Covid-19

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 3:35 pm on 1st September 2020.

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Photo of Matthew Hancock Matthew Hancock Secretary of State for Health and Social Care 3:35 pm, 1st September 2020

With your permission, and indeed your encouragement, Mr Speaker, I would like to make a statement on coronavirus. The latest figures demonstrate how much progress we are making in our fight against this invisible killer. There are currently 60 patients in mechanical ventilator beds with coronavirus—that is down from 3,300 at the peak—and the latest daily number for recorded deaths is two. However, although those figures are lower than before, we must remain vigilant. I said in July that a second wave was rolling across Europe and, sadly, we are now seeing an exponential rise in the number of cases in France and Spain—hospitalisations are rising there too. We must do everything in our power to protect against a second wave here in the UK, so I would like to update the House on the work we are doing to that end.

To support the return of education, and to get our economy moving again, it is critical that we all play our part. The first line of defence is, and has always been, social distancing and personal hygiene. We will soon be launching a new campaign reminding people of how they can help to stop the spread of coronavirus: “Hands, face, space and get a test if you have symptoms.” Everyone has a part to play in following the social distancing rules and doing the basics. After all, this is a virus that thrives on social contact. I would like to thank the British public for everything they have done so far, but we must continue and we must maintain our resolve.

The second line of defence is testing and contact tracing. We have now processed over 16 million tests in this country, and we are investing in new testing technologies, including a rapid test for coronavirus and other winter viruses that will help to provide on-the-spot results in under 90 minutes, helping us to break chains of transmission quickly. These tests do not require a trained health professional to operate them, so they can be rolled out in more non-clinical settings. We now have one of the most comprehensive systems of testing in the world, and we want to go much, much further.

Next, we come to contact tracing. NHS Test and Trace is consistently reaching tens of thousands of people who need to isolate each week. As I mentioned in answer to a question earlier, the latest week’s data shows that 84.3% of contacts were reached and asked to self-isolate, where contact details were provided. Since its launch, we have reached over 300,000 people, who may have been unwittingly carrying the virus. Today, we also launch our new system of pay to isolate. We want to support people on low incomes in areas with a high incidence of covid-19 who need to self-isolate and are unable to work from home. Under the scheme, people who test positive for the virus will receive £130 for the 10-day period they have to stay at home. Other contacts, including, for instance, members of their household, who have to self-isolate for 14 days, will be entitled to a payment of £182. We have rolled out the scheme in Blackburn with Darwen, Pendle and Oldham, and we will look to expand it as we see how it operates on the ground.

The third line of defence is targeted local intervention. Over the summer, we have worked hard to integrate our national system with the local response, and the local action that we are taking is working. In Leicester, as Jonathan Ashworth knows well, as a local MP, in Luton and in parts of northern England, we have been able to release local interventions, because the case rate has come down. We also now publish significantly more local information, and I put in place a system for building local consensus with all elected officials, including colleagues across this House, wherever possible. Our goal is that local action should be as targeted as possible. This combination of social distancing, test and trace and local action is a system in which we all have a responsibility to act, and this gives us the tools to control the virus while protecting education, the economy and the things we hold dear.

Meanwhile, work on a vaccine continues to progress. The best-case scenario remains a vaccine this year. While no vaccine technology is certain, since the House last met, vaccine trials have gone well. The Oxford vaccine continues to be the world leader, and we have now contracted with six different vaccine providers so that whichever comes off, we can get access in this country. While we give vaccine development all our support, we will insist on safety and efficacy.

I can update the House on changes to legislation that I propose to bring forward in the coming weeks to ensure that a vaccine approved by the Medicines and Healthcare Products Regulatory Agency can be deployed here, whether or not it has a European licence. The MHRA standards are equal to the highest in the world. Furthermore, on the development of the vaccine, which proceeds at pace, I will shortly ask the House to approve a broader range of qualified clinical personnel who can deploy the vaccine in order of clinical priority, as I mentioned in questions. As well as the potential vaccine, we also have a flu vaccination programme—the biggest flu vaccination programme in history—to roll out this year.

Finally, Mr Speaker, in preparation for this winter, we are expanding A&E capacity. We have allocated billions more funding to the NHS. We have retained the Nightingale hospitals to ensure that the NHS is fully prepared, and we published last month updated guidance on the protection of social care. As well as this, last month, figures showed a record number of nurses in the NHS—over 13,000 more than last year—and record numbers of both doctors and nurses going into training. We are doing all we can to prevent a second peak to prepare the NHS for winter and to restore as much of life and the things we love as possible. As schools go back, we must all remain vigilant and throughout the crisis we all have a role to play.

This is a war against an invisible enemy in which we are all on the same side. As we learn more and more about this unprecedented virus, so we constantly seek to improve our response to protect the health of the nation and the things we hold dear. I commend this statement to the House.

Jonathan Ashworth (Leicester South) (Lab/Co-op): We are indeed all on the same side in fighting this virus. I hope that the Secretary of State understands that when we raise issues, we do so because we urge the Government to improve their response to fighting this virus. This remains a lethal virus that leaves many with serious, debilitating sickness. Everything must be done to drive down and eliminate infections and suppress the virus completely.

With that in mind, I hope that the Secretary of State can answer a few questions today. I am grateful for advance sight of his statement. First, to avoid a second national lockdown, which we all want to avoid, an effective test and tracing regime is vital. I listened carefully to the figures that he outlined, but he did not tell the House that the numbers going into the system have actually fallen in the past week, from 79% to 72%. This system is not yet world beating.

Throughout questions the Secretary of State has rejected criticisms of the private sector contractors who are involved in delivering the system, so there is no point in me raising them again, but would it not be better if money was spent on investing in local public health teams, particularly in those areas where restrictions are in place, so that they can do more door-to-door testing, as we have seen, for example, in Leicester? Surely that would be a better use of public funding, for example, than paying for so-called influencers on Instagram to big up test and trace.

On testing itself, the Secretary of State now supports mass testing as a policy aim. It is something I have been calling for, for some months. It is something the former Health Secretary, the Chair of the Health Select Committee, has been calling for. Indeed, we tried to persuade the Secretary of State of its merits before the summer when we asked him to introduce regular testing of NHS front-line staff. He whipped his MPs to vote against it, but will he now, given that he is in favour of mass testing, introduce regular weekly testing of all front-line NHS workers?

To move to mass testing means evolving our testing regime from one that provides antibody tests and diagnostic PCR—polymerase chain reaction—tests effectively to a system of mass screening using more rapid, on-the-spot antigen tests. The Secretary of State referred to rapid tests in his statement. Can he tell us when rapid, on-the-spot antigen tests will be rolled out across society and which sectors of the workforce will be first in the queue to access those tests?

Will the Secretary of State also look at introducing saliva testing, which is being used in Hong Kong, for example, and will he ensure the quick turnaround of tests? I wonder whether he has seen the study from Yale that suggests that saliva testing could be as sensitive as nose and throat swabs. What is his attitude towards pooled testing, which would surely increase the capacity in areas of low prevalence? Does he have a plan to introduce pooled testing? Will he allow GPs to carry out testing or, at the very least, to arrange a test for their patients directly? They currently have to ask their patients to log on to the national system, which is causing huge delays.

On local lockdowns, the Secretary of State said that he wants to involve MPs and elected officials. What process will be used to properly consult local Members of Parliament? What can MPs expect? When a decision has been made to put a local area into restriction, will he publish the specific evidence behind that decision? Why is it, for example, that our constituents in Leicester are not able to gather in private gardens? Can he publish the scientific evidence for that decision?

In Trafford, we have seen infections increase. The local authority leader and the director of public health felt that restrictions should continue, but Sir Graham Brady felt that they should be lifted. Why did the Secretary of State overrule the advice of the director of public health and instead endorse the representations of the chairman of the 1922 committee? There was a similar story in Bradford, and in Bolton, where restrictions are due to be lifted tonight, infections are increasing. Is it still his plan to lift restrictions tonight in Trafford and Bolton, even though infections are increasing compared with last week, when he made his initial decision?

The Secretary of State is right: in the end, a vaccine is our best hope to stop this pandemic. Vaccines save hundreds of millions of lives every year, and I repeat my offer to work with him on a cross-party basis to promote uptake and challenge the poison of anti-vax myths, including those that we witnessed at the irresponsible and dangerous demonstration this weekend in Trafalgar Square. We will work constructively with him on the proposals he brings to the House. Does he share my concerns about those leaders, such as Putin and Trump, who are trying to short-cut testing to rush out a vaccine, undermining safety and efficacy, potentially damaging millions of lives and giving succour to the anti-vax movement?

Finally, health protection is built upon good population health. Poverty makes people sick. Ending cuts and tackling deprivation as a determinant of ill health is vital to improving and protecting people’s health. But the Secretary of State is now embarking on a risky, distracting restructuring of Public Health England in the middle of a pandemic. Tory MPs like to blame Public Health England—it is such rotten luck that these decent, hard-working, competent Ministers are always let down by the people who work for them—but is not the reality that this restructuring will sap morale and focus and should wait until the end of the pandemic? The UK has suffered the highest per capita death rate of any major world economy. To get through this winter safely, our NHS and public health services need resources, and staff need personal protective equipment, fair pay, security and support. I hope he can deliver that.