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Peers say they are struggling to get answers from government on Covid-19 (Credit:PA)

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Peers claim they are unable to hold the government to account over the coronavirus pandemic because ministers have been ignoring their questions for months.

One opposition member in the House of Lords told PoliticsHome “the idea of active scrutiny is nonsense, we are simply not getting the information”, as records show the government has failed to answer more than 70 written health questions in the last five months. 

Former Labour minister and ex-Lords chief whip Steve Bassam said he had waited weeks for the answers to several questions, before being presented with a “round robin” letter sent to several peers before the start of the summer recess. 

“I can see that’s a very convenient thing for a minister to do, but it does somewhat defeat the object of a written question,” he said. 

“Written questions are very much in the public domain and easily accessible and a letter in the House of Lords library is not a readily accessible document.

“I’ve concluded that government ministers are using this approach as a way of avoiding the directness of questions.  It seems to be part of a pattern and it’s not good enough.”

Lord Bassam, who served as a government Home Office spokesman under former prime minister Tony Blair, added: “I had to sign off plenty of written questions as a minister, and they were not always easy or convenient questions – but we still had to answer them.

“My questions were all perfectly reasonable, to do with testing statistics and turnaround times which are very much in the public interest. 

“This is a matter of high public concern and if MPs and peers aren’t able to ask questions about Covid policy, we are not able to do our jobs properly.”

It comes after parliamentary databases revealed dozens of MPs’ questions had also gone unanswered, including some submitted by shadow health secretary Jonathan Ashworth and Lib Dem health spokesperson Munira Wilson.

Among them were requests for the timeframe for data sharing on positive Covid-19 tests between GPs, local councils and NHS trusts; how many people have been offered tests more than 75 miles from their homes and how many NHS trusts are offering antibody tests for staff.

“It took three attempts a few days ago to get a straight answer on whether domiciliary carers are being provided with PPE,” another Labour peer said.

“And it’s not just Labour, it’s questions from Lords from all political parties and crossbenchers.

“It’s as if ministers go into some kind of mantra, repeating the lines on how they’ve done squillions of tests when a totally different question has been asked. 

“And if they get stuck because they can’t actually answer the question, it moves on to how hard everyone is working, which seems to be the fallback.

“Nobody is disputing that – we’re all working hard – we just want the answers to the questions we have asked.”

Commons speaker Lindsay Hoyle reminded ministers earlier this week that they had “a responsibility” to provide MPs with information in good time. 

“It does not help the department, it does not help MPs to represent their constituents,” he said.

“Members matter, MPs are elected and I expect those responses early, not at their convenience.”

A spokesperson for the Department of Health and Social Care said: “We have an exemplary record of providing accurate and timely answers to written parliamentary questions and correspondence from MPs as we take parliamentary scrutiny very seriously.

“During the COVID-19 pandemic we have received an unprecedented number of written parliamentary questions and correspondence from MPs and have responded to thousands of parliamentary questions and letters.

“We continue to work hard to ensure that members’ written parliamentary questions and letters are answered as a priority.”

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Sports Stars, Actors And “High-Value” Business Travellers Returning To England Will No Longer Have To Self-Isolate

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From Saturday certain business travellers will no longer have to self-isolate when they arrive back into England (PA)

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Grant Shapps has revealed “high-value” business travellers are part of a new group of people who will not have to quarantine when they return to England after traveling to countries outside of coronavirus travel corridors.

The transport secretary said recently signed sports stars, performing arts professionals, TV production staff and journalists will also be exempt from the 14-day self-isolation period even if they have visited a destination where people are required to quarantine on return.

The move, which will come into force from 4am on Saturday, was recommended by the Government’s Global Travel Taskforce, which warned that business travel would be particularly slow to recover. 

Announcing the news on Twitter, Mr Shapps wrote: “New Business Traveller exemption: From 4am on Sat 5th Dec high-value business travellers will no longer need to self-isolate when returning to ENGLAND from a country NOT in a travel corridor, allowing more travel to support the economy and jobs. Conditions apply.

“From 4am on Sat 5th Dec certain performing arts professionals, TV production staff, journalists and recently signed elite sportspersons will also be exempt, subject to specific criteria being met.”

The news follows the government’s ‘Test to Release’ plan to cut the 14-day quarantine period to five days .

It means anyone arriving in the UK from a high-risk destination after 15 December will be able to leave isolation if they pay for a Covid-19 test after the fifth day and it comes back negative.

But as most inbound business travellers spend fewer than three days here that policy was unlikely to help revive this type of travel, which accounted for 22% of inbound visits a year before the pandemic, and contributed £4.5billion to the UK economy.

The department for transport has also revealed a “high-value” business trip must be one that “creates or preserves 50+ UK jobs”, but further guidance will be revealed before the plan comes into force.

In a statement it said: “Public Health England do not anticipate these changes will raise the risk of domestic transmission, due to the protocols being put in place around these exemptions, however all exemptions will remain under review.”

Mr Shapps also confirmed this evening that no destinations have been added or removed from the UK’s existing travel corridors list.

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Covid: Are countries under pressure to approve a vaccine?

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The claim that Brexit allowed the UK to approve the vaccine faster than other European countries has been disproved but it does reflect once again a different path Britain is taking. All EU countries have the option to follow the UK example and let their domestic drug regulator issue emergency approval, but the bloc says it wants to wait for the European Medicines Agency to give the green light on all their behalf. Germany, backed by Denmark and others, believes this maximises safety, allows a co-ordinated rollout, boosts public trust in the vaccine and ensures no country is left behind.

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US bill that could remove Chinese firms from stock exchanges is now on Trump’s desk

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The House of Representatives on Wednesday passed a bill that would prevent companies that refuse to open their books to US accounting regulators from trading on US stock exchanges. The legislation won unanimous backing in the Senate earlier this year, meaning it only needs President Donald Trump’s signature to become law.

The bill would apply to any foreign company, but the focus on China is obvious. Beijing has resisted such scrutiny. It requires companies that are traded overseas to hold their audit papers in mainland China, where they cannot be examined by foreign agencies. All US-listed public companies would also be required to disclose whether they are owned or controlled by a foreign government, including China’s Communist party.

“US policy is letting China flout rules that American companies play by, and it’s dangerous,” Senator John Neely Kennedy said in a statement after the House vote.
The legislation would give Trump yet another way to put pressure on China before he leaves office in January. Washington has been ratcheting up its fight with Beijing this year as the two countries blame each other for starting and mishandling the coronavirus pandemic and clash over Hong Kong and alleged human rights abuses in Xinjiang. The Trump administration has targeted TikTok and forced Huawei into a fight for survival, and banned Americans from investing in some Chinese firms.
Several Chinese companies have been preparing contingency plans in light of the heightened scrutiny from the United States. Earlier this year, gaming company NetEase (NTES) and e-commerce firm (JD), both of which trade in New York, acknowledged the tensions as they announced secondary listings on the Hong Kong stock exchange. Other companies that could be affected include Alibaba (BABA) and China Telecom (CHA).

“Enactment of any of such legislations or other efforts to increase US regulatory access to audit information could cause investor uncertainty for affected issuers, including us, the market price of our [US shares] could be adversely affected, and we could be delisted if we are unable” to meet requirements in time, JD said in filings to the US Securities and Exchange Commission.

Beijing has made its dissatisfaction with the US legislation evident. Asked Wednesday about the House vote, Ministry of Foreign Affairs spokesperson Hua Chunying said “we firmly oppose politicizing securities regulation.”

“We hope the US side can provide a fair, just and non-discriminatory environment for foreign companies to invest and operate in the US, instead of trying to set up various barriers,” Hua told reporters.

Should the bill become law, its immediate consequences aren’t entirely clear. Analysts at Goldman Sachs pointed out in a research note earlier this year that the legislation would only force businesses to de-list if they could not be audited for three consecutive years.

Still, even the potential for tighter regulatory scrutiny was likely to push more companies to dual list in Hong Kong, the analysts added.

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