Coronavirus Response

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 4:48 pm on 20th July 2020.

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Photo of Jon Ashworth Jon Ashworth Shadow Secretary of State for Health and Social Care 4:48 pm, 20th July 2020

I thank the Secretary of State for advance sight of his statement. Before I move to the substance of his remarks, will he tell the House whether it is true that the chief nursing officer was dropped from the Downing Street press conferences because she refused to stick to the No. 10 line on supporting Dominic Cummings? Did the Secretary of State really acquiesce in the silencing of the chief nursing officer at the height of this pandemic?

We in this House would all be immensely proud if a British vaccine and British drug led the world away from this deadly disease, and this is encouraging and exciting news. Will the Secretary of State ensure that there is equitable access to a vaccine when it is developed? He has my commitment that when a vaccine is available, I will stand shoulder to shoulder with him in taking on poisonous anti-vax propaganda. However, we also have to understand that there have been many false dawns in the history of infectious disease, so what happens if a vaccine does not become available? What scenario planning is the Health Secretary doing, should we be confronted with that awful prospect?

On Friday, the Prime Minister suggested that it could all be over by Christmas and that people must start returning to work by 1 August, but the chief scientific adviser said on Thursday that there was “absolutely no reason” for people to stop working from home, so will the right hon. Gentleman now publish an explanation of the scientific basis for the change in guidance with respect to home working?

On Thursday in the House, the Health Secretary insisted that we went into lockdown on 16 March, having previously told the House on 2 June that

“lockdown began on 23 March.”—[Official Report, 2 June 2020;
Vol. 676, c. 704.]

The CSA revealed that SAGE advised the Government to lock down ASAP on 16 March, and Professor Ferguson has said that had lockdown been implemented sooner, we would have saved thousands of lives. The Prime Minister understandably wants to avoid a second lockdown—we all do—but if SAGE advises again on the need for a second lockdown, will it be implemented immediately, and on what criteria will he judge whether a second national lockdown is needed?

Last week, the Prime Minister also suggested that social distancing could be eased in November, predicated on a low prevalence of the virus. Can the Health Secretary define what low prevalence means, and is that the only threshold we need to meet if social distancing is to be removed by Christmas? There were no details last week about when relatives could visit care homes, even though the Secretary of State said on 9 July that an announcement was imminent. He will know that this is causing huge anxiety and upset for many families. Can he give us clarity today on when relatives can visit their loved ones in care homes?

The Prime Minister did indeed announce extra NHS funding, which is welcome, but there was no extra funding for social care. Can the Health Secretary tell us whether social care will get any more resources for this winter? We have always said—and we agree with him—that mass testing is the way in which we have to live with this virus and avoid going into a second lockdown, so we welcome the commitments to increased testing. We also know that local lockdowns may well be necessary in the future—indeed, that is the Government’s preferred response to outbreaks—but it is vital that local areas receive patient-identifiable test data on a daily basis. Why did he tell the House last week that local authorities were getting that data when in fact they were not? I think he is announcing today that they will start getting that data—he refers to “enhanced” data—but local areas could have possibly avoided lockdowns and outbreaks earlier had they had that data.

Local areas still need more clarity. In Leicester, we still do not know what metrics will be used to decide whether Leicester will be released from lockdown. Can the Health Secretary confirm, with respect to Leicester, that given the infection rate there and in neighbouring Oadby and Wigston, a decision on their future will be taken at the same time? And given that we are talking about local lockdowns—we will study the regulations carefully—will he deliver on his promise to provide support for businesses that are subject to a local lockdown, such as in Leicester?

It now appears that Blackburn is overtaking Leicester in terms of infection rates, so what does the Health Secretary make of the remarks of the director of public health in Blackburn, who said at the weekend that Test and Trace is failing and, in his words, is

“contributing to the increased risks of Covid-19” because half of contacts are not reached? Nationally, 71% of people are being contacted, not the 80% that is needed for it to be effective. Indeed, in the Serco call centre element of Test and Trace, only 53% of cases are contacted, and a smaller proportion of contacts are identified in the most deprived areas. We still do not have an app either, despite the right hon. Gentleman’s promises, with Whitehall sources now briefing that he has a

“tendency to overpromise and only sometimes deliver”.

What a wicked, unfair thing to say about the Health Secretary! Seriously—which bit of all this is actually world beating, other than possibly the £10 billion price tag?

Today’s vaccine news is encouraging, but we still have a long way to go. We need mass testing and we welcome the Health Secretary’s commitments on that front, but will he also undertake to expand the rapid testing consortium, so that more British suppliers can be involved? Many complain about test kits and say the regulator takes ages when they give their test kits to be signed off and that emails go unanswered. We need an effective tracing regime. Rather than the ad hoc system we have at the moment, with all that money going to privatised firms, why does he not put local directors of public health in charge, backed up with primary care? We need to be preparing now for the second wave. We already have one of the highest excess death rates in the world. Lessons need to be learned. I hope the Secretary of State is learning them.