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Response to Prime Minister's statement on Covid-19 strategy

Angela Smith speech in House of Lords debate, 12th May 2020

Having watched the Prime Minister’s recorded message on Sunday and his statement to MPs yesterday, I want to make two observations:

- We recognise that the complexities and unknowns of this virus mean that the decisions about how we respond are very difficult and very challenging 

- To meet those unprecedented challenges the Government must provide certainty, confidence and clarity.  

Unfortunately, in his two statements the Prime Minister missed those targets, by announcing plans without the detail needed.  

So, Dominic Raab had to then tour the media studios on Monday morning – with a basic message of ‘What the Prime Minister meant to say was…’, for example when Mr Johnson said people who were able to should go back to work on Monday, he really meant Wednesday.

When we most needed clarity, we got confusion. 

We now have strategy documents so we can discuss the details, but I say to the Noble Lady, the Leader of the House:

There’s a reason that statements should be made to Parliament rather than taking the Blue Peter approach of ‘Here’s one I made earlier’ and recorded especially for the media.  The Government should not see the normal process of consultation, engagement, questions and scrutiny as political obstacles to be avoided. It must understand this is the way in which we get the best decisions and best outcomes. 

It is only by highlighting problems that we can work together to overcome them.   

Can she confirm that the impact assessments on these strategy documents will also be published? 

Because of how this has been handled, there are numerous questions to be addressed to ensure that the public has all the information they need, and that we can all monitor and support the way forward. 


Can I ask the NL to confirm that she will guarantee that no question today is left unanswered?   And, if necessary, she will follow up in writing with complete answers. 

I want to pick up on four issues:-


1. Understanding the R Rate – the reproduction rate - is essential in fighting this virus:   

How robust is the calculation of the current level being between 0.5 and 0.9 ? 

Report states that there are currently 136,000 people infected in the UK.  Given that there is no universal testing or tracing, on what scientific basis is it calculated and what is the confidence level of the statistics and margin of error?    

Basic question – is it a calculation or an estimate? 

Our national strategy is predicated on that figure, so we need to be able to respond quickly if it changes – either by further easing restrictions or, as is happening in parts of Germany and in S Korea, having to respond to an increase in the R Rate. 

So how quickly can we accurately identify changes and adapt plans accordingly? And if we are asking those that enter the country to self- isolate for 14 days to help keep the R rate down, how will this be enforced and monitored? 


2. The Prime Minister said that the virus varies across the nations and regions of the UK and therefore needs a flexible response:

That makes sense, but flexibility doesn’t mean the Government going it alone for England – it means consultation and engagement to ensure a coherent policy, even if there are differences.    

What discussion and consultation took place with the devolved Governments before the PMs announcement?  Is it really true that they heard about the change of advice from ‘Stay at Home’ to ‘Stay Alert’ in the media and on twitter? 

The Noble Lady attends Cobra meetings.  So she will be aware of the weekly meetings with the Leaders of the devolved administrations. Can I ask whether these differences in policy were discussed? Also can she confirm that these will continue to be weekly, it seems even more important now.  And if not, why not? 

Also, on a smaller regional level, how accurate is the R figure in identifying regional and local differences?  We see that information regarding infections and deaths are given at local government level – can the R rate be identified in the same way. 


3. Going back to Work:

The advice still appears to be that if you can work from home you should do so, and many decisions will be predicated on social distancing and other protection measures in place.  

I have real concerns about workplaces with no proper recourse for challenging decisions, taken by an employer or manager. Should employees have little or no confidence that a proper risk assessment of the workplace has been carried out or acted upon, what support will the government provide to protect their health – and indeed any threat of job loss for asking questions? Is the Health and Safety Executive fit for purpose on this front? Does it have both the capacity and the political support. 

We have today had more detail on how social distancing will work on public transport, where capacity is to be dramatically reduced. But given that demand to travel on buses, trams, trains and the tube may start to outstrip supply, how will the government ensure that transport networks are not overwhelmed by those just trying to get back to work – as the government has advised? 

It is suggested that primary schools will go back in June. In the interests of the wider workforce, is guidance being prepared for schools and nurseries on how long children should attend for each day? If so, making this public may help employers and employees properly plan ahead.  

And on all these issues can she confirm that genuine consultation with the relevant trade unions will be part of the decision making and implementation process. 


4. Shielding:  

My Lords, as we move into the next stages, and some parts of everyday life begin to reopen, it is even more important that we get shielding and support for vulnerable people right.  

What is the Government doing to improve their efforts to identify and notify those in higher risk categories? Local Authorities are reporting huge errors, having initially raised their concerns as the numbers seemed too low and they were not being asked to contribute their knowledge as the identification was being undertaken centrally. Now it appears that thousands of people may have been being initially missed. 

In some areas local authorities are being informed that their shielded citizens have more than doubled in the last week. Is this not a lesson that local authorities have a vital role to play given their understanding and knowledge of their communities.  The Government has to correct this going forward and work in partnership with councils to harness their local knowledge and improve support. 

(In Brent, the initial figure was 9,000 people - seven weeks later 19,000 more have been identified In Ealing, their number of shielded citizens more than doubled this week from 10,000 to 24,000.) 


Finally, a huge amount is being asked of individuals over the coming weeks. People will rise to the challenge, and to do their best to keep themselves and each other safe. But it is not just an individual responsibility but a collective one – and the Government must maintain its end of the bargain – and that means delivering on testing, on tracing, and on PPE for frontline workers.  

Over the past few months, our lives have changed.  Thousands are grieving for loved ones. We’ve seen extraordinary efforts and commitment to manage and eradicate the virus, and to support individuals and communities.  Staff in the NHS, in caring, in transport, in retail, in pharmacies and in so many other public facing roles that we rely on have done so much.  We have a responsibility to them.  And we have a responsibility to prepare for the future.   

That means doing what we can to get the economy moving and supporting people getting back to work – but with great caution, as well as hope for what our country might become when this horrible disease is no more. 


Baroness Angela Smith of Basildon is Shadow Leader of the House of Lords. She tweets @LadyBasildon

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