Local Authorities: Covid-19 Prevention

Housing, Communities and Local Government – in the House of Commons on 20th July 2020.

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Photo of Alex Cunningham Alex Cunningham Shadow Minister (Justice)

What discussions he has had with the Secretary of State for Health and Social Care on the role of local authorities in helping to prevent local outbreaks of covid-19.

Photo of Simon Clarke Simon Clarke Minister of State (Housing, Communities and Local Government)

My Department has been working closely with the Joint Biosecurity Centre and the Department of Health and Social Care to develop a framework for the local management of further outbreaks of coronavirus, and councils will play a crucial role in this process. All upper-tier local authorities have published their local outbreak control plans. I am in regular contact with my counterparts at DHSC. We gave new powers to councils to control local outbreaks of covid-19 that came into effect only this Saturday.

Photo of Alex Cunningham Alex Cunningham Shadow Minister (Justice)

Eighteen of 55 patients who tested positive for coronavirus were transferred from North Tees University Hospital into local care homes between 1 March and 15 April. That was directly in line with the Government advice that a negative test was not required before discharge. A further 266 were transferred without a test. The policy changed on 16 April, but does the Minister accept that many deaths on Teesside, and perhaps thousands across the country, could have been prevented if the Government had got it right in the first place?

Photo of Simon Clarke Simon Clarke Minister of State (Housing, Communities and Local Government)

I pay enormous tribute to the care workers on Teesside and of course to our local NHS, which we share as Teesside MPs. This has been a constantly evolving and very complex situation, as Governments around the world, including our own, have obviously learned as matters have progressed. We have acted consistently and in good faith throughout. We have worked very hard with the care sector to protect patients. The £600 million infection control fund that we have instigated is designed to ensure that the care sector is safe, with a strong measure of containment against the disease for patients going forward.

Photo of Clive Betts Clive Betts Chair, Levelling Up, Housing and Communities Committee, Chair, Levelling Up, Housing and Communities Committee

The Minister may not know this, but on 1 June, following the Prime Minister’s appearance at the Liaison Committee, I wrote to him about local authority involvement in tackling this virus. In particular, I asked him to

“give an assurance that data will be shared fully with all partners…In particular…directors of public health.”

I have not had a response to that letter, but I have heard from Greg Fell, the director of public health in Sheffield, and other directors that they are only getting generalised data—they are not getting, on a daily basis, the names, addresses and NHS numbers of those infected and those they have been in contact with. Does the Minister accept, therefore, that while this information is held by Public Health England, it needs to be passed on to directors of public health, and passed on quickly, and will he give an assurance that that will happen this week?

Photo of Simon Clarke Simon Clarke Minister of State (Housing, Communities and Local Government)

Since 24 June, all local authorities have been able to access postcode-level testing data through their director of public health, and that is securely shared by PHE on a weekly basis. I understand that that has been going on pretty much from the moment that it became available. PHE also shares information with local directors of public health as part of the routine investigation of outbreaks and incidents. That includes information on individual cases and their contacts, as required, to support the public health response.

Photo of Kate Hollern Kate Hollern Shadow Minister (Housing, Communities and Local Government)

The Health Secretary quite rightly praised my local council of Blackburn for its efforts to bring down infection rates. I quote:

“On Blackburn, I think the council… are doing a fantastic job… they’ve taken… steps locally and I applaud that. This is exactly the sort of local action we want to see.”

Although Councillor Khan welcomes the praise, as do the communities that have worked closely with the council through this difficult time, does the Minister recognise that they have been failed by the test and track system? I raised that in the House last week. Data made available to me over the weekend shows that only 43% of people from the national service have been contacted successfully. Does he accept that the additional burden on the council requires resources to help keep services running and keep our communities safe? They need the funding now. Finally, will Minister agree to meet me and Councillor Khan to discuss the challenges going forward?

Photo of Simon Clarke Simon Clarke Minister of State (Housing, Communities and Local Government)

I thank the hon. Lady for her question. It is obviously very important we get control of the situation in Blackburn. Public Health England and NHS Test and Trace are actively working with Professor Harrison and his colleagues there to ensure a rapid solution is implemented to support their local work. Clearly, this is precisely why we have allocated £300 million to support the wider test and trace programme. We are also supporting Professor Harrison and his team with additional mobile testing capacity and a local visit in order to better understand how the needs of the community in Blackburn can be supported. I am obviously very happy to meet the hon. Lady and Councillor Khan to discuss how we take this forward, as I have with a number of other authorities in a similar situation.