All 1 Baroness Blackstone contributions to the Coronavirus Act 2020

Read Bill Ministerial Extracts

Tue 24th Mar 2020
Coronavirus Bill
Lords Chamber

2nd reading (Hansard) & 2nd reading (Hansard) & 2nd reading (Hansard): House of Lords & 2nd reading (Hansard)

Coronavirus Bill

Baroness Blackstone Excerpts
2nd reading & 2nd reading (Hansard) & 2nd reading (Hansard): House of Lords
Tuesday 24th March 2020

(4 years, 4 months ago)

Lords Chamber
Read Full debate Coronavirus Act 2020 Read Hansard Text Read Debate Ministerial Extracts Amendment Paper: HL Bill 110-I Marshalled list for Committee - (24 Mar 2020)
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.