Covid-19 Update Debate

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Department: Leader of the House
Tuesday 3rd November 2020

(3 years, 7 months ago)

Lords Chamber
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Baroness Evans of Bowes Park Portrait The Lord Privy Seal (Baroness Evans of Bowes Park) (Con)
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I thank the noble Baroness, Lady Smith, and the noble Lord, Lord Newby, for their comments and will attempt to answer their questions. They asked what had changed to mean that we are now looking to introduce these new restrictions. As SAGE said in September in relation to a circuit break, we had to balance the epidemiology against the real damage that lockdowns cause for the economy and people’s mental health, which is something we all acknowledge. We had hoped that the strong local action we were looking to take would get the rates of infection down. It is important to say that the measures have made sure that the R rate is lower than it would have been but, unfortunately, we have seen the rates going up and have exhausted every other tool at our disposal in trying to suppress local outbreaks with local action.

We were presented with national data that we could not ignore. It suggested, for instance, that if we did not take further measures, we could exceed the first wave peak around 20 November, exceed currently available hospital beds around 23 November and exceed surge capacity—capacity freed up from postponing some local hospital services—around 4 December. Data like that meant that the Prime Minister felt that we needed to take further action.

The noble Lord, Lord Newby, mentioned scientific evidence and the data. I should stress that the case for the latest measures was not built around the analysis to which he referred about possible deaths. As I have said to noble Lords on many occasions—I know that everyone is aware of this—a whole series of metrics is involved in these decisions, including the medium-term projections on hospital admissions and daily deaths, as well as the evidence on the ground, which in too many areas, unfortunately, were going in the wrong direction.

The noble Baroness, Lady Smith, and the noble Lord, Lord Newby, talked about the economic support. I am grateful to the noble Baroness for acknowledging the extension of the furlough scheme and some of the other measures we have taken in relation to the self-employed. We have had one of the most comprehensive economic responses of any country, with more than £200 billion of support. She and the noble Lord mentioned sectors that are struggling and need support. I hope that noble Lords will accept that we have moved to try to address the circumstances and support our businesses. We will continue to do that. The noble Lord mentioned the charter and looking at the carers’ allowance. We will of course keep all this under review as we start to see the impact of the latest lockdown as we move towards 2 December.

The new restrictions are being accompanied by additional support through the extension of the furlough scheme, whereby employees receive 80% of their current salary for hours not worked. There is an additional £1.1billion for local authorities to enable them to support businesses in their areas more broadly. We will continue to look at the economic package and there is strategic long-term planning to make sure that we can provide the support needed.

The noble Baroness asked about evictions. From the start of the pandemic, we have provided nearly £1 billion of support by raising the local housing allowance to cover at least 30% of market rents. As she will know, we changed the law to double eviction notice periods from three to six months, allowing someone who is served notice today to stay in their home until May, save for the most serious cases. We will continue to protect renters facing hardship from eviction and set out further details of measures soon.

The noble Lord talked about our relationships with the devolved authorities. I think that there are more similarities than differences in our approaches. For instance, we have all brought in measures at a local and national level to control the virus, mandated closing times for hospitality and brought in social distancing restrictions. We work closely with the devolved Administrations; obviously, the CMOs of the devolved nations talk regularly. However, it is right that they make their own public health assessments and decide what measures they should put in place and are most appropriate.

I assure the noble Lord that we have had hundreds of committee meetings, calls and meetings at official and ministerial levels, and that will continue. We have provided Wales with £4.4 billion of extra funding this year, Scotland with an extra £7.2 billion and Northern Ireland with an extra £2.4 billion through the Barnett guarantee. We are working as a United Kingdom as we tackle this terrible pandemic.

Both the noble Lord and the noble Baroness rightly asked about the end of the current restrictions. As the Prime Minister has said, these measures will be time limited, ending on 2 December, which is when the SIs that we will debate tomorrow will expire. At that point, we will review the restrictions, which will be eased on a regional basis, according to the latest data. Of course, the aim of this action is to get the R number down now, beat this surge and use this opportunity to exploit the medical and technological advances we have made. For instance, I am sure noble Lords have seen the pilot in Liverpool of the mass city testing as well as the better drug treatments that we have and tackling some of the issues we have seen with test and trace.

The R rate is lower as we move into this new phase than it was in March, so we are confident, knowing that the great British public will stick to these rules, that we will have a good reduction in the R rate and that we will be able to come out of these restrictions. I cannot predict what will happen after 2 December, but I assure noble Lords that we will work to make sure that everyone has as much clarity and confidence as they can.

Baroness Morris of Bolton Portrait The Deputy Speaker (Baroness Morris of Bolton) (Con)
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My Lords, we now come to the 30 minutes allocated for Back-Bench questions. I ask that questions and answers be brief so that I can call the maximum number of speakers.