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Coronavirus Bill - Lords Second Reading

Charlie Falconer speech to House of Lords, 24th March 2020

May I thank the Minister for his clear description of the Bill, and the openness with which he has treated me and the rest of the Labour team engaged on this Bill. Personal trust is very important in these matters.

May I declare an interest – my youngest son is a doctor in an NHS hospital in London, which is almost exclusively devoted to treating those with Covid-19.

Her Majesty’s loyal opposition supports this Bill. In normal times it would be utterly unacceptable. These are not normal times. As long as the emergency lasts and these powers are necessary, they should be available to the government. 

We also support the extraordinary instructions to be backed by legal enforcement power the Prime Minister announced last night. There evidently needs to be more detail about these measures. 

But there is no doubt there needs to be immediate compliance with the stay home message. Legitimate issues about the limits do not detract from the message the government has given the country. Stay at home unless you have a very good reason for leaving.

Could the NL the Minister provide details of the legal enforcement powers which will be introduced and when? Again, we in the opposition will assist as necessary in ensuring those instructions can be given effect to.

The Bill before us today can be improved to make it more effective in fighting the virus, to give more support to those who are on the front line in the struggle and to provide better economic security for the public.

We recognise that full scrutiny cannot be given to this Bill. The needs are too urgent, and the time is too short. We will focus on the key issues where we think the Bill should be changed, and only put down a few amendments tomorrow.

In those circumstances the right course is to assist in getting the bill on the statute book, with focused amendments to the key issues, but to ensure that it lasts only as long as it is necessary – and to ensure there are regular time restricted limits on its continuation. 

If it needs to continue beyond the sunset clause then the time before sunset should be taken to improve it as inevitably time will reveal it can be improved.

Parliament has a critical role in the weeks and months to come – in legislating, scrutinising the government and providing national leadership. It cannot function as normal. We cannot meet like this, debate like this and do our job like this as the crisis develops. We need urgently to work out remote and different ways of doing our job.

In this national effort, we need to be ensuring the government is moving fast enough, clearly enough and giving the right leadership. We will press hard to achieve that. There needs to be clear messages to the public. They need to be well publicised. And the government need to recognise that doing their best to alleviate the most acute economic anxieties for employed, self-employed and those in the gig economy alike is vital to deliver compliance.

We will press hard to ensure proper security is given, and that the government moves as fast as it should.

We are very conscious that part of what the government must do is to ensure the public complies with its instructions to stop the virus spreading. We in opposition must take especial care not to undermine the chances of those instructions not being acted upon.

We are under no illusions that an epic struggle is currently being waged on all of our behalf by the NHS. Hospitals up and down the country have been reconfigured incredibly fast to fight the Covid-19 virus. Large teaching hospitals have devoted whole floors to the disease.

Smaller district hospitals have effectively reduced their non-Covid 19 workload as much as possible to accommodate the cases, and become largely Covid-19 hospitals. Medical staff have had, in many cases, to re-skill from their normal specialities. They are seeing a frightening influx of patients with the disease, growing every day. The risk to medical staff is significant.

If the patients are hospitalised they will have a serious illness. And they deteriorate often very rapidly and then require to be moved to ITU and ventilation. The demands on the NHS staff are immense. The pressure is huge. 

Ensuring they have access to all the Personal Protection Equipment they need, making sure all staff are trained in the use of PPE, and starting to test all NHS staff to see if they have or have had – when the antibody testing becomes available – are critical measures. It has taken too long to sort out the PPE issues, and the testing of NHS staff has not started. Could the minister give us an update on the testing capacity and how it is to be rolled out.

The debt of gratitude we owe as a country to the NHS staff engaged in the struggle is incalculable. When the history of this appalling period comes to be written they will be the true heroes. The rest of us – parliamentarians, ministers and members of the public must not let them down.

The risk by now is very well known – that the NHS will be overwhelmed by the number of cases. There will not be the staff, the critical care beds, the ventilators to deal with the pandemic. We must do everything to ensure that does not happen.

Could I also recognise and pay a tribute to the work being done in central government to craft our response to this crisis. The pressure on them is immense. We have an excellent civil service, who have worked on as the illness reduces their number.

This is a collective battle. We fight as one nation. The cooperation with the devolved administrations has been close and effective. I pay tribute to the devolved administrations for the incredibly impressive work they have done.

Lord Bethell told us yesterday there are currently 3,700 critical care beds; total usage is currently 2,428, of which 237 are Covid-19 related. And he told us that the government’s ambition is to increase this dramatically to perhaps 30,000 in time for the crisis arriving in full.

Could he update the House the number of critical care beds currently available, what the total usage is, how many are being used for Covid-19 – ie, the increase from yesterday – and the dates on which the increase of 25,000 plus are expected to come on stream?

Turning to the Bill, MNF Baroness Thornton will deal in her speech with the Health and social care work force issues, the reduction of administrative burdens issues, and the financial support issues. There are education issues which MNF Lord Watson will deal with from the backbenches.

I will deal with the other issues.

First of all, the sunset clause. There is understandably huge pressure to get the bill into law so that the government has the necessary powers to tackle the coronavirus pandemic that has claimed so many lives across the world. Given these circumstances, a sunset clause is a necessary and prudent mechanism.

The provision is that there is now a two year sunset clause but a power in the Commons to stop the continuation of the Bill after six months, twelve months, 18 months and two years. And there is provision for debate in both Houses and the power to stop after twelve months.

The six month power is an all or nothing powers. It is inevitable that some of these provisions will work and some of them will not. Could the Minister indicate why there isn’t a provision to stop some of these powers at six months, twelve months and eighteen months as we learn more about how the powers are working? Could the government give consideration to whether they would introduce such a power?

On the provisions containing and delaying the spread of the virus and social distancing, the Bill contains provision to restrict potentially infectious people from being in contact with each other. And the power is in the Bill to prevent them from moving around or detain them.

It also contains powers to prevent events and gatherings, and to close premises and restrict port activities. It does not contain powers to stop people going to work or to stay in their homes, the key measures announced yesterday.

We would be willing to assist in incorporating these powers. Could the government tell the House what its intentions are in relation to those powers?

On immigration, could the NL the Minister indicate what the government is doing to maintain the health and safety of people currently detained in immigration detention centres? Can he confirm that people will not be held in detention centres if they cannot be removed due to airport closures and travel restrictions relating to coronavirus?

Turning to the courts, we broadly agree with increasing the circumstances in which video-link technology can be used. Could the NL the Minister give assurances that they will only be used where it is in the interest of vulnerable defendants, and that those who are digitally excluded and those who are unable to get legal advice are properly protected.

I would be grateful if the NL the Minister could touch upon prisons. What is happening in prisons gives rise to special difficulties. Could he confirm what powers the government has to deal with that, and what is its intention in relation to the exercise of those powers?

The Bill contains measures relating to the management of death. We understand that it may be necessary to relax rules around the registration of deaths and cremations to ease the burden on the NHS, and to deal with the issue. Again, yes we agree to these but only as long as the emergency lasts.

In relation to cremations, the House will be aware, concerns have been raised as to how this could conflict with some religious teachings. Cremation is forbidden in Islam and Judaism and therefore the possibility of forcing a cremation upon the loved ones of those communities would add further anguish and trauma to bereaved families, who themselves may be in self-isolation.

We understand that these provisions are designed to deal with a potential surge in deaths and lack of grave space capacity. What steps will the government take in relation to this, and in particular whether there are plans to consult the deceased persons family, and local faith representative, to find suitable alternatives in such situations?

In terms of supporting the public, the coronavirus outbreak presents specific risks to the homelessness, who are a high-risk group. Rough sleepers, and those living and sleeping in shared spaces such as hostels, night shelters, and day centres are at particular risk as they are unable to self-isolate. Services cannot close down as the people they support are then forced back to the streets, where they are at even greater risk.

What steps is the government taking in relation to the homeless? And in light of the announcement on Friday, that the Welsh Government will make £10m available to Welsh councils to block purchase rooms in hotels, B&Bs and student accommodation to act in addition to existing provisions for the homeless, will the government be doing the same in England?

The public are understandably worried about perceived shortages of essential products, empty shelves and securing online delivery slots.

Supermarkets are doing all the right things, including redeploying existing staff and hiring new team members to ensure swift restocking where supplies exist, and establishing schemes to assist the elderly and key workers. Supply chains are stepping up their efforts to ensure sufficient quantities of essential products are available for sale. Those efforts are appreciated and will continue to be vital in the weeks ahead.

The Bill includes powers to compel food supply chain operators to provide information to inform assessments of any disruption to food supplies. We understand that such information is currently being provided voluntarily, meaning this is intended as a reserve power. We agree with this approach but note that it does not, in itself, do anything to guarantee the availability of food and other items.

What discussions are the government having with supermarkets and supply chains to maintain public confidence?

We will explore all of these issues during the committee stage. We will play our part in supporting the fight against this virus. Sometimes that will involve telling the government they are wrong. Always it will involve giving the country confidence that we in Labour and we in Parliament are working together to provide security and safety for the country who rightly expect the best from us. We are determined to give it.


Lord Charlie Falconer of Thoroton opened the debate for Labour as a guest frontbencher

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