Only a few days to go: We’re raising £25,000 to keep TheyWorkForYou running and make sure people across the UK can hold their elected representatives to account.

Donate to our crowdfunder

Wuhan Coronavirus

– in the House of Commons at 4:22 pm on 3rd February 2020.

Alert me about debates like this

Photo of Matthew Hancock Matthew Hancock Secretary of State for Health and Social Care 4:22 pm, 3rd February 2020

Nick? It is not “Room 101”, Mr Speaker.

With permission, Mr Speaker, I would like to update the House on the ongoing situation with the Wuhan coronavirus. On Friday, the chief medical officer announced that two patients in England who are members of the same family tested positive for coronavirus. They were transferred to a specialist unit in Newcastle, where they are being cared for by expert staff. Public Health England is now contacting people who had close contact with these two confirmed cases. Close contacts will be given health advice about symptoms and emergency contact details to use, should they become unwell in the next 14 days. These tried and tested methods of infection control will ensure that we minimise the risk to the public.

On Friday, a Foreign Office-chartered aircraft carrying 83 British nationals left Wuhan for the UK, and I want to thank all those involved in that operation, including staff at my own Department, the Foreign Office, Border Force, the Ministry of Defence and military medics, as well as all the NHS staff, officials at Public Health England and many more who have worked 24/7 on our response so far.

Yesterday, we brought back a further 11 people via France, and returned UK nationals have been transferred to off-site NHS accommodation at Arrowe Park Hospital on the Wirral, where they will spend 14 days in supported quarantine as a precautionary measure. I thank all the staff there who have done so much to make that possible. There, they will have access to a specialist medical team who will regularly assess their symptoms. In addition, one British national has been taken to a separate NHS facility for testing.

We will take a belt-and-braces approach that makes public protection the absolute top priority, from a virus that is increasingly spreading across the world. As of today, there are more than 17,000 diagnosed cases in mainland China, with a further 185 in other countries, including France, Germany and the United States. There have been 362 fatalities so far. The World Health Organisation has now declared the situation a public health emergency of international concern, and the UK chief medical officers have raised the risk level to the UK from low to moderate. We are working closely with the WHO and international partners to ensure that we are ready for all eventualities.

Health Ministers from G7 countries spoke this afternoon, and agreed to co-ordinate our evidence and response wherever possible. The number of cases is currently doubling around every five days, and it is clear that the virus will be with us for at least some months to come; this is a marathon, not a sprint. On existing evidence, most cases are mild and most people recover. Nevertheless, anyone who has travelled from Wuhan or Hubei province in the last 14 days should immediately contact NHS 111 to inform the health service of their recent travel, and should stay indoors and avoid contact with other people just as they would with the flu—even if there are no symptoms. Anyone who has travelled to the UK from mainland China in the past 14 days and is experiencing a cough, fever or shortness of breath should self-isolate and call NHS 111, even if symptoms are mild.

We will do all we can to tackle this virus. We are one of the first countries in the world to develop a new test for it. Testing worldwide is being done on equipment designed in Oxford, and today I am making £20 million available to the Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness Innovations to speed up the development of a vaccine. I can announce that Public Health England has sequenced the viral genome from the first two positive cases in the UK, and is today making that sequence available to the scientific community. Its findings suggest that the virus has not evolved in the last month. We have also launched a public information campaign, setting out how every member of the public, including Members of this House, can help by taking simple steps to minimise the risk to themselves and their families: washing hands and using tissues when they sneeze, just as they would with flu. That goes for all of us.

We remain vigilant and determined to tackle this virus with well-developed plans in place. I commend this statement to the House.

Photo of Lindsay Hoyle Lindsay Hoyle Speaker of the House of Commons

I expect questions on the statement to run for up to 45 minutes.

Photo of Jon Ashworth Jon Ashworth Shadow Secretary of State for Health 4:28 pm, 3rd February 2020

I am grateful to the Secretary of State for advance sight of his statement, for the way in which he has kept the House updated, and for making arrangements for the chief medical officer, NHS England officials and Public Health England officials to keep me updated.

Our thoughts are naturally with those who have lost their lives and those who have contracted the virus, including the two cases mentioned by the Secretary of State. I thank our NHS staff, who once again show themselves to be exceptional and dedicated. I pay tribute to our world-leading expertise at Public Health England and NHS England. I also join the Secretary of State in putting on record our thanks to all those involved in returning British nationals from Wuhan. Will he tell the House whether it is the Government’s intention to return all remaining British nationals in China, and whether there will be more Foreign and Commonwealth Office chartered flights in the coming days?

I agree with the Secretary of State that we must remain vigilant and alert, and not succumb to alarmism or scaremongering. As things stand, the virus has a mortality rate of around 2%. That is certainly significant but, as he says, most people will recover. However, the virus is highly infectious. The pathogen appears to be easily transmitted. Cases have now been reported in over 20 countries. The epidemic has grown at a pace quite unprecedented in recent history, with the official case count more than tripling in the past week.

I welcome the Secretary of State’s remarks about the G7. He will be aware, of course, that we have seen cases in countries such as Cambodia, Nepal and the Philippines that have weaker health systems than ours. What work is he carrying out with the Secretary of State for International Development to support countries around the world that will need extra help at this time?

I welcome the Secretary of State’s £20 million for vaccine research, but we have to recognise that, even if a vaccine is produced, it is probably some months away. Therefore, slowing down the virus spread while that vaccine is developed is absolutely crucial. So how many people has Public Health England now contacted who have been in touch with the two people who were infected? Is he able to share those figures with the House?

I understand, and indeed endorse, the precaution of NHS England in quarantining evacuees from Wuhan at Arrowe Park Hospital on the Wirral. I must mention my hon. Friend Margaret Greenwood, who is the local MP and who has been in touch regularly with Ministers, her constituents and the hospital since the news broke last Thursday. I have been contacted by a patient in quarantine who has told me that evacuees are tested for the virus only if they display symptoms because risk of virus transmission is considered low. It would help to reassure the House if the Secretary of State could clarify why, if risk of transmission among non-symptomatic evacuees is low, there is no option for evacuees to self-quarantine at home. I understand that Japan and the Netherlands are allowing such quarantine. As I say, I endorse the precautions that Ministers are taking, but it would be helpful if he could offer greater clarity and those reassurances. Indeed, what would be the response of the Government and the NHS if evacuees wanted to leave Arrowe Park and self-quarantine at home? Could he update the House on that?

I welcome the public information campaign. Will the Secretary of State update us on what discussions he has had with local authority public health officials and local authorities’ social care providers and social care staff, who are obviously caring for people who are especially vulnerable to the respiratory problems associated with coronavirus?

This is a time of considerable strain on the NHS. I know the Secretary of State and I disagree on why that is, but he will accept that it is a time of huge pressure. How many specialist beds are available across the system to deal with more cases of coronavirus should we need them, and what is the capacity of trusts to flex up extra specialist beds if needed? If we do succumb to the epidemic in the UK, that will start to affect the wider NHS workforce as well. What plans are in place to ensure that NHS staff are protected over the coming months—because, as he rightly says, this is a marathon, not a sprint?

I am sure the Secretary of State would agree that we should have no truck with the racism and insensitivity shown towards Chinese and east Asian people that we have sadly seen in some quarters, with wrongly attributed videos showing wild animals being eaten and crass cartoons in the Evening Standard. Indeed, the French media are digging up old racist tropes as well. None of these attempts to dehumanise an entire ethnicity should be allowed to prevail.

I welcome the Secretary of State’s statement today and hope he will continue to keep the House updated in the coming days and weeks.

Photo of Matthew Hancock Matthew Hancock Secretary of State for Health and Social Care

I will try to answer all the shadow Secretary of State’s questions, not least because I want to pay tribute to him for his balanced and reasonable approach in tackling what is ultimately a very significant public health challenge.

I entirely share with the shadow Secretary of State, and perhaps should have put in my initial statement, the rejection, which the whole House demonstrates, of any racism and insensitivity towards the Chinese community here or visitors here of Chinese origin. That will not help us to tackle this disease. We will do everything we can to tackle the disease, but racism will not help anybody, so I share his comments entirely.

We have no plans to evacuate all remaining UK nationals in China. There are an estimated 30,000 UK nationals in China, and the proportion of the population who have the virus outside Wuhan is much lower than in Wuhan. Of course, there are continued flights—not by British Airways and Virgin, which have suspended flights, but by Chinese airlines. We have appropriate measures in place at the airports, as advised by Public Health England, to ensure that those coming from the rest of China also get the appropriate advice, which includes to self-isolate if they have symptoms. We are clear that this evidence-led approach is the right way to take things forward. Of course, if the evidence and the clinical advice change, we will update policy, and I will come to the House at the first available opportunity to explain that. We are trying to take a science-led approach at all times.

The hon. Gentleman asked about the challenge of the virus getting out to other countries, and especially developing countries. I am working closely with the Department for International Development and have spoken to the Secretary of State on a number of occasions about this. Of course, the WHO represents the whole world. The Global Health Security Initiative is chaired by the UK and had a call this weekend. We are leading efforts around the world to ensure that we can help all countries, no matter the calibre of their health systems, to get a grip. I have authorised a team of British experts to go to the Philippines to support their work.

The hon. Gentleman is right that the goal is to slow down the spread of the virus, and we will take all actions that are proportionate and scientifically appropriate to do that. In the case that the epidemic here gets much more serious, we have 50 highly specialist beds, and a further 500 beds are available in order to isolate people, but of course, we are working on further plans should there need to be more.

Public Health England’s contact tracing is ongoing. We will explain how far it has gone when we are ready to, and when we have managed to get in contact with all the people we need to get in contact with. I join the hon. Gentleman in thanking his colleagues from the Wirral, several of whom I have spoken to, for their support of the rational and sensible approach that we have been trying to take.

The hon. Gentleman asked about self-quarantine at home. The truth is that it is belt and braces to have full-blown quarantine. All those who are in quarantine have signed a contract agreeing to go into quarantine in return for getting on the flight. That is a good deal, because the flight was provided by the UK Government so that they could come back from an area that we deemed did not support their health. In return for coming back, they agreed to quarantine.

Photo of Richard Graham Richard Graham Conservative, Gloucester

As chairman of the all-party parliamentary China group, I extend on behalf of all Members our sympathies to the people of China in their hour of need. I thank the crisis team in the Foreign Office, all those in the Department of Health and Social Care and everyone who has been doing their best to help our nationals in China at this difficult time and treat those who have come back with the virus.

I think we all strongly approve of the Secretary of State’s decision to deploy extra money to develop vaccine capabilities through the Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness Innovations—a group that some of us did not know about before the coronavirus came to be. Is China involved in that coalition, and to what extent are we working closely with it on that? I welcome the work being done across Departments. Will he do all he can to publicise the right number at the Foreign Office crisis team for those whose relations in Hubei or neighbouring provinces have so far been unable to get out?

Photo of Matthew Hancock Matthew Hancock Secretary of State for Health and Social Care

I join my hon. Friend in thanking all those who are doing important work. We are of course working with the Chinese Government and we offer all support that they need. This is best done at a global level; hence it is going through the coalition, the World Health Organisation and the GHSI. With G7 partners, we are happy to respond to any demands or requests from countries around the world, not just from China, should that be needed. That includes countries whose health systems may not be as advanced as those of others, but which need support to make sure that they can tackle the virus.

Photo of Chris Stephens Chris Stephens Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Fair Work and Employment)

I thank the Secretary of State for advance sight of his statement. Our thoughts and prayers are with the families affected in what is truly a global health emergency. I have three quick questions for him. First, can he tell us what discussions he has had with the devolved Administrations, and will he commit to ensuring that they are updated in real time on any developments in order for them to react immediately in advance of any new announcements? Secondly, the Chinese Foreign Ministry has issued an urgent request for medical masks, protective suits and safety goggles. Is this something the Government will be looking to provide? Finally, what assessment has he made of the conflicting advice on closing borders—some voices are saying that this could inadvertently lead to an increase in the number of affected persons—and how has that impacted on any advice that he and his departmental officials have chosen to give?

Photo of Matthew Hancock Matthew Hancock Secretary of State for Health and Social Care

The engagement with the devolved Administrations has been incredibly important in this so far, and will continue to be. Each of the devolved nations has a chief medical officer, and the team of the four CMOs is an incredibly important forum for making sure that the advice going to all four nations is clinically justified and correct. That has been working very well. Personally, I have spoken to the Ministers involved as well. We have a principle that we share information and publications before they go public, and thus far that has worked well. The hon. Member is right about the requests for equipment. We have sent out equipment to China, and we of course stand ready to respond to any further requests it has.

Photo of Angela Eagle Angela Eagle Labour, Wallasey

Will the Secretary of State acknowledge that learning about the decision on quarantine from BBC News, rather than being told about it by his Department, which is what happened to me and most of my colleagues on the Wirral, was an error? That meant we were inundated with emails and phone calls from very worried constituents, and we had been given no briefings from which we could get any reassurance. Will he undertake to this House that such a thing will not happen again? When health emergencies like this happen, we are all in the same boat. We have to be able to reassure our constituents, and we cannot do that if we have not been briefed ourselves. Will he thank his junior Minister, the Under-Secretary of State for Health and Social Care, Jo Churchill, and the chief medical officer for the briefings that we have received subsequently, but will he please learn that lesson?

Photo of Matthew Hancock Matthew Hancock Secretary of State for Health and Social Care

I called the hon. Member whose constituency includes Arrowe Park. This was a very fast-moving situation, so being in contact with the local MP was incredibly important. Subsequently, as we were able to, we were also in contact with all Wirral MPs. However, I absolutely take the point: Ms Eagle would have preferred a briefing in advance; her colleague in whose constituency the hospital is got such a briefing. I apologise that that did not manage to get done in what was, as she will understand, a fast-moving circumstance, when our first priority was the protection of the public and of course those being evacuated.

Photo of Henry Smith Henry Smith Conservative, Crawley

I very much welcome the Health Secretary confirming that he has granted £20 million to seek a vaccine to combat the coronavirus, which I think is commensurate with Britain being a global health power. May I have assurances—I am sure he will give me these—that the UK will continue to play the most international role in combating both this virus and other global health threats that exist?

Photo of Matthew Hancock Matthew Hancock Secretary of State for Health and Social Care

My hon. Friend is right, and I am sure we can do yet more. Today, we put an extra £20 million into the global effort, and the UK is playing a huge international role. As I said in my statement, the main testing equipment was developed in Oxford and is now used around the world, and Public Health England’s work at Porton Down is globally leading. Developments in the science around the vaccine are a global effort in which Britain is taking the lead.

Photo of Alison McGovern Alison McGovern Labour, Wirral South

Merseyside is home to the oldest Chinese community in Europe, so I certainly associate myself with the remarks of the shadow Secretary of State. While some in the Wirral were surprised by the news, many of my constituents have been in touch to say that their first thoughts are with those currently experiencing quarantine, in what must be a distressing situation for them. Given that we will have many lessons learnt, will the Secretary of State commit to visiting the Wirral, so that he can thank Merseyside police and NHS staff, and all those who have helped, and understand the experience so that we can improve as necessary? No doubt at some point this will happen again.

Photo of Matthew Hancock Matthew Hancock Secretary of State for Health and Social Care

Yes, I would be happy to make that commitment. As the hon. Member may know, I was born and brought up in Chester; the Wirral is but a stone’s throw away. I wish to add Wirral Council to her list. It has done a great job in difficult circumstances, and worked closely with us to ensure the best support for those evacuees currently at Arrowe Park and for everybody on the Wirral, so that they get the support they need.

Photo of Ben Everitt Ben Everitt Conservative, Milton Keynes North

Can my right hon. Friend point people to a resource where they could look up the symptoms they might have, what symptoms are indicative of the coronavirus and what they might do if they think they are infected?

Photo of Matthew Hancock Matthew Hancock Secretary of State for Health and Social Care

The first thing people can do is ring 111, or look on the Public Health England website and the NHS website, which includes links. Critically, people should not go to A& E or to their GP without first calling 111 because they may inadvertently contribute to the spread of the virus, rather than contain it.

Photo of Patricia Gibson Patricia Gibson Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Consumer Affairs)

I agree with the Secretary of State that a co-ordinated global response is extremely important, because we know that delaying responses could hasten the spread of the disease. Does he share my concern about reports in The New York Times yesterday, which referred to countries where China holds sway? For example, Cambodia is a magnet for Chinese tourists and workers. Its Prime Minister, Hun Sen, told a news conference that anybody wearing a mask would be kicked out of that conference because it would create a climate of fear. Does the Secretary of State share my concern that that does not bode well for trying to slow down the spread of this disease?

Photo of Matthew Hancock Matthew Hancock Secretary of State for Health and Social Care

I have not seen that report, but I will look into it.

Photo of Tim Loughton Tim Loughton Conservative, East Worthing and Shoreham

I commend the response by the Secretary of State and his Department, but without wishing to appear a conspiracy theorist, serious questions are going round about the role of the Wuhan Institute of Virology, which incorporates the National Bio-safety Laboratory in China, and about whether there has been under-reporting of the level of fatalities and the number of people affected by this issue. Is the Secretary of State absolutely happy that the Chinese authorities have been completely transparent with the details of this virus and its impact?

Photo of Matthew Hancock Matthew Hancock Secretary of State for Health and Social Care

When a virus such as this strikes, it causes a series of difficulties, especially in the epicentre, and it is clear that the health system in Wuhan is struggling to cope. Collecting the information is therefore necessarily difficult, even with the best of intentions. I understand that there is a lot of noise about this issue on the internet. The most important thing is to try to get the best information we can, analyse it, respond and follow the science wherever possible.

Photo of Rachael Maskell Rachael Maskell Shadow Secretary of State for Employment Rights

I particularly thank Public Health England for the advice it has provided throughout the weekend, but levels of concern remain high in York. Not only is that impacting on the local economy, but people are concerned. That concern could be alleviated by better communication and if the statutory bodies—including the local authority, the university, the police and other authorities—are kept better informed about what is happening. Will the Secretary of State meet me to discuss what has happened in York and learn from that so that it can be repeated in a better way elsewhere?

Photo of Matthew Hancock Matthew Hancock Secretary of State for Health and Social Care

I agree with the hon. Lady that through experiencing a challenge such as this, when things are moving fast and information flows very quickly, we can always improve the way in which those flows occur. The Minister leading on this will be happy to meet the hon. Lady to discuss these matters because, as she rightly identifies, we must constantly seek improvement. I pay tribute to the approach she has taken, given that the two cases identified in England so far involve residents of her constituency.

Photo of Luke Evans Luke Evans Conservative, Bosworth

I thank the Health Secretary for updating the House today. As one who has worked on the frontline in primary care, I know that the people working there often bear the brunt of these events, dealing with both the people who are scared when they come in to talk and those who actually suffer from the virus. My colleagues back in practice will be pleased that my right hon. Friend has directed people towards the 111 service, but what has he done to tell colleagues in GP practices or health centres where they should signpost people who turn up in those locations? If the situation worsens and becomes more sinister and widespread, will any funding be made available?

Photo of Matthew Hancock Matthew Hancock Secretary of State for Health and Social Care

We have clearly communicated advice to all GPs and published it. I will not repeat it here, because what matters is that people follow the precise clinical guidelines set out by the medical leaders of the NHS and the chief medical officer.

Photo of Maria Eagle Maria Eagle Labour, Garston and Halewood

I thank the Secretary of State for his update to the House. It was reported in the Liverpool Echo that if anyone in quarantine at Arrowe Park falls ill—we hope that no one does—they will be treated at the Royal Liverpool University Hospital. I am sure that that is right and correct, but as a consequence many constituents have asked what that means and put safety questions to me. I have had no communication from Public Health England, Ministers or anyone else, so it is hard for me to reassure my constituents. Will he make sure that MPs from a broader range of places near the Wirral can get information from Public Health England and Ministers, so we can be in the frontline of reassuring our constituents?

Photo of Matthew Hancock Matthew Hancock Secretary of State for Health and Social Care

Yes, absolutely. We are to hold a briefing with the lead Minister and the chief medical officer that is open to all MPs from across the House, so they can put questions directly to the chief medical officer and get the clinical evidence behind the decisions we are taking.

Specifically on the hon. Lady’s question, the Royal Liverpool is one of the best hospitals in the world for dealing with these sorts of disease. It is one of the hospitals that we identified in advance as a place where people with coronavirus would be taken. One of the advantages of using the facilities at Arrowe Park was its proximity. Transit from A to B will of course be in secure conditions, so that no one is affected on the way. People can rest assured that if a case emerges in the isolation area at Arrowe Park, we have plans in place to get those affected to Liverpool and into the hospital in a way that does not affect nearby residents. To be frank, local residents should be very proud of their hospital.

Photo of Bob Stewart Bob Stewart Conservative, Beckenham

Apparently, there have been 361 deaths from coronavirus in China, with many more infected. Can my right hon. Friend assure me that in the worst-case scenario—if it does get into this country—and people develop symptoms, their chances of dying are not that great?

Photo of Matthew Hancock Matthew Hancock Secretary of State for Health and Social Care

One part of that is true and another is sadly not, in that it is no longer “if” it comes to this country—it is here. However, the thrust of what my hon. Friend says is absolutely right: the current rate of mortality—those who die having contracted the disease—is around 2%, which is significantly lower than other recent diseases of this type, such as SARS, and a lot lower than Ebola. However, as the shadow Secretary of State said, the rate of transmission appears to be higher, and the number of cases appears to be doubling around every five days. We have the challenge of a disease that is transmitting relatively quickly, but the vast majority of people who have it survive.

Photo of Stephanie Peacock Stephanie Peacock Labour, Barnsley East

In answer to my written question from 27 January, the Government said that funding is in place to deal with this public health challenge. Will the Secretary of State outline exactly how much contingency funding has been allocated, further to the £20 million in his statement, and is that just to the Department of Health and Social Care or across Government?

Photo of Matthew Hancock Matthew Hancock Secretary of State for Health and Social Care

Currently, there is no further need for the draw-down of funding. However, conversations with the Treasury have taken place to ensure that all the funding that is necessary will be available, if it is needed outside existing departmental budgets.

Photo of Julian Sturdy Julian Sturdy Conservative, York Outer

I thank the Secretary of State for his statement and for keeping us updated on the situation in York. I appreciate that Public Health England says that it is making good progress in identifying everyone in York who has had close contact with the two patients, but it would be reassuring for my constituents and residents in York to have a precise timeline of how long the process will take and when it expects that to be concluded. Can the Secretary of State give us that information?

Photo of Matthew Hancock Matthew Hancock Secretary of State for Health and Social Care

The process of contacting those who have been in contact with the two people who have so far tested positive for the virus is rapid and ongoing—it is a matter of days to complete and get in contact with all those people. This is an ongoing operation and it will be concluded soon. I will let him, the House and Rachael Maskell know as soon as we can make that information public.

Photo of Cat Smith Cat Smith Shadow Minister for Voter Engagement and Youth Affairs

I put on record my thanks to all the officials who supported my 81-year-old constituent Veronica Theobald to make the journey from Wuhan to the Wirral. What lessons have been learned about the repatriation of older citizens or citizens with additional needs, who might be more vulnerable?

Photo of Matthew Hancock Matthew Hancock Secretary of State for Health and Social Care

We have worked hard to try to make sure that the repatriation takes into account other health problems that some people had, and to make sure, frankly, that the accommodation takes that into account—we have tried our level best to make the accommodation as comfortable as possible. I have read some of the stories in the newspapers about the lengths that NHS staff have gone to. The Minister responsible went to Arrowe Park to make sure that we are doing everything we can to make the facilities not only safe—of course, both to the public and those who are quarantined there—but comfortable for the two weeks.

Photo of Katherine Fletcher Katherine Fletcher Conservative, South Ribble

With any infectious disease control, it is very important that members of the public play a role by saying, “Yes, I think I may have been affected,” and being subjected to quarantine. Will my right hon. Friend join me in paying tribute not only to them but to the members of staff? I understand that they drove across two counties to pick up one new patient’s wife’s birthday present, which they then drove all the way back to Arrowe Park, because playing by the rules and doing right by the country is the right thing to do.

Photo of Matthew Hancock Matthew Hancock Secretary of State for Health and Social Care

That is absolutely right. We have tried to go above and beyond to help those who are currently in Arrowe Park. I did not know about the example that my hon. Friend gave, but there have been several others, including some of the biscuits that were given to people who were quarantined at Arrowe Park, which had apparently gone down very well.

Photo of Munira Wilson Munira Wilson Liberal Democrat Spokesperson (Transport), Liberal Democrat Spokesperson (Health and Social Care)

The Secretary of State will recall that during his last statement to the House on the Wuhan coronavirus I raised the importance of vaccination. At the time, he said that

“it is unlikely that a vaccine is going to be available—there is not one now—so that is not the route we should be looking at”—[Official Report, 23 January 2020;
Vol. 670, c. 436.]

He has since announced that the Government are investing £20 million in speeding up development of a vaccine. Of course this is welcome, but what has happened in the last 10 days to change his mind and his assessment, and what is the realistic timeframe in which the public can expect to see a vaccine developed?

Photo of Matthew Hancock Matthew Hancock Secretary of State for Health and Social Care

That is a very good question. We need to be cautious on the timings for the development of a vaccine, but I am pushing it as hard as possible. It is true that the science has developed in the last 10 days—scientists working around the world to understand the virus have made some progress—and I was convinced enough to put £20 million into that global effort; and we may well put more in. I was impressed by the science, as reported to me by the chief medical officer, so my assessment is now slightly more promising than when the hon. Lady last asked me this question.

Photo of Robert Largan Robert Largan Conservative, High Peak

One of my constituents is currently in quarantine, having been evacuated from Wuhan. Having spent most of last week talking to the Foreign Office, I want to put on the record my thanks to the Foreign Office staff, both here and in China, and to staff in the Department of Health and Social Care and the NHS for their brilliant work. Can my right hon. Friend give more information on the social media campaign the Government are running to get information and advice out to people as quickly as possible?

Photo of Matthew Hancock Matthew Hancock Secretary of State for Health and Social Care

We have put £500,000 towards an immediate communications campaign—not just on social media, although there is a lot there, but in newspapers and on radio—to make sure people get the message that there is something everybody can do: vigilantly wash your hands and if you have a cough or a sneeze, use a tissue and throw it away. These sound like simple things, but they matter, and they also protect you from the flu.

Photo of Chris Bryant Chris Bryant Labour, Rhondda

Do face masks work?

Photo of Matthew Hancock Matthew Hancock Secretary of State for Health and Social Care

There are circumstances in which they work, but we are not recommending that people wear them generally—but of course it’s a free country.

Photo of Marco Longhi Marco Longhi Conservative, Dudley North

I commend my right hon. Friend, as well as his team and all his staff, for their work on what is a moving feast. Given that things could deteriorate in this country, what steps can local government, directors of public health and health and wellbeing boards take, particularly around prevention?

Photo of Matthew Hancock Matthew Hancock Secretary of State for Health and Social Care

My hon. Friend is absolutely right to raise this important point. Local authorities and local resilience forums have a critical role to play in resolving this, as Wirral Council has demonstrated with its efforts thus far to support people at Arrowe Park, and I pay tribute to the work local authorities have done so far. Local authorities across the country should be familiarising themselves with their plans in case the coronavirus comes to them.

Photo of Bill Esterson Bill Esterson Shadow Minister (Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy), Shadow Minister (International Trade)

Constituents of mine who returned from mainland China were told to self-isolate, even though they showed no symptoms, and that if they developed symptoms they should go to accident and emergency or their GP. This is the opposite of the advice the Secretary of State set out in his statement and in answer to another hon. Member. It cannot be right, in terms of both public health and reassuring the public, to have contradictory advice. Will he make sure that the correct advice is given from now on, as far and as widely as possible?

Photo of Matthew Hancock Matthew Hancock Secretary of State for Health and Social Care

The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right. We have published clear advice. All the advice from central Government, the NHS and public health organisations is exactly the same, and has been scientifically derived and communicated outwards as much as possible, but if he has details of where different advice has been given, I would love to know, because it is a constant effort to get the correct advice out there. We are working with social media companies to ensure that if people go on Twitter, for instance, and search for “coronavirus” they get proper advice, rather than non-valid advice. But there is a lot to do.

Photo of Diana R. Johnson Diana R. Johnson Labour, Kingston upon Hull North

On Friday, when I was driving around my constituency, I heard on BBC Radio Humberside that the two people from York had been brought to one of the hospitals in Hull. They had then gone on to Newcastle. A press release was issued by the chief executive of the Hull University Teaching Hospitals NHS Trust. I wonder whether some thought should be given to how we communicate with the public, and whether more needs to be said about the role of local hospitals that are being used to deal with issues like this.

Photo of Matthew Hancock Matthew Hancock Secretary of State for Health and Social Care

A lot of thought is being put into how we communicate with the public. We need to win both the battle against this disease and the battle for public confidence. This is a bit like my answer to Bill Esterson, and, indeed, my answer to Chris Bryant, who asked about masks. Washing one’s hands is much better than wearing a mask. That is the correct advice, and we are trying to get the correct, straight communications out whenever we possibly can.

Photo of Eleanor Laing Eleanor Laing Deputy Speaker and Chairman of Ways and Means

And the prize for perseverance and patience goes to Geraint Davies.

Photo of Geraint Davies Geraint Davies Labour, Swansea West

Thank you very much, Madam Deputy Speaker.

Figures issued yesterday—I appreciate that the Secretary of State has updated them today—showed that, out of 14,500 people diagnosed, 304 had died and 342 had recovered. What is of concern is the similarity of the number of people dying to the number of people recovering.

The Secretary of State has already mentioned that the transmission rate is doubling every five days. He will also know that, as well as introducing flight blocks, China has introduced road blocks, and has prevented people from going to work for 14 days in districts where there is no transmission at all. What does the Secretary of State plan to do if a number of cases emerge in cities up and down Britain? Has he any plans to reduce people’s movements, for instance, to contain the virus?

Photo of Matthew Hancock Matthew Hancock Secretary of State for Health and Social Care

Let me make it absolutely clear that I do not recognise, and the Government do not recognise, the figure that the hon. Gentleman has given for the number of people who have recovered. The mortality rate is estimated to be about 2%. Of course we will revise that figure as more information comes to light, but the figure that he gave for the number who have recovered from the disease appears to be very low in comparison with the information that we have.

Of course we have plans in case the disease becomes widespread globally and widespread here, and we are constantly working on those plans to ensure that we are as ready as possible. We have plans in place, and we had them before the virus arrived here. We are working through those plans, and I will endeavour to update the House whenever I possibly can.

I began by paying tribute to the shadow Secretary of State. Normally when I am nice about the shadow Secretary of State, he thinks that I am doing it to damage his political career. There may be some truth in that, but in this case he is acting in the most responsible and high-minded way, and I think that the whole House should pay tribute to him.

Photo of Eleanor Laing Eleanor Laing Deputy Speaker and Chairman of Ways and Means

We now come to the statement on the Government’s response to the Streatham incident. I will just allow Members who need to leave to do so swiftly and quietly so that I can call the Lord Chancellor and Secretary of State for Justice, Mr Robert Buckland.