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Testing of NHS and Social Care Staff

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 4:04 pm on 24th June 2020.

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Photo of Jon Ashworth Jon Ashworth Shadow Secretary of State for Health and Social Care 4:04 pm, 24th June 2020

I beg to move,

That this House
expresses thanks to the heroic work of frontline NHS staff who have saved lives throughout the Covid-19 pandemic;
pays tribute to the at least 312 NHS and Social Care staff who have died of coronavirus in the United Kingdom;
recognises the impact that coronavirus will have upon the NHS to deliver routine care including mental health care without additional Government support;
notes that NHS waiting lists are projected to reach 10 million by the end of 2020, that cancer referrals fell 60 per cent during the peak of the coronavirus lockdown and that four out of five children have reported their mental health has got worse during the pandemic;
further notes that there is a backlog of NHS care that needs to be tackled and that it is vital to prepare NHS services to deliver safe care alongside care for coronavirus, including preparing for winter and ensuring necessary supplies of PPE and medicine;
is concerned that routine testing of NHS and Social Care staff is not currently in place;
and calls on the Government to implement a routine weekly testing programme for all NHS and Social Care staff to enable NHS services to safely resume and ensure the continuity of services throughout the winter alongside a functional, national, public test, trace and isolate system.

We have brought this motion to the House today to provide an opportunity for the House to reflect on the Government’s response in handling the pandemic, to thank our brave, hard-working NHS and social care staff for their extraordinary efforts—including, if I may say so, our student nurses who do a tremendous job on the frontline; I hope the Minister praises them and recognises their worth when she gets up to make her remarks—and to pay tribute to and remember over 300 health and social care staff who gave their lives during the pandemic. We have also tabled the motion to put to the Government a constructive, practical suggestion that we now consider necessary to prepare our national health service to meet the monumental growing burden of unmet clinical need and set out what we think is necessary to prepare us in case of a second wave of the virus.

The key to resetting the NHS and the safe easing of lockdown measures announced yesterday is a fully effective system that finds cases, tests cases, traces contacts, isolates, and then properly financially supports those who have been asked to isolate. We believe a key element of that must now be the regular testing, weekly if necessary, of all NHS and social care staff. This is what we are suggesting to the Government today, and we hope they will accept our constructive suggestion and find a way to make it work.

Throughout the pandemic, our concern as an Opposition has been to save lives and minimise harm. We have always thought that that means suppressing the virus, not simply managing its spread, and measures to crunch the virus down, as nations like New Zealand and Iceland have done, and not merely squashing the sombrero. It is why we on the Labour Benches called for a lockdown. Indeed, when I called for a lockdown in March not everybody in my party supported me at the time—many on our side were concerned about the extraordinary restrictions to civil liberties—but we supported the Government when they announced a lockdown and we co-operated with the Government in ensuring that the necessary legislation passed this House.

I also said, however, that a lockdown was a blunt tool. I said it would buy us time while transmission in the community reduced. We always recognised that we could not stay in lockdown forever. Lockdown has huge social repercussions, especially for children. This is not a debate about schools, but I was struck by the words of UNICEF, which warned:

“Children are not the face of this pandemic. But they risk being among its biggest victims.”

We have always understood that there would come a moment when we need to ease out of lockdown, but it has to be done safely.

Of course, nothing is risk-free. We can never entirely eradicate risk, as the chief scientific adviser reminded us yesterday. We cannot be complacent. This virus exploits ambivalence, and the reality is that there are many hundreds of infections every day. Globally, we have passed 9 million cases. The virus is accelerating across the world. There are outbreaks in South Korea and Germany, countries that have been far more successful than we have. The chief medical officer yesterday warned us to expect to continue to be in this situation way through the winter and way into next spring. We all know from our history books that about 100 years ago there was a deadly second wave of Spanish flu. A second wave must surely be a possibility with this virus.

We are tracking towards one of the worst death tallies in the world: over 65,000 excess deaths, with 26,000 excess deaths in care homes. Ministers cannot run away from the realities, no matter how uncomfortable they are. Today, we call on Ministers to outline a plan for the next stage and to prepare us in case of a deadly second wave. Let me deal with the points in the motion about the NHS.

Ministers boast that the NHS was not overwhelmed, that it coped and that 119,000 people were admitted to hospital for covid and they received exceptional care. They are right to make those claims. Thankfully, the desperate scenes in Lombardy hospitals that we witnessed on our TV screens were never repeated here. Naturally, I pay tribute to all our NHS staff involved in that and all the staff who ensured the building of Nightingale hospitals, developed new care pathways, and moved to digital care or returned to the frontline. But let us be absolutely clear: that surge capacity in the NHS, and the wider protection of the lockdown, has come at a cost, because millions are waiting for care. For those millions, this has not been a cosy hibernation, as the Prime Minister told us yesterday. It has been a time of struggle, of suffering and of distress.

Protecting the NHS has been on the back of cancelled operations, delayed treatment, and, arguably, the biggest rationing of services in the 72-year history of the national health service. It has been on the back of shielding some of the most vulnerable in society, who remain anxious and scared today for their personal health and safety as lockdown eases. Let us remember that, when we went into this crisis, we had 4.5 million on the waiting list. We had A&E targets routinely missed. Every winter, we saw the crisis in our hospitals of trolleys lined up in corridors. We have had some of the worst cancer waiting times in history, and now the NHS Confederation is warning that elective waiting lists could hit 10 million by Christmas. Yes, referrals are down, as the Minister for Health, Edward Argar, recognised yesterday, but that is because of unmet need in the wider community. Indeed, experts are predicting that about 1.6 million are being added to the waiting list every month. That means ever lengthening queues in our constituencies of people in pain waiting for care. The Minister will know that at the end of January, there were 521,000 people waiting for trauma and orthopaedic surgery, including hip and knee replacements, and probably another 42,000 added to the waiting list each week. That means that thousands of our constituents are waiting in discomfort and pain, often when pain-relieving drugs are inadequate.