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Testing of NHS and Social Care Staff

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 6:04 pm on 24th June 2020.

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Photo of Robert Courts Robert Courts Conservative, Witney 6:04 pm, 24th June 2020

It is a great honour to speak in this important debate on testing for NHS and social care staff. I would like to take this opportunity to put on record the boundless thanks of the people of Witney and West Oxfordshire for everything that social care staff and the NHS have done to care for them throughout this crisis. I know that their gratitude is profound and will never be forgotten.

We have now performed more coronavirus tests than any country in Europe, except for Russia. Given the point we started from and the challenges we have had to overcome, that is a significant accomplishment. We have developed a world-leading diagnostics industry virtually from scratch in a matter of months. That extraordinary achievement is a huge credit to the Government and to the Secretary of State for Health and Social Care. If we can put the politics to one side for a minute, it is a shining example of what we can do in this country when we all pull together.

It is absolutely right that NHS and social care staff are prioritised for testing. They are on the frontline of the fight against the pandemic, and they should be at the front of the queue when it comes to testing as well. I welcome the fact that we are now in a position where any care worker who needs a coronavirus test can apply for a priority test, and there is not a restriction on the number of tests they can take, but I want to look at how we can do better for them.

We have only been able to expand our testing capacity so significantly and rapidly thanks to the collaboration of the NHS and expert healthcare providers in the private sector. One of the main lessons of this pandemic has been that, during a time of crisis, ideological questions in the realm of healthcare have been put to one side. The priority is ensuring that testing equipment is acquired, PPE is procured and ventilators are produced. That involves teamwork from the private and public sector, and I am pleased that testing is just one of a number of areas where that has borne fruit.

We need to look at what we can do in the future. We need to look at whether there is more that Public Health England, which is operationally independent of Government, could have done to sponsor and to bring on that partnership at an earlier stage. We could look at Germany, which is very good at this aspect of diagnostics and that partnership model, which is one reason why it has done so well during this crisis.

I would like to spend a few moments talking about one of the major employers in my constituency: Abbott. Its diabetes operation is in Witney, where it manufactures FreeStyle Libre diabetes devices, which are life-changing, and I have spoken about them in the House before. Abbott is at the forefront of the nation’s testing regime, albeit its diagnostics section is in the constituency of my right hon. Friend Mrs May. Abbott has developed a coronavirus antibody test with a specificity and sensitivity of greater than 99%. I had a brilliant call to hear about that, and I am delighted that PHE has now assessed and approved it. The Government have rightly increased their investment in that test and signed a contract to provide over 10 million antibody tests in the coming months.

Antibody testing is not a silver bullet. There is much more work that we need to do. We do not know whether someone acquires resistance to coronavirus once they have had it and recovered, and we do not know how long any resistance will last, but our immunological research is world-leading. I would like to stress that we would not be in this position without the efforts of Abbott, which is an American private healthcare company. We should not view the relationship between the NHS and private healthcare as an adversarial one; it is a collaborative one.