Wuhan Coronavirus

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 4:28 pm on 3rd February 2020.

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Photo of Jon Ashworth Jon Ashworth Shadow Secretary of State for Health and Social Care 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.