make proper consideration of the best available data and the details pertaining to the local situation, including the incidence and test positivity, as well as the growth rate in infections, hospitalisation rates, the effectiveness of local measures, the weather, and other factors.
Fundamentally, this change is about putting in place the right balance of measures to reduce the spread of the virus. As the Prime Minister made clear in Monday’s press conference, our strategy is clear: to save life and protect the NHS while keeping in mind other priorities, including keeping our children in school and protecting people’s jobs and livelihoods. We are taking a balanced approach to tackling the virus where it is most prevalent by working closely with local leaders to take stronger action in order to save lives.
I take this opportunity to reassure the House that every day, week in, week out, we are in constant dialogue with local areas to make sure that there is local support on the ground for any extra measures and that the local perspective is combined with the wealth of data we now have, and share, on the spread of the disease.
The people of this country have been asked to make significant sacrifices in the Government’s efforts to combat this virus and its effects. The additional protections afforded by these changes deserve the support of this Chamber. I look forward to hearing your Lordships’ contributions in the course of this debate, and I hope that I will be able to respond to any concerns raised. I beg to move.
My Lords, I am grateful to the Minister but I am afraid that, just as in the spring, it is a case of action taken by the Government being too little, too late.
I will return to the SAGE meeting of 21 September and the comment that the more rapidly interventions are put in place and the more stringent they are, the faster the reduction in incidence and prevalence and
“the greater the reduction in Covid-related deaths.”
Clearly, the Government have decided that they will not go down that course. I am afraid that the outcome will be more ill health and more deaths.
Why is the Minister so confident that this approach will work? We know that in 19 of the 20 areas that have been under local restrictions for over two months, infection rates have gone up, not down. It looks as if, caught between opposing forces in government, the Prime Minister has dithered once again and gone for this unsatisfactory compromise.
I would like again to ask the Minister about the Government’s relationship with local authorities. The Prime Minister said that he wants to reset it. Yet last night, the Government were again briefing the media that parts of the north-west are to be moved into the very high priority tier—again, without discussion with local leaders. How on earth is that a recasting of the relationship?
Given the Government’s decision to go down this route, there are inevitable inconsistences regarding where local authorities are placed in the system and the financial support they receive. Is the Minister aware of the criticism made by Andy Street, the Conservative West Midlands Mayor, and Ian Ward, the Labour Birmingham City Council leader, of the impact of closing down the hospitality sector in the West Midlands? This decision has been made for the greater good, but the impact is devastating on that sector, which supports more than 135,000 jobs across the West Midlands. Surely, adequate financial support needs to be provided to protect jobs and livelihoods.
We need a combination of tough restrictions in the light of the SAGE discussions and decisions of 21 September, but we also have to support our businesses to ensure that they survive for the long term.
My Lords, I am not one of those who want zero restrictions, but I want scientifically based timely restrictions with transparency. I am sure that Mr Johnson hoped that his three-tier system would bring clarity for people to follow; indeed, public compliance depends on it. I, too, hoped that replacing the multiple sets of rules would bring that about. Unfortunately, that is not the case and the complexity of these regulations proves it.
The Liberal Democrats believe that we should follow the science. The big question asked by many noble Lords is: why did the Government implement this week only one of the five recommendations made by the chief scientist three weeks ago? How on earth can the Government claim that they are following the science when the minutes of meetings make it clear that they are not? What is the science behind the 10 pm curfew? We have never been told and it has rapidly become clear that it may be having the opposite effect to that intended, as people stream out of socially distanced pubs and mingle out on crowded streets without appropriate space or masks.
As usual the Government made an announcement before they had all their ducks in a row. We hear that discussions with local leaders are ongoing about which tier their areas should be in. One cannot blame them for holding out for more financial support. If the Government had passed on to local authorities even half the money that they have been bunging into profitable contracts with their friends, councils could have used the money to do what they do best—tracing cases and supporting them to isolate, which is best done locally. Yet, the Government insist on allowing the national system to fail before sending many of the cases to local teams, thereby losing a valuable 24 hours. When time is of the essence, this is crazy.
You cannot blame local leaders for seeking to protect their local economy by resisting going into too high a tier. What percentage of cases or growth rates divides one tier from another? We and the local leaders are not told. We now know that many positive student cases are being wrongly assigned to their home area, because that is where they are registered with a GP, instead of at their university. That is skewing the figures. Will the Minister ensure that that factor, like many others, is taken into account when assigning a tier? It is that kind of issue that makes local government highly suspicious of the criteria being used. Councils and their residents also want to know what they have to achieve to have restrictions loosened.
We support the scientists’ alternative proposal of a circuit-breaker.
My Lords, in the previous debate I supported my noble friend Lord Robathan’s amendment because of the lack of scientific underpinning for the Government’s Covid restrictions. I should like to say a little more about that in the context of the hospitality sector.
Many businesses have been hard hit by the lockdown but the hospitality sector has been particularly badly affected. In my village in Kent, we used to have four pub-restaurants and two cafés. Half have closed for good since March. Those of us who spend time in London are well aware of the number of venues that are boarded up.
At some stage, an inquiry will reveal whether the decision to lock the whole economy down was right and whether the harms it caused were justified by the gains in dealing with the virus, but I am not concerned with that today. What concerns me is that the hospitality industry remains a target for government interventions and that those interventions are evidence-free.
We know that the Government’s aim is to reduce the rate of transmission of the virus. Public Health England issues a weekly coronavirus report. In its latest update, to the end of September, contact tracing shows that households and household visitors are by a country mile the biggest source of exposure to the virus, as the Minister said. Leisure and community are the next largest source of exposure but the sector accounts for only around 5% or 6% of the total—a massive category that covers everything from restaurants to playgroups. The data in the report on where acute respiratory infection incidents take place shows that food outlets and restaurants represent only around 5% of the total and pubs do not show up at all. It is much more dangerous to go to work than to go out to socialise.
Yet, the Government have piled restrictions onto this sector. Social distancing means that it is hard to make money. There are fierce rules on record-keeping, which we should have considered today, but for some reason that debate was cancelled. More importantly, the 10 pm curfew was announced last month with no evidence to support it. It was not even supported by SAGE. The puritans are having a field day with prissy remarks about alcohol and social distancing not mixing, but whoever dreamed up the 10 pm rule clearly had no understanding of human behaviour. It simply created a perfect storm for social distancing, with huge numbers exiting pubs and restaurants at the same time.
The best that can be said for these regulations is that they are less punitive on the hospitality sector than those applied to “very high” alert areas—but that is not saying much.
My Lords, people in tier 2 must know how they might move into tier 1 or tier 3, but what warnings of that should they expect to receive? I welcome the three-tier approach but it will lack acceptance if the guidance and rules on how any switch between tiers will be decided are not known. It is time to be open about how decisions on tiers or changing tiers will be reached, forewarned and kept under review.
This is a national emergency of unprecedented impact on everyone, young or old, rich or poor, and of every ethnic group. It is tragic that political parties and regional administrations are not working united on a national basis. Is it too late to press anew for such an approach? Faced with a long winter of stress and worry, and restrictive lockdowns for many in all parts of the UK, has not the time come to tackle this pandemic nationally and put aside the practices and instincts of partisanship and regional autonomy?
The pandemic has been likened to an enemy of the whole country that has to be fought and conquered. That calls for a united, national response. Common sense and a nationally agreed strategy, backed by the vast majority of citizens, whatever their political persuasion, are required. Will the Government seek such a solution? Will all parties and regional administrations, just for once, agree to work together in harmony? Such a lead and response would go far in reassuring the public and give them hope and optimism that the country will successfully see off this pandemic. Without such a strategy, the danger of increasing frustration, and deep worries about health and livelihoods through the dark winter months ahead, and maybe through much of 2021, may lead to growing public disquiet and unrest.
My Lords, I thank the Minister. While I will support the measure, as I supported my noble friend Lady Thornton, I want to ask the noble Lord a few questions about why we are where we are.
Will the Minister update us on the 25 used test kits mistakenly handed out last night in Selly Oak, Birmingham? More generally, why is test and trace still not running at all effectively, having been launched way back in May? These lockdown restrictions will be of benefit to people only if test results come back quickly, enough people are tested and, if positive, they properly isolate. There needs to be a complete reset on a system that is only marginally useful at best and throws up mistakes such as the possibility of cross-contamination in Selly Oak at worst.
Why is it also, as several noble Lords have said, that financial support for areas in the new high-alert level, especially for the hospitality sector, is still not generous enough to cover people’s needs over the coming months? As my noble friend Lord Hunt said, if we take a city such as Birmingham, the leader of the council, Ian Ward, has said that 135,000 hospitality jobs and livelihoods are now at risk. Without even going into the argument about whether pubs are safer than people’s homes, as far as transmission is concerned, the fact remains that in high-alert level areas, some businesses—indeed, many businesses—and jobs will be lost in the coming months. Can the Minister give some comfort to those people whose jobs, especially in hospitality, are now at risk?
Unless national and local government morph into some 21st-century version of the old East German Stasi, there is no way that people can be continually spied on in their own homes, but the Government can regulate public venues such as pubs and restaurants, which is why, I suspect, hospitality is being targeted. It is a decision to tackle transmission where it can be enforced, but it will still leave many people jobless.
My Lords, I am addressing the House from Berwick-upon-Tweed. Here, local businesses and families are subject to the high level of restriction chosen for the needs of Newcastle and Tyneside, but that is 65 miles away. Berwick is not part of the Tyneside travel-to-work area. People who travel to or from work in Berwick do so mostly from the nearby towns in the Scottish Borders. There is no university or college bringing students into the area.
We have the data on the issue to which I want to draw the Minister’s attention. The Government publish figures for every area of the country in population units of 7,200. The number of new cases in the last week per 7,200 people in Newcastle Central was 335, a horrifying figure. In Berwick, the equivalent figure per 7,200 people was between zero and two—so small that it is not specified whether it was nought, one or two. In the area around Berwick, there were a further five cases. No logical system would treat these two areas in exactly the same way; it is the result of relying on the boundary of the huge Northumberland unitary authority, which we were pushed into against our will, and the North of Tyne Combined Authority. It is challenging enough for local businesses being in the “high” category; it would be grossly unfair if, with so few cases, we were put into the “very high” tier or subjected to other restrictions designed to fit areas showing the very highest increase in cases.
The Minister used the words “local dialogue” in his remarks. I would like an assurance from him that, if Berwick remains so very far below Tyneside in the incidence of new cases and if consideration is given to raising Northumberland into the “very high” category, careful consideration will be given to excluding the relevant local government boards in and around Berwick. Public confidence in dealing with this crisis requires a system that is sensitive to such huge differences. Clearly, if a decision is made that there should be a short circuit-breaker lockdown, which has been the subject of much discussion in the media today, we will accept it. However, as long as there is a tiered system designed to fit the situation in particular areas, that system should operate logically and I ask the Minister to ensure that it does.
My Lords, the three-tier system is very seductive and most people could support the general principle; it is the operation that is the problem. As my noble friend Lord Hunt said, Birmingham being in tier 2 will have a devastating impact on local businesses already on their knees following the 10 pm curfew, which is unexplained and has been imposed despite the lack of any scientific evidence to justify it. We have scientific evidence that most of the transmission in Birmingham is due to socialising in private and home settings, not in other areas. The city council and the Greater Birmingham Chambers of Commerce have written again to the Chancellor seeking an informed approach to the implementation of restrictions and for restrictions to be tailored accordingly.
There is a very small rate of infection emanating from bars and restaurants in the city of Birmingham—we have already been given figures for the numbers of jobs involved. Such a move could, of course, save businesses and jobs: the opportunity was missed with these regulations. The city council and the chambers of commerce were supported by the mostly invisible Mayor of the West Midlands, who does not seem to have much clout with the Government. It is his party and we want him to have clout with the Government. I certainly hope that, in this case, the chambers of commerce have more clout.
What we need, above all, is to know what the criteria are for exit from tier 2, either to tier 1 or to tier 3. It looks as though, and the Minister carefully explained this, it is a make-it-up-as-you-go system by central government and Ministers, and that is not good enough. People need to know what is to be done. Where is the package of support? Many businesses, according to Birmingham City Council and the Chambers of Commerce, will not see 2021.
I have a question for the Minister, and if he cannot answer it now, perhaps he can answer it in the next debate. In the previous debate—or in this one, I forget now—he said that there were 310,000 swabs a day. My question is: how many people were swabbed to get the 310,000 swabs? The number of people being tested in England per day is 84,000—that figure is from his own department. He needs to explain the difference between these two figures and how it arises. I would be grateful to hear from him, either now or in the next debate.
My Lords, on Monday our local MP—I declare my local interests—told us all that we were in tier 2, so I signed up for this debate. Yesterday afternoon, we discovered that we might be going into tier 3 and everybody is arguing about it. What a shambles.
Whichever it is, the testing, tracing, tracking and isolating system is crucial. What do I mean? I mean maximum testing, whether people are symptomatic or not, and then rapid, quick contact of the positives. In many cases, local knowledge is needed to find these people and track them down. It has to be local people doing it, giving others advice on what to do and collecting information on their recent close contacts. That is the forward tracing, where the existing system is attempting to do it. You have to get to those contacts quickly. There is no point going to them a week later, which is often what happens. You have to give them the advice and follow up leads. Some of the contacts have leads to take you to more contacts. That, too, can only be done efficiently by local organisations and people.
The second sort of contact tracing that you have to do is backward tracing. The forward tracing is vital, but the backward tracing—investigating the source of infection—is, by and large, not being done. The amount of data that we have on it is entirely inadequate. The Minister said that 73% are household contacts. I am not sure what he means by that and I dispute what he said from the statistics that I have seen, but it depends what you mean, I suppose. It is necessary to find out where the primary contact in a household got it and to follow up workplaces, schools, streets, family leisure facilities, hospitality, shops and all the rest. Only local people with local knowledge can possibly begin to do this vital work and, unless you do that, you do not find out the primary sources of infection and you are not going to be able to stamp it out.
I think that schools are a time bomb waiting to explode. My view is that staff in schools should be tested weekly. Secondary school and sixth-form students should be tested in the same way, and the parents of children at primary school should all be offered tests. It is my belief, looking at the Lancashire statistics in great detail, that schools are an important source of the recent huge increases.
I do not think that the Government understand the systems of local government in two-tier areas. I have asked these questions before but have not had proper answers. The districts as well as the counties need the money and the powers to work with the counties to tackle this problem.
My Lords, I congratulate the Prime Minister on resisting the pressure for a renewed lockdown. Fewer than 1% of those dying from Covid have been of working age with no comorbidities, so our main aim is to protect the elderly and the frail.
There are two possible strategies. One is to help the elderly and frail avoid succumbing to the infection and the second is to limit the spread of the infection, primarily among those of working age who are unlikely to succumb themselves, but who may infect the elderly and frail. These strategies are not mutually exclusive. Unfortunately, in the regulations we are debating, the Government have put the bulk of their effort into the second strategy. But focusing on the economically and socially active all too often reduces economic activity, destroying livelihoods. I urge Ministers to try to avoid measures that disproportionately harm economic activity, with little likely effect on the rate of infection. The most obvious example of this is the 10 o’clock rule.
At the same time, the Government should put more emphasis on enabling the elderly and frail to avoid infection. In Germany, elderly people in multigenerational households are enabled to live separately in otherwise unused hotel space. Why not also give much more prominent advice to everyone, especially the elderly, to take vitamin C and zinc supplements and to lose weight, all of which will help them be less vulnerable to not only Covid but other ailments?
Testing should be the best the best way to help to protect the elderly and to minimise the adverse impacts of these regulations on the economy. On 14 September, I tabled a Question for Written Answer to try to clarify the Government’s position on this. I referred to the claim by the Secretary of State for Transport that testing could not be used to minimise quarantine for travellers because
“even using highly accurate tests, the capture rate of those carrying Covid-19 may actually be as low as 7%.”—[Official Report, 9/9/20; col. 775.]
What scientific evidence is there for this capture rate? What period after infection did it refer to, and if tests were not identifying infectious visitors to this country, why are we relying on the same tests for the staff and visitors to old people’s homes?
The Question was due to be answered on 28 September, but officials are clearly struggling to find one. I would be grateful if the Minister could either give the answer himself or tell me when I will receive an answer. Whatever it is, it may well have a bearing on the sort of regulations and strategy that we should be following.
5 03 pm
My Lords, I broadly support the Government in trying to find a coherent way to communicate the plethora of measures now in place across different parts of the country. As a staunch civil libertarian, the current situation and approach go against my instinct and a lifetime of campaigning, but despite this, I am convinced that the Government’s approach has been necessary.
I am not of the “No masks, no lockdown” ilk, but I am increasingly concerned about what appear to be illogical measures. I raised this last week in the House when speaking about businesses that operate both as restaurants and wedding venues. Wedding ceremonies are rarely conducted on the premises, but they provide simply a large and convenient space for a meal to be served after a formal ceremony. Can my noble friend explain why restaurant seating 40, 50 or even a 100-plus can serve 100 people a meal, providing that it follows social distancing guidelines on, say, a Monday evening, but not do the same on a Tuesday evening if it is as part of an organised meal? This simply does not make sense. These premises are hosting large numbers for dinners in a safe and socially distanced way on a daily basis, but are not being allowed to do so for a specific purpose.
I urge my noble friend to ask his colleagues to think again about the detail in the dashboards and find ways in which business and industry, as set out by many noble Lords today, specifically my noble friends Lady Noakes and Lord Lilley, can continue to operate within parameters based on safety and science and, above all, common sense.
5 05 pm
My Lords, the classic comedy, “Yes Minister” has a running joke. When the Minister stands up to give a speech, he starts by saying, “We live in a time of change”. That could not be more true now because we are definitely living in a time of change. That, I think, is part of the Government’s problem. They are not actually tackling the mess they have made before they make another one. We now have what appears to be a fairly simple three-tier system, on which one could congratulate the Government, but there is a backlog of complex and convoluted regulations, advice and law that ought to be tidied up. I have raised this issue with the Minister before.
The three tiers are meant to be clear, but I argue that that there are all sorts of complexities in them. There is also the fact that I do not understand exactly how all of this will involve local authorities. Perhaps the Minister can explain that. It seems that we are giving local authorities the opportunity to be the butt of the Government, who can say, “You have messed up again”. What are local authorities going to do and when will we have a locally led test, track, trace, isolate and support system? Local authorities need the money, and they need it fast.
I want to ask a few direct questions. The Minister seems to have a real grasp of the three-tier system, so what kind of pub and restaurant closures will allow most of them to stay open? What kind of gatherings ban will have 17 complex exceptions? What does it mean when you can participate in a gathering of any size, inside or outside, of a tier 2 area, if it is “reasonably necessary for work purposes”? Finally, why is grouse shooting still allowed?
My Lords, I am grateful to the Government for their efforts to reduce the spread of coronavirus and I am pleased to have avoided it myself so far. It has had a pretty severe effect on some of my friends and relations.
Picking up on a point made by the noble Lord, Lord Greaves. I would be interested to know what the Government make of the Japanese approach to the pandemic. It focuses on cluster-busting, which is a conviction that the disease runs in clusters so that many people who get the disease do not spread it, but some will spread it excessively. The way to find the most cases most quickly is by backward tracing. In that way, a cluster can be found quickly, which is where most of the spreading takes place. I understand that there may be some reluctance to apply this technique in areas where there is a high incidence of the disease, but I would have thought that, in those areas which are mercifully relatively free of it, it should be the principal technique employed in order to keep us free of it. I ask this because it has worked so signally well in Japan.
There has to be quite aggressive backward tracing and a need to go at it hard. But it is possible to use cheap, low-sensitivity tests to uncover the cluster. You do not need the slower but more accurate tests that we seem to be using at the moment. I hope very much that the Government are picking up on this idea and will be able to give the noble Lord, Lord Greaves, and me an encouraging answer.
My Lords, it did not have to be like this. When historians look back at this period, they will point to one of the biggest strategic mistakes in getting the balance right between freedoms and keeping the economy going as much as possible: the lack of an effective and localised test, trace and isolate system. As my noble friends Lady Walmsley and Lord Greaves have said, the way to minimise restrictions in these regulations is with microprecision: to take the virus out of circulation by getting directly to individuals, tracing their contacts speedily and then supporting them with appropriate isolation services and an adequate financial safety net. The Government have not done that effectively so far. I know they will come out with reams of figures, but that will not wash any more. Real people’s experiences in communities up and down the land are more of a guide than a set of well-rehearsed statistics.
Talking of real people’s experiences, I bring to the Minister’s attention real issues on people’s minds. I will give real examples using Chesterfield, which is in the medium category, and Sheffield, which is in the high category. These two areas are just down the road from each other, and real people travel between them for work, leisure and shopping, and have families in both areas. Can the Minister answer these questions that people back there are asking—real questions and real people’s concerns?
“I live in Sheffield and am 10 years old. My grandparents live in Chesterfield. Why can I go to my school in Chesterfield, in the same class as my nephew who lives in Chesterfield, but after school cannot see my grandparents inside for a meal, when my nephew can?”
“I live in Chesterfield. Why can I go to a pub in Chesterfield at 6 pm with five of my friends but, when we go to the comedy club performance in Sheffield at 7.30 pm, we are not able to sit together? Why have I become more infectious at the Sheffield border?”
“I live in Sheffield, but work in a small office with four other people in Chesterfield. Why can I sit in an office with them all day but, at the end of the day, cannot go for a drink and sit with them, when they can sit together? This is madness and makes no sense.”
“I own a coffee shop in Sheffield. It is my legal responsibility, with the possibility of a fine if I do not do this, to make sure that linked households sit together. How will I know and manage the situation, if three people living at two addresses in linked households want to sit together? How do I know they are linked households?”
The answers to these questions are important because, for people to trust and carry out what is asked of them, they need to understand why they are being asked to make sacrifices. Regulations made up in offices in Whitehall have serious implications for people and businesses many hundreds of miles away, with consequences that the London-centric lens does not see.
My next point concerns why this is emergency legislation. It was obvious that a new wave was coming and that the country needed a way to deal with it. If this had come through normal primary legislation, the issues people are raising that I mentioned, and the unintended consequences, could have been teased out much earlier. The rules would be much more realistic, and businesses and people would have had time to prepare for what was expected of them. This rush-and-push-it-through type of regulation is not acceptable, so I ask the Minister why this strategic framework for dealing with more localised lockdowns was not brought before this House and Parliament months ago, as it should have been. It is too late to wait until the surge is upon us, as the Government have yet again done in this public health crisis.
As a number of my noble friends, including my noble friend Lord Beith, have said, a gaping hole in these regulations so big it can be seen from outer space determines the criteria used to put an area into and bring it out of the high category. Again, it is vital that this is understood and public, so that people and businesses can plan and prepare. Nottingham has 834 cases per 100,000 people, but Mansfield has 81 per 100,000. Both are in the high category. So can the Minister inform us what criteria are being used to decide which area to put in the high category? The regulations say that the Secretary of State will review every 14 days and decide if the whole area or part of it will be released from the high category. Again, can the Minister tell the House what criteria the Secretary of State will use?
Noble Lords on these Benches are not libertarians. In a public health crisis, we do not believe that people have a free right to act in a way that has the potential to harm others. We believe that, in such circumstances, evidence-based and proportionate rules are required, but they need to be introduced with public understanding, genuine local involvement and in a way that allows normal democratic scrutiny and accountability to be exercised. We feel that these regulations should not have been introduced as emergency legislation, but as normal primary legislation. The Government are now solely culpable for the unintended consequences, both to businesses and people, because they refused to work in genuine partnership to make support packages and laws effective.
If we, as a country, are to get through this public health crisis with the least amount of restrictions to freedoms and long-term damage to businesses and the economy, the Government need to stop playing catch-up with emergency legislation, take stock, follow the science and put in a temporary circuit break, while using all at their disposal to implement a locally based test, trace and isolate system. That is the way to minimise harms, both to people and businesses.
My Lords, the pertinent question that has been asked by several noble Lords, and indeed by the noble Lord, Lord Scriven, is why this is emergency legislation. We knew this was coming. We should be grateful that we are doing this on the day it is being enacted, not three weeks later, as I have already said. But the high tier already affects 20 million of our fellow citizens, so this is extremely serious.
Areas already under additional local restrictions are automatically in the “high” alert level, which means bans on households mixing indoors are extended to include hospitality venues. Noble Lords have already asked questions on the illogicalities involved. I think the Minister realises that this is not simple or straightforward. As several noble Lords have said, the criteria on which local lockdowns are enacted remain a mystery to us. Regions with similar infection rates are being treated differently. The criteria by which an area will move from one to another, down to “medium” or up to “very high”, also remain a mystery.
The problem that causes, apart from a lot of confusion, is that there will always be a suspicion that a political choice is being made. It is another reason why a local partnership to create safety locally is so important, as those suspicions still exist. The Minister and other members of the Government have said that we should not take too much notice of what is being said in the media by local politicians when, behind the scenes, you are all working together and it is all going extremely well. Too often, it is clear that that is not the case. Those questions remain.
This is very important, as many people in high-risk areas are on tenterhooks following the announcement last night that the Government are set to hold a Gold Command meeting today to discuss whether Greater Manchester and Lancashire need to be reclassified into tier 3. The Minister said that negotiations with local leaders are key to deciding whether an area moves into a higher level of restrictions, and presumably a lower level as well, as we move forward—hopefully.
I would like to ask the Minister about the Prime Minister’s suggestion that Manchester was not placed in tier 3 because the local authorities refused. The Prime Minister said:
“I also hope that Opposition Members who are calling on me to do more in Greater Manchester will prevail on the authorities there to come into tier 3 and to help us to get there.”—[Official Report, Commons, 12/10/20; col. 32.]
Can the Minister explain to us how that works and what is happening?
As other noble Lords have said, and indeed as we said in the last debate about the “very high” statutory instrument, testing and tracing is absolutely vital. Jamie Driscoll, the North of Tyne Mayor, whose area is also in the second-highest risk tier, said the new system was
“like whack-a-mole without knowing where the moles are”,
because of failings in the test and trace system in his area. Can the Minister confirm that the contact-tracing app for England and Wales has sent only one alert about a coronavirus outbreak in a venue since it was launched two weeks ago, despite being used for millions of check-ins? This is despite the Government stating that hospitality settings such as pubs, bars and restaurants are a “significant” source of coronavirus infections, with data shared by the CMO suggesting that more than 30% of coronavirus exposure is in fact in pubs, bars, restaurants and cafés. Does the Minister accept that the absence of targeted venue alerts is undermining the core principle of this system? Will he devolve further responsibilities for test and trace to local leaders in the high tier, to help them take the action they need to avoid the economic damage of being placed in the highest tier of restrictions at a later stage?
Does the Minister share my concern that the focus on areas causing the most concern means that areas with comparatively lower infection rates risk being overlooked? The key word here is “comparatively”, because the goalposts keep moving as infection rates increase in certain parts of the country. Bristol’s case numbers, for example, are considered to be “low”, but would have been considered “horrific” two or three weeks ago. The noble Lord, Lord Scriven, was quite right: we have not had time to discuss real cases and real issues. These tiers may be the right way forward, and we certainly will not oppose these restrictions, but we have not teased out all the problems that are caused by the lack of real consultation and discussion.
My Lords, the noble Baroness, Lady Thornton, is correct that it is a shame that we do not have time to go through each and every one of the local situations that have been brought up in the Chamber today. I would love to sit down with the noble Lord, Lord Scriven, to talk about Chesterfield, the noble Lord, Lord Greaves, about Pendle, and the noble Lord, Lord Beith, about Berwick. Each of them has articulated incredibly thoughtfully the complex and challenging local situations, where the interest of one community is at odds with that of another community, where dialogue between a small council and a higher council is at odds and where dialogue with the national authorities is challenging and difficult.
I will step back, if I may, because I cannot possibly comment on all the examples cited. If the Chamber will forgive me, I will take an optimistic view of all this. What coronavirus is doing is forcing all of us to work together to beat the epidemic. In my experience as a last-minute Minister on the front line of the battle against coronavirus, this is what I have seen time and again. I hope that noble Lords will forgive my sentimentality in this but, whether it is in the triple helix of the NHS, the business community and universities working together on test and trace, whether it is the partnerships I have seen between hospitals and social care working for the best interests of those in care, or whether it is the scientists working with the pharmaceutical industry to develop new therapeutics, I have seen amazing progress made in the spirit of collaboration. I have seen barriers broken down and relationships that should have been there getting stronger. The pain that we see and the anger that we hear on the television and radio in the blame game that is going on are, for me, the sound of people learning to live with each other, collaborate and beat it all together.
I feel the frustration of the noble Lord, Lord Hunt, but I am confused by his challenge because, on the one hand, he wants rapid action but, on the other, he wants agreement and engagement; I am afraid to say that those two things do not always sit together. I hear the pain of the noble Lord, Lord Beith, in Berwick, but I have to inform him that the decision to combine Northumberland and the north-east was taken very much with the participation of all the authorities, because they recognised that, with 200 per 100,000, they all needed to work together on the epidemic.
I pay tribute to the noble and gallant Lord, Lord Craig, who raised the challenge for all of us of the spirit of partnership and the sounds of Britons getting to know each other. I very much hope that we can get a benefit out of Covid, which will be that our levels of government get to know each other a lot better and work out how to collaborate in the fight against Covid.
A number of Peers mentioned the economy and the hospitality sector. I completely and utterly endorse the deep-seated and genuine concerns of those, including my noble friends Lady Warsi and Lord Lilley, about the economy generally and in particular the hospitality sector, which has been most graphically and acutely hit by the kind of restrictions we are talking about today.
I am enormously grateful to my noble friend Lady Noakes for describing me as a “puritan”; after spending a lot of my life on the wrong side of the curfew, it is a very redeeming moment for me personally. But my experiences in the night-time sector give me, I think, authority to speak on this subject, and I must share with my noble friend the insight that, after 10 pm, when young people mix with alcohol, I am afraid that intimacy and contagion are absolutely more likely. I am afraid to say that it is that insight that it is helping to inform our decision on the lockdown.
Meanwhile, we have done absolutely everything we can, in answer to my noble friend Lord Lilley, to help the hospitality sector with business grants, the Job Support Scheme, the sophisticated QR code contact-tracing system and trying to keep open the hospitality sector wherever we can, including by putting in special provisions for weddings. We will continue to work with the industry to do what we can.
On universities, I reassure the noble Baroness, Lady Walmsley, that the postcode challenge that she described is not one that is a material flaw in the plan. When they book their tests, students put the postcode of where they are living into the system, not their GP’s postcode—and we use more insight than simply postcodes to make our decisions.
I say to my noble friend Lord Lilley that the frustrating thing about this wretched virus is that it can sit in your body for 14 days without making itself apparent to any form of test—either PCR, lateral flow or Covid dog. That is why the instant test that you might get at somewhere like an airport can be only 7% predictive of whether you will have the disease at some time in the following 13 days.
I say to my noble friend Lord Lucas, “What excellent insight—absolutely top of the class in terms of epidemiological perceptiveness”. Cluster-busting is very much at the top of our list; we are deploying the latest artificial intelligence and genomics to try to do the backward testing that he described. Perhaps I may share this insight: instead of thinking of “superspreaders” as people, we are thinking more in terms of “super- spreading events”—such as the Rose Garden event—where, somehow, the way in which people are configured encourages contagion. And we are absolutely looking at low-sensitivity testing devices, as he described.
By way of conclusion, I pay tribute to the insight of the noble Baroness, Lady Thornton. Exit strategy is absolutely key. We are here debating the setting-up of these regulations; they are important regulations, and we are going into a second wave, as the deputy chief medical officer made crystal clear in his briefing to Peers yesterday. But an exit strategy is critically important. The kind of partnership that the noble Baroness, Lady Thornton, referred to and that I described at the beginning will be absolutely key to that. Local government and national government working together at all tiers will be the way in which we can establish the behaviours that are necessary to keep a lid on this contagion. That is very much the priority at the next stage of our thinking.