All Baroness Blackstone contributions to the Coronavirus Act 2020

Tue 24th March 2020
Coronavirus Bill
Lords Chamber

2nd reading (Hansard)
2nd reading (Hansard): House of Lords
2nd reading (Hansard)
Department of Health and Social Care
3 interactions (838 words)

Coronavirus Bill

(2nd reading (Hansard))
Baroness Blackstone Excerpts
Tuesday 24th March 2020

(1 year, 6 months ago)

Lords Chamber

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Department of Health and Social Care
Baroness Harding of Winscombe Portrait Baroness Harding of Winscombe (Con)
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My Lords, I begin by declaring my interest as chair of NHS Improvement. At my pre-appointment hearing two and a half years ago, I said I would be very cautious about speaking on health matters while in this role, but I hope noble Lords will forgive me for doing so as I feel in these extraordinary times it would be wrong not to speak.

First, I express my deepest sympathy for those who have already lost loved ones because of Covid-19 and I send my very best wishes to those currently in hospital or with relatives in hospital or at home fighting the disease. I shall speak today about why this Bill matters so much, why it matters to our NHS people and why it matters to all of us. I shall start by reading a statement from my noble friend and sort of job-share partner at NHS England and NHS Improvement, my noble friend Lord Prior, who is not in his place today as he and I are endeavouring not to be in the same room at all and are working shifts. My noble friend says: “In its extraordinary history of over 70 years, the NHS has never faced such a momentous challenge. Our country has never depended so heavily on its most loved and respected institution. I”—in fact, we—“know that the remarkable people who work for and with the NHS will more than do their duty; they will do their absolute best. It is a privilege and an honour for me”—us—“to work with them.”

As my noble friend says, our NHS people will do everything in their power to look after us and care for us: our consultants, paramedics, healthcare assistants, junior doctors, nurses, midwives, porters, cleaners, scientists, physios, engineers technologists and procurement teams. There are so many professions, I cannot list them all, as I mean everyone working in our health and care system. There are those directly employed in the NHS, but those working in social care, volunteers, the voluntary sector and, yes, even the independent healthcare sector They are all our National Health Service right now, and my goodness they are working hard and fast to face up to this challenge. They need us to help them. They need us all in this country to play our part, as the Prime Minister said last night. They need us to play our part personally in abiding by the rules the Government have set out, and they need us to play our part practically in sourcing personal protective equipment, making ventilators, expanding testing capacity and coming to work with them, if we have the skills. They need us to care for them, to make sure that they can eat at the end of a long and challenging shift, that they can get to and from work and that their loved ones are okay while they are at work, and they need us to support and cherish them when things go wrong.

They need all of this, and they also need us in this House to play our part constitutionally by passing this Bill to give the Government the powers they need to guide us through this immensely challenging time and to provide our NHS people with the support they need so they can save lives. There are powers in this Bill that many noble Lords have said that in normal times all of us in this House would wish to question, challenge and test, but this is not a normal time. Our NHS people need us to act now. Time is not on our side, and they need all of us to join in this fight with them because right now, this is the ultimate national effort from our NHS, that most cherished British institution. Right now, we, all of us, are the National Health Service in one united effort from everyone in the country, with healthcare professionals in the front line backed up and supported by the whole country, as a genuine united National Health Service.

Baroness Blackstone Portrait Baroness Blackstone (Ind Lab)
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My Lords, like many others in this debate, I pay tribute to the many thousands of people who are working immensely hard to counter the effects of the coronavirus.

This huge Bill gives unprecedented power to the Government. Whether all these powers will be needed is uncertain. There are still questions about the severity of the disease and its future trajectory. The CMO has assessed a death rate of 1%. New research from the University of Oxford suggests 0.7%. In Germany, where far more testing has been done, it is 0.3%. We know that in the UK the average age of death from the virus is 78.5 years, and it is a fair assumption that, very regrettably, of those who succumb, quite large numbers would have died anyway. The measures in the Bill and those already taken, exacerbated by last night’s announcement, are leading to massive fear and anxiety in much of the population. More must be done to explain the demographics, reduce unnecessary fear and protect mental health. We in this House might need to worry about our survival but, fortunately, most of the population does not.

The other general point I want to make concerns the economy. A global recession will lead to the death of many children in poor countries, and it is undisputed that the supply of goods and services will be greatly reduced: first, by closing down production with large lay-offs; and, secondly, by restrictions imposed to keep a large part of the workforce at home. At the same time, in the UK, huge amounts of money are being pumped into the economy for understandable reasons. Are the Government assessing the serious implications for high inflation in the medium term? Will they be considering price controls at a later date?

I turn now to my main focus: how we sustain our education system and protect our children and young people from long-term damage as a result of school closures and the cancellation of public exams. History will judge whether or not the wider measures that have been taken to combat the coronavirus were proportionate. My view is that the decision to cancel GCSEs and A-levels was disproportionate and made without sufficient preparation and the requisite advice on what would be put in place instead. While recognising, as I really do, how difficult it is for the Government in these circumstances, answers are desperately sought by teachers, parents and pupils. Many pupils have said that they feel “gutted”; having spent the past two years working hard to reach their potential and get good grades, they feel cheated that they have been denied the opportunity to do so.

The Government have said that alternative assessments will be just and fair. Teachers will have to draw on many sources, including predicted grades, class work and mock exams results. I am sure that they will do their best. Nevertheless, there are bound to be large variations in the judgments they make. Some will be generous, and others tougher, so it will not always be just and fair. Moreover, universities will face difficult decisions about who to admit; at least a collapse in international student numbers could allow them to admit more home students and veer towards a generous admissions policy. But, given that all secondary schools will be open to allow the children of key workers to be looked after, I think it is a pity that 16 to 19 year-olds cannot work at home until the exams begin, and then come to school to take them. I believe that that is what should have happened.

The other concern about many children being forced to remain at home is the likely outcome of increased social inequality. Schools do not just educate children; they also provide them with a safe haven, a structure to their day and a chance to be creative and to learn about sharing. Schools are a leveller, in that they provide a similar environment for all their pupils, in contrast to the huge inequality in their homes. I am not sure how head teachers will define vulnerable children—presumably it will include those with disabilities, those who have been abused and those who are in children’s homes—but it is doubtful that they will be able to embrace the 4 million children who live in poverty and the many children who live in appalling accommodation, with overcrowding and limited resources.

When the schools reopen, will the Government provide extra resources to schools with many disadvantaged pupils, to allow them to give additional help, particularly to those who have suffered most from possibly many months of being unable to go to school? Will PGCE students be able to complete their courses this summer, to ensure an adequate supply of new teachers?

To conclude, ways must be found to ensure that the drastic decision to close our schools indefinitely does not have life-changing consequences for children and young people, such as increasing their vulnerability to gang violence and crime, as well as to mental illness and anxiety, while trashing our hopes for more social mobility.

Baroness Ludford Portrait Baroness Ludford (LD)
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My Lords, the only bright spot in this crisis is that experts are being listened to; long may that continue.

Obviously, the overarching concern is that the powers in the Bill should last no longer than is strictly necessary, should not overreach and should not set unwelcome precedents—one thinks, for example, of the reduction to one doctor for the exercise of Mental Health Act powers and the problems around care assessments. Moreover, the powers should not impact unfairly on disadvantaged minorities or marginalised groups, and should not go further than can be truly justified. It is not entirely clear why the Civil Contingencies Act or the Public Health Acts were insufficient in various areas.

In Schedule 21, there is a test of necessity and proportionality which is strangely absent from Schedule 20—the one that affects directions to people. From these Benches, we will therefore table an amendment to require that all the powers in the Bill should be exercised in accordance with the principle of necessity, proportionality and non-discrimination, respecting the European Convention on Human Rights and other human rights instruments. We also want the Government to keep the powers under frequent review and to publish reasons and explanations for any measures introduced under the Bill.

Although the right to life—Article 2 of the ECHR—underpins the response to this pandemic, human rights issues under several articles of the convention are engaged: Article 5 on the right to liberty; Article 8 on the right to family life, as relating to isolation, quarantining and restriction of family visits; Article 11 on freedom of assembly and association, relating to the prohibition of public meetings and gatherings. These are just some of the examples. I am glad that the Joint Committee on Human Rights, chaired by the right honourable Harriet Harman—I declare an interest as a member—is conducting an inquiry into the human rights implications of the response to Covid-19.

There have been shocking cases of victimisation and blaming of certain people due to their perceived ethnic or national origin, particularly those of Chinese and other east Asian appearance. The power for local authorities not to meet some assessed care needs and to avoid the duty to conduct a care needs assessment will impact on the vulnerable. The Government should, at a minimum, notify the Council of Europe and the United Nations, as stewards of the ECHR and international human rights instruments respectively, that the UK is enduring a national emergency, and of the measures being taken. Do they in fact need to formally derogate? Perhaps the Minister could tell us.

People need to be able to assess, scrutinise and, if necessary, question and challenge the Government. It is not helpful to have a Minister on Twitter call someone by a rather vulgar term because they had the temerity to raise questions about the Government’s approach, as happened yesterday. Apparently, there have been no advertisements on social media. I am on only Twitter so I do not see Facebook, Instagram or any of the others but, considering that a lot of money was spent on Brexit no-deal ads on social media, this omission seems anomalous.

Assessing Schedules 20 and 21 is a bit difficult, as we do not yet know how the Government will give effect to the measures heralded in the Prime Minister’s announcement last night. I imagine that is still being worked through. Schedule 20 does raise a lot of concerns. Where are people to be directed or detained? Is a police station envisaged or just home? What screening is to take place, especially given the lack of current testing capacity? Will there be any judicial authorisation of detention or any provision for appeals? What about people who, for one reason or another, do not have a home to go to—the street homeless, sofa surfers, victims of domestic abuse, some immigrants and refugees, who get little or no support? Surely imposing isolation and quarantining restrictions on people living in abusive or dangerous environments would place them in an impossible situation. As concerns Schedule 21, are the closure of premises regulations issued just last Saturday under the public health Act—they were mentioned by my noble friend Lord Newby—to be revoked in the same way as the February regulations on direction and detention of persons are repealed by this Act in Schedule 20?

I want briefly to mention one or two other things. I entirely agree with the noble Lord, Lord Falconer, and the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Rochester, who raised issues about funerals and religious beliefs as concerns the need for burial and not cremation. As someone who organised my late husband’s funeral just five months ago, and a memorial service four months ago, this is very important to me. I will perhaps have more chance tomorrow to raise concerns about immigration powers as they affect people in immigration detention as well as in prison. Also, the fear of data sharing with the Home Office could deter people from seeking health treatment. Will the Home Office undertake to suspend that data sharing?

There are also some concerns about video hearings in court. Much as one accepts that they are necessary in the circumstances, various safeguards would be required. There are also concerns about changes to the Investigatory Powers Act and the extension to 12 days for a warrant. From experience, we know that there is a ratchet effect of expansion of state powers, as terrorism legislation has shown. We will need to be vigilant to prevent spillover.