On 29 April, First Secretary Dominic Raab discussed government plans in relation to crucial issues such as PPE acquisition and knife crime
The socially distanced set-up of parliament made for a quieter, more contained scene than we are used to on a Wednesday afternoon. Raab starts off by saying that the UK has currently flattened the curve, which has preserved the capacity of the NHS, and that the country is overwhelmingly in favour of lockdown policies. He asserts that the numbers are getting better, and does not yet address PPE acquisition or an Exit Strategy.
The death tolls in the UK
Keir Starmer immediately brings up the death rate, which has exceeded the 20,000 that the Government previously attempted to keep COVID deaths under.
Raab agrees that there is a challenge to decipher the figures of death. He defends the 20,000 target as an attempt by scientific experts to give shape to an unprecedented situation, and also argues that it is too “early” to compare the UK death toll to the death tolls in other countries. Raab is keen to keep the narrative focused on the immediate success of flattening the curve, not to expand analysis to how our neighbours handled the situation.
The Personal Protective Equipment problem
According to a survey by the Royal College of Physicians (RCP), over a third of doctors working do not have access to Personal Protective Equipment (PPE). Those individuals surveyed across the UK also said that in the last three weeks, general access to PPE has “worsened”. More than a quarter now report being unable to access PPE to treat COVID-19 patients, while in the initial survey that number was 22%. Keir Starmer, Labour leader, wasted no time in raising this recent finding and asking Raab about the relatively slow acquisition of PPE in addition to the decreased availability.
Raab asserts that there is an “international, global supply shortage” of PPE. He states that the UK are now the international buyer of choice, with 22 flights of PPE and ventilators from China, three flights from Turkey with gowns and face-masks, 140,000 gowns from Myanmar and intend to change domestic processes of supply and production.
Professor Andrew Goddard, president of the Royal College of Physicians said:
“We’re living through the darkest times the NHS has ever faced and this survey shows the reality of the situation facing hospital doctors at the moment.
“The lack of PPE remains their biggest concern and it is truly terrible that supply has worsened over the past three weeks rather than improved.”
The missing email from the EU on PPE acquisition
Geraint Davies, MP for Swansea West, brings up the time period in which the EU invited all to join in the mass procurement of PPE. This is one of the key talking points in the PPE discussion, as the UK famously blamed a misplaced email for their inability to join the PPE acquisition scheme. Davies states that the UK did not participate, and asks “was it a political or commercial decision?”
Raab is quick to fire back that the original issue was a “failure of communication, we didn’t get the original invitation to tender.” He asserts that the first batch of EU procurement would actually have made no different to the UK’s PPE capacity – for which we are now looking to Turkey and China, after a delayed procurement period.
Raab changes the subject from PPE acquisitions, discussing how the returns and repatriations process for Britons stuck in various countries is going well. He calls it an example of the “collaborative approach” the UK takes, and presents it as a counterpoint. PPE is not a comfortable talking point for the First Secretary right now.
Will the government publish an Exit Strategy for lockdown?
Raab is adamant that there is no precedent for what the UK is going through, and he doesn’t want to create an expectation. Starmer insists that Labour want to support the government’s strategy, but they need to be told what that is because schools and Trade Unions need to plan ahead for how they will use their resources. It seems that there is no likelihood of a published strategy on when de-escalation can be expected, so the short answer is no. From insider accounts, the government is divided on the idea of geographically targeted relaxing of measures. In relation to being asked about how a vaccine will be distributed, Raab states that the vaccine will be shared with the poorest countries alongside the UK and that the “Tory party is the party of the NHS”. This final remark causes as much noise in the chamber as possible with it at barely one third of capacity.
Will there be a Brexit extension?
Ian Blackford, Leader of the SNP, brings up this conversation. He describes the Conservative government as “shamefully gambling our economic future” with the possibility of a no-deal Brexit during the distraction of a pandemic. He asks Raab to “face down the hardliners in the Tory party”, to push for an extension. He quotes findings from OBR, that the UK economy could shrink by 35% and that number leaves 2 million at risk of losing their jobs. Raab responds strongly that they will stick to the January 2021 deadline for negotiations, proposing that the UK “double-down, get a deal by the end of year”.
How will the Government police knife crime during the pandemic?
Recently, there have been three startling murders in London that have made frontpage news. The question of police presence is brought up in relation to the unprovoked murder of 24-year-old David Gomoh in East London, whose father recently died of COVID complications. His mother has been a figure of strength in interviews, asking those who did this to come forward. The question is raised by his MP, who asks why policing resources are so limited and points out that the local police station was closed due to the pandemic.
Raab offers his condolences, and points to the entrenched figure of “20,000” police who will soon be deployed onto the streets, also asserting that financial resources are allocated to the police and it is their decision how they choose to use them. 20,000 police officers were lost during times of austerity, which means that they would in essence be appropriately replaced – there would be no significant strengthening, but a return to the number of police in 2010. The population has increased in that time, which means that number is not enough.
In addition, the current leader promises that “stop and search powers” will be expanded soon for use. He finishes by describing the MP as a “tenacious champion”, and we miss the MP’s reaction as the next Zoom participant is brought in.