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02 Jun 2020


Division, as MPs return to Westminster

MPs returned to Westminster today following the Whitsun Recess. The main item on the agenda this afternoon was to decide on how to vote whilst at the same time maintaining social distancing. The usual practice of voting by entering corridors, known as the “division lobbies” has been ruled unsafe and MPs have subsequently been casting votes electronically via a Hybrid Parliament. The Leader of the House, Jacob Rees-Mogg, put forward a plan to end electronic voting with members only allowed to vote “in person”, by forming a queue with members 2 metres apart, running from Westminster Hall to the House of Commons Chamber.

There was opposition to this plan across the Chamber, including on the Government benches. The Chair of the Education Select Committee Robert Halfon, speaking to the BBC, called the Government’s approach “democratically unjust” as MPs like him who are shielding for health reasons would not be able to vote. In the debate ahead of the vote on this proposal, the Leader of the House stated that the public expects parliamentarians to “conduct effective scrutiny and put ministers under pressure" and that “neither can be realised while we are not sitting physically. By not being here the House has not worked effectively.”

However, he did state that he would be bringing forward a motion tomorrow "to allow members who for medical grounds are unable to attend to continue to appear for scrutiny - that is to say questions, urgent questions and statements - remotely." He also indicated that the Procedure Committee is looking into proxy voting, but it “would complicate the current voting procedures, which require social distancing.” An amendment was subsequently tabled by Karen Bradley, Chair of the Procedure Committee that would allow the current hybrid arrangements in place during the lockdown until now, including allowing remote voting, to carry on until 7 July. This amendment was defeated by 242 votes to 185 – a majority of 57.

The Government won the vote on ending the virtual parliament and restoring the physical voting process by 261 votes to 163 – a majority of 98. Winding queues of MP’s preparing to vote across the parliamentary estate are likely to be seen over the weeks ahead.

Public Health England Review

The Government has today published the Public Health England (PHE) Review on the disparities in the risks and outcomes of COVID-19. The report found that the largest disparity found was by age. Among people already diagnosed with COVID19, people who were 80 or older were seventy times more likely to die than those under 40. Risk of dying among those diagnosed with COVID-19 was also higher in males than females; higher in those living in the more deprived areas than those living in the least deprived; and higher in those in Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic (BAME) groups than in White ethnic groups. People of Chinese, Indian, Pakistani, Other Asian, Caribbean and Other Black ethnicity had between 10 and 50% higher risk of death when compared to White British. 

Speaking in the House of Commons Chamber, the Shadow Health Secretary, stated that we've always known there is a "social gradient" in health, where the "poorest and the most deprived have inequality in access to healthcare and inequality in health outcomes” and called for more action to be taken to minimise risk for BAME communities. Responding, Matt Hancock stated that “This work underlines that being black or from a minority ethnic background is a major risk factor.” He also announced that the Equalities Minister, Kemi Badenoch, will be leading on this work and taking it forward, working with Public Health England and others to further understand the impact.

Latest Office for National Statistics (ONS) Figures

According to the ONS, there were 2,589 deaths involving coronavirus in England and Wales registered in the week ending 22 May. This is the lowest weekly number recorded in the last seven weeks. 12,288 deaths were registered during the same period - a drop of 2,285 from the previous week but still 2,348 more than the five-year average. In total, the ONS said there have been 286,759 deaths to date in England and Wales this year - 51,466 more than the five-year average. Of the deaths registered by 22 May, 43,837 mentioned Covid-19 on the death certificate, which was 15.3% of all deaths.

Out of all deaths involving Covid-19 in England and Wales registered up to 22 May:

  • 64% (28,159 deaths) occurred in hospital
  • 29% (12,739) took place in care homes
  • 5% (1,991) in private homes
  • 1% (582) in hospices
  • 0.4% (197) in other communal establishments
  • and 0.4% (169) elsewhere

Testing Numbers

The Chair of the UK Statistics Authority, Sir David Norgrove, in a letter to the Health Secretary, Matt Hancock, has said the daily government numbers on Covid-19 testing are "far from complete and comprehensible". The Department of Health currently releases figures on the number of tests carried out each day - which includes those posted out but not necessarily returned. In the letter, Sir David said the daily figures had "limited value" in helping track the epidemic and that they appeared "to show the largest possible number of tests, even at the expense of understanding".

Summary of the Press Conference

Matt Hancock led the Daily Press Conference. He was joined by Professor John Newton, National Co-ordinator of the UK Coronavirus Testing Programme.

Firstly, the Health Secretary ran through the daily slides:

  • A Further 324 deaths were recorded on 2 June, taking the total number of COVID-19 deaths to 39,369.
  • 135,643 tests were carried out on 2nd June. The capacity however is over 200,000.
  • 1,613 more cases, bringing the total of confirmed cases to 277,985.
  • There are 436 further estimated admissions with COVID-19 on 31 May. This is down from 471 on 24 May. This is the lowest figure since 20th March.
  • Up to 22 May, ONS have reported a total of 48,106 deaths registered in the UK where COVID-19 was mentioned on the death certificate.

He also stated that the Government are working with the statistics authorities to present them in the “best possible and most transparent way.”

He went on to welcome the findings of the Public Health England review and said to care workers:

  • The whole country cares about your wellbeing. I love that this country is one of the most welcoming, tolerant and diverse and especially in the healthcare system.
  • Age, gender, living in a city and being BME is a significant risk to catching COVID-19. We are determined to get to the bottom of this and Kemi Badenoch, the Minister for Equalities, will be taking this forward.
  • Anybody in a higher risk group should stringently follow the social distancing guides, including adhering to the workplace guidance that has already been published. I understand the anger that people are feeling regarding racial justice more widely. I share it.”

When asked why there were no recommendations in the PHE review, John Newton added that “whilst there are some obvious conclusions that can be drawn, the findings from the report need discussing more widely and disseminating. The NHS has already started the process of risk assessment for staff using this data. What it does show is that there is much more than the ethnic differences in the report, such as deprivation COVID-19 has emphasised the existing health inequalities in this country and we need to address this, whether it is due to race or background.”

When questioned by a BBC journalist on why the Government had not done more to support these communities, the Health Secretary said “this is an incredibly important area and I have been struck by the clear difference in the proportion of people dying from BME backgrounds and I want to get to the bottom of it. There is much more work to be done. We plan to look into the causes and what more can be done.”

Answering a question on antibody testing, the Health Secretary stated that they are delivering 40,000 tests a day for staff who work in the NHS. After this, the Government will then be able to roll these tests out across the country. Critically, he added, we “do not yet also have the science to know that if someone has had the virus will be immune. However, we are trying to expand the rate at which we roll them out.”

When answering a question on how the Government could more effectively utilise the testing capacity that is not being used, John Newton said “there are thousands of people who have tested positive who have been successfully fed into the test and trace programme. That programme is going well. We do not recommend testing for those who do not have symptoms. We are doing a lot of testing of staff to make sure they are safe whether in a care setting or the NHS. We are learning from those results and designing infection control programmes for the future. We are using a good proportion of the tests available.”

Wider Government Announcements

  • The Government has announced there will no longer be televised briefings at weekends, starting this week. Despite this, a Government spokesperson stated that the Prime Minister has committed to taking part in “at least one briefing a week.” There has been no mention to date of changes to weekday briefings, which have been running since the 16 March.
  • Downing Street has announced that Iain Stewart, the MP for Milton Keynes South and a former whip, has been made a junior minister in the Scotland Office following the resignation of Douglas Ross. Ross resigned to protest about Dominic Cummings being allowed to keep his post as a No 10 adviser after he broke lockdown rules.

Select Committee Update

  • Speaking to the Science and Technology Committee this morning, Professor Neil Ferguson, the Imperial College London academic whose coronavirus modelling led to No 10 introducing the lockdown, said that he expected coronavirus levels to remain “relatively flat” as the lockdown was gradually eased over the summer but that it was “very unclear” what would happen in September, when a fuller relaxation is expected. He inferred to the Committee that a second spike was a real possibility.