COVID-19: Daily update from Grayling PR (19th March)

20th March 2020, 9:33 am

Guest blog by Grayling PR (review of 19th March) 

  • The Bank of England has cut interest rates to the lowest level in history, down to 0.1% from 0.25%
  • During the daily press conference, the PM reiterated that it was imperative for everyone to continue following medical advice, whilst also noting that significant scientific advances were being made in finding a vaccine for COVID-19.
  • The PM asked companies to think “very carefully” before letting staff go, reiterating that the government was prepared to “stand behind” business during the current crisis.
  • The PM stated that further information on government advice to businesses and individuals would be published in the coming days, whilst saying he believed that the UK could send the virus “packing” in the next twelve weeks.
  • In the UK there have been 3,269 confirmed cases of COVID-19 and sadly 144 patients have died.

Political Update

UK Government

Daily press conference

Comments by the Prime Minister: 

  • The PM began by thanking the country for their efforts in helping to tackle the Coronavirus.
  • The PM reiterated that the Government was prepared to “stand behind” businesses and individuals.
  • On the question of timescales for tackling COVID-19, the PM noted that “we can turn the tide within the next 12 weeks, and send coronavirus packing, but only if we all take the steps which we have outlined”.
  • The PM went on to mention that the scientific progress the UK was making is substantial, noting that experts will begin testing for a vaccine within a month.
  • The UK is in negotiations to buy an antibody test, which will be able to determine if an individual has already had the disease – the UK will buy “hundreds of thousands” as soon as possible, with the Prime Minister noting the test has the potential to be “a game changer”. The PM said that daily testing is being significantly “ramped up”.
  • The PM went onto reiterate that it was vitally important for individuals to avoid unnecessary contact where possible, including avoiding bars and restaurants.
  • Continuing, the PM stated “Everyone who is worried about their jobs, and everyone in difficulty, to business I say stand by employees and workers, and we will stand by you” – the government is expected to release more information regarding measures to support businesses in the coming days according to the PM.
  • The UK continues to be “guided by the science” according to the PM, and would only seek to close bars, pubs and restaurants “if we think the advice we are giving isn’t working” – the PM went onto note he believed that the government’s current advice to individuals and businesses was working, meaning it would not yet be necessary for the government to instruct businesses to close.
  • The PM was keen to note that “this time is going to be different”, a reference to the economic consequences of the 2008 financial crisis, felt throughout the economy.
  • In response to a question regarding the situation in London, the PM stated he wished for everyone in the Capital to follow the government’s advice, yet despite asking people to avoid unnecessary travel and contact, noted that there was “no prospect of public transport stopping”

Coronavirus Bill introduced in Parliament

This afternoon, a new Coronavirus Bill was introduced to Parliament establishing unprecedented emergency measures for the government to manage the COVID-19 crisis. The Bill will be time-limited for two years. These powers will only be enacted when necessary and would be removed on the advice of the chief medical officers of the four UK nations towards the end of the outbreak.

The Bill will be nodded through, rather than voted on by the Opposition. As such, it is expected to make a speedy passage through Parliament. The remaining stages of the Bill (the report stage and third reading) are set to take place next Monday (23rd March), with the Bill making it into the statute book by the end of the month.

The Bills measures can be split into five key areas:

1) Support for businesses

  • The Government will be given the ability to temporarily suspend laws which means Statutory Sick Pay (SSP) is not paid for the first three days of an absence, with a plan to retrospectively allow SSP to be given to workers affected since 13 March.
  • As announced by Chancellor Rishi Sunak in his Budget, the legislation will allow firms with fewer than 250 employees to reclaim the cost of SSP given to workers as a result of the coronavirus outbreak.
  • Meanwhile, food suppliers could be forced to give ministers details of their supplies if they refuse to disclose the information through the voluntary system which has been set up in the wake of the outbreak.
  • Health and the NHS
  • Restrictions will be removed to allow recently retired health workers and students in the final stages of their training to be deployed into the health service to increase the available workforce.
  • Returning NHS workers won’t see any impact to their pension pots, while rules limiting them to 16 hours of work per week will be lifted.
  • Those who have recently left social care roles will see similar restrictions removed to ensure care of vulnerable people and children can continue.
  • Employees will be allowed to take up to a month of statutory unpaid leave to volunteer and help medical patients and those needing social care, while a UK-wide fund will be used to compensate those facing loss of earnings by choosing to carry out voluntary work.
  • The number of doctors required to sign off on an individual being detained under the Mental Health Act because they are a risk to themselves or others will be reduced from two to one.
  • Meanwhile, extensions or removal of time limits included in mental health legislation could be introduced to provide greater flexibility for staff and ensure services continue to run if hit by staff shortages.
  • Local authorities could also be asked to prioritise their social services to ensure the “most urgent and serious care needs are met”. The legislation warns this could mean some people might not have all their social care needs met during the outbreak while planned assessments could be delayed.
  • Paperwork will also be reduced for NHS providers discharging patients from hospital until after the outbreak has subsided in an effort to reduce the burden on doctors and free up beds.
  • Relaxing regulations
  • Ministers will be given powers to order the closure of schools, but will also be provided with the ability to keep some schools open in order to accommodate the children of key workers or the most vulnerable. The Government is soon to set out who exactly is meant by a “key worker”.
  • However, current legal requirements could be relaxed to reduce restrictions on teacher/pupil ratios, adapt school meal standards and change provisions for those with special educational needs.
  • The Home Secretary will be allowed to order airports and ports to shut if Border Force staff shortages leave border security at risk. The legislation says these measures would only be used “in extremis, where necessary and proportionate” and would last for the “minimum period necessary”.
  • Court hearings could take place by phone or video should an individual be restricted from attending court due to quarantines.
  • Treasury rules will be relaxed to ensure financial decisions can be made in the event of staff shortages. The number of Treasury ministers or commissioners required to sign off on financial instruments will be reduced from two to one.

4) Civil enforcement

  • Police and immigration officers will be given the ability to detain potentially infected people and place them in isolation if they refuse to do so willingly.
  • Ministers will be handed powers to restrict or close all transport networks, as well as order premises to shut and restricting all public events and gatherings.
  • The legislation will also formally give the government the ability to postpone the local and mayoral elections due to take place in May, while also allowing for other electoral events set to take place this year to be postponed, including any by-elections.
  • A series of changes for Northern Ireland and Scotland will also be introduced in order to bring them in line with the rest of the UK. These will include relaxing some rules in Scotland to allow a wider range of health workers to be able to administer vaccines should one become available.

5) Managing the deceased

  • Significant changes are being made to how deaths are recorded, including easing requirements for coroners to sign death certificates when another health practitioner are available.
  • Funeral directors will also now be able to register deaths on behalf of a family if they are unable due to being quarantined, whilst electronic copies of documents will be accepted in order to certify the registration.
  • In order to free up medical staff, requirements for a second confirmatory medical certificate to be presented before a cremation can be carried out are also being removed.
  • In extreme circumstances, the bill also allows local authorities to “streamline” the management of deaths, including increasing operating times of crematoriums, directing companies to use their vehicles to move bodies or co-opting other firms not involved in the funeral sector to provide support where necessary.


Financial support for individuals and businesses

  • The government have published detailed information on how businesses and individuals can access financial support if they have been affected by COVID-19. Details about new government initiatives are available to view here, with further information expected in the next few days.

Bank of England cuts interest rates

  • The Bank of England has cut interest rates once again from 0.25% to 0.1% to support the UK economy in the face of the coronavirus pandemic – the lowest level in history.
  • The Bank of England has also increased its holdings in the UK Government and corporate bond by £200 billion to further pump money into the economy.
  • Further information on the Bank’s announcement is available to view here.

Scottish Parliament

As of 9am today, there have been 266 confirmed cases in Scotland, an increase in 39 cases since yesterday. There have now sadly been six deaths, an increase of 3 since yesterday.

First Minister’s Questions

  • The First Minister confirmed that healthcare workers would be prioritised as part of the expansion of NHS Scotland’s testing programme and confirmed that capacity was being expanded at Scotland’s three testing facilities in order to increase testing levels to 3,000 tests per day.
  • The First Minister confirmed that further support would be required beyond the £2.2billion already announced and confirmed that discussions were ongoing with the UK Treasury.
  • The First Minister further confirmed that work was ongoing to make sure that rates relief for businesses would be available automatically, and application processes for grant schemes would be as efficient as possible, and confirmed that legislation would be brought forward next week in order to bring this into effect.
  • The First Minister announced that the Government would guarantee funding for childcare operators as a result of statutory allowances for childcare – this amounts to £220million and would be provided despite the imperative for these facilities to close.
  • The First Minister also stated that she was opposed to any evictions taking place as a result of COVID-19 – noting that the measures the UK Government announced yesterday are already the status quo in Scotland – and also confirmed that housing tribunals are not currently sitting, so no eviction procedures can be started by private-sector landlords

Cabinet Secretary for Education and Skills Statement

  • The Cabinet Secretary, John Swinney, stated that schools would close at the end of Friday, but that teaching and learning would continue via distance learning, and schools should inform students who have coursework due about how this should be completed.
  • The Cabinet Secretary confirmed that Local Authorities should be given flexibility as to the use of school buildings in order to maintain vital services, namely the support of vulnerable children, the delivery of necessary educational continuity for students seeking qualifications in this school year, and care for the children of key workers.
  • The Government would allow Local Authorities to keep some childcare facilities open – but they will be operating in a very different way, including working with private-sector workers.
  • Swinney confirmed that Free School Meals will continue to be provided, with multiple models being considered, including a voucher system (as has already been used in Shetland) and the opening of community campuses
  • The 2020 Exam Diet will not go ahead – the 2020 cohort of students “must be fairly recognised” so a “credible certification model” will be put in place as a replacement, based on coursework, predicted grades, and prior attainment. Further details will be set out by the Chief Examiner.
  • Swinney confirmed that many local authority nurseries will close, but the Government does not want to see all childcare providers close, in order for key workers to access childcare.
  • The Cabinet Secretary stated that the Student Awards Agency Scotland (SAAS) have robust business contingency plans, will continue to pay students on time, and will keep students updated on any changes.
  • The Cabinet Secretary made clear that people should not assume that schools will re-open after Easter, they may be unable to re-open before the summer break.
  • Swinney clarified that Local Authorities would be given some flexibility as to the definition of “key workers” – sensitivity to the needs of local communities would be considered alongside national priorities
  • The Cabinet Secretary confirmed that, where it is safe and practical to do some provisions would be made for pupils to access the mental health support that would normally be accessed through schools

Cabinet Secretary for External Affairs Statement

  • The Cabinet Secretary stated that the Scottish Government would recommend giving legislative consent to the UK Government’s Coronavirus Bill and that all powers contained within were needed, though not all would ultimately necessarily be used.
  • The Cabinet Secretary confirmed that the Scottish Government would be required to give legislative consent as soon as possible, given the urgency of the issues concerned, and that further emergency legislation may also be independently introduced to the Scottish Parliament before the Easter recess.
  • Whilst the Scottish Government cannot periodically review the legislation, the Cabinet Secretary confirmed that the intention was to be “imaginative” in the Government’s use of powers, so as to not use emergency powers longer than is necessary.

Welsh Assembly

Welsh Government announces new £1.4bn business support package

  • Finance Minister Rebecca Evans and the Minister for Economy, Ken Skates have announced a new £1.4bn business support package to help businesses across Wales.
  • This support matches the measures in England providing a much‑needed boost for small businesses struggling to cope with the impact of the Coronavirus crisis.
  • The new package provides retail, leisure and hospitality businesses in Wales with a yearlong business rates holiday.  A grant of £25,000 will also be offered for businesses in the same sector with a rateable value of between £12,001 and £51,000.
  • It also provides a £10,000 grant to all businesses eligible for Small Business Rates Relief with a rateable value of £12,000 or less.

First Minister holds press conference on COVID-19 Bill in UK Parliament

  • The focus of the press conference was on the implications of the Coronavirus Bill for the Welsh Government’s operations.
  • The First Minister stated that he expects the Coronavirus Bill to receive Royal Assent by the end of March and confirmed that it will receive scrutiny in the Senedd. This scrutiny of the Bill will be carried out during the morning and afternoon sessions in the Senedd on Wednesday 25th March.
  • The Bill provides the Welsh Government with powers to prohibit mass gatherings, redeploy teachers, provide indemnity cover for health workers and detain and quarantine people to protect public safety. The First Minister stressed that the Welsh Government would not necessarily use these powers as soon as they were afforded, and would only use them advice deems it necessary to implement such draconian measures, as he referred to them.
  • The First Minister also suggested that there were no imminent plans for any sort of lockdown in Welsh cities.

Increased testing of NHS frontline workers

  • The Welsh Government has confirmed that a phased rollout of testing will commence from today, starting with health care workers involved in frontline patient facing clinical care. Testing capacity is being expanded and is currently prioritised for patients, health care workers involved in frontline patient facing clinical care and others where recommended by Health Board Medical Directors.

Welsh Government support for making good the damage caused by COVID-19 Scheme

  • The Welsh Government has announced an aid package that will cover the following sectors: fisheries and aquaculture; primary agricultural production; and processing and marketing of agricultural products, with the aid able to be awarded by way of: grants, loans, guarantees and tax advantages.
  • Although there is no defined budget for aid under this scheme, it has been estimated that the total expenditure from 1st March 2020 – 31st December 2020 will be in the region of £100 million and will comprise a combination of domestic resources and European structural funds.
  • Aid under this Scheme may be granted until 31 December 2020.
  • This scheme will be open to all undertakings in Wales excluding those active in the following sectors:
  • Fisheries and aquaculture
  • Primary agricultural production
  • The processing and marketing of agricultural products where
    • the amount of aid is fixed on the basis of the price or quantity of such products purchased from primary producers or put on the market by the enterprise concerned; or
    • where the aid is conditional on being partly or entirely passed on to primary producers. Where an undertaking is active in both an excluded sector and a non-excluded sector, aid may be given to fund non-excluded activities with the condition that activities in the excluded sector do not benefit from aid granted under this scheme.

Northern Ireland Assembly

In Northern Ireland, the number of positive coronavirus cases stands at 77, with a total of 1,646 tests having been completed. Sadly, the first death from the virus has now been confirmed by the health department.

Statement from the Executive Office

  • First Minister Arlene Foster has this evening insisted that the executive are “united” in their objective of tackling Coronavirus. Commending those “stepping up and stepping forward” across government and the broader community, the FM stated the need for “patience in an unprecedented time”.
  • The First Minister acknowledged the emergency legislation being implemented in Westminster, calling on the Chancellor to provide greater employer support, including VAT deferrals, to keep more people in jobs.

Statement by the Health Minister

  • Health Minister Robin Swann set out measures to deal with the expected surge of Coronavirus cases in the coming weeks and months.
  • The Minister confirmed that from now until mid-April, testing capacity will be expanded to allow 800 Covid-19 tests per day.
  • Swann confirmed that nursing and midwifery students within the last six months of qualification will be deployed to clinical care. This is due to take place in the next 10-14 days, providing support of up to 880 senior nursing and midwifery students.
  • Swann also confirmed that final-year medical students at Queen’s University Belfast Medical School will join the medical register four months ahead of schedule to provide support.
  • The Minister reiterated the need for social distancing and similar measures to be implemented by all citizens, stating that “with a combined effect they could reduce the peak [of coronavirus cases] by some 50% and reduce deaths by up to a third”.
  • Swann warned that “planning assumptions also indicate that 8% of infected people will require hospitalisation, 0.7% will require critical care, and 1% will die – although these figures will vary highly depending on age and other health factors”.

Statement by the Education Minister

  • Education Minister Peter Weir confirmed that “physical tests will not be going ahead” this summer.
  • Weir went on to confirm that students taking GCSEs, AS and A levels will not sit exams this year, however exam results will be given out based on predicted grades.
  • Support for children whose parents are key workers that are maintaining public services is being explored. This will include those working in health and social care as well as a broader list yet to be finalised.

Please contact Chris Peacock to receive these daily updates by email. 

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