I congratulate my hon. Friend Catherine McKinnell, the Chair of the Petitions Committee, on introducing the debate and brilliantly articulating the many issues relating to the recognition and reward of health and social care workers. I thank all those who have signed the four petitions, which have so far amassed some 290,000 signatures between them. By doing so, they have brought this very important debate to Parliament today.
This debate comes at a particularly poignant time, when health and social care workers have been at the heart of the fight against coronavirus, working day and night to protect the NHS and save lives. They, and all the key workers who keep this country going, are the very best of us. I want to take this opportunity to once again pay tribute to the hundreds of NHS and social care staff who have lost their lives to the virus. I hope that when this is over, we can find an appropriate way to remember the frontline staff who gave their lives in the line of duty.
This was a heavily subscribed debate, and it was clear from every Member who spoke that the gratitude the whole country feels for our health and social care workers is replicated in this place. We had some superb speeches from Opposition Members, with good representation from Wales. My hon. Friend Gerald Jones spoke with typical eloquence and highlighted the wise decision of the Welsh Government to recognise the contribution of care workers. I hope that the Minister will be able to respond positively to my hon. Friend’s request, or at the very least confirm that she is making strong representations to the Treasury about the tax treatment of that payment. We heard a similar point from my hon. Friend Alex Davies-Jones, who also reminded us of NHS Direct, which was a great innovation from the last Labour Government.
My hon. Friend Rushanara Ali rightly said that staff need to be rewarded with more than just applause, and she drew attention through her strong speech to the sorry record we have seen over the last 10 years on the NHS. My hon. Friend Zarah Sultana spoke with great passion and listed a whole series of ways in which the health workforce is hit with extra burdens in the course of their duties.
My hon. Friend Abena Oppong-Asare drew attention to the scandal of nurses being forced to use food banks. That should shame us all. We also heard from my hon. Friend Meg Hillier, who made the powerful point that medals do not put food on the table. She brilliantly highlighted how insecure work is a blight on the NHS and a systemic problem that needs addressing once and for all.
As we heard, even before the pandemic our frontline health and social care staff were working in overstretched and under-resourced settings. We must acknowledge that many of our frontline careworkers have been in extremely stressful and sometimes traumatic situations as a result of covid-19—situations that those of us who have not been on the frontline cannot even begin to imagine. Working in these uncertain times, dealing with a new and emerging disease, often without adequate protection, while coping with losing patients and worrying about getting ill themselves or taking the virus home to their loved ones are all contributing factors to staff burn-out and poor mental health. It is vital that we keep them all safe in the event of a second wave.
Yesterday, following the Prime Minister’s announcement of the relaxation of the 2-metre rule and sweeping changes to the lockdown in England, health leaders called for a rapid and forward-looking assessment of how prepared the UK is for a new outbreak of the virus. Those health leaders from the Royal Colleges of Surgeons, of Nursing, of Physicians and of GPs say:
“the available evidence indicates that local flare-ups are increasingly likely and a second wave a real risk.”
They also point out:
“Many elements of the infrastructure needed to contain the virus are beginning to be put in place, but substantial challenges remain”,
and they call on the Government to focus on
“areas of weakness where action is needed urgently to prevent further loss of life”.
We cannot have any failures in preparation this time.
We may no longer be gathering outside our homes on a Thursday night to clap for our carers, but our admiration remains. It has been incredible to see the effort from staff in the last three months—staff who, too often, get very little in return. We hope that they are recognised for their true worth now.