This afternoon, the World Health Organisation declared coronavirus a global pandemic. I have spoken to the Leader of the House, and we have had discussions, Mr Speaker, and we have resolved that we will keep Parliament open. Of course, in some ways this House may have to function differently, but the ability to hold the Government to account and to legislate are as vital in a time of emergency as in normal times. Our democracy is the foundation of our way of life.
Turning to the advice that is being provided to Parliament, may I start by welcoming the way in which you are working with the Government, Mr Speaker? I know how seriously you take the wellbeing of all Members and staff in Parliament, and the Government will continue to work closely with you, the Lords Speaker and the authorities in both Houses in the coming days and weeks. As the Leader of the House said in business questions last week:
“The public will expect Parliament to sit, and to get on with its job...
Our approach will be guided by the best scientific evidence and medical advice, and we will take all necessary measures to deal with this outbreak.”—[Official Report,
Mr Speaker, I know that you are committed to providing as much information to Members and staff as possible and to taking any action that is required. A cross-parliamentary group of senior managers meets daily to plan the response to covid-19 and ensure business continuity, with close input from the Government. It is essential that the parliamentary authorities continue to work closely with the Government and in line with medical advice, and I commit us to that endeavour. Both Houses are conscious of our national role at this time, and by basing decisions on the very best public health advice, we can be confident that we are doing the best we can to respond to this virus.
Around the world, the number infected is rising. As of today, here at home, 456 people have tested positive and eight people are, sadly, confirmed to have died. The positive cases of course include the Under-Secretary of State for Health and Social Care, my hon. Friend Ms Dorries. She has done exactly the right thing in following the official advice to self-isolate, and I know the whole House will wish her well as she recovers. Public Health England has world-class expertise in contact tracing, which it initiated as soon as her case was confirmed. PHE will contact anyone whom it thinks may need testing. This will only include those who had close contact. The advice of the chief medical officer is that close contact is defined as being within two metres of someone who has active symptoms for more than 15 minutes. Those who have not been in close contact with my hon. Friend since Thursday have no cause for concern in this case, and anyone who has concerns should seek guidance from PHE. I also know my hon. Friend wants me to pass on her thanks to officials at PHE and to the NHS, who have been brilliant throughout.
Of course, a Member of this House and Health Minister testing positive has brought this issue home to us all, and I know that the public will be concerned that coronavirus has now been deemed a global pandemic. The official advice is clear: people should go to NHS 111 online or call NHS 111 if they think they have symptoms of coronavirus, notably a cough and fever. Of course, the best way to minimise the risk to themselves and others is regularly to wash their hands.
Earlier today I chaired a meeting of Cobra. Our response will be built on the bedrock of the science. It is clear that we will need legislation to ensure the best possible response, and I can tell the House that I have invited the Official Opposition to meet with me first thing tomorrow to discuss the proposed emergency Bill that we will set out before the House next week. In addition to the measures that my right hon. Friend the Chancellor set out in the Budget earlier, the Bill will include measures to help in the national effort to keep vital public services running, to support business and to help everyone play their part.
Adult social care will be at the frontline of our response, with social care providers looking after many of the most vulnerable in society. We are working closely with the sector to make sure that it is ready. Tomorrow, the Prime Minister will chair a further meeting of Cobra to decide what further measures may be necessary.
We will do the right thing at the right time. I know how worrying this is. I know that people have deep concerns. I know that everyone will play their part in this national effort to defeat the virus. The best way to beat it is for us to work together. We will do whatever it takes. We will give the NHS whatever it needs and we will do all that we can to keep people safe and get through this together, as a Parliament and a nation. I commend this statement to the House.
I thank the Secretary of State for advance sight of his statement and, as is entirely appropriate, for making arrangements to come to the House at this relatively late hour in these unusual circumstances. I thank you, Mr Speaker, for your constructive engagement with the Opposition on these matters. I know that you will continue that, and we welcome it.
I put on the record my sorrow that two more people have died, and I express our deepest condolences to their loved ones and family. Again, we thank the NHS and Public Health England staff for all they are doing. Will the Secretary of State convey our very best wishes to the Under-Secretary of State for Health and Social Care, Ms Dorries, who is in all our thoughts, as well as to her staff in both her departmental private office and her parliamentary office? I am sure they are all very worried, and I want them to know that they are in our thoughts as well at this time.
We welcome what the Secretary of State has said about Parliament and his advice to keep Parliament open. It is crucial that Members should be able to continue to raise issues on behalf of their constituents and hold Ministers to account. I note that he said that procedures or arrangements may need to be modified, and we look forward to continued engagement on that front.
I also welcome the advice that the right hon. Gentleman has given to people who have come into contact with the hon. Member for Mid Bedfordshire, but can he offer us some extra advice? I have heard about cases of this today. What is the advice for those who work on the estate who feel ill and appear to have symptoms but have not, as far as they are aware, been in contact with the hon. Lady? Should they now be tested as well as a matter of routine? The advice for them is just to self-isolate, but what is the latest guidance on that front?
We welcome the opportunity to discuss emergency legislation. The Secretary of State knows that we have concerns about statutory sick pay and other issues, but we will engage constructively on that front and seek to pass emergency legislation in a timely manner. He also knows that we support the action of the chief medical officer and we very strongly agree that we must at all times be guided by the science. However, may I press him a little further on the epidemiology, the latest medical advice and the appropriate moment when we should move into the so-called delay stage and start adopting some of the more stringent social distancing strategies?
The right hon. Gentleman will have seen that some in the science community—the editor-in-chief of The Lancet, for example—are suggesting that we are not following the epidemiology in the correct way and that we are perhaps placing too much emphasis on behavioural science. Other countries are taking different approaches. Tonight, for example, 3,000 Atlético Madrid fans are arriving in Liverpool to watch the champions league game. If that game was in Madrid, they would not be able to go to the stadium because of the Spanish social distancing measures. Will the Secretary of State explain the thinking in the United Kingdom and why it appears to differ from that of some of the other nations in Europe? Our constituents would welcome that.
I have just a couple of final points, Mr Speaker. On the Budget, it would be churlish of me not to recognise that extra funding was announced for the NHS and social care as part of the covid-19 response. It is something that we have long been calling for. Will the Secretary of State tell us how that money will be allocated, and what happens when that money is depleted? The NHS has said today that it is seeking to scale up intensive care beds sevenfold. That fund will run out at some point and it will need topping up. Do we have to wait for the spending review process in the summer, or will it be topped up over the coming weeks and months?
I am sorry to ask the Secretary of State this again, but when will we get the public health allocations? I would have thought that we would have had them today. Please, let us know when we are getting them. We must do all we can to support NHS staff at this time. The NHS has suggested suspending Care Quality Commission inspections for now. What is his view on that? As he says, this is now designated a pandemic by the World Health Organisation. We agree that we all have to do our bit. The Government have our continued co-operation, because public health and public safety must always come first.
I am grateful to the shadow Secretary of State for the tone that he has adopted and for his full support for keeping Parliament open. He raised the issue of statutory sick pay. Statutory sick pay and the measures that we are taking in the Bill are an example of why accountability helps to get the response right, especially when there is a constructive tone, as there is. He was the first person to raise the issue of statutory sick pay across these Dispatch Boxes, and it will now be in the Bill because the point that he raised was the correct one, and we therefore took action. Likewise, the Bill has been drafted alongside the Labour Welsh Government, the SNP Scottish Government and the multi-party Administration in Northern Ireland, and they have added contents to it. It is a true cross-party effort.
The hon. Gentleman asked about advice for those who are ill but cannot recall whether they came into close contact with my hon. Friend the Member for Mid Bedfordshire. The answer is to call 111 and ask the questions, and then get the clinical advice and follow that advice. The advice may be different for people in different circumstances. When people are recommended to follow certain advice by 111, they should follow that advice, because it takes into account a clinical judgment based on the information that is provided to a clinician.
We will, of course, as I have repeated many times, be guided by science. The hon. Gentleman mentioned that some voices are asking whether the appropriate moment for further action is now. Of course, we keep action under review all the time and, as I said, the Prime Minister is chairing a Cobra meeting tomorrow. There are some voices that are saying that we should not base our response entirely on the science, but I think that they are wrong. He asked about our differences with other countries and mentioned Spain in particular, but there are others. The truth is that different countries are at different stages of the virus. The point is that we will do the right thing at the right time. There are some countries that are not fully following the science. I am not going to criticise them, because I think that in responding to a pandemic such as this, everybody is doing their level best.
The hon. Gentleman asked about money. There was a very significant increase in funding—£6 billion for the whole NHS and social care system. It is important to stress that this is for social care, too. We want to make sure that the social care system has everything that it needs to respond to this crisis, because we entirely understand both the strains on the social care system should a large proportion of the population fall ill, but also the importance of the social care system, because that is where so many vulnerable people either reside, if they are in a care home, or are supported. He asked whether we will have to wait for the spending review for any top-up. The Chancellor made it quite clear in the Budget that we will not.
The hon. Gentleman asked about the CQC. The CQC has already published a statement today, saying that it is relaxing some of its requirements and taking into consideration the impact of coronavirus, and I welcome that. It is, of course, independent. He asked about the public health grant budgets. As I made clear yesterday, those budgets are going up in real terms in every single local authority area, and the precise details will be set out very shortly.
I thank both Front Benchers for the highly responsible way in which they are approaching this crisis, which shows Parliament at its best. I also thank the Health Secretary for his role in getting those very generous words for the NHS into the Chancellor’s speech this afternoon; they have been widely welcomed across the NHS and were much needed.
The chief medical officer says that we would have to be “pretty optimistic” to think we could contain the virus in this country. The deputy chief medical officer says that she thinks we may hit the peak in the next fortnight. We now have more reported cases in this country than there were in Wuhan when it went into lockdown. We know that the Secretary of State will rightly follow the science, but could I ask him to give his judgment to the House as to whether he thinks we still can contain the virus in this country and, if not, whether he expects to move to the delay phase very soon so that families up and down the country can start to prepare their loved ones for any precautions they might want to take?
I want to make two comments in response to my right hon. Friend. First, I want slightly to correct the point about the deputy chief medical officer, who said that in the next couple of weeks we may see the numbers starting to rise fast to their peak. We do not expect numbers to peak in the next fortnight. We expect them to continue to rise after that. The peak would be in a matter of a couple of months, rather than a couple of weeks. This is a marathon, not a sprint. Secondly, the World Health Organisation declaring this afternoon that the virus is globally now regarded as a pandemic indicates that the WHO thinks it will spread right across the world, and that will have a significant impact on the way in which countries around the world will now take forward their plans. Of course, the expectation that this may well happen was all within the plan that we set out. We will be discussing that at the Cobra meeting tomorrow.
I echo the good wishes to Ms Dorries.
I welcome the declaration to keep Parliament open, but surely we should be looking at core functions, at who comes into the House and at what we do in the House. I have to say that I was a bit disappointed to have several hundred of us jammed into the voting Lobbies on Tuesday. That is just not a good idea. There are ways of working that would still allow Parliament to stay open.
With cases having increased by 13 times outside China in just two weeks, the virus has of course been declared a pandemic by the WHO, which describes its concerned at “levels of inaction”. It calls for quicker and wider testing so that milder cases are diagnosed quickly, isolated and the spread reduced. We have seen the speed of change in northern Italy over a matter of a couple of weeks, so should we not be thinking about the delay phase? Containment and delay are a continuum; it is not a switch between one and the other.
We see large leisure events still continuing. They are not critical, so should we not be decreasing them? Do we know yet whether children are spreaders? We know they do not catch the virus, but do they spread it? That would be central to any decision about closing schools, and obviously closing schools would have an impact on NHS and social care staff.
I welcome the announcement in the Budget of funding to support people on sick pay, but will the Secretary of State clarify whether this will be provided to people who do not have sick pay in their contract? That is exactly who we were concerned about when we raised this point.
How quickly will all three devolved Governments hear about the extra funding that they are going to get, since it is urgent for them to take action as well? There has been talk about bringing doctors back from retirement. Is there a discussion with the General Medical Council about relicensing doctors, and about providing Crown indemnity for doctors who may have retired within the last year or two? The UK is already outside the European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control, so will the Government now at least rethink leaving the pandemic early warning and response system?
The hon. Lady asked some important questions about how Parliament will function. Matters of how we work are of course for Parliament—for the Leader of the House, the Speaker and the Commission, all guided by the science. They are in constant contact with Public Health England to get the very best advice. As for when we are voting, this disease passes in very, very large part from people who have symptoms, and we may not have symptoms. What really matters is making sure that as soon as people have symptoms potentially of coronavirus, they get in contact with 111 or Public Health England.
The hon. Lady asked for more testing. We are absolutely ramping up the testing capabilities. We have been commended on the approach we are taking by international bodies; she mentioned the WHO. She asked about children. One of the good pieces of news about the virus is that it does appear to have a much, much less significant impact on children. On the GMC and indemnity, absolutely —both those issues will be addressed in the Bill, and we are working very closely with the GMC.
The hon. Lady asked about collaboration and work with the European Union. We still remain within the European Union data transfer capabilities. Most of this data is being transferred—frankly, it is being published. We are being as transparent as possible. This week, we brought out a new website in order to be as transparent as possible about all the cases in the UK. Most European nations are taking exactly that approach.
Can I just say, to help Members, that I expect to run this for an hour from now? That should accommodate everybody.
I would like to take the Secretary of State back to his point about a real national effort. Last week, he talked about the supermarkets helping to get supplies to elderly and vulnerable constituents, many of whom cannot get out—and right now we do not want them to do so. Will he join me in paying tribute to the army of volunteers across the country in community shops such as the Hursley community shop in my constituency? The shop told me today of the service that it is running for elderly parishioners in getting essential supplies to them and picking up prescriptions for them. That is a brilliant example of the big society—remember that?—doing its bit to help this country to get over this terrible time.
Gosh, that is a blast from the past—that phrase was invented almost exactly 10 years ago. My hon. Friend is quite right, though. This is a national effort, and community shops can play a huge role in helping people to get the groceries and other supplies that they need. There has been much discussion of supermarkets. I am glad to say that the vast majority of supermarkets are playing an absolutely incredible part in this national effort; we are working very closely with them and have been for some time. Our community shops will be really embedded in their communities; they often know which people are going to need the most support, and have those personal relationships. As long as they are following the public health advice to ensure that the people they are helping are also kept healthy, then they have an important role to play in our national effort.
Can I press the right hon. Gentleman on the issue of the 3,000 or so Atlético Madrid fans who have travelled to Liverpool and are, at the moment, in a crowd of 54,000 at Anfield? Schools and colleges are closed in Madrid, and public gatherings of over 1,000 people are banned, because there is a cluster of 782 coronavirus cases and there have been 35 deaths. Now that we have a pandemic, is it really sensible for this to be allowed to continue? Both the Government and UEFA told the Liverpool Echo today that it is not up to them to take action—so who is it up to? Is it really sensible for fans who could not watch their team at home to be able to travel to Liverpool and watch their team play with 51,000 locals?
It is for Public Health England to make advice available and to give guidance. We will always follow the scientific advice on what makes the biggest impact. It is interesting, listening to the scientists, that sometimes the things that we, as lay people, may feel intuitively will have the biggest impact do not in fact have the biggest impact. The measures that we are taking and proposing to take include, for instance, looking at asking people who have symptoms, however mild, to stay at home. We are aiming to do the things that have the biggest impact. There are some things that feel right but do not have an impact at all. That is why it is so important to follow the science and what Public Health England says.
We are looking to reduce bureaucratic burdens on primary care and GPs—we were looking at it anyway, but we have accelerated that work because of this outbreak. We have moved to a principle of “digital first” in primary care and with out-patients: unless there are clinical or practical reasons, all consultations should be done by telemedicine.
I am grateful to the Secretary of State for his statement and for all the work being done to keep the public safe. In conversations with colleagues in South Yorkshire today, specific concerns were raised about the guidance for GPs on personal protective equipment and the resilience of the social care sector. May I gently push him on the public health grant allocation? I very much welcome the fact that there will be an increase, but I am sure he will acknowledge that it is in everybody’s interest for directors of public health to know precisely what their budgets will be sooner rather than later.
I would like to associate myself with the Secretary of State’s remarks. I wish my hon. Friend the Member for Mid Bedfordshire the very best and hope that her family recover as quickly as possible if they succumb to the virus.
My constituents have developed a test for the virus. They are selling it all round the world, but we are not using it in this country. It costs £5. It is working, and it gives a result within 10 minutes—it is a quick, cheap way to do it. May I urge the Secretary of State to ask the Department to investigate that and ensure that we are using the most effective test possible?
Yes, absolutely. My hon. Friend has brought that to my attention before. We have done research into it, and we are working with over two dozen commercial companies that have tests of this kind. In fact, I had a meeting on this today.
I welcome the Secretary of State’s focus on social care. Will he clarify how much of the additional spending in today’s Budget will go into social care? Will PHE issue protective equipment to careworkers? His statement referred to adult social care. There are many sick children in this country who are reliant on care. Will he ensure that children’s needs are not overlooked? I wrote to him about that earlier this week, and I would welcome clarification.
As the hon. Lady knows, guidance is coming out this week. She is right about the importance of protective equipment, and of course, we are taking that into account. The Chancellor set out that more money will be available in social care if it is needed—and I expect that it will be—and announced a total of up to £5 billion for the NHS and social care, while saying that his door is open should more be needed. These are all very important considerations, and the guidance will be out shortly.
I welcome my right hon. Friend’s determination to base his actions on what he calls the “bedrock” of the science. He will be aware that the World Health Organisation-China joint mission report drew particular attention to the importance of the rapid expansion of detection and diagnosis as a way to prevent illness and death. The daily number of tests in this country has been relatively stable over the last few days. In fact, it fell between
That is a very important consideration. As I said, the number of labs doing testing has already gone from one to 12, and we are working with more than two dozen companies on further testing capability. We are rolling out a big expansion of testing. The critical thing is to ensure that it is not just about the testing. Getting the whole pathway right—from somebody feeling sick to calling 111, being tested and then getting the test result back—as the number of tests goes up is the critical thing we have to do.
Will the Secretary of State update us on the thinking about what will happen, if this does continue as is projected, for schools? If schools close, what in particular will happen to children on free school meals, whose parents massively rely on them to keep their children well fed?
The hon. Member sets out one of the many reasons why there are downsides to closing schools. There are significant downsides, especially because of the knock-on consequences it has on the number of staff available for critical public services, including the NHS and social care. There are many considerations we have to take into account if we close schools, and that is why we have no plans for a mass closure of schools. Of course, individual schools will sometimes be advised to be closed, but because one of the saving graces of this virus is that it does not have a big impact on children, there are fewer benefits to closing schools, and she sets out one of the downsides.
There are different types of social distancing. There is what is essentially case isolation, which is where somebody has symptoms and we are asking them to self-isolate. At the moment, if somebody has moderate or heavy symptoms, they should self-isolate, and we have talked about going, at the right time, to self-isolation—staying at home—for people with mild symptoms. There is also, of course, the need to ensure that older people and vulnerable people, for whom this virus has a bigger impact, can get the right advice on self-isolating, and that is something we are working on.
Here the timing really is critical, because the evidence of past epidemics and past crises of this nature shows that people do tire of these sorts of social distancing measures, so if we start them too early, they lose their effect and actually it is worse. The social science and the behavioural science are a very important part of the scientific advice that we rely on.
One of the questions in the public’s mind is the degree of resistance acquired by those who have contracted the virus and then recovered. I appreciate that this is more a question for his medical and scientific advisers than directly for him, but could the Secretary of State give us any information on the degree of resistance acquired by those who have been through the virus and come out the other side?
I asked the chief medical officer this precise question this morning, so I can report to the right hon. Member what the chief medical officer says is the answer to this question. The degree of resistance is deemed to be very high, especially in the first year or more afterwards, for similar coronaviruses, and is therefore likely to be very high for this one. It is good news that it is highly likely that once people have got it and recovered, they are going to be okay. That is obviously good news for people who have had it, including our hon. Friend the Member for Mid Bedfordshire.
This is supposed to be an easy question, but actually my right hon. Friend is completely wrong. I would rather have the advice. I would rather go through 100 ideas, 99 of which we have already looked into, to find the one that we had not thought of than not be bombarded, so I ask him to send them on.
Earlier this week, the Secretary of State told the House that the NHS requires more ventilators. He will be aware that two weeks ago today Italy had the same number of confirmed cases as we have, and he will also be aware of the great pressure that intensive care units and hospitals in Italy are under. Can he tell us whether the additional ventilators that he is seeking will arrive with the NHS in time to cope with any rapid increase in the number of critically ill patients who require breathing support?
I am afraid that is not how we are thinking about it, as that implies a perfect world in which things are available and not in demand around the world. Our approach to ventilators, and to staffing-up—obviously, we need trained staff to operate ventilators, or else they are dangerous—is to get our hands on as many as possible, and to train up as many people as possible. We think that we will need as many ventilators as we can get our hands on. There is no calculus of demand and availability; we are trying to buy as many as we can get hold of.
I pay tribute to the way that the Minister and his team, Public Health England, and the whole NHS are dealing with what is frankly an unprecedented situation. I am hugely grateful to them all. Is the Secretary of State working with our right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary on keeping our diplomats and envoys safe abroad, and giving them the advice they require? What is he doing to work with the World Health Organisation to ensure that we limit spread as much as we possibly can around the world, so that we are not infected again afterwards?
My hon. Friend is right, and along with the International Development Secretary, my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary is working hard to ensure that through funds from the Department for International Development, and the judicious use of other British assets around the world, we can try to slow the spread elsewhere. Consular support for UK citizens and Government employees overseas is critical.
Today I was deeply concerned to learn that public health information is not being shared in any language other than English. Given that we live in a wonderfully multi-lingual society, in which 4 million people—including me and other hon. Members—are non-native English speakers, will the Secretary of State explain why information is not being provided in any other language? Does he agree that it is in all our interests for every person, no matter their language skills, to understand what they need to do to protect themselves, and others, from this virus?
Of course we will provide guidance in languages other than English. We are developing this guidance at speed, and I commit to making that available as soon as we practically can.
May I commend my right hon. Friend for the sure-footed way he has approached this, and Jonathan Ashworth for his balanced and measured response? The Health Secretary knows well that the problem with intensive treatment units and intensivism is not so much the kit, as the people. What is he doing to ensure that clinicians within the service who are in non-acute specialties are given the skills they need to deal with what may be coming?
As my right hon. Friend knows, we are inviting and encouraging recent retirees and health care leavers back in, and we will provide for some of that in the Bill. We are also ensuring that as we make what is effectively a big change to the NHS case mix, and do fewer elective operations and focus more on respiratory diseases and coronavirus, there will be a retraining exercise for people to go on.
I completely agree with the Secretary of State about keeping Parliament open, and I am grateful for the work that he, you, Mr Speaker, and the Leader of the House, have done to ensure that is the case. May I ask about something that I did not fully understand from what the Chancellor said this afternoon? As I understand it, if Wales wants and need extra money for the health service to deal with coronavirus, it will get it, whatever amount is needed. I presume that also applies to social care budgets in Wales, which my local authority is already worried about. Why does it not apply to all the other measures that are meant to support the economy through this difficult period? Why does it not apply to council tax and business rates?
The hon. Gentleman presses me on a question that is not in my departmental area. I apologise, but I would rather get him the right answer than give him the wrong answer now. I will make sure that we get back to him.
My hon. Friend Ms Dorries has been playing a pivotal role in supporting our east Kent hospitals, and I would like to add my good wishes to her, her family and her staff.
Areas like mine in Dover and Deal are on the border with another country. With a global pandemic now announced, will my right hon. Friend update the House on any additional steps being taken internationally to manage transmission risk between countries, such as between our country and France?
Yes, we are increasing the support available at all ports, including airports and seaports such as Dover, and making sure that better information is available, including in multiple languages, to those who are arriving. Specifically and importantly, no matter who is here, we want to make sure that they know that if they are ill they should call 111, because this virus travels from human to human, not from people of one nationality to another. It does not see that distinction.
Does the Secretary of State accept that keeping Parliament functioning as normal, with the public visiting, is simply irresponsible? As others are encouraged to cancel large meetings, events and unnecessary travel, we instigate large meetings, host events and receptions, and travel from all across the country—vectors, I heard an hon. Member call us last week. Festivals, concerts and football games have been postponed, but it is business as usual here. We are even holding our surgeries. As we continue to meet hundreds of people weekly, I am concerned that we are potentially spreading the virus. My biomedical training tells me that a number of Members in this House probably already have the virus. I am genuinely concerned about older Members, older constituents and those with underlying health conditions. Will he implement testing for all Members and staff of this House, not for reasons of special treatment but because of all the people we meet and have met in the past few weeks? Will he agree to having electronic voting or automatic pairing for any Member who may wish to self-isolate?
As I said in my statement, I am delighted that Parliament is staying open. There are, of course, considerations around procedures and how the House operates. It is rightly a matter for the Leader, Mr Speaker, the House of Commons Commission and every single Member to express their view, and the hon. Lady rightly puts her view firmly on the record. As long as the public health advice is taken into account, and it is based on that advice, then, as far as I am concerned, I am sure the decisions will be got right, led by you, Mr Speaker.
The one point I will respond to is that calling for testing for everyone is not going to help, because the test is not reliable for people who are not symptomatic. That is why testing at the airport, for instance, which several people have called for, is not effective. Some of the countries that started it, stopped it. Temperature testing leads to a load of false positives, because you might be ill with something else, and that complicates the system—or it leads to lots of false negatives, with the test returning a negative even though somebody is ill, because they do not yet have enough virus in their system to be symptomatic and for the test to pick it up. Testing people who do not have symptoms is not reliable and is counterproductive, so we will not be doing it.
My right hon. Friend rightly talks about chronology: feeling ill, dialling 111 and then going to take the test itself. However, may I echo the concerns about the self-test capability? He points out the difficulties with accuracy. I am concerned that about one fifth of the UK workforce might be off ill, many of whom may not develop the full symptoms. Will he look at our ability to advance a capability to self-test in the near future? That would eliminate many of the workforce going off unnecessarily.
Absolutely—in fact, there was a very big conference in London today on precisely this issue. We are working with dozens of companies on it. We will work with anybody and scour the world for a solution, as my right hon. Friend describes. I just add one thing: he talked about how I had described what people should do if they feel ill—they should call 111—but also, going to the 111 website is really, really important, because that takes pressure off the call centres and many people can get the answers they need without talking to someone.
I bring the Secretary of State back to his discussions and liaison with supermarkets. I am aware of at least one supermarket chain that has already said to local food banks that they are cutting their orders and limiting what they provide to food banks. Will he raise this with supermarket chains to make sure that those who need food aid provision in the country—the most vulnerable and needy—get what they need?
The Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs is leading the work with the supermarkets now, so I will ensure that it gets that message and takes that up.
The vast majority of people who contract the disease will be able to self- isolate and recover at home. A small number of cases will need hospitalisation, and as the number of people who are infected increases, so could serious cases. Would my right hon. Friend say that people who have to be hospitalised will have to be isolated, and what plans are there then to increase the number of beds that will be available in hospitals on isolation units?
We are increasing the number of beds, and, by moving away from some of the elective activity, making more beds available. However, I want to pick my hon. Friend up on one thing: as and when this virus becomes widespread, isolation becomes less important than ventilation. The normal flu procedures are that keeping several people who all have the same flu in one room—in one ward—is absolutely fine, because they cannot infect one another because they all have the same disease. Isolation is vital in the contain phase. It is still important in delay, but as we get through to mitigating the impact, the need for isolation facilities is less important.
The Chancellor’s announcements earlier today were very welcome, but will the Secretary of State help to cast a bit more light on the announcement about employment and support allowance? There are millions of people, as he knows, who do not qualify for statutory sick pay. The effectiveness of self-isolation and doing the right thing relies absolutely on many people who do not have standard employment contracts being able to be confident that if they self-isolate, they will not lose out, yet the ESA system works in retrospect, with delays, and is quite bureaucratic. Will he say a bit to us tonight about how that is going to be mitigated so that those who are not on standard employment contracts will know that they can do the right thing and not suffer?
Yes, we will publish more on this in very short order. Some of the changes in this area will be in the Bill, but some will be in secondary legislation, so that they can go at a faster pace, potentially, than the Bill. The ESA (C), as it is known, comes in only after seven days and bringing that down is an important part of the reassurance that the hon. Member seeks.
I thank the Secretary of State and all his team for the way that they have handled this so far and for the statement this evening. I also thank him and others for the way in which they have continued to communicate in a clear and very accessible way. As the spread of the virus affects people’s lives in more and more ways, it is really critical that that continues to happen and that fake news cannot be given breathing space. Will he assure us that there is a clear plan about how to communicate so that the whole public know exactly where to go for information when they need it?
Absolutely. This is right at the top of the agenda; tackling fake news is incredibly important. The major social media platforms and search engines have already risen to this task and I pay tribute to them—in the past, I have been known not to pay tribute to them, and sometimes quite the reverse. They have absolutely risen to this task and we will keep on it, but, of course, the information that we provide to the public will have to evolve both as we learn more about the disease and as we move through the plan. For the moment, the absolute core message is that people should wash their hands.
Are we reaching the stage where people, if they have any form of cold, should be self-isolating? We all know people who have had colds, some of them more severe than others, but they have been able to be confident that it has not been coronavirus. Now it is becoming prevalent, how can they be sure? It is going to create a lot of confusion. Are we reaching the stage where, as the Prime Minister alluded to the other day, people may have to self-isolate if they have any symptoms?
We are not there yet, but we are moving towards it. That is what the chief medical officer set out in the press conference on Monday, in part for exactly the reasons the hon. Member sets out.
I hugely welcome the fact that we are following the science, including the behavioural science, and the cross-party approach we are taking. Does the Secretary of State share my concern, therefore, that celebrities, including some politicians on social media, are advocating a different approach? They are completely at liberty to do that, but does it risk undermining the national cohesion we need to rise to this challenge?
I thank the Health Secretary for his continued updates to the House. The partner of a constituent of mine suffers from cystic fibrosis and other related illnesses and requires daily treatment that includes cleansing—alcohol wipes, gels and so on—but because of the panic buying in some shops they have been unable to purchase these items, which could result in serious health issues for them. Are there any other measures the Government can put in place, working with supermarkets, to manage this?
Yes, absolutely; this is really important. We have some supplies of these sorts of things, in the supply chains and, in some cases, within the shops themselves, and we are working with the shops to ensure availability of things that can be critical to people’s care. We are working on that with DEFRA, the NHS and within the Department, particularly in relation to pharmacies, to make sure we get the right kit to the people who need it.
I commend the Health Secretary on doing a difficult job in trying circumstances extremely well. Likewise, I commend all the staff at Kettering General Hospital, who are working their socks off to ensure that the hospital is fully prepared. The only easily understandable benchmark our constituents have to judge the scale of this thing is seasonal flu, so can he tell the House, on average each year, how many people catch seasonal flu and how many people die from it?
That is a great question to which I do not have the answer in my head, but it is a matter of hundreds of thousands in the first instance and thousands in the second.
We know that social care workers play a key role in supporting people to recovery and in alleviating pressure on clinical staff, yet today’s Budget offers no clarity on new money, and care providers are still awaiting a draft social care strategy. If the Secretary of State rightly seeks cross-party agreement, what steps have the Government taken to introduce a draft social care strategy for discussion, and what discussions is he having with the Welsh Government regarding social care capacity?
The delivery of social care is a devolved matter. We will publish guidance, and we will work with the devolved authorities to make that as consistent as possible, but social care policy is different in the four nations, so obviously we will have to take those differences into account.
On Sunday, Birmingham will host one of the largest St Patrick’s Day parades in the world. Can the Health Secretary assure me and the people of Birmingham that he will do everything he can to issue the right guidance as quickly and effectively as possible so that people can make sensible decisions when it comes to their use of public transport and attending mass gatherings?
Yes, absolutely. I can assure my hon. Friend of that. For now, the guidance is to wash your hands and, if you sneeze or cough, to catch it in a tissue and throw the tissue away.
I thank the Secretary of State for keeping the House informed throughout this crisis. He is doing his job well, and it is good that the response is cross-party and has the support of people right across the United Kingdom.
Lecturers and schoolteachers in my constituency have contacted me to ask what discussions the Secretary of State is having with the Department for Education, exam boards and the devolved Administrations about what will happen as we approach the examination season. The point was made to me, particularly by further education lecturers, that it is not just children who face exams in the coming months.
I pay tribute to the amazing work of NHS staff, who are working to support patients who have contracted covid-19, and to prevent others from catching it. What can be done to minimise the risk to those amazing NHS workers?
This is a really important part of our work. We are rolling out personal protective equipment to all primary care settings and GPs by the end of this week—we are on track to do that—and making sure that everybody in community settings in the NHS gets support. This will be a tough time for people who work in the NHS. The demands on them will be significant. Nurses, doctors and all the staff in the NHS do an extraordinary job all the time, but they will be called to be the frontline of our response in a way that many have not seen before. I thank them in advance—I think the whole House would want to do so—for the service that they will give.
I note what the Secretary of State said about different approaches in different countries, but I was recently approached by the professor of visual neuroscience at Cardiff University, Professor Jonathan Erichsen. He says that there is a great deal that we can learn from South Korea in particular. Will the Secretary of State give a commitment that he will keep an open mind on how we approach this problem, in the light of lessons from other countries?
Absolutely. We are looking daily at how every country in the world is responding, to try to find the very best response. That is part of the science. The Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies, the body that meets to bring that science together, is constantly reviewing that, simply because we want the very best response possible, and that is what we base judgments on.
I welcome the measures taken in the Budget to fight this virus, and I pay tribute to the work of the Secretary of State and his team to tackle it; he is doing a fantastic job, and it is not going unnoticed. Sadly, a local resident who had coronavirus passed away at St Helier Hospital in my constituency on Monday. I am sure that my right hon. Friend will want to join me in giving our condolences to the friends and family. He will understand that a certain level of fear has arisen in my community as a result of that death. I hope that he will join me in urging calm among the local population, and assuring people that this is not time to panic-buy or listen to social media rumours; instead, they should take the advice of the chief medical officer and call NHS 111 if they need to.
Absolutely. I want to pass on my condolences to the family and loved ones of all those who have died, including my hon. Friend’s constituent. I know that the hospital, with which he works closely, is absolutely safe, and did exactly the right thing in this case. I reassure his constituents, and everybody else’s, that the best thing to do is follow the advice from the chief medical officer, who is doing a remarkable job, and either call 111 or go on NHS 111 online if they have a query.
The Secretary of State said in his statement, “We are working closely” with the social care sector “to make sure that it is ready.” Could he say a little more about some of the stories circulating about the use of volunteers, and particularly students, to provide social care?
There will of course be a big voluntary effort should there be staff shortfalls right across public service. People who volunteer need to be asked to do tasks that fit their skillset. If people have medical qualifications and volunteer, that is fantastic—they can go and do that and potentially do clinical work, if that is right. Some volunteers will not have that sort of skillset, but there are still things that they can do, especially to make sure that people can get what they need if they are asked to self-isolate and not leave their homes. It is a matter of finding the right match for the skillset of the people who are going to help. In a scenario in which 20% of the public are off sick, volunteers will be able to help to alleviate some of the inevitable pressure that that brings.
Following today’s Budget, I have been contacted by a local authority in my constituency of Erith and Thamesmead that is seeking clarification on the urgent need for further funding for one of the local hospitals to deal with the immediate coronavirus crisis, and specifically for the social care sector. Will the Secretary of State explain and elaborate further on what he has said so far?
Yes, of course. The funding needs for social care, as for the NHS, over the weeks and months to come are not yet clear, so the Chancellor set out an envelope of up to £5 billion to make sure that we can now plan according to what we need to do, with the resources constrained by what the nation has, especially in terms of people and trained people, as opposed to being limited by the funding. He also said that if we need even more than that, his door is open. I do not have a specific answer as to where all the money is going to be spent—as would be normal in a Government announcement of this kind—because we are in unprecedented circumstances. We will of course be transparent and clear about how the money has been spent. No doubt afterwards there will be a huge amount of looking into what happened to try to learn lessons, and the financial part will be one strand of that work.
As more people become seriously unwell and need treatment in hospital, it will become very important that those who recover are discharged quickly back into the community. Will the Secretary of State say what work is being done to ensure smooth discharge pathways so that we do not get delayed discharges, which compound the problems for the NHS?
This is a really important point that I met the NHS to discuss specifically today. It is critical that we ensure that discharges are as fast as possible. That is important in normal times, but when large proportions of those in hospital could, with the right support, leave hospital and be in a setting that works for them in social care, we have to make sure that that happens. The extra funding will help with that, but it is not all about funding; a lot of it is about co-ordination, and people are working at their level best to try to make that happen.
Some parents are unsure whether to send their children to school when somebody in the family household is self-quarantined. Will the Secretary of State confirm what guidance has been given to schools to deal with what would normally be classed as unauthorised absences? Perhaps he will be able to alleviate some of the concerns from headteachers and indicate that Ofsted will take a lenient view of absence figures in later inspections.
Yes, Ofsted absolutely will take a lenient view of the impact of coronavirus on what happens in schools. When it comes to the broader point about what households should do when one person tests positive, that is of course something we are considering very closely. At the moment, the number of cases is at a level such that we can give individual advice to each household. It is likely that that will not be possible throughout this situation, so we will make sure that there is formal public guidance for everybody, so that everybody knows what to do.
Will the Secretary of State clarify a point that was made by the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions on Monday? She said that social security claimants who were due to take a work capability or work-related activity assessment would not have their social security support stopped, but those claimants were omitted from the group that the Chancellor talked about in the Budget statement, so will the Secretary of State clarify who is right? Will he also make sure that information is available for the deaf and the visually impaired? There is a gap in the information in that respect.
On the latter point, I entirely agree, and it goes with the earlier point about communications in foreign languages. On the first point, I will ensure that the Work and Pensions Secretary writes to the hon. Lady with the answer.
Local government will have an important role to play, beyond social care, in working with the Secretary of State’s Department to deal with this issue. When will local councils get an indication of the extra funds they may receive?
The Secretary of State said that the peak in cases may come in two months’ time. That is exactly the time of the local government elections. Will the Government now give some consideration to the desirability of postponing those elections, as happened in 2001 with foot and mouth epidemic?
We are not proposing to delay the local government elections and the other elections—for instance, for police and crime commissioners—that are happening in early May. That is not part of the proposal, and local authorities should plan as normal for those elections. If people think they may need a postal vote—they may want to have a postal vote just in case—I would always advise them to get a postal vote. I am very happy for that message to go out loud and clear.
I also commend the Secretary of State’s measured approach. Are there any plans to offer specific guidance for dealing with rough sleepers and unaccompanied children—two quite vulnerable groups who, for different reasons, will pose a challenge to the authorities?
Yes. I entirely agree with the hon. Gentleman, and he is very wise to raise that point. That strand of work is being led by the Communities Secretary.
I thank the Minister for his dedication and for the vital role he has played in this House. History has taught us many lessons. In the pandemic of 1919, secondary schools stayed open, as did churches—it was normal life, with precautions in place for all. Is that the message the Health Minister is sending out to people tonight?
I hope that the decision to keep Parliament open makes it clear that the institutions that are fundamental to our way of life in this country will continue through this virus. We will get through it as a nation, and then we will take this nation forward. This is going to be a difficult and challenging time for many, many people. It will be a national effort, but that national effort will prevail, and we will get through.
I was pleased to hear what the Secretary of State had to say about the involvement of the devolved Administrations, including the Welsh Government, in the legislation that has been drawn up. It would be useful to have the clarification on funding that my hon. Friend Chris Bryant asked about. However, can I ask about mutual aid between the four NHSs of the UK? For example, the Secretary of State talked about procuring ventilators. Is that being done on a UK-wide basis with the four NHSs, or are they competing against each other? What will be done in terms of cross-border needs—for example, Welsh patients travelling to English hospitals or vice versa—where the need is greatest?
The four NHSs are also working together. I discussed this with Simon Stevens, the chief executive of NHS England, today. That cross-border work is, of course, important, and it is something that my opposite number in the Welsh Government has raised. As a Chester boy, I get the point, and I will make sure that we keep that level of co-ordination, as well as the co-ordination at the point of the chief medical officer.
May I answer an earlier question better than I did before, Mr Deputy Speaker? My hon. Friend Mike Wood asked whether GPs were getting their protective equipment. We have rolled out protective equipment to almost 100% of GP surgeries now.
Earlier, the Government, through the Treasury, announced a package of support for local authorities to protect the vulnerable during the coronavirus outbreak. Does the Secretary of State agree that a proportion of this hardship fund should be allocated to local welfare provision so that support can be given to those who are most vulnerable and facing financial hardship?
Thank you, Mr Deputy Speaker.
I congratulate my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State on this campaign, which has kept the level of conversation stable and consistent throughout. This week, sadly, we also had a constituent pass away at Watford General Hospital, and I pay tribute to the family and to the staff who work so hard.
My question is on the broader responsibility of this place, councils, local government and anybody in a public position. Does my right hon. Friend agree that the main message we need to get out is for people to remember that, on the frontline, the most important thing they can do is regularly wash their hands for 20 seconds? That is not much to ask of the general public, but it is the most frontline thing they can do to stop the spread.
That is incredibly important, and we have to keep reiterating it, even though we may have heard it a thousand times—I may have said it even more than that. Although there is a huge debate about coronavirus and what we can do as a country, there are some really simple things that are really effective.
What guidance will the Secretary of State give to prepare us for what may be necessary, such as the possibility of having to cancel events, constituency surgeries and so on? I have staff, as I am sure most Members do, who are already concerned about how they should be protecting us and, most importantly, themselves and their family and friends.
Secondly, what is the Secretary of State doing, or talking to colleagues about doing, for those on very low incomes who have to self-isolate and are unable to order food through the internet because they have either no credit card or no internet?
First, the Leader of the House, Mr Speaker and the House of Commons Commission, advised by Public Health England, are best placed to come forward with guidance on the details of how this place can run should a significant number of colleagues and, potentially, staff be unwell or self-isolating.
Secondly, it is very hard, from central Government, to make sure we reach all the people who will need the sort of support the hon. Lady describes. This is best done through local authorities, which is why we have introduced a £0.5 billion fund for local authorities essentially to do whatever they think is necessary in these circumstances.
I also thank my right hon. Friend for his conduct and his handling of this situation.
It is true that Wales has seen very few registered cases of coronavirus relative to other parts of the UK. Indeed, I believe we have no registered cases of coronavirus in north Wales. None the less, I welcome the installation of temporary testing sites by the Betsi Cadwaladr University Health Board. Will my right hon. Friend confirm that the Welsh Government have access to the same advice as he does, and that they are being fully included in the preparations he is making here in the UK?
Yes, absolutely. This is a four-nations approach, and the Welsh CMO is in daily contact with the English CMO, the Scottish CMO and the Northern Irish CMO. Indeed, they are also working with the chief medical officer of the Republic of Ireland. The basis of the scientific advice is the same across the four nations. Although, as my hon. Friend reports, there are no cases in north Wales, I am afraid this virus will continue to spread and we should expect there will be a case in north Wales before too long.
I certainly welcome the Government’s determination to keep Parliament open. What a U-turn from the situation not that long ago, when we had to take them to court to keep it open.
Does the Secretary of State accept that it does not have to be all or nothing? A lot of things happen in this place that are not essential to the functioning of our democracy and that, either in fact or certainly in perception, create a high risk of infection. For example, why do we still have functions at which food is left out on uncovered plates on a table at the end of the room without enough sets of tongs, meaning people have little choice but to help themselves using their hands? Why is it that, on the few occasions that we have to divide the House, we cannot use a deferred Division system so that people go through the Lobbies in dribs and drabs over a two or three-hour period, instead of being crammed in, 300 at a time, within a maximum time limit of eight minutes?
Will the Secretary of State and his colleagues in government look at some of the practices in this place, partly to minimise the chances of our carrying this infection back to our constituencies but also to send a message to the rest of the population that we have identified where our own practices fall short of the best standards of hygiene and that we are taking steps to correct it?
I understand where the hon. Gentleman is coming from. The issues he raises are matters for the House authorities, and I am sure they will have noted his comments.
Newcastle upon Tyne Hospitals NHS Foundation Trust welcomed the UK’s first coronavirus victims, six weeks ago. In the intervening time, the role of Newcastle City Council’s public health team has become increasingly important, as local cases are identified and local concerns raised, yet it does not know what its budget will from April. How can it plan an effective public health campaign? Will the Secretary of State at least confirm when it will be told what its budget is and that the increase—there will be one—will increase with the duration of the crisis?
Yes, of course, because I expect this crisis to last for less than a year. I have been absolutely clear that the allocations will increase in real terms, so everyone can plan on that basis, and we will get the details out as soon as we can.
I thank the Secretary of State for his actions to date. What further consideration has been given to UK citizens overseas who find themselves, perhaps in greater numbers, being required to self-isolate for an extended period and thus find themselves in financial hardship? What consideration has been given to citizens of other countries who are visitors to our country and are required to self-isolate, but do not have the means for that extended stay?
This is really important and quite difficult. Our general approach is that people who become ill should stay where they are and be treated in the country in which they find themselves. This comes back to the previous question, because the first two victims of coronavirus in the UK were not British citizens, but they were treated brilliantly by the hospital in Newcastle. The treatment they received was fantastic, and rightly so. Of course there are cases and examples where we have to support people to come back to the UK. For instance, this afternoon a flight from California landed, bringing people from the cruise ship that had been off California. But the general principle should be that people are supported and treated where they are.
Will the Secretary of State review the criteria for testing? A constituent of mine has returned from the United States with symptoms of the virus but has been refused testing because she has not come into contact with a known case. Will he also say what the policy is on NHS staff wearing masks when on duty, primarily to avoid to the risk of the virus being spread by undiagnosed medical staff?
I am grateful for the constructive tone in which the hon. Gentleman asked the questions. This is an example of the House working well, because he and I have sometimes had cross words across this Chamber, but he has asked these two questions quite rightly. The advice given on 111 has to be dependent on the circumstances presented to the clinician giving that advice on the other end of the phone. It is really important that I do not fetter their discretion, but if he comes to me with details of the individual case and wants me to double-check that his constituent got the right advice, I am happy to do so.
On the second point, the deputy chief medical officer had a discussion with the Prime Minister today that was videoed and put on Facebook, and in that she was clear on this question about masks. There is not an advantage in wearing a mask if you are healthy—that is the advice from the medics here—but there is an advantage in respect of keeping others safe if someone who is ill wears a mask. There are also examples of when medical staff will need to wear the right type of mask to keep them safe. But the general advice is: don’t wear a mask unless you are advised to by PHE; or if you are ill, it is perfectly reasonable to wear a mask to stop infecting others—that is an act of generosity.
First, I thank Mr Speaker, his team and the House authorities for ensuring that this statement is signed. A concern has been raised by Action on Hearing Loss and others about the lack of information in British sign language.
This afternoon, my office was contacted by a constituent whose mother is in a care home that has been closed to visitors for what is described as “the foreseeable future”. Will guidance be issued to residential care homes to ensure that the proper arrangements are made for access to residents?
Absolutely. I agree very much with the hon. Lady about the importance of sign language and the signing of this session. I thank the House authorities for arranging it.
Yes, new guidance on care homes will be put out this week. If the hon. Lady passes on the details of her individual case to the Minister for Care, I am sure that my hon. Friend will be happy to look at it.
Earlier today, I was contacted by a constituent who flew back from northern Italy yesterday evening. He told me that, on landing, there was a complete lack of information and no staff were on hand to offer any guidance. He proceeded to watch most people from that flight spill on to public transport.
I fully agree with the Secretary of State’s advice that we should follow the medical science, but, whether they have symptoms or not, people arriving back on flights from category 1 countries should not be met with that situation.
Today we have upgraded the response to flights coming back from Italy. I understand some of the concerns raised earlier in the week. We have put an awful lot of effort in with the Department for Transport, the Border Force and the airports authorities themselves— I pay tribute to them all—to address exactly the concerns that the hon. Gentleman raises.
I thank the Secretary of State for his statement today and I wish him and his wonderful NHS team well in their endeavours during this pandemic.