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COVID-19: Daily update from Grayling PR (24th March)

25th March 2020, 8:54 am

Guest blog by Grayling PR (review of 24th March). Please contact Chris Peacock to receive these daily bulletins by email. 

  • This evening, the Health Secretary announced that a new NHS volunteer scheme is to be launched, looking for healthy individuals to help deliver medicines and other essential items to those who have been advised to remain at home due to the COVID-19 outbreak.
  • In addition, a new 4,000 bed hospital is to open next week in London. NHS Nightingale Hospital at the ExCel Centre in London will draft in the support of the military to deliver its operational requirements.
  • As of 9am this morning, there were 8,077 positive cases of the virus across the UK, whilst 90,436 patients had tested negative. 442 patients who tested positive for coronavirus have sadly died.

UK Government  

Daily Press Conference

Comments by the Secretary of State for Health and Social Care, Matt Hancock

  • The Health Secretary started by offering his condolences to the family and friends of those who have sadly passed away as a result of COVID-19, and reiterated the government’s message that people should only leave their homes in the exceptional circumstances outlined by the Prime Minister yesterday.
  • Mr Hancock stated that “the more we follow the rules, the sooner we will stop the spread”, before warning that “everyone has a responsibility to follow those rules and stay at home”.
  • The Secretary of State announced that a new scheme would be launching today, which will seek 250,000 volunteers in good health, to help deliver shopping essentials and medicines to elderly and vulnerable people.
  • He continued, saying that the “call for people to return to the NHS” had been incredibly successful, with 11,788 people returning from retirement, including 2,660 doctors and 6,147 nurses. As of next week, 5,500 final year medical students will also “move to the front line”, with Mr Hancock noting that in total 35,000 more staff will become available to the NHS, “when the country needs the NHS the most.”
  • The Health Secretary continued, announcing that next week, a new temporary hospital will be opening at the ExCel Centre in London. The new Nightingale Hospital will compromise of two wards of 2,000 beds each, with the military supporting the hospital’s operations.
  • Concluding, Mr Hancock thanked those for following government advice, while also thanking all those working across different parts of the health service.
  • In response to a question regarding non-key workers continuing to go to work, Mr Hancock stated that employers have a responsibility to ensure employees are kept two meters apart, whilst emphasising that people should work from home where possible.
  • The Health Secretary suggested that TFL should be operating a full tube service to ensure that people were “spread out” on their daily commute, in response to recent pictures of overcrowded services following yesterday’s “lockdown” measures.
  • In response to a question regarding construction, he noted that this could continue as long as workers were kept two meters apart – the Secretary of State suggested this advice had been followed in other countries affected by the virus.
  • In response to a question regarding testing, Mr Hancock said that the Government had purchased 3.5 million antibody tests, with a new facility in Milton Keynes opening today to aide testing of COVID-19.

Comments by Deputy Chief Medical Officer, Dr Jenny Harries

  • Dr Harries emphasised that the current government guidelines would help to prevent the spread of COVID-19 and reiterated the Health Secretary’s comments regarding remote working.
  • Continuing, Dr Harries advised that people should “remember the basics” including washing hands and observing social distancing, whilst suggesting that couples who are not currently living together should preferably stay apart whilst the lockdown measures remain in place.

Government delays spending review

  • Its is being reported that during the government’s first video Cabinet meeting, the Chancellor Rishi Sunak announced to colleagues that the comprehensive spending review, which was supposed to be delivered in July this year, would be delayed until further notice due to the COVID-19 outbreak. Further information from the government is expected to be announced shortly.
  • More information from The Independent is available here.

Summary of today’s Treasury Questions relating to COVID-19 outbreak

  • Shadow Financial Secretary to the Treasury Anneliese Dodds (Lab, Oxford East) raised concerns about construction and transport workers who are continuing to work in close proximity to one another, asking for further guidance. Chancellor of the Exchequer Rishi Sunak outlined that the guidance remains to go to work if you cannot work from home, and that he will continue to work with the construction and housing sectors to offer further guidance.
  • Gavin Newlands (SNP, Paisley and Renfrewshire North) asked when the COVID-19 wage subsidy will be operational. Sunak responded that he hopes that it will be running by April, with claims backdated to March 1st.
  • Shadow Chancellor of the Exchequer John McDonnell (Lab, Hayes and Harlington) stated that a solution for the self-employed needs to be found more quickly and called for an urgent ministerial statement to be made. He also asked for clarification on whether those on zero-hour contracts are eligible for wage support. Sunak reiterated that a solution is being looked into, and clarified that anyone on a PAYE scheme is eligible for wage support.
  • Richard Thomson (SNP, Gordon) asked when support for the self-employed will be announced and requested greater consideration on universal basic income. Sunak did not commit to a specific date for self-employment announcements and outlined that he is not in favour of universal income, stating instead he was working to strengthen the safety net of welfare services.
  • Stephen Crabb (Con, Preseli Pembrokeshire) asked what steps are being taken to ensure the adequacy of funding for the NHS and what is being done to ensure front line NHS staff receive the right equipment. Chief Secretary to the Treasury Steven Barclay responded by saying that the government will continue to do whatever it takes in regard to funding and equipment, drawing attention to the range of measures already in place.

Chief Secretary to the Treasury Steve Barclay Statement on the Self Employed

  • Speaking today from the House of Commons chamber, Chief Secretary to the Treasury Steve Barclay stated that the effects of COVID-19 have been distressing for all, including those who are self-employed and concerned about the future of their business.
  • While a scheme comparable to the wage support measures (as outlined by the Chancellor on Friday) is yet to be introduced, Mr Barclay insisted that “we have not forgotten you, help is coming”.
  • Referring to the delay in announcing a scheme, Mr Barclay outlined the complexity of creating a new scheme that adequately benefits the whole economy while assisting all self-employed workers.
  • The Minister urged all Members to offer reassurance to constituents that help is coming.
  • Referring to VAT deferral and the announced job retention scheme, Mr Barclay stated that a sizable programme of support is already in place with free-traders and freelancers able to access the business interruption scheme and universal credit while the next income tax payment has been deferred to January 2021.
  • The Minister concluded his statement with reassurance that help for the self-employed is on the way, with the Chancellor set to outline measures over the coming days.

Scottish Parliament

  • As of 9am on 24th March, there have been 584 positive cases of COVID-19 in Scotland, an increase in 85 from yesterday. There have sadly now been 16 deaths.

First Minister’s Statement

  • First Minister, Nicola Sturgeon stated that as of last night, Scotland has effectively been placed in lockdown.
  • The First Minister restated that the only permissible reasons to leave one’s house are to travel to essential work, care for a vulnerable person, buy food and other essential supplies, or exercise once a day.
  • Sturgeon clarified that individuals with caring responsibilities or who work in care can continue meeting these responsibilities but must practice social distancing and hand hygiene at all times.
  • The First Minister confirmed that the application process for the Small Business Grant is now live and stated that she remains hopeful that further measures from the UK Government are forthcoming.
  • The First Minister stated that only businesses that are contributing something that is vital, either to the fight against coronavirus or the welfare of the nation, should continue to operate as normal, and they should only do so within established health and safety procedures while following social distancing and hygiene requirements.
  • The First Minister acknowledged that some business owners may be uncertain as to whether their company is essential enough to continue operating as normal, and that it was impossible to account for every situation – but stated that Police would use enforcement powers to shut non-essential businesses that continued to operate in defiance of the law.
  • The First Minister announced that, until the Easter Recess at least, parliamentary business at Holyrood will only take place one day per week. This is effective from tomorrow.

Ministerial Statement – Health

  • Cabinet Secretary for Health, Jeane Freeman, confirmed that mobilisation plans have now been received from all health boards, meaning NHS Scotland is on track to double its ICU capacity.
  • The Cabinet Secretary further announced that plans are being drawn up to quadruple ICU capacity, and a supply chain to bring additional ventilators to Scotland in the coming weeks is being set up.
  • The Cabinet Secretary stated that working to prioritise social care support to the most vulnerable would be a priority, with care workers being classed as key workers and supplies of Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) being made available.
  • Freeman confirmed that testing of NHS Staff remains a priority and the NHS is looking to redirect testing to this effect.
  • The Cabinet Secretary announced that all nursing and medical students that are capable will be put onto placements, enabling them to undertake paid work in the NHS in the short-term, subject to safety requirements.

Ministerial Statement – Justice

  • The Lord Advocate confirmed that where criminal trials cannot safely take place, trials will be deferred until public health authorities issue their approval.
  • The Lord Advocate stated that this would apply to a great majority of trials, but that those that could still take place would go ahead with defendants appearing via video link and witnesses kept to a minimum.
  • Cabinet Secretary for Justice Humza Yousaf stated that he could not rule out the temporary release of prisoners as a means of reducing pressure on the prison system, but that this was not currently required.
  • Yousaf confirmed that, though enforcement of the new regulations would place additional strain on police resources, he had raised the issue with the Chief Constable yesterday afternoon to account for this. In addition, plans were being made to allow all available police staff to work from home.

Coronavirus Bill

  • The Cabinet Secretary for the Constitution, Europe and External Affairs, Mike Russell, confirmed that the Scottish Government intended on taking up all powers conferred on it by the UK Government’s Coronavirus Bill as soon as it receives Royal Assent, anticipated to be tomorrow.
  • The Scottish Government unanimously supported the Bill in a vote this afternoon.

Welsh Assembly

  • Public Health Wales also confirmed that there have now sadly been 17 deaths as result of COVID-19 in Wales, with 60 additional confirmed cases since yesterday, bringing the total number of confirmed cases to 478.

Overview

  • The National Assembly for Wales agreed to support the UK Government’s Coronavirus Emergency Bill.

Mark Drakeford opening statement and First Minister’s Questions

  • Mark Drakeford confirmed that it was the intention of the Welsh Government to bring forward a supplementary budget to realign Welsh Government budgets with the new and urgent priorities.
  • He also confirmed that the Welsh Government are re-examining each departmental budget to identify funding that could be released and diverted to the crisis, with the Minister for Finance and Trefnydd holding meetings with each portfolio holders tomorrow to discuss this.
  • On business support, the Welsh Government are monitoring the demands for the Business Wales service, which has increased substantially over the last week.
  • The First Minister confirmed that letters are going out today to those who have been identified as needing to self-isolate for 3 months.
  • On free school meals, Mr Drakeford was clear that free school meals were an entitlement and are not to be rationed by local authorities.
  • The First Minister confirmed that in areas with poorer broadband connectivity, the Welsh Government is exploring ways – outside of online delivery – to continue children’s education. He did not give any indication on what exact options are currently being considered.
  • On welfare payments, Mr Drakeford stated that the delivery of services by the DWP had been badly affected by outbreak and called again for the UK Government to abandon the 5-week waiting period for Universal Credit, arguing that this was the single greatest barrier people faced.
  • Regarding the Welsh transport network, the First Minister said that the Welsh Government was learning lessons from across the UK to ensure that Transport for Wales and bus operators could strike the right balance between reducing services to meet the reduced demand and ensuring it was possible for passengers to safely distance themselves from one another.

 

Minister for Finance and Trefnydd and the Minister for Economy, Transport and North Wales: Response to COVID-19 Economic crisis

  • The Minister for Finance and Trefnydd and the Minister for Economy, Transport and North Wales have published a joint statement that reiterated the Welsh Government’s calls for greater support for the self-employed to be developed by the UK Government, as well as businesses to meet the cost of Non Domestic Rates in sectors of the economy that were not provided support in Friday’s announcements (hospitality, retail and leisure sectors), as well as rent of commercial premises.
  • In order to meet the gaps in support that the Welsh Government have identified, they will deliver a cross-sector and cross-Government fund to respond to specific needs of businesses, during a managed period of enterprise hibernation. This fund will be designed to include social enterprises and charitable organisations.
  • The Welsh Government hope that precise details will be able to be announced in the coming days, with the size of the fund also being dependent on what further actions are taken at HM Treasury.

 

First Minister’s Press Conference – Afternoon, 24 March 2020

  • The First Minister reiterated his call for the UK Government to establish an effective support system for the self-employed – as has been outlined in other sectors of the workforce – in response to the COVID-19 outbreak.
  • Drakeford confirmed that all who fall into the vulnerable persons category will receive a letter from their GP which will instruct recipients to not go outside at all for 12-16 weeks, and that there are approximately 100,000 in this group in Wales.
  • Following the announcement that schools would close from Friday 20th March, approximately 4% of children in Wales are continuing to attend school, due to their parents being identified as key workers.
  • On the issue of construction work in Wales, Drakeford argued that there was a strong case for closing construction sites and that the Welsh Government had been in discussions with construction sector. Situation is complicated and needed further thought. He hoped that the situations where work could continue will be clarified within the next 24-36 hours.
  • Regarding accusations that there has been an insufficient level of personal protective equipment provided to frontline health workers in Wales, Drakeford argued that he does not recognise this as the case but did suggest that due to the fast-paced nature of the outbreak that there would inevitably be isolated cases of situations where the provision of personal protective equipment was not sufficient.
  • Drakeford also argued that it is vital for Cardiff Airport to survive this crisis, suggesting that the airport was essential to the economic future of the Welsh economy.

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

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