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Last week proved to be another emotive and passionate one in the House of Commons with regard to coronavirus and Brexit.

This post concerns coronavirus.

On Monday, September 14, Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s Rule of Six, which he announced on September 9, came into effect. It sounds rather Chinese.

It means that people living in England cannot meet in groups of greater than six, indoors or outdoors. If we do, according to him, we ‘will be breaking the law’.

He also introduced a new platoon to keep us in line: COVID marshals, to remind us of existing coronavirus rules in England — ‘hands, face, space’.

Recall that Boris said after the December 2019 election that we now have the People’s Government. Hmm.

The UK government is copying a Belgian idea. The Rule of Six reduced their second spike.

Increasingly, Britons have been looking back at Sweden, which refused to lock down. Fraser Nelson is the editor of The Spectator. Chris Whitty is our Chief Medical Officer; in May, he said that coronavirus was harmless for most people and most of us would never get it:

Michael Gove MP, a Cabinet minister and Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster, made matters worse when he confirmed that under-12s were part of the Rule of Six, unlike in Scotland and Wales, where under-12s are not. With life getting back to normal as school has started again, this came as a blow to many families:

The Telegraph reported that the Cabinet was split on the proposals (emphases mine):

… one senior Tory source said that “half the Cabinet” had doubts about the so-called ‘rule of six’, and it was “pretty hard to find a Conservative member of Parliament who agrees with all of this”.

The COVID marshals are also a problem for police and local councils:

Meanwhile, Mr Johnson’s plan for coronavirus marshals to help enforce the six-person rule was unraveling as police derided them as “Covid Wombles” and councils said they were a “gimmick”.

Downing Street admitted councils would not be given any money to pay for the marshals, suggesting volunteers could do the job, and said it would be up to individual local authorities to decide whether they actually wanted them.

It got worse, as curfews were mooted:

The Government has discussed going even further with new lockdown restrictions, and has drawn up “a well-developed proposal” for a nationwide curfew which was discussed at ministerial level.

My head spun.

Then the ministerial snitch crowd appeared on weekend news programmes to say that people must tell on their neighbours if they are seen to be violating the Rule of Six:

Political journalist Isabel Oakeshott rightly responded:

I couldn’t agree more. This is supposed to be the People’s Government, isn’t it?

History will not look kindly on 2020 with regard to the measures taken to combat the virus:

I was wrong.

Home Secretary Priti Patel said that people should not even talk when they see friends in the street, even at a distance (audio here, thanks to Guido Fawkes, and there’s video, too):

Yebbut, if you DO report what appears to be criminal activity, allegedly, the police do not want to know. Here is a printscreen of a set of comments on a Guido Fawkes thread. I call your attention to the last two. Police would rather pick on mums and their children. Ironically, that was posted on the anniversary of the Battle of Britain. Go figure.

A mild-mannered man from Buckingham called talkRADIO to say he would not comply with the Rule of Six because the Government had gone too far.

So did a lady from Brighton, saying that the Rule of Six was about:

control. They’re trying to see how much they can get away with.

Another talkRADIO host, Julia Hartley-Brewer, had a go at Roy Lilley, former NHS Trust chairman. She said:

We are being scared into thinking we have to give up our civil liberties when that won’t save lives. Being sensible will save lives.

The Telegraph‘s Salley Vickers wrote of the restrictions on her and her loved ones:

I would rather risk dying and have the joy of their company than lose that vital contribution to my own happiness.

With the festive season only several weeks away, the Daily Mail‘s Peter Hitchens told talkRADIO’s Mike Graham that the Rule of Six has:

made Christmas an arrestable offence.

Another Daily Mail journalist, Bel Mooney, wrote an editorial for Conservative Woman saying that she was surprised at the amount of resistance she received when she wrote that she would be defying the Rule of Six at Christmas:

in response to Matt Hancock’s sudden, arbitrary and illogical ‘rule of six’ diktat, I wrote a strong opinion piece (at the request of my newspaper) headlined ‘NO, NO, NO! I’m having Christmas for 14 – and no puffed-up Covid marshal will stop me’.

As you might expect, there was a huge response. I never look online, and am not on Twitter (I expect there was a lot of poison swilling around out there). I am talking about emails to me and the newspaper. What interested me was the fact that, if I am to be honest, the antis outnumbered the prosI didn’t expect that from Mail readers.

You can never tell with Mail readers, though. They’re a tricky lot.

Oxford University’s Professor Carl Heneghan and honorary research fellow Tom Jefferson wrote an article for The Spectator against the Rule of Six, saying that Boris must bin it:

At Oxford University’s Centre for Evidence Based Medicine, we have spent years trawling through the scientific evidence on the effects of measures such as distancing on respiratory viral spread. We are not aware of any study pointing to the number six. If it’s made up, why not five or seven?

Northern Ireland has taken a more measured approach and not announced any changes to how many people can meet. These disagreements in policy reveal how decisions are being made without evidence. It seems that somebody in government sat in a cabinet office room and said six is a good idea and nobody disagreed

The problems with policy stem from the current cabinet’s vast inexperience: the Health Secretary has been in post for just over two years now; the PM and the Chief Medical Officer a year. The Joint Biosecurity Centre is overseen by a senior spy who monitors the spread of coronavirus and suppresses new outbreaks. Add to this mix the new chair of the National Institute for Health Protection, who similarly has little or no background in healthcare. Our leaders amount to little more than a Dad’s Army of highly paid individuals with little or no experience of the job at hand.

This inexperience leads to rash decisions and arbitrary policies.

One example is that entire areas can be locked down if they have 50 cases per 100,000 people. Yet the recognised alert threshold for ‘regular’ acute respiratory infections is 400 cases per 100,000.

Lord Sumption, who has been speaking out against lockdown this year, said that the Rule of Six will be unenforceable. I hope he is right:

Tom Tugendhat (Tunbridge and Malling, Con) expressed his concerns about the new rule and rightly wanted MPs to vote on it and similar measures:

It’s unlikely that the House of Lords can help, either. They already have a full schedule. We should thank Lord Lamont for raising the issue of consulting the public, however. ‘SI’ means ‘statutory instrument’:

Monday, September 14

Behind the scenes and well outside of Parliament, an email emerged dated May 23, wherein Chief Scientific Adviser Sir Patrick Vallance stated he had pushed the most for March’s lockdown:

Guido Fawkes has the full text of the email. I am not sure how Sir Patrick thinks that a vaccine will achieve herd immunity, though.

In the first of the debates on the Brexit-related Internal Market Bill, Charles Walker MP (Broxbourne, Con) prefaced his comments by expressing his dismay about the Rule of Six, the lack of consultation with Parliament and the fining of Jeremy Corbyn’s brother Piers at the anti-lockdown rally on Saturday, September 12.

Thank you, Charles Walker:

This is short and well worth watching:

Tuesday, September 15

Secretary of State for Health and Social Care Matt Hancock poled up to make a statement to MPs about the Rule of Six and testing.

Excerpts follow:

There are signs that the number of cases in care homes and the number of hospitalisations is starting to rise again, so last week we acted quickly, putting in place new measures—the rule of six, which came into force yesterday. We do not do this lightly, but the cost of doing nothing is much greater.

Testing also has a vital part to play. Everyone in this House knows that we are doing more testing per head of population than almost any other major nation, and I can tell the House that we have now carried out over 20 million tests for coronavirus in this country. As we expand capacity further, we are working round the clock to make sure that everyone who needs a test can get a test. The vast majority of people who use our testing service get a test that is close to home, and the average distance travelled to a test site is now just 5.8 miles —down from 6.4 miles last week; but the whole House knows that there are operational challenges, and we are working hard to fix them.

We have seen a sharp rise in people coming forward for a test, including those who are not eligible.

Jonathan Ashworth (Leicester South, Lab/Co-op), speaking for the opposition, said:

I am grateful for advance sight of the Secretary of State’s answer. That was decent of him.

Yesterday LBC revealed that there were no tests available in covid hotspots, including Rochdale, Pendle and Bradford. Over the weekend in Bolton, where infections are the highest in the country, a mobile testing centre failed to turn up. Meanwhile, in Bury hundreds queued for five hours for a test. In Walsall, a father with his sick child travelled 76 miles to an appointment in Wales, only to find on arrival that tests had run out. Increasing numbers of teachers and pupils are not in school. In hospitals, operations are cancelled while NHS staff are stuck in limbo, waiting for tests.

The Secretary of State blames increased demand, but when tracing consistently fails to reach 80% of contacts, when less than 20% of those with symptoms self-isolate properly and there is a lack of financial security, infections rise. When schools reopen and people return to workplaces and social distancing becomes harder, infections rise. Extra demand on the system was inevitable. Why did he not use the summer to significantly expand NHS lab capacity and fix contact tracing?

Just as demand is increasing, the ability to process tests is diminishing. Post-graduate students working in the Lighthouse labs are returning to university, so why did the Secretary of State not plan for the inevitable staff shortages in the Lighthouse labs? Those commercial pillar 2 labs, The Sunday Times revealed at the weekend, have a huge backlog of 185,000 tests. Thursday’s data revealed that 65,709 test results were not returned by the end of the week. Care home residents now wait an average of 83 hours for their result. The Prime Minister promised us a 24-hour turnaround for results, so what is going on? What is the current backlog and what is the timeframe for clearing it?

We were promised a world-beating system, so why are we sending tests to Germany and Italy for processing? But, most importantly, people want to know when they will get a test and when this mess will be fixed. Today there will be thousands of ill people trying to book a test, only to be told none is available. When will people be able to book a test online again, or has the online booking system been deliberately disabled? When will ill people no longer have to travel hundreds of miles for a test that should be available on their doorstep? When will pupils and teachers out of school get access to testing, so they can get back to school? When will NHS staff have access to regular testing, so they can focus on their patients and not be sitting at home?

We are at a perilous moment. Imperial College estimates the virus is doubling every seven to eight days. We all want to avoid further restrictions or another national lockdown, but when testing and contact tracing break down, the growth of the virus cannot be tracked. The Prime Minister promised us whack-a-mole, but instead his mallet is broken. The Secretary of State is losing control of the virus; he needs to fix testing now.

Many MPs — from both Opposition and Conservative benches — said that their constituents could not get tests.

Even the Speaker of the House tweeted that his constituents were having similar problems:

The testing situation is shocking — as Terry-Thomas used to say in the Boulting Brothers films: ‘An absolute shower!’

On the upside, the British coronavirus jobs situation is improving, thank goodness (more from Guido here):

Wednesday, September 16

Deputy Labour Leader Angela Rayner (Ashton-under-Lyne) stood at the Opposition despatch box for Prime Minister’s Questions (PMQs), as Sir Keir Starmer was self-isolating:

She did a good job.

She began by saying:

Many people in the Chamber will think that the battle of Britain is today, but actually we marked the 80th anniversary of those veterans yesterday, and I want to put on record our thanks to all those who fought for our country in the past.

I want to start by reading to the Prime Minister a message that I have received from a man called Keir. Keir was not able to go to work today and his children could not go to school because his family had to wait for their coronavirus test results, despite the Prime Minister’s promise of results within 24 hours. Keir was able to do the right thing and self-isolate and work from home, but other people are not in this position, and many of them are the very people who were getting us through this crisis, such as the care workers, who I used to work alongside before I was elected to this House. The Prime Minister once earned £2,300 an hour; can he tell us the average hourly rate of a care worker in this country?

Boris was singularly unimpressed, although he had a neutral expression on his face, even when discussing Starmer:

I congratulate the hon. Lady on her elevation. She speaks of the constituent Keir, and I can tell her that—allegedly, apparently—he has had a negative test, and I do not know quite why he is not here. But 89% of those who have in-person tests get them the next day, and we are working very fast to turn around all the test requests that we get. I think that most people looking at the record of this country in delivering tests across the nation will see that that compares extremely well with any other European country. We have conducted more testing than any other European country, and that is why we are able to deliver tests and results in 80% of cases where we know the contacts.

The hon. Lady asks about care homes, and I can tell the House that today we are launching the winter care home action plan. She is right to raise the issue of care homes, and we are concerned about infection rates in care homes, but we will do everything we can to ensure that care homes and their workers are protected.

On the hon. Lady’s final point, I am proud that it is this Government who have instituted the national living wage to ensure that every worker in this country, including care home workers, is paid substantially more, thanks to the care and the work of the people of this country.

Boris listened attentively and responded sensitively to all the points that Angela Rayner raised until this point, which came several minutes in, when she said:

Infections are rising. The testing system is collapsing. When you are the Prime Minister, you cannot keep trying to blame other people for your own incompetence. We have the highest death toll in Europe, and we are on course for one of the worst recessions in the developed world. This winter, we are staring down the barrel of a second wave, with no plan for the looming crisis. People cannot say goodbye to their loved ones. Grandparents cannot see their grandchildren. Frontline staff cannot get the tests that they need. And what was the top priority for the covid war Cabinet this weekend? Restoring grouse shooting.

I suppose that is good news for people like the Prime Minister’s friend who paid for a luxury Christmas getaway to a Caribbean island and funded his leadership campaign, and just so happens to own two grouse moor estates. So Prime Minister, is this really your top priority?

The Prime Minister answered:

While the Labour Opposition have been consistently carping from the sidelines throughout this crisis and raising, frankly, issues that are tangential, if not scare stories about what is going on, we are getting on with delivering for the British public. We are not only massively ramping up. She has not contested any of my statistics today about the extent to which this country is now testing more than any other European country.

She has not disputed the massive acceleration in our programme. [Interruption.] I will answer the substance of her question, thank you very much. We are getting on with delivering on the priorities of the British people: getting us through this covid crisis; delivering on making our country safer, bringing forward measures to stop the early release of dangerous sexual and violent offenders, which I hope she will support; strengthening our Union, which in principle Opposition Front Benchers should support; and building more homes across this country and more affordable homes across this country, which she should support. That is in addition to recruiting more doctors and more nurses, and building more hospitals.

I do not think anybody is in any doubt that this Government are facing some of the most difficult dilemmas that any modern Government have had to face, but every day we are helping to solve them, thanks to the massive common sense of the British people, who are getting on with delivering our programme and our fight against coronavirus. It is with the common sense of the British people that we will succeed, and build back better and stronger than ever before.

If only.

That day, news of an upcoming curfew in London emerged.

Apparently, the British people don’t have much common sense, after all.

Currently, London has some of the fewest new coronavirus cases (i.e. positive tests, little hospitalisation):

Guido rightly wrote (emphases in the original here):

If this afternoon’s splash from the Evening Standard is true, it is a step too far. The London director of Public Health England (yes, the organisation is still limping on for now, despite the Health Secretary announcing its abolition back in August) has issued a “curfew alert” to the capital through the newspaper, saying residents could face a mandatory curfew if Covid cases continue to rise. A ridiculous suggestion that should be forcefully opposed.

Shutting pubs, bars, restaurants, and just about everything else at an arbitrary hour will obviously do nothing to stop the spread of coronavirus. If anything, the move will be counter-productive – compressing the same number of customers into a shorter time and making social distancing harder still. Or pushing social gatherings into homes not bars, which are thought to be more likely to spread the virus. This no doubt ineffective PHE [Public Health England] nannying should have been dumped when the organisation was. The government need to remember there is a limit to people’s compliance. This might just hit it.

As I write early on Tuesday, September 22, Boris is planning to bring in an England-wide curfew for pubs and restaurants on Thursday. As if the virus will know the difference between a 10 p.m. closing time versus the usual one of 11 p.m. The mind boggles.

Thursday, September 17

Matt Hancock appeared again with another update on coronavirus.

This time, it was about measures taken on lockdown in the North East of England. This includes strict adherence to household bubbles, table service only in hospitality venues and a curfew between 10 p.m. and 5 a.m.:

Once again, he was straining every sinew, an expression he has been using since March:

The battle against coronavirus is not over, and while we strain every sinew to spring free of its clutches, with winter on the horizon we must prepare, bolster our defences and come together once again against this common foe.

Then he announced upcoming plans to make everyone using A&E (Accident and Emergency) departments to make a booking! Good grief:

… we are working to get patients the right care in the right place, by expanding the role of NHS 111. During the peak of this pandemic, we saw millions of people using NHS 111, on the phone or online, to get the best possible advice on coronavirus, helping them to stay safe and, where possible, to stay out of hospital, where they could have unknowingly spread the virus. It is crucial that, ahead of winter, we use this window of opportunity to seek out what worked and build on it, so we provide a better service for patients and protect the NHS. Of course, no one will ever be turned away from our emergency departments in the most serious of cases; however, we have worked with the royal colleges, the NHS and others to develop a better, quicker and more clinically appropriate service for patients by using NHS 111 first.

This is how it works. We will invest £24 million to increase call-handling capacity and to make sure there are more clinicians on hand to provide expert advice and guidance, and we will build on our trials to make NHS 111 a gateway to the emergency care system, providing a first port of call for patients. In future, rather than having to queue in an emergency ward, we are testing that people should call NHS 111 first to book an appointment with whoever can give them the most appropriate care, whether it is a GP, a specialist consultant, a pharmacist, a nurse or community services. Of course if they need to go to the emergency department, NHS 111 will be able to book them into an appropriate time slot. We want to see this approach lead to shorter waiting times and better availability of appointments for patients. We will consult on how its performance is best measured, and, with successful pilots, we will roll out NHS 111 First to all trusts from December.

This is the bit that galled me the most:

The purpose of 111 First is to improve access, including in terms of inequalities in the NHS, by ensuring that people get the right treatment in the right place and easier access if they do need to go to an emergency department, because the emergency department will know that they are coming. It is commonplace now in almost every part of our life to let people know that we are coming. If we are going to do something as important as visit an emergency department, it will help both the patient seeking treatment and the NHS to let them know that they are coming first. That is the principle behind 111 First. It sits alongside 999, which anybody should call in a serious incident.

‘People’s government’, my eye.

Nor is the NHS the people’s health service.

If you have a serious injury, you or your loved ones could be losing life- or limb-saving time by calling 111 or 999.

Based on what I read during the March lockdown, calling 111 was life-threatening. Children calling on behalf of elderly parents were told, ‘If your relative is not turning blue, do the best you can.’

Calling the ambulance service on 999 generally produced this result: ‘We’re overloaded. If you can take your relative to hospital yourself, please do so.’

Over the past few months, I have heard NHS senior executives give testimony to Select Committees. They do not want patients coming in to a hospital, to a GP surgery — anywhere on NHS property.

An absolute shower!

Speaking of absolute showers, Baroness Harding — Dido Harding, a former jockey and failed business consultant/corporate director — gave testimony to a Select Committee, the Commons Science and Technology Committee, led by Greg Clark MP (Tunbridge Wells, Con).

Wow. It was car-crash television on BBC Parliament.

Baroness Harding is, inexplicably, the director of NHS Test and Trace programme.

Greg Clark is no slouch. He pressed and pressed the same question. Did she not anticipate the increase of demand for tests after lockdown lifted?

Finally, she gave the answer.

The Independent reported:

Demand for coronavirus tests is three to four times the number available, the director of NHS test and trace has admitted.

Baroness Dido Harding, who told MPs there was capacity to carry out 242,817 tests a day, said the “sizeable” rise in demand had been unexpected.

Boris Johnson has pledged to raise capacity to 500,000 by next month – but Baroness Harding’s estimates suggest that even that figure would not be enough to satisfy demand.

Even then:

despite images of queues outside Covid-19 drive-in centres, the testing tsar said: “I strongly refute that the system is failing.”

She put the blame on SAGE …

Baroness Harding insisted current capacity had been based on modelling provided by the government’s Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (Sage) and suggested that around a quarter of those seeking tests did not have symptoms.

… and the testing laboratories:

Quizzed by the committee chair and former Tory minister Greg Clark on the current issues in the system, she said that the “constraint” in the testing was in processing and laboratories.

On Friday, Sir Jeremy Farrar, a SAGE member and director of the Wellcome Trust, hit back.

The Telegraph reported:

Sir Jeremy Farrar, the director of the Wellcome Trust, who sits on the Government’s Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies, said the body had given “clear advice” that a fully functioning test, track and trace system should be in place

Responding to her comments on social media, Sir Jeremy said he had personally warned that a growing testing crisis was looming.

“Interesting to be blaming Sage,” he wrote on Twitter. “Has been clear, and in the advice, that the UK faced an inevitable increase in community transmission and cases after the summer and needed a fully functional and trusted test, track and trace in place.”

Sir Jeremy posted his comments from a BBC interview with Andrew Marr in June, in which he warned of a “nasty rebound” if steps were not taken to improve testing. He also re-posted an article from May in which he warned that lifting restrictions was difficult even with a fully working testing programme in operation.

The testing crisis deepened on Friday when it emerged that children at four out of five schools are staying at home because they cannot get a test

This coronavirus business will only get worse. Watch and wait.

Part 2 concerns the Brexit-related Internal Market Bill.

This week was a bit of a barnstormer in the House of Commons: from Extinction Rebellion to coronavirus.

Last weekend, a man stabbed several people in Birmingham’s city centre, killing one. A stabbing also occurred in Lewisham (South London). On Monday morning, a shooting occurred in a small town in Suffolk.

Extinction Rebellion (XR) disrupted the distribution of most national newspapers’ weekend editions in England. They glued themselves to scaffolding outside some of the printing plants. Members of Extinction Rebellion also protested at a printing plant in Motherwell, Scotland. The Scottish protests were less severe.

Coronavirus testing has been problematic, with many people unable to find tests when they need them.

Big Christmas gatherings are likely to be cancelled because of new coronavirus legislation.

Grab yourself a cuppa and a sarnie. This week’s Parliamentary debates and reaction were compelling.

Monday, September 7

Kit Malthouse, the Minister for Crime and Policing, delivered a statement about the Birmingham stabbings and the Extinction Rebellion direct action. A debate followed.

An excerpt from Malthouse’s statement follows (emphases mine below):

On Friday night, Extinction Rebellion protesters used trucks and bamboo scaffolds to block roads outside the newsprinters works at Broxbourne, Hertfordshire and Knowsley, near Liverpool. These presses print The Sun, The Times, The Sun on Sunday and The Sunday Times, as well as The Daily Telegraph, The Sunday Telegraph, The Daily Mail, The Mail on Sunday and the London Evening Standard. The police reacted quickly on Friday night, arrested around 80 people nationally and worked throughout Saturday to clear the sites completely. In Broxbourne, approximately 100 protesters were reported in attendance. Assistance from neighbouring forces was required, with work long into the early hours to ease the disruption. Fifty one protesters were arrested for public nuisance and subsequently charged with obstruction of the highway. They were taken to three custody suites in Hertfordshire, Bedfordshire and London. Disruption concluded by midday on Saturday. All main roads remained open, including the nearby A10. However, there was disruption to the distribution of newspapers as well as for local businesses.

In Knowsley, a group of 30 protesters were reported in attendance alongside 10 observers, one legal adviser and one police liaison individual. Thirty protesters were arrested, with disruption concluding by 10.45 the next morning. These protesters were subsequently charged with aggravated trespass and bailed to appear before magistrates at a later date. Twenty four protesters also ​attended a print works in Motherwell, Lanarkshire in Scotland. In this instance there was no disruption caused and no arrests were made.

A free press is the cornerstone of a British society. The freedom to publish without fear or favour, to inform the public, to scrutinise our institutions and to stimulate debate on events that affect each and every one of us is indispensable. The actions of Extinction Rebellion were a direct challenge to this freedom and the values of liberty and tolerance that we hold dear. Extinction Rebellion claims to be an environmental campaign group, yet that worthy cause is undermined by its tactics. Its actions show that it is not interested in purely peaceful protest, dialogue and debate. Instead, it seeks to impose its view through this kind of direct action.

The right to peaceful protest is a fundamental tool of civic expression and will never be curtailed by the Government. Equally, it is unacceptable for groups such as XR to hide behind the guise of protest while committing criminal acts that prevent law-abiding citizens from going about their lives. All of us will remember the disruption caused last year as the group blocked roads and major transport routes. Police forces across the country were forced to divert resources away from tackling other crime in order to oversee those occupations. It is a terrible shame to see those counterproductive tactics revived in the midst of a pandemic, when we are only just recovering from the profound disruption of lockdown. Throughout the pandemic, our police officers have been on the streets every day working to keep the public safe and to stop the spread of coronavirus. In placing unnecessary pressure on our emergency services, the actions of the protesters are contemptuous not only of the police but of the public whom they seek to protect.

The irony is that the United Kingdom is already doing more to tackle climate change and decarbonise our economy than almost any other nation on earth. The UK is the first major economy to legislate to end our contribution to climate change by 2050. Since 2000, we have decarbonised our economy faster than any other G20 country. The Prime Minister has set up two Cabinet Committees focused on tackling climate change—one for strategy and another for implementation—discussing how Departments can go further and faster in meeting our legally binding 2050 net zero target. We are also hosting the next UN climate change conference, COP26, which will take place in November in Glasgow. It would be far more productive if, rather than plotting disruption and chaos, those behind Extinction Rebellion put their efforts into working with the Government to tackle climate change and build the green economy. While they persist in their current course, however, our message to those individuals is clear: if you plan to curtail our freedoms through criminal acts, be in no doubt that you will face the full force of the law. As a Government, we will not stand by and allow the livelihoods of hard-working people to be undermined by a minority using the pretence of tackling climate change to impose an extremist world view.

Extinction Rebellion’s actions have shown how the tactics of disruptive protests are changing. The Home Office has been engaging with police chiefs to understand the challenges they face and to assess how they can facilitate peaceful protest while not causing significant disruption and infringing on the rights of others with differing views. The Home Secretary and I are committed ​to learning the lessons of recent protests and ensuring that the police have the powers required to deal with the disruption caused by groups such as XR. I will keep the tools available to tackle this behaviour under constant review. As always, our thanks go to the police for their tireless efforts to respond to all manner of incidents, and particularly at this time when so many have worked so hard during the pandemic. I hope that the leaders of Extinction Rebellion will issue an apology to them for actions that have been roundly condemned by all mainstream opinion in our country.

By its actions this weekend, XR has done nothing to bolster the cause of fighting climate change. Rather, it has reminded us of the value of a free press and free expression and made us think about what more we may need to do to protect those freedoms. I commend this statement to the House.

Sarah Jones (Croydon Central), responding for Labour, gave an excellent speech. An excerpt follows:

all Members of the House will be deeply concerned about the wider rise in violent crime that we are seeing. As the former chair of the all-party parliamentary group on knife crime and violence reduction, I am all too aware of the seriousness of this issue. I know that West Midlands police, along with David Jamieson, the PCC, is taking this very seriously, and the violence reduction unit is doing some great preventive work in the west midlands. Does the Minister accept that over the past decade we have seen knife crime rise in every police force area in England and Wales, and ​that easing lockdown restrictions poses particular challenges? Does he further accept that rising violent crime must be urgently addressed?

Turning to the matter of Extinction Rebellion, I trust that the Minister will agree with me, rather than some members of his own party, in recognising that tackling climate change is the challenge of our generation. However, we also know that the free press is the cornerstone of democracy, and we must do all we can to protect it. As a result, actions that stop people being able to read what they choose are wrong. They will do nothing to tackle climate change. Those who break the law should be held to account. As the Leader of the Opposition said over the weekend, the actions of those who deliberately set out to break the law and stifle freedom of the press are completely unacceptable. Stopping people being able to buy the newspapers they choose and hitting small businesses in the process is hugely counterproductive. It does nothing to tackle the vital cause of tackling climate change. In fact, it sets it back.

On the policing response to the incidents, can the Minister confirm whether the authorities had any intelligence that these incidents might occur?

Today in the media, new laws have been mentioned by the Home Secretary. Can the Minister confirm what aspects of our current public order laws he believes are inadequate? Will he also confirm which aspects of the Coronavirus Act 2020 dealing with gatherings he believes leave gaps? Does he agree that we should not forget the many people who are concerned about climate change who wish to peacefully and lawfully protest, and that that right should be protected?

Malthouse did not answer her question about new legislation and said that the intelligence surrounding Extinction Rebellion’s actions at the printing plants was unclear.

Bob Stewart (Beckenham, Conservative) suggested giving the protesters fixed-penalty notices (fines). Malthouse said that, as those were new during the coronavirus pandemic, there aren’t enough data to measure their efficacy.

An SNP MP, Kenny MacAskill (East Lothian) downplayed the Extinction Rebellion incident. As SNP MPs always do, they think only of Scotland. If this doesn’t spell out the SNP’s sympathies with Marxism, I don’t know what does:

The … group perpetrated no violence—random or otherwise—nor is it a criminal gang, terrorist ​group or a deranged individual. Any attempt to portray those people as that is wrong and a dangerous precedent in a democracy. The actions carried out by Extinction Rebellion, both in Scotland and in England, were a peaceful protest. That should not be forgotten, and that remains legitimate. It is a group of young people, although not always entirely young, who care about the environment. That is a legitimate position to take. This action was not an attempt to close down free speech, and to suggest otherwise is disingenuous. All they were seeking to do was to disrupt the outgoing of print for a period of time. There was no cessation of the print being published. Indeed, it appeared online and at most delivery was delayed to some shops.

Malthouse replied:

I am sorry that the hon. Gentleman has positioned the SNP outside mainstream opinion. [Interruption.] Well, you’re all expressing consternation, and speaking, smiling and laughing. I do not know why me expressing concern is worthy of derision. In truth, the vast majority of people in this country, and all mainstream parties in this country, have expressed alarm at the tactics of Extinction Rebellion over the weekend and its stated aim of disrupting newspapers’ ability to distribute their views and opinions because they do not agree with them. One of the first things that happens in extremist states and takeovers is an attempt to grip the television station, the radio station or the newspapers. Control of information is key so we need to take care with these things. I hope he will agree with me in time.

Antony Higginbotham (Burnley, Conservative) expressed concern at the cost of the Extinction Rebellion protest:

The unacceptable actions of Extinction Rebellion show a consistent disregard for the lives and livelihoods that they disrupt. Does my hon. Friend believe we should hold Extinction Rebellion to account, not just for the significant public sector costs that rack up with the action it undertakes, but for the significant lost income that businesses across the country have suffered as a result?

Malthouse said:

My hon. Friend raises a very important point. He is right that these protests are not costless. Aside from the costs to the businesses affected, there is a large overtime bill to be covered. Of all the costs, the most profound and alarming is the opportunity cost; those police officers who are spending time ungluing protesters and dismantling scaffolding are not spending time preventing knife crime, murder, rape or domestic violence. There are other much more vital activities that could be performed in the communities they serve.

Anthony Browne (South Cambridgshire, Conservative) pointed out that freer countries have fewer environmental issues:

I am a journalist and an environmentalist. I used to be environment editor of The Observer and The Times. I am currently chair of the all-party parliamentary group on the environment, and I have seen around the world that those countries that have a free press are far better at tackling environmental problems than those countries without a free press. Will my hon. Friend join me in condemning Extinction Rebellion’s assault on the free press, and does he agree that such attacks on free speech will ultimately do more harm to the environmental cause than help it?

Malthouse responded:

I completely agree with my hon. Friend. Of course, the paradox, or even the tragedy, of the protests is that I understand that the edition of The Sun that was prevented from being distributed contained an op-ed from David Attenborough—no less—extolling the virtues of climate change action and urging Sun readers to do their bit on global warming. Ten years ago, nobody would have dreamt of that opinion appearing ​in that newspaper, and it shows how far the argument has been advanced by peaceful means. This protest runs the risk of setting the debate back rather than moving it forward.

Dr Julian Lewis, who is now Independent (having had the Conservative whip removed), pointed out the contradiction of fining anti-lockdown spokesman Piers Corbyn £10,000 when XR were free to glue themselves to scaffolding with no fine:

It is true that various brands of Corbynism are a little less popular these days, but does my hon. Friend agree that fining a climate change denier £10,000 for an anti-lockdown protest sets a benchmark which should equally apply to those who break the law in pursuit of more fashionable causes?

Malthouse replied:

As the right hon. Gentleman may know, a number of fixed penalty fines have been handed out over the past few days for all manner of contraventions of the coronavirus regulations. No doubt some may be disputed, but we shall see in the end where the courts decide.

The SNP’s Patricia Gibson (North Ayrshire and Arran) asked if XR would be reclassified as a criminal group:

Does the Minister understand the genuine concerns about any plans to reclassify Extinction Rebellion as a ​criminal group and the implications that this may have for peaceful protest, especially given that last year the Prime Minister’s own father addressed an Extinction Rebellion rally and said that he backed their methods?

Malthouse said that such groups are being watched and are under review.

Richard Burgon (Leeds East, Labour) claimed that direct action was part of democracy:

Direct action is a proud part of our history and democracy. Through it, the Chartists and suffragettes helped secure the right to vote and trade unions won the eight-hour working day and paid holidays, and it played a key part in securing legislation for gay rights and for women’s and racial equality. If pursued, would not the Home Secretary’s suggestion of defining Extinction Rebellion as a criminal gang be a betrayal of our proud tradition of civil liberties?

Malthouse said:

Direct action is not the same thing as a crime. If the hon. Gentleman is saying that there are certain crimes that he wishes to ignore, then I am afraid the Opposition are in a very difficult place. I am the Minister for policing and crime, and when, under our current law as approved through this House, somebody commits a crime, I have no choice other than to condemn it.

Lee Anderson (Ashfield, Conservative) would like for XR to be designated a criminal organisation:

The people of Ashfield see no benefit in protesters gluing their ears to the pavement, spraying red dye on our monuments or camping out in trees on Parliament Square. Extinction Rebellion is now public nuisance No. 1 because of the disruption it causes, as well as the massive cost to our emergency services when, frankly, they have better things to do. Does my hon. Friend agree that this group should be ​classified as a crime group and feel the full weight of the law if it continues to disrupt members of the public going about their daily business?

Malthouse repeated his earlier answer about such groups being under continuing review.

Martyn Day (Linlithgow and East Falkirk, SNP) did not want to see XR labelled as a criminal organisation:

Whatever we think about Extinction Rebellion’s tactics, be they right or wrong, its actions were peaceful, and such civil disobedience methods have been used throughout history, so any branding of the activists as criminals is certainly not acceptable. Does not the Minister agree that two wrongs do not make a right?

Malthouse gave this wise reply:

Not all crimes are violent.

Only one MP dared to connect Marxism with XR — Imran Ahmad Khan (Wakefield, Conservative). Well done:

It is with regret that, since Extinction Rebellion’s inception, we have witnessed it adopt increasingly radical measures, which masquerade upon an environmentalist platform. In truth, it is a considered ruse to gain support for its ​Marxist agenda, which attacks British values predicated on freedom and pluralism. Blocking ambulances and seeking to constrain press freedom are but two examples from a plethora of behaviours that demonstrate its devious agenda.

Her Majesty’s Government were elected with a mighty mandate from the British people to restore their ancient rights and freedoms, whether threatened from Brussels or from the barricade. The fine people of my constituency of Wakefield expect us to deliver on that. Will the Minister outline what steps the Government will take to neutralise XR’s disruptive and dangerous tactics?

Malthouse replied:

I am grateful for my hon. Friend’s stentorian support. He is quite right that people want to see a sense of order in this country, and that is exactly what we will put in place and what we are beavering away to make happen across the country—in his constituency and elsewhere.

I certainly hope so.

Tuesday, September 8

Matt Hancock, Secretary of State for Health and Social Care, gave a statement updating MPs on coronavirus and the situation in Bolton. New laws, he said, would apply only to Bolton.

He was economical with the truth …

Wednesday, September 9

On Wednesday morning, Steve Baker (Wycombe, Conservative), tweeted:

No one raised this topic at Prime Minister’s Questions (PMQs).

Meanwhile, Matt Hancock gave a morning interview (more here):

What does that even mean?

He explained his change of advice on testing to Sky News:

More on this follows below.

It was National Farmers Day, and many MPs wore ears of British wheat tied together with British wool. Labour’s Angela Rayner wasn’t the slightest bit interested:

Most of PMQs was about testing. Prime Minister Boris Johnson made this startling statement about daily coronavirus testing at home:

Just after PMQs, as Boris hurriedly scuttled out of the chamber, Sir Desmond Swayne (New Forest West, Conservative) raised a point of order about the coronavirus legislation.

I wonder if Boris knew about it in advance and got out of there as quickly as he could:

On a point of order, Mr Speaker. Had the Secretary of State for Health given notice of the Government’s intention to further restrict our liberty to meet with one another in his statement yesterday, at least some of us would have been able to question him about it. What remedy is there for those of us who enthusiastically support the Prime Minister, but nevertheless want to restrain the Government’s ability to govern by order without debate?

Speaker of the House Sir Lindsay Hoyle replied:

I thank the right hon. Member for giving me notice. I am very sympathetic to the main point he makes. I accept that decisions have been taken in a fast-moving situation, but timings for statements are known to Ministers. It is really not good enough for the Government to make decisions of this kind in a way that shows insufficient regard to the importance of major policy announcements being made first to this House and to Members of this House wherever possible. I have already sent a letter to the Secretary of State. I think the total disregard for this Chamber is not acceptable. I know that the Prime Minister is a Member of Parliament as well and that he will ensure that statements should be made here first, especially as this particular Secretary of State requests statements. To then ignore the major fact that he wanted to put to the country, and not put it before this House, is not acceptable and I hope he will apologise to Members.

Jonathan Ashworth (Leicester South, Labour Co-op) had more information:

Further to that point of order, Mr Speaker. Not only did we not get a convincing explanation yesterday from the Secretary of State on the ongoing testing fiasco, but in fact Mr Robert Peston of ITV wrote on Twitter, ahead of the Secretary of State’s statement, that the Government were planning to shift the regulations down from 30 people to six. There was no reason why the Secretary of State could not have told the House yesterday that that was the Government’s plan. Has the Secretary of State given you, Mr Speaker, notice that he is coming to the House to update MPs on that change in policy, or should we assume that Ministers do not know what they are doing from one day to the next?

Peston had tweeted this on Tuesday:

The Speaker was uncharacteristically incandescent:

What I would take on board is the fact that it was all over Twitter as this was going on. Obviously, somebody decided to tell the media rather than this House. What I would say is that I expect the Secretary of State to apologise to Members and make sure that this Chamber knows first. He was fully aware—fully aware—of what was going to be said later. Let me say that if this Minister wants to run this Chamber ragged, I can assure you now that I am sure an urgent question every day might just begin to run him ragged.

At 4 p.m., Boris gave a coronavirus press conference, announcing new coronavirus ‘marshals’ who will be appearing on our streets as of next week — so, not only in Bolton:

I agree 110% with this tweet:

Thursday, September 10

Leader of the House Jacob Rees-Mogg was unable to deliver his customary business statement to the Commons. One of his children developed coronavirus symptoms. Stuart Andrew, the Acting Leader, stood in for him:

Matt Hancock showed up to make a statement on new coronavirus regulations. He was taken to task over his confusing advice about getting a test. Earlier this year, he encouraged people to get tested. Now, with the system overwhelmed, he’s backtracked:

Guido Fawkes has quotes from Hancock documenting his about-face on the matter and concludes (emphases in the original):

Was Hancock’s advice wrong then or is it wrong now? The public will be getting pretty sick of the Department of Health’s cock-ups being the responsibility of anyone other than Hancock.

UPDATE: A government source tells Guido “The guidance is clear. If you think you have symptoms you should get a test. Today’s message is no different to that.” Apparently people in doubt about whether they have symptoms should still get a test…

Simon Dolan, a businessman who is taking the Government to court over lockdown, tweeted:

The Speaker of the House introduced the debate:

Before I call the Secretary of State, I would like to say that he and I had a conversation in a meeting last night, and I think we have some new arrangements coming forward to help the House.

That means that Hancock will be obliged to show up to present these developments to the House for debate in future.

He’s so disingenuous:

Thank you very much, Mr Speaker. Just to concur with what you have said, I do regard it as incredibly important to come to the House as often as possible. Sometimes these are fast-moving situations, and I will ensure that I give the House my full attention and, as I try to do, answer as many questions as fully as I can.

Excerpts follow:

… As the chief medical officer said yesterday, we must learn from the recent experience of countries such as Belgium that have successfully put in place measures to combat a similar rise in infections. So today, I would like to update the House on a number of new measures that will help us to get this virus under control and to make the rules clearer, simpler and more enforceable.

First, we are putting in place new rules on social contact … In England, from Monday, we are introducing the rule of six. Nobody should meet socially in groups of more than six, and if they do, they will be breaking the law. This will apply in any setting—indoors or outdoors, at home or in the pub. It replaces both the existing ban on gatherings of more than 30 and the current guidance on allowing two households to meet indoors.

There will be some exemptions. For example, if a single household or support bubble is larger than six, they can still gather.

Guido Fawkes was no doubt relieved:

Hancock continued:

Places of education and work are unaffected. Covid-secure weddings, wedding receptions and funerals can go ahead up to a limit of 30 people. Organised sport and exercise is exempt.

These are not measures that we take lightly. I understand that for many they will mean changing long-awaited plans or missing out on precious moments with loved ones, but this sacrifice is vital to control the virus for the long term and save lives, and I vow that we will not keep these rules in place for any longer than we have to.

Secondly, we are putting in place stronger enforcement. Hospitality venues will be legally required to request the contact details of every party. They will have to record and retain those details for 21 days and provide them to NHS Test and Trace without delay when required. This system is working well voluntarily, with minimal friction, and it is very effective, but it is not in place in all venues. It is only fair that it is followed by all. We are supporting ​local authorities to make greater use of their powers to close venues that are breaking rules and pose a risk to public health, and fines will be levied against hospitality venues that fail to ensure their premises are covid-secure.

Our goal, as much as possible, is to protect keeping schools and businesses open, while controlling the virus …

Our ability to test and trace on a large scale is fundamental to controlling the virus, as we have discussed in the House many times. The latest data show that we are doing more testing per head than other European countries such as Germany and Spain, and we have record capacity. We have increased capacity by more than 10,000 tests a day over the last fortnight. While there have been challenges in access to tests, the vast majority of people get their tests rapidly and close to home. The average distance travelled to a test site is 6.4 miles, and 90% of people who book a test travel 22 miles or less. We already have more than 400 testing sites in operation. We added 19 last week and plan 17 more this week.

However, as capacity has increased, we have seen an even faster rise in demand, including a significant increase from people who do not have symptoms and are not eligible for a test. That takes tests away from people who need them. If you have symptoms of coronavirus or are asked by a clinician or local authority to get a test, please apply, but if you do not have symptoms and have not been asked, you are not eligible for a test.

At the same time, we are developing new types of test that are simple, quick and scalable. They use swabs or saliva and can be turned round in 90 minutes or even 20 minutes. So-called Operation Moonshot, to deploy mass testing, will allow people to lead more normal lives and reduce the need for social distancing. For instance, it could mean that theatres and sports venues could test audience members on the day and let in those with a negative result, workplaces could be opened up to all those who test negative that morning, and anyone isolating because they are a contact or quarantining after travelling abroad could be tested and released. We are piloting that approach right now and verifying the new technology, and then it can be rolled out nationwide. [Laughter.] …

This will not meet well with a great swathe of people living in England (see the replies):

Simon Dolan tweeted:

Incidentally, the wait until Monday is partly because the St Leger Festival is being run through this weekend:

As the debate progressed, MPs from both sides of the House said that their constitutents were told to drive hundreds of miles away for tests. Here are two examples:

Rosie Cooper (West Lancashire) (Lab)

Will the Secretary of State please explain the lack of availability of home testing kits, which has dropped dramatically in my area of West Lancashire? In the absence of home testing kits, very ill pensioners are being offered tests 80 or 100 miles away. The confusing message in the assurance that he is trying to give is that there are too many getting tested, but that, if in doubt, people should get tested. How does that deal with the asymptomatic carriers or spreaders? This is a huge hidden danger. In the light of the Secretary of State’s earlier comment, my constituents would genuinely love to get with the programme, get tested where necessary and stay safe—if only the Government’s words met their actual experience of the system.

Lucy Allan (Telford) (Con)

I thank my right hon. Friend for his statement and very much welcome the exciting progress on developing saliva testing. Outstanding progress has already been made on expanding testing capacity, and he deserves our thanks for his tireless work. Inevitably, this is not without its challenges. On Tuesday evening, hundreds of cars from across the country—and I do mean hundreds—descended on Telford’s testing site, as they were directed to do by the booking system. Tests quickly ran out, roads became blocked, people who had travelled from as far away as Cornwall, Stockport and London were turned away, and my constituents were no longer able to access tests in the area and so in turn were sent elsewhere. What assurances can he give that the error in the booking system that directed so many people to Telford has now been corrected, and does he agree that people should not be criss-crossing the country and travelling for many hours to secure a test?

Harriet Baldwin (West Worcestershire, Conservative) asked about the infringement on civil liberties and whether the Government were moving the goalposts. I won’t bother with Hancock’s response, because he did not answer her question. He merely repeated the same old waffle:

We accepted massive restrictions on our liberty in March because we wanted to protect the NHS from being overwhelmed, and we achieved that—indeed, not all the capacity was used. We are now imposing more restrictions on people’s liberty. Does the Secretary of State’s strategic goal for England continue to be to protect the NHS from being overwhelmed, or has he now gone further and is aiming for zero covid in England?

Friday, September 11

Unusually, the House of Commons convened on a Friday.

The Speaker of the House opened the session with this:

We meet today on the 19th anniversary of 9/11. We remember all those who lost their lives due to terrorism on that day and all those who were injured, as well as those who were bereaved.

Then, Sir Christopher Chope (Christchurch, Conservative) spoke, concerned about the new coronavirus rules coming in on Monday, September 14:

On a point of order, Mr Speaker. I have been looking at today’s Order Paper and particularly at the remaining orders, where I had expected to see the statutory instrument that the Government must lay for the draconian new rules they are bringing in on Monday to be lawful. It does not appear to have been laid, despite the Prime Minister making an announcement about it on Wednesday and the Secretary of State for Health and Social Care having made a statement yesterday. I am very concerned about the lack of opportunity for the public to see the text of these new regulations and about the Government’s continuing reluctance to give any opportunity to Members to debate this. Yesterday, my right hon. Friend the Member for New Forest West (Sir Desmond Swayne) asked when we could have a debate on it, and he was told that he could apply for a Backbench Business debate. That hardly fits in with the sense of urgency about all this. When my hon. Friend the Member for Altrincham and Sale West (Sir Graham Brady) then raised the matter with the Secretary of State yesterday, he was told that the Secretary of State would take it away and think about it. That is not satisfactory, as we are talking about the most draconian introduction of new restrictions on our liberty, with criminal sanctions. We need to be aware of what is happening and given the opportunity to debate it.

Mr Speaker replied:

May I say that I share your disappointment? I think that we should all be informed and the country should also know what is going on. The laying of this instrument is a matter for the Government, but I would say that you know and I know that other avenues could be taken on Monday to tickle this little item out, if required. So I will leave it with you to ponder what you want to do next. The Clerk has made a note, and we will come back with further information.

MPs debated the Co-operative and Community Benefit Societies (Environmentally Sustainable Investment) Bill.

Earlier that morning, Steve Baker was a guest on BBC Radio 4’s Today. He spoke his mind about the Government’s response to coronavirus:

Baker retweeted an item from Liberty’s feed:

Good. Finally. I hope this results in a solid Left-Right grouping of credible people speaking out against this bill, hastily rushed through the Commons and the Lords in March.

Meanwhile, in Sweden:

Sweden continues to operate fairly normally. The British Government, on the other hand, follows the rest of the Western lemmings.

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