The Lord Bishop of Leeds: (The Rt Rev Nicholas Baines) My Lords, regardless of matters of hindsight, does the Minister agree that prolonging the restrictions might be justified for certain reasons? I do not demur from that, but the prolonging of inconsistencies is a serious impediment to public adherence to the rules. You do not have to look very far to see where the discipline broke down a long time ago. For example—this is not special pleading; it is just at the forefront of my mind—you can sing in a pub but not in a church. This is what brings the rules into disrepute, and therefore people do not agree with them.
Secondly, can the Minister say something in response to Michael Gove’s reported comments about acceptable death rates? We have learned to live with acceptable death rates from flu and other seasonal diseases. Will the Government do some work on what might be an acceptable death rate from Covid in future and be up-front with the country as to what that might be? I think we can take it.
Lord Bethell (Con): I hear loud and clear the frustration of many noble Lords on the question of singing in churches; it is enormously frustrating to those who have a passion for singing. But I would be pretending to be other than I am if I did not level with the right reverend Prelate and say that this is an airborne, aerosol disease. It is breathed into buildings at huge risk to those inside, and there is a direct correlation between infection rates, that aerosol and that kind of singing. The decision has been made with huge regret and not without a huge amount of scientific analysis, and those who have made their case have been heard loud and clear—but we have to fight this virus and prevent people getting sick.
I do not accept the right reverend Prelate’s view that discipline has broken down. Quite the opposite: I am astounded by the British public and their adherence to voluntary guidelines and arrangements. I pay tribute to the British public, and I do not think that the right reverend Prelate does any favours when he suggests that discipline has broken down.
Lastly, I really do not accept the concept of an acceptable death rate. That is not how we play the health system in this country. We are here to save lives; that is our priority. There is a balance between the economy, freedom and lives, but as a Health Minister my starting point is to save lives.
Lord Cormack (Con): My Lords, my noble friend will not be surprised if I ask him whether he can guarantee that, by 19 July, all care home workers will have been vaccinated. But could he also answer this question? Why is he allowed to go down to his local pub and sing “Roll Out the Barrel” but he cannot go into his local church and sing “Guide Me, O Thou Great Redeemer”?
Lord Bethell (Con): I completely accept the challenge. These anomalies exist and he is entirely right to beat up the Minister for this kind of stuff. It is unbelievably difficult to write guidelines that touch so many different parts of life, and I would not pretend for a moment that there is 100% consistency in everything that is done. But I have made the point emphatically: these things are done to save lives and protect people from infection. They are done with a heavy heart, having looked at the scientific evidence, with a sense of regret that we are letting down those with a passion for singing and religious worship, and in the hope that we can get rid of them very soon. We are taking concrete steps as quickly as we can to deliver the vaccines. In terms of care homes, as he knows, there is a consultation in process and that consultation is working its way through.