Covid-19 Update

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 9:06 pm on 29th June 2020.

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Photo of Jon Ashworth Jon Ashworth Shadow Secretary of State for Health and Social Care 9:06 pm, 29th June 2020

I thank the Secretary of State for advance sight of the statement, and also for the many direct conversations we have had in recent days about the situation in Leicester. I hope the House will forgive me if I ask a number of questions about the situation in Leicester; it is the city that I represent, but I hope the House will understand that many of the points that I raise would be applicable to their own local areas should they also see an outbreak in their own constituency.

The Prime Minister talks of his “whack-a-mole” strategy to suppress local outbreaks. We were alerted to the situation in Leicester 11 days ago, and tonight we now have from the Secretary State the whack-a-mole strategy. Does the Secretary of State agree that if we are, as a nation, to ease from lockdown smoothly, those areas that do see flare-ups will need greater speed in the response? Otherwise, we risk no moles getting whacked.

Ministers, Public Health England and other agencies must work closely with local government leaders—that has happened in Leicester and we are grateful for that—and local directors of public health need rapid and ongoing access to testing data. Can we resolve whatever the issues are around the data-sharing protocols, so that if we see flare-ups in other cities, local authorities can get data speedily? Will the Secretary of State look into ensuring that the testing data also captures ethnicity and occupation? For a city like Leicester, it is crucial to capture that level of intelligence.

People in Leicester were concerned, anxious and scared yesterday to read in the newspapers and see on TV screens news that we were going into some form of lockdown, based on anonymous briefings. Grandparents who had recently formed bubbles to see their grandchildren were asking me whether they had to withdraw again. Parents were asking whether they could send their children to school today. Those shielding were particularly worried. I have been around politics for a long time so I understand that things get leaked and so on, but I urge him to appreciate that on something of this seriousness and sensitivity, people need crystal-clear clarity and not briefings from over-eager advisers—perhaps; I do not know.

The Secretary of State has announced a number of extensions to the lockdown measures. I support those extensions, given the outbreak in Leicester. Will he just clarify what powers he has to enforce those extensions and whether he needs to bring forward any legislation or any statutory instruments? I welcome the fact that there will be a two-week review. Will he undertake to keep the Members of Parliament updated on that, and will he come back to the House to announce the outcome of that review?

This decision will impact many Leicester businesses, which were preparing to open up on Saturday. Many feel that they are now in limbo, so will they be eligible for adequate financial support for this extension period, and will employees affected be eligible to stay furloughed as well?

We know that this virus thrives on inequality, and that a disproportionate number of black and Asian people die from this disease. A disproportionate number of the poorest are also most likely to become infected and die from this disease as well. It means that a city such as Leicester is particularly at risk. The Secretary of State will know that Leicester is a proudly diverse city, but we also have one of the highest child poverty rates in the country. Those who are in work are often in low-paid, precarious employment. Our housing is overcrowded. Our public services have been cut back and years of austerity have taken their toll. Saving lives and keeping people safe across Leicester is always my priority, so I support the measures that he has announced, but we also need extra support, extra testing and extra resources to protect people in our city. I am grateful for the extra testing stations that he has put in Spinney Hill Park and Victoria Park. Will they remain in place for the duration of this outbreak? I note what he said about an extra walk-in centre, and I welcome that, but could he also provide the city with thousands of home-testing kits, so they can be distributed to local people?

I welcome the extra resources for Leicester and Leicestershire to translate literature into the many languages that we are proud of in Leicester. The Secretary of State will also know that, for those who are asked to isolate, financial security is absolutely crucial to the success of contact tracing. Where people live in multi-generational households, which we have a lot of in Leicester, will he provide accommodation for those who need to isolate away from home? Will he also ensure that workplace inspections happen to check that people who need to isolate have not been forced back to work? Furthermore, given that schools are closing, people who live in Leicester but work outside of Leicester will now have childcare responsibilities. Can they be furloughed and their employment rights be secured? Will he consider giving Leicester City Council facemasks to distribute to every resident? I am pleased that he accepts that the extension to restrictions cannot just apply to the tightly drawn Leicester City Council boundaries, but must include the wider Leicester urban area as well.

There will be many other cities and towns with similar demographic profiles to Leicester: Birmingham; parts of Manchester; parts of London; Bradford; and Coventry. What extra resources and testing capacity will the Secretary of State now put into those areas and what extra support and testing capacity is he putting in place to support the many occupations that are particularly at risk, such as taxi drivers and bus drivers?

Finally, tonight, the World Health Organisation has warned that the virus is still spreading at speed and that those countries that have opened up are beginning to see a resurgence. The virus remains deadly. It causes significant long-term harm and still demands a resolute response. If that means restrictions have to remain in place or be re-imposed, whether in Leicester or elsewhere, then so be it.