21 October 2020
Jesse Norman responds to an Opposition Day debate on Covid-19 support

Jesse Norman, Financial Secretary to the Treasury, responds to an Opposition Day debate on financial support for jobs and businesses in areas facing additional Covid-19 restrictions.

The Financial Secretary to the Treasury (Jesse Norman)

We have had a lively, passionate and—what should I say?—vigorous debate across the House. We have heard a wide range of arguments and a considerable amount of passion. It is clear, however, that when we cut through the air being discharged on either side of the Chamber, there is a commonality of values across the House. In fact, the House is united on the most fundamental issues that we face, which are the need to combat this terrible covid-19 virus; to protect public health; to make every effort to prevent economic harm to our businesses, jobs and people; and to protect the fabric of our society. We all share those ambitions.

To do that, we need to do achieve a balance, as the Chancellor discussed last week. In the words of the deputy chief medical officer last night, we are trying to walk “a very fine line” between getting the virus under control in areas where it is surging and incurring minimal damage to the daily lives and livelihoods of people across the country. It was noticeable that the deputy chief medical officer also made it explicit that he did not support a national lockdown, that he backed a local approach and that it would not be appropriate to impose the strictest restrictions across the country. I thought that was an important and telling point from an independent adviser.

For the same reasons, it is clear that no Government, in any normal circumstances, would wish to impose the restrictions that we are discussing today. I can only express my thanks and recognition to the people of Liverpool, Lancashire, Greater Manchester and South Yorkshire for the fortitude that they have demonstrated, are demonstrating and will demonstrate.

The evidence shows that the most successful countries in combating covid-19 are those that have adopted localised measures to protect their populations. That is why we launched the three covid alert levels for England based on the prevalence of the virus in those areas. Although it is vital that we take decisive action to control the virus where it is surging, as we did yesterday in Manchester, we must also recognise that covid-19 is spreading in different ways and at different speeds across the country.

Covid-19 is a virus that we do not fully understand in epidemiological terms, or indeed in medical terms, but we know enough to say that the epidemiological evidence simply does not justify introducing a national circuit breaker. The costs of such an approach would be absolutely huge.​

I vigorously support the point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Clwyd South (Simon Baynes), who said that there were weaknesses in the Welsh Government’s decision to impose a circuit breaker because it would put tremendous strain on areas where there had been no great upsurge in the virus. That point was also made by the former Secretary of State for Wales, my right hon. Friend the Member for Vale of Glamorgan (Alun Cairns). It falls in fact into the category of being unnecessarily damaging to the economic fabric of our country.

The idea that the Welsh Government have done that, as my hon. Friend the Member for Clwyd South put it, without adequate scrutiny, is a sharp contrast to here where the Opposition have rightly been vigorous in holding the Government to account. Having said that, it is important to say, as my right hon. Friend the Chancellor said last week, that these are not virtual costs: every day that a national lockdown was in place would bring very real costs in jobs lost, businesses closed and children’s education harmed. The costs can be measured and weighed in permanent damage to the economy, which in turn undermines our ability to fund our public services.

Let me briefly remind the House of what we are doing to support, in a broad, deep and consistent way, areas that face higher restrictions. We are helping businesses with fixed costs such as rents and bills through a new business grant scheme. We are supporting local authorities in tier 2 or 3 with significant new funding. We have introduced a national funding formula of £1 per head in tier 1 areas with a high incidence, going up to £3 and £8. Of course, that is just a covid-outbreak-combat measure —it is dedicated to a small part of a much wider pattern of programmes of support totalling, as the House will know, more than £200 billion in total. To give the House a sense of scale, that means that areas in high or very high alert are receiving, or will receive, up to half a billion pounds just focused on public health activities to do with combating the virus, such as local enforcement and contact tracing. That comes on top of the £6 billion that we have already provided to local authorities since the start of the crisis.

The third element is extra support for local authorities in tier 3—

Mr Betts

Will the Minister give way?

Jesse Norman

I would but I have been given so little time and have so much material to get through. I hope the hon. Gentleman does not mind if I press on.

As the House will know, we have provided one-off grants to Lancashire and Liverpool and will continue to do so for other authorities. Finally, we are expanding the job support scheme: businesses that have been legally required to close, whether in tier 3 areas or elsewhere, will be able to claim a direct wage subsidy.

Let me say a couple of things on the issue more widely before I finish. The hon. Member for Oxford East (Anneliese Dodds) quite rightly said at the outset of this pandemic that it would be, in her words, “completely inappropriate” to engage in party politics on these desperately important issues of human life and human wellbeing. The hon. Member for Ashton-under-Lyne (Angela Rayner) said that we should not be having “political games”. I am afraid that an awful lot of what we have seen in the past 48 hours has been political games and party politics. It is a terrible shame.​

Love Manchester though I do, I am afraid there is no reason why it should be treated as a special case and any differently from any other part of the country. Every country faces the potential of being struck down by covid and every part of this country should be supported in a proper way that is consistent across the piece. When the Mayor of Birmingham says, by contrast, that he will not put lives at risk, we have to recognise the sincerity and importance of his view.

Let me pick up a couple of other points that have been made. The hon. Member for Salford and Eccles (Rebecca Long Bailey) spoke of Abraham Lincoln; she may also remember that Lincoln said that the gentleman he spoke of compressed the smallest amount of thought into the largest number of words. I am afraid we have seen a bit of that today.

The hon. Member for Birmingham, Ladywood (Shabana Mahmood) called for rationality and a truly national strategy; that is exactly what we are offering. That is what the Government are giving to her.

My hon. Friend the Member for Warrington South (Andy Carter) was absolutely right to highlight the danger of theatrics and the importance of our not making this a north-south issue. It is absolutely not that. This is an issue in respect of which we are all desperately concerned to do the same thing: to protect people’s livelihoods, to protect their health and to protect the fabric of our economy and our society. What is the Labour alternative? A national firebreak? A circuit break? We should do everything that we possibly can to avoid that because of the unfairness of striking down areas that do not have high virus levels and suppressing their businesses. We all recognise the economic costs associated with that.

I do not think it is consistent with the Labour party’s commitment to avoid party politics to have descriptions from the Opposition Benches of, in one phrase, “screwing people over” heard in this Chamber, or, indeed, to hear references to a Member of this Chamber as scum from the Labour Front Bench.