Yesterday the Petitions Committee held an evidence session with Ministers and advisers to put your questions on Coronavirus to them.

We held the session via video conference for the first time and a video is available to watch here:

Our witnesses were Deputy Chief Medical Officer for England Dr Jenny Harries OBE, Minister of State for School Standards Rt Hon Nick Gibb MP, and Justin Tomlinson MP – Minister for Disabled People, Health and Work.

The key areas we covered were support for the self-employed, protection for our frontline staff, education provision, and testing capacity.

I also pushed them on the need for government to be clearer so that people are not left confused and anxious working out what the best thing to do is.

Here is a summary of the key questions and the answers we received below.


Why is the UK not testing as much as other countries?

  • Different countries are reporting testing in different ways and it will be some time before we know which measures are successful.
  • The government’s modelling shows that countries which suppress hard early on could end up with a second peak of the virus when restrictions are lifted.
  • In the NHS, testing capacity is being increased, for those needing care in hospital and frontline NHS staff.
  • A second phase of testing is currently being evaluated to ensure it works and those tests will be to measure whether someone has had the virus. These will give us a better idea of how the virus is spreading.
  • In 2 to 3 weeks we should know if the social distancing measures we are all following have worked in flattening the curve so that the NHS can cope


Are people safe going out to work if they cannot work from home? Can they use public transport?

  • The advice the government are giving is that where people can work from home they should do.
  • Where it is absolutely not possible to work from home, people can go to work so long as safety measures have been put in place such as working at least 2 metres apart from others. This may be easier to do if some colleagues are working from home, leaving space for others to spread out
  • There are some businesses the government has instructed to close such as pubs, restaurants, gyms, theatres etc. The full list is available here.
  • The government adviser said their modelling shows that the biggest impact comes from everyone reducing their overall social interaction with people outside of their household as much as possible


Can people go out to parks and public spaces to exercise?

  • It is important for people’s physical and mental health to be able to get out for fresh air and exercise and some people do not have access to private garden space to do that
  • In order to reduce social interaction it is advisable that people are able to go out near their home, for a walk or a run, as long as they are keeping a safe distance from people outside of their household
  • People accumulating in groups in parks and at the beach is dangerous but taking fresh air and exercise in a park near your house is not as long as you’re keeping a safe distance from others


What progress has been made toward a vaccine?

  • The call went out earlier on and funding has been provided to support international efforts to develop a vaccine and this is underway.
  • The reality of developing vaccines, checking they work, and making sure they are safe and don’t have any other negative side effects is a complex task. The absolute minimum it is going to take is 12 months but it will more likely be 18 to 24 months.


What support is the government putting in place for the self employed?

This is a crucial area where we have been pushing the government to act. The Chancellor is expected to make an announcement on this in today’s press conference from Downing Street so tune in for that. Yesterday we pushed the DWP Minister on particular issues people have raised.

  • The Minister advised it was unlikely Statutory Sick Pay would be extended to the self-employed because this is something paid by employers to employees.
  • We pushed him on the rate of SSP and how it is inadequate to meet the basic costs of living for a lot of people.
  • We also asked about those on zero hours contracts and were advised that changes have been made to Universal Credit to make it easier for people to access this based on their average earnings over a number of weeks.
  • On Universal Credit, advanced payments can be made in the first instance for those who cannot wait for 5 weeks.
  • We now need to see if the announcements the Chancellor makes later are adequate for the self-employed people who need support right now.


How will exams and grades be affected?

  • There will be no exams at Primary or Secondary and no performance tables
  • Grades for A levels and GCSEs will be based on teacher assessment, predicted grades, coursework marks, and prior attainment at the school
  • Effort is being taken to ensure it is fair and comparable to previous year groups who did take exams


What measures are in place to protect teachers?

  • As a result of the measures there are significantly fewer pupils attending schools and so social distancing in schools is easier to achieve.
  • Guidance has been circulated to schools on social distancing including teachers being at least 2 metres away from pupils and pupils from each other


How long will schools be closed?

  • This will be based on the science and what the modelling says will be the most effective step
  • The medical adviser said schools were closed because it’s another opportunity for social interaction and not because schools are a hotbed of transmission, otherwise they would have been closed earlier
  • The modelling predicts it will be most effective over a longer period of time
  • They couldn’t provide a precise date but it will be based on how the spread of the virus happens over time


Will there be support in place for parents having to home school?

  • Schools are giving children work to do from home
  • Government are working with the BBC to see what help they can provide with educational resources
  • Schools are receiving guidance on how they use can resources provided by businesses and online sources


Is there enough personal protective equipment (PPE) for those most at risk on the frontline?

  • Key sectors such as police, prison staff etc have received guidance on PPE
  • Government have issued guidance to sectors such as social care where there is that close working relationship with people
  • They told us that most people do not need a significant amount of PPE to remain safe
  • Government are working to get the information across to staff in a clearer way about protection needs
  • The Deputy Chief Medical Officer said she believes we have sufficient PPE across the country to manage all our needs, based on the UK’s prior planning for respiratory virus pandemics
  • There have been some challenges getting the equipment to the right places where demand is highest. A new system is now in place to order PPE and the army are helping to distribute it to the right places at the right time