The British Government announced measures to stem the coronavirus pandemic. These included a ‘lockdown’: citizens should now stay at home apart from essential travel or risk fines and all non-essential shops were to close.
The Health Secretary Matt Hancock told MPs that people should only be leaving their houses for four reasons:
- to buy food
- to exercise once a day alone or with members of the same household
- because of a medical need or to provide care for a vulnerable person
- to travel to or from work that cannot be done from home. For work that cannot be done at home, Mr. Hancock recommended a 2-meter gap between employees.
The Minister said that any non-essential shops must close and that gatherings of more than two people were not allowed. He stressed that “these measures are not advice. They are rules and will be enforced, including by the police”, and noted that fines will be issued for those that do not comply.
He also updated MPs on “shielding”. This is comprised of the Government writing to up to 1.5 million of the most vulnerable people in the UK who need to “shield themselves” to advise them on the supplies and support they need.
Mr. Hancock concluded: “Home is now the frontline and in this national effort, working together, we can defeat this disease. Everyone has a part to play.”
Responding on behalf of the Opposition, Shadow Health Secretary Jonathan Ashworth, said the Government was “quite right” in introducing these measures, noting that the Opposition had previously called for them to be implemented. However, he said that an increase in testing and contact tracing was needed.
Mr. Ashworth said the virus “thrives on inequalities” and that the most vulnerable are those most at risk. He asked the Minister if he would remove the prescription charge for the duration of the pandemic, particularly stressing the need to remove it for those suffering from asthma. He also asked about plans for those needing access to abortion care.
He questioned the Minister on support available for those whose mental health is affected by the lockdown and for victims of domestic violence whose situations will be worsened by the measures.
The Shadow Minister called for “clear and unambiguous advice” around which workers still need to go to work, citing non-essential companies such as Sports Direct who are still forcing employees to work. He asked why employers like this would not be fined.
Mr. Ashworth also said that NHS staff and social care workers are still not getting adequate personal protective equipment (PPE). He said that the Government needs to “move heaven and earth” to get these to frontline staff.
The Member told the House: “Enforced social distancing is welcome, we called for it, but it is in many ways a blunt tool without ramping up testing and contact tracing.”