Lord Bethell (Con) [V]
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.