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Coronavirus Bill

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 5:36 pm on 23rd March 2020.

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Photo of Jeremy Hunt Jeremy Hunt Chair, Health and Social Care Committee, Chair, Health and Social Care Committee 5:36 pm, 23rd March 2020

I am very worried about that. A doctor in my constituency told me of exactly the same problem, and of course, the risk is that hospitals then fill up and do not have the space to treat people who urgently need hospital treatment.

We have an ambition to increase testing to 25,000 tests a day, but at the moment we are still only testing between 5,000 and 8,000 people every day. On Saturday, we tested 5,500, which is no significant increase on a week ago. It is not just South Korea that is testing more than us per head of population—Germany, Australia and Austria are as well. Now is the time for a massive national mobilisation behind testing and contact tracing.

If we have the antibody test, now is the time to become the first country in the world that says, “We are going to test every single citizen.” Now is the time to introduce weekly tests for NHS and social care staff, to reduce the risk of them passing on the virus to their patients. If the Francis Crick Institute in London is doing any research into anything other than covid-19 right now, it should stop—we need it to be designing tests. If the Sanger Institute in Cambridge is still decoding genomes, it should not be—we need it to process covid-19 tests.

And it is not just the science. Contact tracing is manpower-intensive, yet Public Health England has just 280 people devoted to this. We probably need 280 people in every city and county in the country. Every local government official doing planning applications, every civil servant working on non-corona issues and volunteers all should be mobilised in this vital national task.

As we have heard, testing is vital for NHS staff who are desperate to get back to work. Here is one tweet from a midwife called Katie Watkins, who speaks for so many:

“I know this is happening all over but had to call in sick for my clinical shift on labour ward today as my husband spiked a temperature last night. I feel fine and yet cannot go to work... Where are the tests for #NHS staff?? I could be helping but instead sat at home.”

Testing is also vital for the economy. If we are going to have a year of stop-go as we try to protect the NHS if the virus comes back, testing and contact tracing allows an infinitely more targeted approach and way to control the spread of the virus than economic measures that are much more blunderbuss and do much more damage. This Bill could help that by giving the Government powers to require any pharmaceutical company in the country to manufacture tests and any laboratory in the country to process those tests. It could stop the scandal of £375 tests being available to wealthy people in Harley Street when, in a crisis, every spare test should be used by NHS staff to get them back to work.

This Bill could help with something else being done very successfully in South Korea and Taiwan: the use of mobile phone data. In those countries, they look at the mobile phones of covid patients to identify other phones that they have been nearby when that patient was infectious. That has civil liberty implications, but in this national emergency, being able to do that would save lives, so those powers too should be in the Bill.

Finally, please do not take my word for it on testing. Dr Tedros Adhanom, the director general of the World Health Organisation, and virtually every epidemiologist at the World Health Organisation makes the same point: it is not possible to “fight a fire blindfolded”; social distancing measures and hand washing will not alone extinguish the epidemic; and

“our key message is: test, test, test.”

I know that time is short, but I want to touch briefly on two other issues. Some good points have been made about social care this afternoon. The Bill replaces local authorities’ duty to meet care needs with a power to meet care needs, except when it is a breach of human rights. Bluntly, there may be less provision of social care as a result. We understand in this House why that may be necessary, but if it lasts as long as a year, that will mean more pressure, not less pressure, on hospitals. If there was any lesson from my time as Health Secretary, it is that we need to invest in social care as well as in health. We need to ensure that these new measures do not have the unintended consequence of putting yet more pressure on hospitals that are already on the point of falling over.

My final point is on mental health. Under the measures in the Bill, someone can be sectioned not by two doctors, but by one, and that doctor does not have to know the patient. I understand why we have to take these measures, but obviously it causes huge concerns in the mental health community that someone could be locked up on the say-so of a doctor who does not even know them. I want a commitment from the Government that all cases will be reviewed on the basis of the current procedures as soon as this virus is behind us, and certainly within the first three months.

I end my remarks with a tribute to frontline staff, not from me, a politician, but from an eight-year-old constituent of mine called Tamsin. She says:

“I really want thank all the doctors and nurses who are working so hard to look after all the sick people…they are all risking their own lives to try and stop the coronavirus instead of being safe at home. I’m missing my Nana, Gamma and Grampy a lot because they have to be isolated at home but if they get sick they will need the doctors and nurses to help them get better. Doctors and nurses are amazing.”

Tamsin is right. We must not let them down.