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Listeria: Contaminated Sandwiches

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 4:39 pm on 17th June 2019.

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Photo of Jon Ashworth Jon Ashworth Shadow Secretary of State for Health 4:39 pm, 17th June 2019

Let me say at the outset that despite our often sharp political differences across the Dispatch Box, the Secretary of State has my commiserations over his entirely noble ambition to want to be the Prime Minister of this country—but perhaps, given Brexit, he has had a lucky escape.

Moving on to the substance of what we have to discuss today, our thoughts really must be with the families of those who have lost their lives. This is, first and foremost, an issue of patient safety and standards of care. Every patient deserves the very safest possible care and absolute confidence about the quality and safety of the food that they are offered. I am pleased that there is an investigation, and I welcome what he said about serious consequences if wrongdoing is found. I am also pleased that he talked about a root-and-branch review, which we have been calling for. As I understand it, NHS Improvement was already reviewing the hospital food plan, which was delayed from April. Is this a new review or an existing review that now has new obligations? Can he explain to the House how the review he has announced interacts with the existing NHS Improvement review?

I know that the investigation will want to get to the bottom of what went wrong and why, and it will no doubt make recommendations for the future, but we would be grateful if the Secretary of State offered some clarification. The first case showing symptoms of listeria was on 25 April, and sandwiches and salads were withdrawn on 25 May. When were Ministers informed, and what action was taken?

I am grateful that the Secretary of State listed the other hospital trusts affected, which include the one in my Leicester constituency. As I understand it, the Good Food Chain was supplying sandwiches to 43 trusts. Can he tell us the status of investigations or what investigations have gone on in the other trusts that he has not listed today? Does he expect cases to emerge in more trusts, and what action is currently under way to contain the spread?

What advice has the Secretary of State received from officials that microbiological controls for listeria need to be improved with respect to pre-packaged sandwiches? Will he consider introducing mandatory testing on all batches of high-risk food? Of course, this is not the first time that there has been a listeria outbreak. There was an outbreak back in 2016, and in response, the Food Standards Agency investigated and issued a report warning Ministers of the dangers posed by pre-packed sandwiches. Can he outline what measures were taken by Ministers in response to that report in 2016?

I have been speaking to hospital catering staff in recent days, and they raised concerns that tight finances and years of capital cuts have left kitchens substandard, which has driven a move to greater outsourcing of catering, with sandwiches and soups steadily replacing hot meals. Recent data show some hospitals spending less than £3 per patient per day. Does the Secretary of State agree that the review he has announced today should be backed up by investment in hospital catering facilities and legally backed, clear minimum-quality standards for hospital food? Healthcare is not just about medicine, surgery, bandages and procedures; it is about nutrition and hydration too. Patients will need urgent reassurance. Can he provide that today?