Public Services

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 12:40 pm on 28th April 2020.

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Photo of Rachel Reeves Rachel Reeves Shadow Minister for the Cabinet Office and Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster 12:40 pm, 28th April 2020

I thank the Minister for his good words about the constructive approach taken by the Opposition, which is very much our approach, and for an advance copy of his statement.

This year is the 72nd anniversary of our national health service, and perhaps never in its history have we appreciated it as much as we do today. To all our public sector workers, in all our public services, let me say this: we are all hugely grateful for everything you do. You are the foundation stone of our communities and our society.

Let me start by asking the Minister about social care. Unlike our national health service, social care is hugely fragmented but no less vital. At the weekend, Ministers said that deaths in care homes were declining in the same way as they are in hospitals. However, the most up-to-date statistics tell a different story. Weekly figures published today by the Office for National Statistics show that 4,316 deaths outside hospitals that involved covid-19 were registered in England and Wales up to 19 April. Of those, 3,096 took place in care homes—almost treble the number of deaths recorded the previous week. The number of overall deaths in care homes has trebled in three weeks. Will the Minister now correct the Government’s claims that deaths in care homes are falling? Without accurate and up-to-date information, it is difficult to know how this awful virus is progressing. Will the Minister commit to work with the Care Quality Commission and the Office for National Statistics to publish data on a daily basis, just as we do for our hospitals?

It is over a month since the Government introduced the lockdown measures, which the Opposition support. We all recognise that there will be no rapid return to the world we knew before, but what might the journey out of lockdown look like? Lockdown comes with its own risks. Refuge has reported a 25% spike in calls to the National Domestic Abuse Helpline, and the number of deaths associated with domestic violence have more than doubled. Will the Minister support our calls for £75 million to be made available to domestic violence charities to support those who are struggling? What assessment have the Government made of current PPE provisions, and other protections that the police will need going forward?

One of the most concerning aspects of the lockdown has been the impact on vulnerable children who risk falling behind their peers, despite the best efforts of our teachers and social workers. The Government must give advice to schools that is based on scientific advice, but will the Minister confirm that they are working on plans to reopen schools with school leaders, education unions and parents? One million children lack access to electronic devices on the internet, which are essential for home learning. Will the Government consider expanding their scheme to provide free devices to children who are in need of them? Will the Minister update the House on efforts to ensure that our most vulnerable children are safe during lockdown?

Let me turn to personal protective equipment and face masks, because the Cabinet Office is responsible for Government procurement. An increasing number of countries are advising the wearing of face masks when out in public. Face masks are now mandatory in shops or on public transport in many German states, and the Japanese Government have sent free face masks to 50 million households. To prepare for that possibility and to learn from the mistakes that the Government made in not stockpiling or sourcing sufficient levels of PPE for NHS and care staff, will the Minister say how many face masks the Government have stockpiled? How many would we need on a monthly basis if they became mandatory out in public? Where has the stockpile been sourced from, and where are additional face masks being produced? What preparations have been made to ensure their effective and fair distribution?

Members across the House will be aware of shortages in PPE in hospitals, care homes, and for other frontline workers in their constituencies. A survey by the Royal College of Physicians has shown that 27% of doctors are still being forced to reuse single-use protective equipment, more than 30% do not have access to protective gowns, and just 50% have access to protective goggles. Does the Minister accept that those statistics from the Royal College of Physicians show the reality for too many doctors?

Following last night’s “Panorama”, how can the Government claim to have delivered 1 billion items of PPE, when that number included counting individual gloves and paper towels? Will the Minister provide the House with a breakdown of those 1 billion PPE items by type, and place a copy in the House of Commons Library today? With huge PPE shortages in care homes, will the Minister say when the so-called “clipper” service will be up and running for local councils to access PPE, with reports that it will not be available for another three weeks?

Is he confident about the standards of PPE in care homes, given that our advice falls below that of the World Health Organisation standard?

We came to the lockdown too late, with inadequate PPE and testing too late, so we want the Government to get the decisions right this time to help people to plan, to ensure that the Government take the right action to prevent infection rates rising again, and to build and maintain the confidence of the public. Will the Government commit to holding talks with teachers, trade unions, businesses and local authorities about how a strategy can be developed in the best interests of public health and the economy? Will the Minister commit to publishing the Government’s next steps?

We stand ready to support the Government. It is in our national interest that we defeat this virus, and the questions posed today are to help the Government and all of us get the answers to these difficult questions right. I hope that, as we come through this, we will build a national recovery plan to help our NHS, public services, businesses, workers, families and communities to recover, to be more resilient, to end austerity and to value, cherish and reward what really matters to all of us, now and in the future.