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Testing of NHS and Social Care Staff

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 4:57 pm on 24th June 2020.

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Photo of Jeremy Hunt Jeremy Hunt Chair, Health and Social Care Committee, Chair, Health and Social Care Committee 4:57 pm, 24th June 2020

It is a great pleasure to follow Richard Thomson. It is the first time I have heard him speak from the Front Bench and it was a very thoughtful contribution. I hope we hear more from him.

I thank the shadow Health Secretary for having this debate and, indeed, for mentioning my article in The Daily Telegraph. If I ever was on the Prime Minister’s Christmas card list, that mention will be sure to get me taken off it—[Laughter.]

I particularly want to congratulate the Minister of State on leading this debate for the Government. As a veteran of many Opposition day health debates, I can say that she elicited a much calmer response from the Opposition than I ever did, and she deserves many congratulations for that.

We need to start this important debate by recognising that, as a country, we are in a transformed position because of recent changes to our response to the pandemic. We are now contacting around three quarters of the people we identify as testing positive for coronavirus and 90% of their contacts are being asked to isolate. That is the basis of South Korean test and trace, and it is incredibly important that we are in that position. I am sad in this respect that the Health Secretary is not here himself, because that would not have been possible if he had not taken the courageous decision to set the target of 100,000 tests a day at the start of April. Indeed, yesterday’s announcement about the gradual easing of our national hibernation would itself not have been possible if that had not been in place, and we need to recognise that.

The challenge we now have is that we do not know where about two thirds of new infections are happening, so we cannot feed them into the test and trace process. That is a challenge, because SAGE’s advice is that we ask about 80% of potential coronavirus contacts to isolate, and we are still some way off that. In fact, we are contacting about 700 people a day to get their contacts and there are about 2,500 daily new infections. If we do the maths, assuming that each person with coronavirus has about nine contacts, which is the current figure, that is up to a quarter of million people since the process started whom we would have liked to have asked to isolate but we have not been able to do so.

How do we meet that challenge? Well, the answer is to do something that the Government have already shown they are very good at, which is a dramatic expansion of testing capacity. The city of Beijing has about a third of the population of the United Kingdom, but its daily testing capacity is nearly double ours at around 400,000 a day, and many of those tests come back within 24 hours. We look forward to the triumphant announcement next week that we are meeting the Prime Minister’s target for all non-postal tests to come back within 24 hours by the end of this month, because speed matters.

If we expand our testing capacity dramatically, we can use it, for example, to deal with localised outbreaks, such as the one we have had in Ynys Môn, where my hon. Friend Virginia Crosbie is doing such a fantastic job in supporting her affected constituents. We can use it at airports instead of the quarantine policy, by testing people on arrival. We can use it for high-risk groups such as taxi drivers, who are particularly at risk. Most of all, we can use it for our frontline health and care staff. If we had Beijing levels of testing in this country, we would, in addition to the testing we are currently doing, be able to test every NHS frontline worker once a week. If we got it up another 200,000, we would be able to test every frontline care worker once a week as well.

Why does that matter? It matters because, according to the evidence submitted to SAGE on 20 April, up to 25% of the coronavirus patients in our hospitals caught coronavirus in the hospital. When we add on the people who catch their infection in care homes, what we end up with is that about a third of new infections are likely to be in healthcare settings—so-called nosocomial infections, which is one of the many new words we have learned over the course of this crisis.