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Coronavirus Bill

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 4:50 pm on 23rd March 2020.

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Photo of Jon Ashworth Jon Ashworth Shadow Secretary of State for Health and Social Care 4:50 pm, 23rd March 2020

My hon. Friend is absolutely right. Path lab and virology labs are under intense pressure, because not only are they being asked to test for covid-19 but they have other testing responsibilities as well, whether that is for HIV, influenza, measles or all the other illnesses that are still circulating and still need to be treated. He makes a very important point.

I hope that Ministers can update us on testing capacity, because looking at the figures it appears that between 21 and 22 March, we did around 5,500 tests, but the previous day we did 8,400 and the day before that about 8,100. I am told that many labs at hospitals have not been able to start testing or are testing at under planned capacity because there are now supply chain issues with the chemicals that are used and the kits to do the testing. If this is the case, could the Government update the House on what they are doing urgently to procure the testing kits we need, and explain why we are not part of the EU joint procurement initiative on testing kits and other equipment?

I emphasise the point I have made in this House before that we really need to be testing our NHS staff. Not testing NHS staff puts them at risk and it puts their patients at risk. This weekend, we heard powerful messages from doctors who were literally shouting out for help and telling us they feel like lambs to the slaughter because of failures in the distribution of protective kit and because they are not able to get access to testing. I have heard of GPs—indeed, GPs have got in touch with me directly telling me this going to DIY stores to make their own PPE kit. It has been reported today that one of the healthcare distribution chains has put out a call to DIY stores asking them to donate or hand over their visors and goggles.

Pharmacists are worried that they cannot get through to CCGs to get appropriate PPE when sick patients are walking through the door daily asking for advice. We have heard stories of community nurses, health visitors and paramedics without PPE. Indeed, The Daily Telegraph reports today about staff at Norwick Park Hospital being forced to wear bin bags because of a lack of PPE.

The health, happiness and lives of our constituents, and of their loved ones and neighbours, depend on our NHS staff now more than ever. We should not expect our NHS staff to go into battle exposed and not fully protected—lacking the armour they desperately need. If more PPE has been delivered in the last 24 hours, as the Secretary of State indicated, then we welcome that, but to be frank, it should not have taken so long. Our NHS staff deserve every ounce of support we can offer, and on that front, will Ministers also consider binning hospital car parking charges for NHS staff at this time of crisis?

Those working in critical services more widely—our police, our careworkers, our postal workers—need appropriate protective clothing too. We urge the Government to ensure that all public services can access the appropriate PPE speedily. For example, in The Sunday Times yesterday, it was reported that flights continue to arrive at Heathrow from Italy, Iran and China. Those flights are obviously coming from hotspots—perhaps Ministers could explain why that is still happening—but what protections are being afforded to airline and airport workers, and what measures are in place for those passengers on arrival? On the tube and on the train, there is real worry that services are being reduced too steeply, causing our key workers to get on to crowded carriages and putting everyone at risk. What assurances can Ministers give us that there is a sufficiency of public transport services to get our frontline workers safely to their workplace?

Let me turn to some of the specifics in the Bill, and first to the health and social care clauses. On the health clauses—Munira Wilson raised this with the Secretary of State—the Bill makes provisions for retired staff and final-year medical and nursing students to rejoin or join the health service for the duration of the pandemic. We understand why, and we welcome this. Can Ministers tell the House, either in response to the debate or in Committee, whether final-year nursing and medical students will be able to return to learning and complete more supported clinical placements, if needed, once the crisis is over? Will Ministers also outline how these students will be fully supported while working during what will undoubtedly be an incredibly stressful time for new doctors and nurses? Will students be properly remunerated for their work, and what protections will be available for retired staff, many of whom could also be in a vulnerable group? I put on record our thanks to those retired staff who have returned to the frontline.

Some of the most vulnerable people in the country absolutely depend on all of us here to defend their human rights and civil liberties, and they are the ones in receipt of adult social care services. On social care, this Bill makes sweeping changes to the duties that are placed on local authorities. It removes the duty to assess care needs, including on discharge from hospital, so there will be no duty to assess people who may need care or to assess their carers, and no duty to assess some of those with the most severe needs who may be eligible for continuing healthcare. Can Ministers reassure us that this will not mean that carers, disabled people and older people are left abandoned by the state until after this crisis?

Most significantly, the Bill downgrades the level of support that councils are obliged to provide to older and disabled people. Rather than the current wellbeing measures, councils will now have to provide services where necessary to uphold people’s basic human rights. In short, this means people will only be entitled to receive social care to keep them alive and to uphold their rights to privacy and a family life. Obviously, that is not the vision for social care that we legislated for in 2014, but we all appreciate that these are incredibly difficult times.

Many older and disabled people, and their families, will be concerned that this will lead to existing care packages being significantly reduced overnight. Local authorities are already struggling to meet statutory needs, and increasing levels of workforce absence will only make that harder. None of us wants to see the new legal minimum of support become the default. Where local authorities can provide more comprehensive packages of support, they should, and they should always bear in mind that people who use social care are not simply passive recipients; there are doctors and nurses who rely on social care, as well as teachers, shop staff, food manufacturers and countless other vital professionals. When councils reduce care packages, they must be careful not to end up causing yet more difficulties for staff in crucial services.