Boris Johnson – 2020 Statement on Public Health

The statement made by Boris Johnson, the Prime Minister, in the House of Commons on 4 November 2020.

I beg to move,

That the Health Protection (Coronavirus, Restrictions) (England) (No. 4) Regulations 2020 (S.I., 2020, No. 1200), dated 3 November 2020, a copy of which was laid before this House on 3 November, be approved.

We come together today to implement time-limited restrictions across England from midnight, so that we can contain the autumn surge of the virus, protect our NHS and save many lives. Of course, this is not something that any of us wanted to do. None of us came into politics to tell people once again to shutter their shops, furlough their staff or stay away from their friends and family. In common with all Members, I feel the pain and anxiety that we will all share in the month ahead. But as Prime Minister, when I am confronted with data which projects that our NHS could even collapse, with deaths in the second wave potentially exceeding those of the first, and when I look at what is happening among some of our continental friends and see doctors who have tested positive being ordered to work on covid wards and patients airlifted to hospitals in some other countries simply to make space, I can reach only one conclusion: I am not prepared to take the risk with the lives of the British people.

I know it might be tempting to think that, because some progress has been made, we just need to stay the course and see through our locally led approach. It is true that the extraordinary efforts of millions across the country—especially those in high and very high alert level areas—have made a difference, suppressing the reproduction rate of the virus below where it would otherwise have been. I want to record again my thanks to the millions who have put up with local restrictions. I want to thank the local leaders who have understood the gravity of the position.

But I am sorry to say that the number of covid patients in some hospitals is already higher than at the peak of the first wave. Even in the south-west, which has so far had lower case rates than most of the rest of the country, hospital admissions are over halfway to their first-wave peak. The latest analysis from the Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies, published on Friday, suggests that the R remains above 1 in every part of England, which means that the virus is continuing to grow among the population. Every day that the number is above 1 is another day that the number of cases will rise, locking in more hospital admissions and, alas, more fatalities, pushing the NHS ever closer to the moment when it cannot cope.

Jim Shannon (Strangford) (DUP)

Every one of us in this House has received numerous emails and telephone calls about the closure of church services. I understand that, and I am making a plea to the Prime Minister for that to be reviewed. For many people, it is the only outing they have in the week and the only opportunity to have any contact with people for prayer and contemplation. In Northern Ireland, churches have been able to remain open through the use of masks and ​hands, face, space. Could that be looked at? I believe that people across the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland would appreciate that, especially in England.

The Prime Minister

I know the hon. Gentleman speaks for many people in this House in raising that concern, and I feel it very deeply. It is an awful thing to restrict people’s ability to worship in a communal way. Obviously, as he knows, we are allowing private worship, but for many people that will not be enough. The best I can say is that in all reality, if we approve this package of measures tonight, we have a very good prospect of allowing everybody to return to communal worship in time for Christmas and other celebrations in December.

The course we have before us is to prevent R from remaining above 1 and to get it down, otherwise we face a bleak and uncertain future of steadily rising infections and admissions until, as I say, the capacity of the NHS is breached. I know there has been some debate about the projections of some of these models.

Neil Gray (Airdrie and Shotts) (SNP)

On uncertainty, we have had a week of uncertainty from the Prime Minister and his Cabinet on whether the extension of furlough will apply to Scotland if it chooses to go into lockdown, if it needs to go into lockdown, beyond 2 December. That comes after the Prime Minister’s Government refused the request of the Scottish, Welsh and Northern Irish Governments for furlough support at the end of September.

Can the Prime Minister finally provide us with a clear, unambiguous answer as to whether, if Scotland, Wales or Northern Ireland requests 80% furlough after 2 December, it will be granted?

The Prime Minister

The hon. Gentleman cannot take yes for an answer. Not only will I come to that point later, but my right hon. Friend the Chancellor will be saying more about the matter tomorrow, and the hon. Gentleman can interrogate him.

What I will say, on the point of uncertainty, is that I know there has been a debate about the statistics on how big the loss of life might be and on the precise point at which the NHS might be overwhelmed, but all the scientific experts I have talked to are unanimous on one point. As the chief medical officer has said, if we do not act now, the chances of the NHS being in extraordinary trouble in December would be very high.

Be in no doubt about what that means for our country and for our society. It means that the precious principle of care for everyone who needs it, whoever they are and whenever they need it, could be shattered for the first time in our experience. It means that those who are sick, suffering and in need of help could be turned away because there is no room in our hospitals—even in East Sussex.

Huw Merriman (Bexhill and Battle) (Con)

All of us in this place will be concerned about saving lives. What evidence has my right hon. Friend received that we will save more lives by the lockdown he proposes than we will lose from public health, from a lack of jobs and from a mental health crisis? That is the evidence I seek from the Prime Minister today in order to cast my vote his way.

​The Prime Minister

My hon. Friend raises a very important point, and it is the crux of the debate. Alas, as leaders and as politicians, we have to look at the immediate peril we face. I do not in any way minimise the risks to mental health and physical health that come from the measures we have to apply. That is, of course, why we debate and insist that we explore every other avenue before we go down that route, but we have to look at the real risk of mortality, and mortality on what I think would be a grievous scale, that would stem from doing nothing.

To give my hon. Friend a picture of what it would mean, those who are sick, suffering or in need of help could be turned away because there is no room in our hospitals.

Several hon. Members rose—

The Prime Minister

I will give way in a moment.

Doctors and nurses could be forced to make impossible choices about which patients would live and which would die, who would get oxygen and who could not. I know that some Members, like my hon. Friend the Member for Bexhill and Battle (Huw Merriman), are hearing from their local hospitals that the pressure is not that great yet, but the whole point about a national health service is that when hospitals in one part of the country are overrun, sick patients are transferred to another, until the whole system falls over. Let me be clear that this existential threat to our NHS comes not from focusing too much on coronavirus, as is sometimes asserted, but from not focusing enough, because if we fail to get coronavirus under control, the sheer weight of demand from covid patients would not only lead to the covid casualties that I have described, but deprive other patients of the care they need. We simply cannot reach the point where our national health service is no longer there for everyone.

This fate is not inevitable. We are moving to these national measures here when the rate both of deaths and infections is lower than they were, for instance, in France, when President Macron took similar steps. If we act now, and act decisively, we can stem the rising waters before our defences are breached.

Tim Farron (Westmorland and Lonsdale) (LD)

I accept the Prime Minister’s logic and think it is far more dangerous to do nothing than to do what he proposes, but does he accept that we need to learn some serious lessons from the first lockdown, particularly about the impact on cancer patients? There was a 100,000 backlog when it came to treatment and diagnosis at one point. Cancer Research UK estimates that 35,000 people might unnecessarily lose their lives to cancer because of wrong decisions. Will he accept that, while there are many hospitals that are, shall I say, clean sites, where covid is not being treated or is not present, there is an opportunity to use those sites to treat cancer patients, catch up with cancer, save those lives and not make the same mistakes as we did first time?

The Prime Minister

The hon. Gentleman is exactly right and has encapsulated the argument that we make. My right hon. Friend the Health Secretary and I have talked repeatedly to Simon Stevens of the NHS and his teams about making sure that throughout this period, we continue to look after cancer patients—those who ​need the decisive care that the NHS can provide. I do believe that this approach—these regulations—are the way that we can do that.

I know there are many in this House who are concerned about how long these measures might last and that, if people vote for these regulations today, they could suddenly find that we are trapped with these national measures for months on end. So let me level with the House: of course, I cannot say exactly where the epidemiology will be by 2 December, but what I can say is that the national measures that I hope the House will vote for tonight are time-limited. It is not that we choose to stop them. They legally expire, so whatever we do from 2 December will require a fresh mandate and a fresh vote from this House. As I have made clear, it is my express intent that we should return to a tiered system on a local and regional basis according to the latest data and trends.

Mr Mark Harper (Forest of Dean) (Con)

Will my right hon. Friend give way?

The Prime Minister

The whole House will share my sorrow and regret at the necessity of these measures, which I know is a perspective shared by my right hon. Friend—I am happy to give way to him.

Mr Harper

I have listened carefully to the argument and looked at the data very carefully. What I am troubled by—when I have looked at the basis on which the modelling has been done, both in terms of SAGE and the NHS—is that the modelling does not take into account the effect of the introduction of the tier system and any of the effects of it. I think, therefore, that we have acted too soon, because we are starting now to see the tier system working. The data from Liverpool yesterday, published by Steve Rotheram, is very encouraging and shows that the tier system is working, but the modelling that the NHS is using for its capacity usage does not take into account that introduction at all.

The Prime Minister

My right hon. Friend makes a very important point. He is expressing a point of view that is shared by many people, but, alas, I believe that he is wrong. The facts do not support his view. I looked at the data and, unfortunately, this is what we have: hospitalisations mounting very, very steadily, which, as he knows, are leading indicators of fatalities. We have 2,000 more people on covid wards than this time last week and 25% more people today than there were last week and, alas, 397 deaths tragically announced yesterday —more than we have had for many months. The curve is already unmistakable and, alas, incontestable.

Neil O’Brien (Harborough) (Con)

In the past two weeks, we have gone from seeing cases mainly among young people to them being mainly among older people. We have seen it going from a problem in a few cities to a problem across the country. Does my right hon. Friend agree that we do not need a fancy model to see the numbers piling up in hospitals and to see what has happened in France—because it has not taken action as quickly as we have—to know that the thing to do is to take action now, not just to save lives, but to save the economy as well?

The Prime Minister

The economic dimension of what we are doing is absolutely right and the argument, as my hon. Friend rightly says, works both ways. I know how difficult it is, particularly for businesses that have ​just got back on their feet, that have done their level best to make themselves covid-secure, installing hand- washing stations, plexiglass screens and one-way systems, and, as the Chancellor has set out, we will do whatever it takes to support them. We have protected almost 10 million jobs with furlough and we are now extending the scheme throughout November. We have already paid out £13 billion to help support the self-employed, and we are now doubling our support from 40% to 80% of trading profits for the self-employed for this month. We are providing cash grants of up to £3,000 per month for businesses that are closed, which is worth more than £1 billion a month and benefits more than 600,000 business premises. We are giving funding of £1.1 billion to local authorities in England further to support businesses in their local economy in the winter months.

Drew Hendry (Inverness, Nairn, Badenoch and Strathspey) (SNP)

The Prime Minister accused us earlier of not being able to take yes for an answer on differentiated furlough for the other nations of the UK. The problem is that we have not heard a clear, unequivocal yes to the question, so can he sort that out now? If Scotland, Wales or Northern Ireland need to introduce lockdown measures at different times than England, will the Chancellor be there to support us with furlough?

The Prime Minister

Yes. I really do not know how to exhaust my affirmative vocabulary any further—they won’t take yes for an answer, Mr Speaker. All of this comes on top, as the hon. Gentleman knows—

Several hon. Members rose—

The Prime Minister

With great respect, Mr Speaker, I think that I have answered the question and I think that my friends opposite are going to oppose.

This comes on top of the more than £200 billion that we provided since March. We will also ensure that, throughout this period, our schools stay open. We will not allow this virus to do any further damage to the future of our children. I said in the summer that we had a moral duty to reopen our schools as soon as it was safe to do so, and that they would be the last element of our society to close down again. We have stuck to that pledge. Our schools will remain open, as will colleges, universities, childcare and early years settings.

The measures before the House are designed to arrest the virus, to drive it down and to get on top of it once and for all. If we are able to test on a big enough scale to identify the people who are infected, often without symptoms and who unwittingly and asymptomatically pass the virus to others, those people will be helped immediately—this is the key thing—to self-isolate and to break the chains of transmission, reducing the spread of the virus, reducing the numbers of people in hospital, and reducing the numbers of people dying. I think that if we all play our part in this system it could be a hugely valuable weapon in our fight against covid in the short, medium and long term, and an alternative to the blanket restrictions that have been imposed in so many parts of the world.

This week we are piloting a mass test in Liverpool, where an immense effort benefiting from the logistical skill of the armed services will offer everyone a test, and ​our aim is to make mass repeated testing available for everyone across the country. Thanks to the pioneering work of British scientists, we already have a life-saving treatment for covid and the genuine possibility of a safe and effective vaccine next year. Taken together, these achievements provide every reason for confidence that our country can and will pull through this crisis, and that our ingenuity will prove equal to the challenge.

Clive Efford (Eltham) (Lab)

Will the Prime Minister give way?

The Prime Minister

No, I will not—I am finishing up.

This year, I and the whole of Government have asked much of the British people: more than any Prime Minister, I believe, has asked of the British people in peacetime. I have to say that the public have responded magnificently and selflessly, putting their lives on hold, bearing any burden, overcoming every obstacle, and tolerating every disruption and inconvenience, no matter how large or small—or inconsistent—so that they could do the right thing by their fellow citizens. I wish that it had been enough to defeat this autumn surge. But while I am more optimistic now about the medium and long-term future than I have been for many months, there can be no doubt that the situation before us today is grave and the need for action acute.

It is absolutely right for this House to have doubts—

Mr Speaker

Order. I am sorry, Prime Minister, but Mr Murrison, you cannot read newspapers in the Chamber.

The Prime Minister

It is absolutely right for hon. Members to consult relevant documents that may contain information to the advantage and betterment of the House.

Mr Speaker

He could have been reading his horoscope —come on!

The Prime Minister

I can assure my right hon. Friend the Member for South West Wiltshire (Dr Murrison) that his future is rosy.

It is right for Members on all sides of this House to have the doubts that have been expressed, to seek answers from me, and to provide scrutiny. That is the purpose and duty of the House of Commons. But while it pains me to call for such restrictions on lives, liberty and business, I have no doubt that these restrictions represent the best and safest path for our country, our people and our economy. So now is the time for us to put our differences aside and focus on the next four weeks in getting this virus back in its box. I know that once again our amazing country will respond to adversity by doing what is right—staying at home, protecting the NHS and saving lives. In that spirit, I commend these regulations to the House.