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Covid-19 Update

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 2:23 pm on 24th March 2020.

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Photo of Jon Ashworth Jon Ashworth Shadow Secretary of State for Health and Social Care 2:23 pm, 24th March 2020

I thank the Secretary of State, as always, for advance sight of his statement. As he knows, yesterday we called on the Government to move to implement the enforcement of social distancing measures, so the Prime Minister was quite right last night to call for people to stay at home.

May I put to the Secretary of State a few quick questions? The virus thrives on inequalities. It is the most vulnerable, without financial security, who are especially at risk. I therefore urge him to consider abolishing prescription charges for the duration of the outbreak, especially for those with conditions such as asthma. We are very mindful of the mental health implications of asking people to stay at home, and we are also deeply concerned about the potential for domestic violence to increase. What support is available on those two fronts?

We also need clear and unambiguous advice around which workers can and cannot go out. The Opposition would call for just key workers to be able to go to work. We have seen Sports Direct, for example, insisting that its workers turn up today. We are hearing stories about warehouses insisting that agency workers turn up and about construction sites not putting in place social distancing measures. That is putting workers at risk, and it is putting the lives of us all at risk. We need clear enforcement; if we are telling people that they will be fined for leaving their house, why are we not fining employers for insisting that their employees turn up to work when they should be staying at home? My right hon. Friend the shadow Chancellor will be putting more points to the Government about income protection in the debate later today.

Let me quickly turn to personal protective equipment. I understand the efforts the Government have made, but there are still NHS staff saying that they have no access to adequate PPE. We still have hospital chief executives expressing concern that they do not have access to FFP3 masks, that they are not getting the visors and sanitisers they need on time and that, when they do get masks, they are different from the previous masks, so staff have to be retrained. I urge the Government to move heaven and earth to get the PPE our staff need to the frontline. We also need PPE in social care. We are beginning to see outbreaks of covid-19 in social care homes. What support is in place for the residents of care homes, and when will we get the PPE that we need into the social care sector?

Enforced social distancing is welcome—we called for it—but in many ways it is a blunt tool without ramping up testing and contact tracing. That is how countries such as South Korea have managed to suppress the virus. We are still testing only around 5,000 people a day. We do not have enough community testing. We are still not testing enough NHS staff. As the World Health Organisation has instructed the world, test, test, test.

Leaked emails today suggest that, on Sunday, the Government were asking to borrow research institutions’ testing kits—we have called for that, and we do not disagree with it—but the emails also said that the Prime Minister had said:

“there are no machines available to buy”.

Many of our constituents, and indeed NHS staff, will be asking why we did not procure machines and kits sooner.

On intensive care capacity, there are reports today that the ExCeL centre will be turned into a field hospital of 500 beds and that staffing ratios for intensive care are being relaxed. We understand that, given the staffing demands we face, but if we are setting up more field hospitals, will the Secretary of State tell us what oversight there will be? That change also means that more of our specialist staff will be stretched further—we understand why—but what guidance will be in place? Will the Secretary of State update the House on how many intensive care beds are now open, and how many more will be opened; how many ventilators we have, and how many more will be purchased; how many beds with oxygen we have; and what the current extracorporeal membrane oxygenation capacity is?

Will the Secretary of State quickly update the House on an issue that has emerged overnight about access to abortion care, as a result of some of the implications of the Coronavirus Bill? Will he assure the House that women who want access to abortion care will continue to be able to get it?

Our constituents are worried; our constituents are fearful. I hope the Secretary of State understands that when we put these questions to him, we are doing so because we want the national effort to defeat this virus to succeed.