Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 6:06 pm on 16th March 2020.

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Photo of Jon Ashworth Jon Ashworth Shadow Secretary of State for Health and Social Care 6:06 pm, 16th March 2020

I thank the Secretary of State for keeping me informed of developments. Our thoughts must be with the loved ones of those who have sadly died from the virus, including the family of the man who died at the Leicester Royal Infirmary in my constituency over the weekend.

I pay tribute to all our NHS staff, our social care staff and, indeed, all who work in public services. Never have we been more in their debt, and will be in the coming weeks. The public, as indeed all Members of the House, want the national effort to succeed. Every one of our constituents wants to do the right thing for their loved ones, for their neighbours and for themselves.

The virus spreads rapidly. It exploits ambivalence. It demands clarity of purpose. It demands Government effort as we have never seen before in peacetime. With that in mind, I put a number of questions to the Secretary of State, which I trust he accepts are raised in a constructive spirit. Specifically, on today’s measures, which we endorse, if we are asking people to work from home if they can, what is the advice to those who are not able to work from home because of their occupation—millions who work in the retail sector, for example?

Today, the Government will ask the elderly and those with long-term conditions to shield themselves, starting at the weekend. Can the Secretary of State give us more details of how that will work in practice? Will they be able to exercise or go for a walk? What happens if someone refuses to follow the advice? How will those who need social care support get the care they need? What protections are in place for social care staff embarking on regular 15-minute visits? How will those with complex needs and disabilities be supported?

We know that those with co-morbidities and a compromised immune system are also vulnerable. What specific advice is there for those with conditions such as diabetes, hypertension, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, asthma and cardiovascular issues, who the emerging literature shows to be particularly vulnerable at the moment? How will those people access repeat prescriptions?

I understand the gravity of the situation. Could the Secretary of State update the House on how far away from the peak he thinks we are? While I understand the reasoning for the decisions the Government have made today, surely there will now come a moment when schools will close. Teachers are already anxious, and parents need to plan. Can he offer some advice to parents, who will be worried tonight?

Throughout the outbreak, we have been as one in agreeing that all decisions must be based on science and evidence, but the Secretary of State, of course, will know and understand that different scientists can reach different conclusions, even when presented with the same data and evidence, so does he agree that all the evidence informing the UK’s strategy must be transparent, and that the modelling and the evidence base should be published, so that it can be peer-reviewed and stress-tested? This is about maintaining public confidence.

May I press the Secretary of State on the controversy, if I may put it like that, of recent days, in the debate about so-called herd immunity? He said yesterday that herd immunity is not the goal. The chief scientific adviser suggested something slightly different on Thursday. Could the Secretary of State clarify the Government’s position?

May I put a point that is repeatedly raised by our constituents? I hope that the Secretary of State appreciates the way in which we are putting these points to him. Many of our constituents are asking us why the UK has hitherto seemed to have taken a different course from other nations. They have suggested that other nations have been deliberately trying to delay, and to buy time to prepare for, future outbreaks. Will he explain what ideas the Government have and have not rejected, and what lessons they have learned, from countries such as Singapore, Taiwan and South Korea, which have brought the virus under relative control through containment policies? What lessons can we learn from Germany and Scandinavia, which, in recent days, according to the data, are reporting death rates of less than three per 1,000 covid-19 cases, whereas in the UK and France, the figure is much higher?

May I press the Secretary of State on the advice of the World Health Organisation? It has been clear that testing and contact tracing should continue. Many of our constituents are saying to us that surely we need community testing to continue, because we need to know the percentage of the population infected at any one time. Otherwise, the percentage of immunity will be unknown. People who are ill, those who work in the NHS or the care sector, and anyone caring for elderly relatives will surely want to know their covid-19 status, because it will have an impact on how they interact with other people in the community. NHS staff are being asked to care for covid-19 patients, not knowing whether they themselves are transmitting the virus. If they get ill, will they now be asked to stay at home for 14 days? Surely if we can test those NHS staff, and the test returns negative, we can get them back on the frontline sooner.

Is the issue around testing about capacity? If it is, has the Secretary of State considered demanding that UK-based pharmaceutical companies hand us their labs? Can we use the testing labs in higher education institutions and universities? Can diagnostic kit makers be urged to manufacture more testing kit urgently?

On a vaccine, we understand the timescales involved, but can the Secretary of State confirm that he will approve funding for scaling up manufacturing of the vaccine candidates that are being developed in the UK? On antivirals, clinical trials on repurposing drugs are under way across the globe; can he provide a written statement to the House on what capacity the UK has to assist in that process?

Turning quickly to the capacity of the national health service, our NHS and social care staff need support. They need quality personal protective equipment, whether in secondary care or primary care. Can the Secretary of State tell us how many additional intensive care unit beds have been opened? I think he has hinted that non-emergency elective treatment will now be suspended; could he confirm that? Members have long been asking him about ventilators. Can he outline the latest numbers, and say where he thinks we will be by this time next week? Can he update us on ECMO bed capacity, and say whether he is also increasing the availability of non-invasive ventilation, such as BPAP? If we need beds and equipment from private sector organisations, we should requisition that equipment, not pay for it.

Finally, we will co-operate with the Government on the proposed emergency legislation, and I am grateful for the discussions we have had, but the biggest challenge to the public health social distancing measures will not be boredom and fatigue; it will be finances and affordability. The poorest, who struggle to pay the rent, those who worry about putting food on the table, and those who have no savings to dip into, will be faced with impossible choices between hardship and health. From sick pay and lost earnings protection, to universal credit changes and rent and mortgage payment deferrals, we need a package of financial support, and we look forward to working with the Secretary of State on that front.

These are indeed serious times. Many of our constituents are anxious, and want as much certainty as possible. We have put these questions to the Secretary of State because the health and safety of the nation must always come first.