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22 Apr 2020


Sir Keir Starmer took part in his first Prime Minister’s Questions session today in Parliament, with First Secretary Dominic Raab standing in for the Prime Minister. Raab, who was also making his PMQs debut in the first session after the Easter recess, responded to an assured performance from Starmer, who committed to giving “constructive opposition” to the Government regarding coronavirus.

Starmer was quick to highlight that the UK was behind other European countries and official targets in terms of widespread testing, which he called “crucial”. Raab claimed that the Government will meet their target of 100,000 tests per day by the end of April, which would mean an increase of 82,000 tests per day by Monday’s figures. On the topic of PPE, Starmer highlighted to the First Secretary the lack of its availability and pointed to a survey that showed concern amongst health workers.

The Speaker of the House, Sir Lindsay Hoyle, allowed an extra fifteen minutes of questioning during today’s PMQs, owing to the fact that physical attendance in the House is now capped at 50 MPs, with another 50 MPs being lined up virtually over zoom in order to scrutinise the Government. Although not all questions could be answered, the momentous occasion of a first-ever virtual PMQs unfolded without any major mishaps, with the Speaker summoning MPs to ask questions virtually via screens in the chamber.

Following PMQs, the Health Secretary Matt Hancock made a statement in the chamber on the Government’s Covid-19 response in which he stated that the UK is now “at the peak” of the coronavirus outbreak following the British public’s actions in following lockdown rules. Before changes are made to the social distancing rules, however, the Government’s five tests must be met. Hancock also commented that the NHS had not been overwhelmed at any point so far during the crisis and highlighted that there are now over 3,000 spare critical care beds in the NHS, three times more than at the start of the crisis. The Health Secretary also claimed that the expansion of testing capacity is “ahead of plans”, despite the demand for the tests being “lower than expected”.

Elsewhere in Parliament, the Welsh Secretary Simon Hart conducted Welsh Questions from Wales for the first time, as he virtually corresponded with MPs from his home constituency of Carmarthen West and South Pembrokeshire. Several Select Committees also sat virtually today for the first time. In the House of Lords, virtual debates are being held using Microsoft Teams, although these are not being broadcasted.

The First Secretary of State Dominic Raab led today’s coronavirus press conference alongside the familiar face of Professor Chris Whitty and the not-so-familiar face of Sir Nick Carter, who is the Chief of Defence Staff. Raab struck a positive note in saying that, although this period has been tough and we are not out of the woods yet, “we are making progress through the peak of this virus”. Sir Nick Carter outlined some of the ways in which the Armed Forces have been supporting the effort against the virus and Professor Chris Whitty provided updates on coronavirus-related statistics.

Coronavirus Press Conference summary

Dominic Raab, First Secretary of State

  • 559,935 people have now been tested for coronavirus. 133,495 people have tested positive for coronavirus. 18,100 people have sadly died from coronavirus.
  • Fewer people have needed hospital treatment as a result of the public following the social distancing rules.
  • This period has been a strain on everyone, personally and economically.
  • We are making progress through the peak of this virus, but we’re not out of the woods yet.
  • The risk of lifting social distancing measures now would be to cause a second peak of the virus and therefore a second lockdown. The measures will remain in place for the time being.
  • Even in our darkest moments, the crisis has shone a light on the best among us. Such as the Armed Forces and NHS workers.
  • The peak of this virus has not overwhelmed the NHS.
  • Our Armed Forces have helped us build seven hospitals around the country.
  • For the British people, the site of armed forces working alongside health workers offers a calm reassurance.
  • We are continuing to ramp up testing.
  • The Foreign Office has done a great deal of work to bring home British people from abroad. More charter flights are being organised in the days ahead to bring home British nationals from Asia and Africa.

Professor Chris Whitty, England Chief Medical Officer

  • The Armed Forces support has been terrific to the NHS.
  • Transport: Transport use has broadly remained stable recently. It must remain like this.
  • New cases in the UK: This is broadly flat.
  • People in hospital with coronavirus: Across the country this is either improving, such as in London, or remaining flat.
  • Daily coronavirus deaths: Death rates have flattened over the last week and a half.
  • We should not expect deaths to suddenly drop. They will gradually fall away.

 Sir Nick Carter, Chief of Defence Staff

  • We have been giving support primarily to the Department of Health, the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government, the Cabinet Office and local authorities.
  • This is the single greatest logistical challenge I have come across.
  • We have also been involved in planning, providing additional support to hard-pressed staff.
  • We are also helping with testing, including manning some of the regional testing centres.
  • We will continue to defend the homeland and continue our operations abroad.
  • Sir Tom Moore embodies the principles of the Armed Forces.
  • We will defeat this unprecedented challenge together.

Government Activity

  • EU coronavirus scheme. Senior Foreign Office Civil Servant Simon McDonald last night backtracked on claims that he had made in a Foreign Affairs Select Committee session. McDonald had told the committee that the UK not joining the EU Joint Procurement Agreement Scheme, which was set up to procure PPE for members of the scheme, was due to a “political decision”. He later stated “This is incorrect. Ministers were not briefed by our mission in Brussels about the scheme and a political decision was not taken on whether or not to participate”. This latter statement supports Hancock’s claims yesterday evening that there was no political decision not to participate. Number 10 has denied putting pressure on McDonald to change his story.
    • An EU Commission spokesman said that Britain had ample opportunity to join the procurement schemes as it was a member of the Health Security Committee and therefore was aware of what was going on.
    • Meanwhile, the Labour Party have reported that 36 British companies have approached them saying that their offers to help the Government provide PPE have been rejected.
  • Diagnostic labs. Three new ‘Lighthouse Labs’ have been completed after three weeks of building. The sites will analyse coronavirus tests for the NHS, social care workers and frontline workers that have been taken from drive though testing sites, allowing those testing negative to return to work. These sites in Milton Keynes, Glasgow and Cheshire have committed to scaling up to testing tens of thousands of patient samples each day.
  • Repatriation. The Foreign Office has announced that more than 19,000 British holidaymakers caught up in the coronavirus crisis on cruise ships across the world have now returned to the UK. The Government has worked alongside industry to arrange flights and to help passengers return to the UK from 59 cruise ships, with the final group of British passengers expected to disembark the Costa Deliziosa in Genoa today.
  • Housing. Mayor of London, Sadiq Khan has called on the Government to introduce new “triple lock” measures to aimed at protecting private renters from eviction caused by rent arrears due to Covid-19. Khan urged the Government to increase welfare support for renters by restoring Local Housing Allowance (LHA) rates to median market levels and completely scrap housing allowance caps for those who are suffering financial hardship as a result of the disease.
  • Loneliness campaign. The Culture Secretary, Oliver Dowden, has launched a campaign to tackle loneliness and social isolation during the coronavirus outbreak and period of social distancing.
  • Rules being relaxed. The Government have added more rules that have been relaxed onto the list published on the website, which have been relaxed to help companies survive COVID-19. The additional rules include: Companies House, Statutory Residence Test, Driver CPC requirements and Navigation Charges.

 Parliamentary Update

 Prime Minister’s Questions

  • Labour MP Lucy Powell called for a rescue package for the hospitality sector in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic. Responding, the First Secretary expressed a desire to protect all businesses, highlighting grants and tax measures announced by the Chancellor.
    Conservative MP Peter Bone asked when the Government would push banks to support citizens properly rather than providing tiny interest rates and large APRs. Responding, the First Secretary said banks were working to support people through a number of measures such as mortgage holidays etc.
  • Conservative MP Matt Vickers asked if the Government remained committed to record levels of funding for the NHS. Responding, the First Secretary said the NHS would have record funding enshrined in law, the largest hospital building programme, and increased staffing levels. He added that £6.6bn would go to the NHS to support the coronavirus outbreak.
  • Conservative MP Nick Fletcher asked what steps were being taken to ensure NHS workers had PPE. Responding, the First Secretary described this as “critically important”, noting that one billion items of PPE had already been delivered. He also outlined the ways that the Government was working with local authorities and other stakeholders on this issue.
  • Liberal Democrat MP and leader Sir Ed Davey asked if the Government would commit to an independent judge-led inquiry into how the coronavirus crisis had been handled. In reply, the First Secretary said he would not commit to a public inquiry.
  • Universal basic income. A letter signed by 110 opposition MPs has called for the introduction of a “recovery universal basic income” to limit the coronavirus economic crisis. Signatories include Ed Davey, John McDonnell, Ian Blackford, and all MPs from Plaid Cymru and the Alliance, SDLP and Green parties. In PMQS, SNP Leader Ian Blackford asked if the First Secretary would support the proposal given that 84% of the public supported it, in response Dominic Raab said that support announced by the Chancellor was instead being directed at those that needed it.
  • Education Committee. Gavin Williamson has written to the Chair of the Education Committee on school closures. The letter outlines the Department’s response thus far to Covid-19 and outlines the guidance that has already been published and the financial measures the government has taken to protect the education sector.
  • Health & Social Care Committee. The Committee has launched a new inquiry on Delivering Core NHS and Care Services during the Pandemic and Beyond.