Covid-19: Lockdown Costs and Benefits - Question

– in the House of Lords am 3:17 pm ar 13 Mawrth 2024.

Danfonwch hysbysiad imi am ddadleuon fel hyn

Photo of Lord Robathan Lord Robathan Ceidwadwyr 3:17, 13 Mawrth 2024

To ask His Majesty’s Government what initial assessment they have made of the costs and benefits of the enforced lockdowns during the COVID-19 epidemic from March 2020.

Photo of Baroness Neville-Rolfe Baroness Neville-Rolfe Minister of State (Cabinet Office)

As set out in its terms of reference, the Covid inquiry will examine, consider and report on preparations for and the response to the pandemic. We expect the inquiry to explore comprehensively the questions asked by my noble friend, identify lessons learned, and inform economic and other preparations for future pandemics.

Photo of Lord Robathan Lord Robathan Ceidwadwyr

My Lords, those who fail to learn from history are doomed to repeat it, which is why I ask this Question. The inquiry to which my noble friend refers appears not to be looking at the value of lockdowns, which is illustrated by a letter, highlighted in today’s newspapers, by 55 academics, who say that this is what it should do. We all know the costs: devastation of the economy and of education—both of children at school and of those at university—worklessness, backlogs in the courts, mental ill-health, excess cancer deaths and an NHS in chaos. As for the benefits, well, some lives probably were saved, but probably more were lost because of excess deaths through lack of diagnosis and treatment. The Government did very well not to listen to the siren voices of the Opposition, who might still have us locked down in a bunker for ever. Who now thinks that lockdowns were a good idea? Will my noble friend commit the Government to allow proper parliamentary scrutiny of the costs and benefits, including voting on it, before contemplating a policy of another disastrous lockdown in the future?

Photo of Baroness Neville-Rolfe Baroness Neville-Rolfe Minister of State (Cabinet Office)

My Lords, the pandemic was an unprecedented event, and the UK Government came together very well to deliver an unprecedented response to save lives and livelihoods and keep people safe. It is for the inquiry, with the benefit of hindsight, to determine whether the decisions to lock down were appropriate and timely and to advise on lessons for the future, such as on cost-benefit. I cannot prejudge its conclusion while it remains ongoing, but we are all aware of the impact of the pandemic on individuals, society and the economy.

Photo of Lord Watts Lord Watts Llafur

My Lords, may I suggest that the Minister takes no notice of the flat-earthers? The best estimate is that more than 17,000 lives were saved. That has had a massive effect on those 17,000 people and their families. I urge her to take no notice of those who do not want to accept scientific fact.

Photo of Baroness Neville-Rolfe Baroness Neville-Rolfe Minister of State (Cabinet Office)

I note what the noble Lord says. It is important that these issues are considered fully from every angle. That is why the Government set up the Covid inquiry and why it is looking into many areas.

Photo of Lord Deben Lord Deben Ceidwadwyr

If the Government had not acted but had waited for Parliament to discuss the matter, they would have been in serious trouble. Is it not right that the Government acted immediately in the face of an unprecedented challenge?

Photo of Baroness Neville-Rolfe Baroness Neville-Rolfe Minister of State (Cabinet Office)

I look forward to the results of the inquiry on these points. We expect to get some findings from module 1 in the not-too-distant future, and module 2 looks at a lot of the points that my noble friend has mentioned.

Photo of Lord Allan of Hallam Lord Allan of Hallam Liberal Democrat Lords Spokesperson (Health)

My Lords, I am sure the Minister would agree that policy-making is best done based on hard evidence rather than on opinion and speculation. In that respect, can she say whether the Government will publish a review independent of the inquiry of all the many academic studies taking place on the impact of lockdowns in the UK and elsewhere? And—who knows?—whichever side we start on, some of us may even change our minds on the basis of reading such a study.

Photo of Baroness Neville-Rolfe Baroness Neville-Rolfe Minister of State (Cabinet Office)

I agree that hard evidence is important and I too value academic studies. A lot of academic studies and reviews of the pandemic in other countries have already been published and are generally available. We are focusing on responding to the Covid inquiry. Clearly, we hope that it will cover all these different points and make sure that future pandemics are tackled as expeditiously and as well as possible, looking at the broader impacts.

Photo of Lord Patel Lord Patel Chair, Preterm Birth Committee, Chair, Preterm Birth Committee

My Lords, I was the one who first mentioned the dangers of this virus a few weeks before we entered lockdown. On whether lockdown worked, at that time we did not know much about the virus or its behaviour. The proof of the pudding was that every country that had a lockdown benefited from it by reducing the rate of infection. The only country that did not lock down was Sweden, and it had a higher rate of infection than its neighbouring countries, Norway and Denmark, which had a lockdown just like we did. It was implemented to control the infection.

Photo of Baroness Neville-Rolfe Baroness Neville-Rolfe Minister of State (Cabinet Office)

I thank the noble Lord for his wise observations. I would observe that the health of the economy and the health of the population tend to go in tandem, and that was one of the things that we noted during the pandemic. However, I come back to my point that the inquiry needs to look at these things for us. We need to learn the lessons and look at evidence objectively.

Photo of Baroness Chapman of Darlington Baroness Chapman of Darlington Shadow Minister for the Cabinet Office, Shadow Spokesperson (Treasury)

My Lords, throughout the pandemic, the great British public stepped up, stuck to the rules and did everything asked of them, from staying indoors to volunteering at vaccine centres. There is plenty to be learned about what worked and what did not, not least when it comes to government procurement. While the Minister is in this reflective mood, can she tell us what is to stop the same wasteful approach to emergency contracting rules that we saw during the pandemic, with friends and donors of the Tory party given fast-track VIP access while decent, skilled, local businesses were denied the same opportunity?

Photo of Baroness Neville-Rolfe Baroness Neville-Rolfe Minister of State (Cabinet Office)

I cannot accept that conclusion. Due diligence was carried out on all companies that were referred to the Department of Health and Social Care, and companies were subject to the same checks. However, module 5 of the inquiry will look at procurement. The noble Baroness and I worked on changes to the Procurement Act, not least to bring in a higher degree of transparency and to make sure that we have more competition in procurement, which I am sure will be helpful in a future pandemic.

Photo of Lord Framlingham Lord Framlingham Ceidwadwyr

My Lords, given the acceptance now of the damage that can be inflicted by the Covid booster vaccinations causing heart problems, what steps are the Government taking to establish the extent of this and what advice are they giving to the medical profession?

Photo of Baroness Neville-Rolfe Baroness Neville-Rolfe Minister of State (Cabinet Office)

That is more a matter for the Department of Health and Social Care than for me, but module 4 will look at vaccines, therapeutics and antiviral treatments across the UK. It is a public inquiry, and it is legitimate for people to make points from different perspectives. I welcome those, and I welcome the openness of this debate.

Photo of Lord Harris of Haringey Lord Harris of Haringey Llafur

My Lords, I refer to my interests in the register. I am grateful to the Minister for how much she wants to take note of whatever emerges from the inquiry of the noble and learned Baroness, Lady Hallett. Why then are Government already unpicking some of the very practical arrangements that were put in place during the pandemic? If the Minister wants evidence of that, perhaps she should listen to Kate Bingham’s interview on the “Today” programme on Monday morning, where she highlighted that the Government are dismantling some of the arrangements that might protect us against future pandemics.

Photo of Baroness Neville-Rolfe Baroness Neville-Rolfe Minister of State (Cabinet Office)

As it happens, I listened to Dame Kate Bingham, who we can all agree did such a good job with the Vaccine Taskforce. The decision on the Vaccine Manufacturing and Innovation Centre, which I think the noble Lord refers to, was made by the board of directors, but I should mention all the other things that have been going on to make sure that we have future access to vaccines. There is a 10-year strategic partnership with Moderna; there is an advance purchase agreement with CSL Seqirus; and my right honourable friend the Chancellor announced a terrific investment in a £450 million manufacturing site in Liverpool. All these are informed by what we need to do as a result of the dreadful pandemic.

Photo of Baroness Fraser of Craigmaddie Baroness Fraser of Craigmaddie Ceidwadwyr

My Lords, unfortunately I will not be in the House tomorrow because I will be giving evidence to the Scottish Covid inquiry on the experience of people with cerebral palsy during the pandemic. Does the Minister agree—this is one of the things that has struck me, as I will be saying tomorrow—that when judgments were made about what services were essential and should not be locked down, what was deemed essential did not take into account some of the most vulnerable in our society? Can she assure me that, whether it is from the Covid inquiry or in any other policy area, we will take note of the experience of all our population for future reference?

Photo of Baroness Neville-Rolfe Baroness Neville-Rolfe Minister of State (Cabinet Office)

I very much agree with my noble friend about the importance of looking after the poorest in society and I hope that it will be a focus of the inquiry, particularly in its module on the care sector. More broadly, my noble friend makes good points. The Government did a lot, but the question is how we can do the very best in future.