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Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 7:00 pm on 11th March 2020.

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Photo of Matthew Hancock Matthew Hancock Secretary of State for Health and Social Care 7:00 pm, 11th March 2020

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, 5 March 2020;
Vol. 672, c. 984.]

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.