Peter Aldous backs the Coronavirus Bill as necessary to tackle the disease and highlights the role the voluntary sector, in particular St John Ambulance, can do in support of the NHS. He also cautions against unintended consequences, in particular in respect of the disabled and the vulnerable and the impact of lockdown conditions.
I think it is important to recognise what the Government have done so far. They have produced a 321-page Bill at very short notice. There is no template for this; they have moved very quickly. They have listened to concerns from all around this Chamber, and they are leaving no stone unturned in minimising the impact of coronavirus on both the British people and their businesses. There is still work to be done to address the needs of the self-employed and to ensure that our world-leading charitable sectors can be sustained, but we need to get this Bill on the statute book as soon as possible. The brief comments I will make are intended to seek reassurance, not to thwart.
In order to beat this virus, our statutory services need all the help and support possible from the voluntary sector. As a former member of the St John Ambulance Suffolk county board, I would like to highlight the work that St John can do working alongside the NHS. There are 15,000 St John volunteers, of whom 8,500 are clinically trained. They can provide ambulances, first aiders in emergency departments and support for the homeless with outreach clinics. However, to make full use of their services, St John volunteers need access to paid leave, ready access to emergency volunteering certificates, as required by schedule 6 to the Bill, and inclusion within the definition of key workers so that the children of St John volunteers can attend school.
This Bill has the very best of intentions, but the Government must guard against unintended consequences. Many groups are worried that the disabled and the vulnerable will be disadvantaged, and left both without essential support and any right to request that support. This could put lives at risk. There are concerns about possible delays in carrying out assessments for the eligibility of NHS continuing care, and that local education authorities may suspend a child’s education, health and care plan. Reassurances from the Government on these two points would be welcome, and funds must be provided for, not diverted from, this vital work.
A final unintended consequence, based on the evidence from China, is that lockdown conditions created by the pandemic could lead to a significant increase in the number of victims of domestic abuse. SafeLives has set out a number of actions that the Government can take to prevent this, and I urge them to give these full and very serious consideration.
We must not dither and delay—we must get on and enact this Bill—but in doing so we should continue to seek to build consensus and to guard against unintended consequences.
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