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Coronavirus

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 7:05 pm on 11th March 2020.

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Photo of Jon Ashworth Jon Ashworth Shadow Secretary of State for Health and Social Care 7:05 pm, 11th March 2020

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.