Covid-19 Response

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 12:57 pm on 22nd April 2020.

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Photo of Matthew Hancock Matthew Hancock Secretary of State for Health and Social Care 12:57 pm, 22nd April 2020

I thank the shadow Secretary of State for the approach that he has taken in applying scrutiny, but in a tone that makes it clear that right across the House we are united in our efforts to tackle this virus. He asked about the number of social care staff who have sadly died: 15 social care staff have sadly lost their lives. Just as we pay tribute to and remember all those NHS staff who have died, so we do for those who serve our country and look after people in social care.

He asked about international comparisons regarding the number of deaths. Of course, that needs to be done scientifically, taking into account the size of the populations of different countries. We are constantly making an important analysis of why the death rate as a proportion of the population in Germany is lower, and I speak to my German counterparts about that. In the same way, we look at all the European countries where the death rate is higher, and we try to learn lessons and ensure that we are doing the best we possibly can. There are many explanations for what is happening in Germany. One of them, which the German Health Minister explains both in public and in private, is the nature of those who first caught the disease in Germany. There is an awful lot of analysis of why, and we are constantly looking at that question, to improve our delivery here.

The hon. Gentleman asked about the seven-day rule and the proposals through SAGE. SAGE is an advisory committee, and it advises Ministers. We are guided by the science throughout this, and the science recommends the seven-day rule for coming out of full-blown isolation—it is not returning to normal by any stretch—once somebody has had the disease and no longer have symptoms. That is the scientific advice. The basis on which that decision was taken was, precisely as he says, that we listen to the advice from SAGE and then take decisions based on it. That was one where we fully accepted the advice, as we do with most of these clinical decisions.

The hon. Gentleman asked about expanding clinical understanding. He is right that the biggest impact of this disease is on the respiratory system, but it is not the only impact, and I will seek to take up his suggestion that the key clinical figures are convened. I think that the royal colleges are doing that already, but I will check that that is happening.

The hon. Gentleman asked about the disproportionate number of people from minority ethnic backgrounds in the figures of those who have died. We are indeed investigating that, and I will ensure that he has a copy of the results of that investigation as soon as it is concluded. That is a very important piece of work. There is also a disproportionate number of men who are badly affected by this disease compared with women. We need to look at all these characteristics and ensure that we have the full analysis, so that we can learn how to treat.

The hon. Gentleman asked about care homes. All deaths in care homes are, of course, recorded. In terms of the difference between the figures produced by the CQC, the Office for National Statistics and the NHS for deaths in hospitals, those figures measure slightly different things in different timeframes. It is important to look at a rigorous analysis of the comparison of the three. Yesterday there was some debate about whether the ONS figures showed that the deaths outside hospitals were 40% higher. It turned out that that was not true—it was comparing apples and pears—and the real figure is closer to 20%. I would caution the hon. Gentleman against comparing the headline figures without a true comparison of the underlying statistics.

The hon. Gentleman asked about the testing of staff. I am really pleased that we have managed to roll out testing to staff in care homes. He is right that that can helpfully be done through mobile units and the home testing kits that are increasingly available, especially for care homes that are not close to one of the drive-through centres. We now have 27 drive-through centres, and we are increasing that number over the next few days. There are new drive-through centres coming on stream all the time.

The hon. Gentleman rightly asked about PPE supplies to care. A new service is coming on stream directly to provide the PPE that is needed for care homes and domiciliary care—care provided in people’s homes. As I say, increasing that supply has been a massive logistical undertaking, with over 1 billion items of PPE delivered so far.

The hon. Gentleman asked about the spare capacity in the NHS. There are over 10,000 beds currently free in the NHS. We want to reopen the NHS to non-coronavirus symptoms and patients with non-coronavirus conditions safely and carefully as soon as it is safe to do so. The first step we are taking is to send the message loud and clear to people who have suspected conditions that they should come forward. If you think you have a lump that might be a cancer, come forward now, and you will be safely and properly treated in the NHS. The same goes if you have a suspected heart attack or stroke. We have systems in place to make sure that if you come to the NHS, you will be looked after and protected.

We will gradually reopen the rest of the NHS—for instance, to the sort of non-life-threatening conditions and elective surgery the hon. Gentleman mentioned—as soon as it is safe to do so. As he can see, the combination of having some spare capacity in the NHS and at the same time having reached the peak of the virus means that we can now start to reopen the NHS. Part of that is encouraging people to seek NHS treatment when they need it.

Finally, the hon. Gentleman mentioned contact tracing and the app. The app is currently in beta trials, which are going well, but, clearly, although an app to tell people who test positive for coronavirus whom they have been in contact with is helpful, we also need mass contact tracing so that as we bring the rate of transmission down and the rate of testing up, we can contact all the people anyone who tests positive has been in contact with and make sure that they get access to support and know what to do. In that way, we can control the virus with fewer of the extraordinary social distancing measures that have been in place.