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Testing of NHS and Social Care Staff

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 6:36 pm on 24th June 2020.

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Photo of Rosena Allin-Khan Rosena Allin-Khan Shadow Minister (Mental Health) 6:36 pm, 24th June 2020

You are welcome.

My hon. Friends the Members for Newport West (Ruth Jones) and for Dulwich and West Norwood (Helen Hayes) paid passionate tributes to NHS and care staff, while my hon. Friends the Members for Erith and Thamesmead (Abena Oppong-Asare) and for Bethnal Green and Bow (Rushanara Ali) spoke eloquently about the importance of recognising the sacrifices made by our BAME communities. My hon. Friends the Members for Barnsley East (Stephanie Peacock) and for Warrington North (Charlotte Nichols) spoke movingly about the impact of losing local staff and loved ones; I know that we were all moved. I am also grateful to my hon. Friends the Members for Sheffield, Hallam (Olivia Blake) and for Mitcham and Morden (Siobhain McDonagh) for ensuring that pregnant mothers are not forgotten at this time.

From the very beginning of this pandemic, health and care staff have made immense sacrifices. When we were asked to stay at home, hiding behind closed doors, they went to work and faced this deadly virus head-on. Nothing is more worthy of commendation than the unwavering courage of our health and care staff, fighting this ruthless virus, going to work and facing it to care for us, leaving behind the worries that they had for their own families at home. However, although it is right to pay tribute through our words, it is only through our actions that we can truly honour those who have died.

Our healthcare staff have given everything to fight covid-19, but this Government could not even give them PPE at the height of the crisis. Our frontline staff were sadly unprepared; many went to their death. Ministers must learn from this. Never again can we ask medics and carers to treat patients without protective equipment. Never again can we ask staff to clean the rooms of people who have died from covid-19 without adequate PPE. Our frontline staff have lost patients and colleagues on an unimaginable scale, and the impact will be felt by them for a lifetime.

I cannot tell the House what it is like, as a trained medic used to delivering bad news, to have to break the hearts of people over the telephone, telling them that the worst has happened and their loved one has died, or on rare occasions to have them there in front of you as you deliver the news, fully covered in PPE with only your eyes showing, unable to give them the hug you would previously have been able to give. In those worst of circumstances, you are left shaken to your core because the very thing you have been trained to do is to provide nurturing support. It feels robotic; it feels sterile; it feels inhumane.

As we leave behind the peak of this virus and life slowly starts to resemble some form of normality, it is important to remember that the horrors—the true horrors—of fighting covid-19 on the frontline will never leave the minds of the frontline care and NHS staff. Never will they forget, in their heart of hearts, at their core, what it has been like to face this virus. Our NHS and care staff need mental health support that is tailored to their unique needs, and they need it now. Clapping simply is not good enough. Without action, it is an empty gesture. Only by protecting the mental health of our healthcare workers can we expect them to protect both the physical and the mental health of the nation. Public health fears, social isolation and economic uncertainty are all major risk factors for mental ill health. The coronavirus and the subsequent lockdown have affected us all, and there will undoubtedly be a rise in demand for mental health support in the coming weeks, months and even years.

The Government must prepare now and put in place a long-term plan to ensure that services can cope with the inevitable surge in demand. Let me be clear: this must include provision for children and young people. Their mental health needs are so often forgotten, and they have suffered immeasurably throughout this period. With child and adolescent mental health services referrals decreasing massively during the crisis, many mental health problems will be picked up only when children return to school. A report by children’s charity Barnardo’s found that 88% of school staff thought that covid-19 would have a negative impact on their pupils’ mental health and wellbeing. We need to ensure that our most vulnerable children do not slip through the cracks. I am sure that, party politics aside and regardless of which Bench we sit on in this place, we all agree on the importance of prioritising the mental health of our children and young people.

To get a handle on the virus early on and come through the crisis completely unscathed might have been impossible, but there is merit in the ambition. From the outset, sadly, the Government seemed to accept that thousands of deaths were inevitable. The lockdown came too late, and it cost us dearly. It cost us friends, it cost us family, it cost us colleagues, it cost us members of our black and minority ethnic community, it cost us NHS and care frontline workers. Our communities have paid the price, and they will suffer immeasurably for a long time to come.

When healthcare systems in other parts of the world began to crumble in the wake of covid-19, when on our television screens on “News at Ten” we could see what was playing out globally, this Government sat idle. At a time when we needed quick, decisive actions, this Government dithered and refused to enter lockdown, failed to get PPE where it was needed and abandoned their community test and trace strategy, letting the virus run rampant through this country. With the benefit of hindsight, that gamble clearly failed, causing countless avoidable deaths.

The last time I stood here and tried to raise that issue with the Government—with the Secretary of State himself—my tone was challenged, but I say this: it was not my tone that was the issue, but the very content of what I had to say. It was the sentiment and the understanding that many frontline workers feel that unnecessarily they had to break people’s hearts in the way I have just described. In the most inhumane of ways, this virus stripped the humanity out of grieving, and there were many avoidable deaths. That is what the Secretary of State took issue with.

With the benefit of hindsight, the gamble clearly failed, causing a countless number of avoidable deaths. Imagine people waving their loved ones off in ambulances, never to see them again—never able to give that last kiss, and never able to say goodbye in person to the person who had brought them the most love and joy in the whole wide world. Our communities will grieve for a lifetime, as will the healthcare workers who had to pass a paltry phone to someone as they took their last breaths, so that their relatives could say words like, “Hang on dad, we love you.” Never again can we find ourselves in this position, when it could have been prevented. Never again can we ever allow our communities to be so failed.

In February, the Government may have been able to feign ignorance of the threat posed by the coronavirus, but today we know all too well its devastating impacts. We have the evidence, we have had the reviews and we have seen it play out in technicolour. I say this: with the very real danger of a second spike and with winter flu season on the horizon, preparations must begin now to ensure that the NHS and the social care sector have everything they need to keep themselves and the public safe in the months and years to come. Will the Government please outline what preparations are being undertaken to plan for those eventualities? We must stockpile PPE now, not later. We needed the track and trace system up and fully operational weeks ago, not in the autumn. We need urgently to learn the lessons and prepare.

We honour those who have died by learning from their sacrifice and ensuring that never again will this country sleepwalk into a crisis. Never again will we accept unnecessary deaths as a consequence of inaction. I believe that there are good people on both sides of this Chamber, and I believe we all are here because we care about our communities. We are all here because in essence, we truly believe and want to believe that we care about our NHS and care staff. So in that light, I sincerely hope that Members from across the House will join us today in supporting the motion.