The Health Secretary has answered some common questions people ask.
- Why aren’t more people tested for the virus? Apparently the tests are not accurate until someone has visible symptoms.
- Why aren’t the schools closed? Young people are the least likely to develop bad symptoms from the epidemic. To keep the NHS and other essential services functioning well it is important parents can go to work.
- Why are people allowed into the country from places abroad with the infection? Many of the travellers are UK citizens returning home. It is difficult to stop people coming to the UK, given the large number of different ways and routes they can use, short of a complete ban on all travel which would be very disruptive.
DAY BEFORE DURING BUDGET DEBATE
It is a great pleasure, for the first time in about five years, for me to be able to welcome the actions of the Bank of England today. It is a pleasure to see the Bank of England and the Treasury co-ordinating their work, and doing things that are massively in the public interest. For the past five years, it has been my miserable task to be the one voice in this House pointing out that the Bank of England has consistently got its economic forecasts wrong and that it had made a number of very bad decisions. I have been particularly critical of the way it decided to tighten monetary policy and slow the economy from spring 2017 onwards, culminating in the very ill-judged decision it made at the end of last year to increase the counter-cyclical capital buffers, which meant denying loans to businesses that wanted to expand or to solvent people who wanted to buy a new car or a new home. It was a very bad policy and it is wonderful news today that the Bank of England, with its new Governor, has started off on a much better basis and has cancelled those counter-cyclical buffers. It is the single biggest amount of money we are talking about in this debate. As the Bank of England itself calculates, it means up to £190 billion more is now available for good projects, for business requirements and for individuals who want to borrow for big ticket items. Of course, banks must still be prudent and sensible in the way they advance that money, but the previous controls were too tight. Against the background of world downturn, it is very important that that firepower is made available.
Just to reinforce the position and to deal with the special problems that the virus is now likely to create, the Bank of England also put forward a new medium-term lending scheme for the banks, so they can get access to large sums of money—up to £100 billion in total—at the new very low rate of 0.25% to lend on to medium and small-sized enterprises. Again, that was something I was very keen for it to put forward. I am delighted that it has returned to this idea. It is much needed, I fear, because we already see the virus having a very negative impact on certain businesses, most obviously in aviation and other transport, but now also in events and some other tourism-related activities where we see the pinch already being established by the virus. If, as we fear, it spreads more, that is going to get rather worse, so I welcome the double set of actions by the Bank of England. I am not sure that 50 basis points off the interest rate makes very much difference. It is not something I would have done myself, but I can see that it was well intentioned and it sends a very clear signal that borrowing should not only be available but cheap in these very extraordinary times.