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Testing of NHS and Social Care Staff

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 5:44 pm on 24th June 2020.

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Photo of Kieran Mullan Kieran Mullan Conservative, Crewe and Nantwich 5:44 pm, 24th June 2020

I want to begin by thanking all the staff at Leighton Hospital, which serves my constituents in Crewe and Nantwich, who were so welcoming to me during my time on the wards recently. Because I am an MP and because I have a public profile, I have received a lot of thanks for going back, when actually the real thanks and gratitude should go to those staff who are there day in, day out full-time.

I know coronavirus presented a very real risk that was not an ordinary part of the job, but one of my key aims in this place is to get across to all Members of this House that the day-to-day stresses many face working in public services are there all the time. NHS staff often go above and beyond, and take decisions and carry a weight of responsibility that would be quite alien to most people. I want to use the recognition of the incredible work of NHS staff at this time to highlight the need to continue with this recognition going forward. We are at risk of finding it increasingly difficult to recruit and retain staff, as the rest of our modern workforce sees shifts towards a better work-life balance and flexibility in their employment.

We know that testing and tracing is key to the battle against coronavirus. We also know that health and social care settings are going to be the area that will need particular attention. In fact, I saw during my brief time back treating patients that, as services begin to look more like they did before coronavirus, the challenge for health and social care providers will increase in some ways. For a period, the task was clear and focused. Almost everything being done was geared towards treating coronavirus patients and keeping as many people as possible safe. Now, individual staff and managers need to weave steps to contain coronavirus throughout the increasing return of normal services. Organising wards into covid and non-covid is actually a simpler way of managing the flow of patients when that is the primary and overriding concern. When we reach the point of needing to be vigilant and to isolate individual patients among the delivery of normal services, that presents unique challenges of its own.

It is important that, wherever possible, normal services do return, because we know there is increasing evidence that diagnoses have been missed or delayed. This was an unfortunate inevitability of the clear and necessary message to the public about being careful in making use of the NHS at the height of the pandemic. So we must see how we can target messages. There is an increasing tendency to rely on social media online advertising for our public health messaging, and we need to use media that are going to best reach the at-risk groups for not seeking health advice.

On delivering rapid and ongoing testing, I feel compelled to challenge the narrative that the Secretary of State in Whitehall can click his fingers and instigate a flawless testing regime across the many thousands of individual wards, units, GP practices, treatment centres, care homes and in-home care providers that make up our health and social care sector. Clearly, the long time in opposition and the loss of so many previous Labour Secretaries of State for Health from their Benches have led to amnesia among the Opposition about the reality of instituting national approaches uniformly in the NHS. Any guidance is sent to hundreds of thousands of staff and is interpreted by them individually and locally by their managers.

Weekly testing is not a magic bullet. We must not let there be any distraction from the key and overriding concern that keeping outbreaks contained is most importantly about individual NHS staff and patients maintaining social distancing as much as possible within healthcare settings, because without that, even with regular testing, we will lose groups of staff from frontline services at times when we cannot afford to do so. We must not underestimate the enormous task a weekly testing regime would place on the NHS. There needs to be clear evidence for its benefits over other approaches. I note that the British Medical Association and others have said the same thing—that actually the evidence base for a mandatory weekly approach is not necessarily there. I hope, when responding, the Opposition spokes- person, Dr Allin-Khan, will spell out exactly what evidence they feel they have that means weekly testing is the one and only way to do it.