Covid-19 Update

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 1:50 pm on 8th September 2020.

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Photo of Jon Ashworth Jon Ashworth Shadow Secretary of State for Health and Social Care 1:50 pm, 8th September 2020

I thank the Secretary of State for advance sight of his statement. There can be no question but that the rise in case numbers in recent days is deeply worrying, and I agree that this is no time for complacency, that those who suggested this could be over by Christmas were foolish, and that we should be taking every reasonable measure possible to utterly suppress this virus. It is indeed a very dangerous virus and I am pleased that he and his Department have recognised the condition of long covid—we probably need a better term for it—whereby many people get long-term conditions as a result of the virus. I am pleased about the emerging research into that.

We have been seeing the trends in young people catching the virus for some time, in Greater Manchester, and indeed in Leicester, where the lockdown was due to the trends among young people. Many have warned that we could be facing a resurgence as we move into winter.

The Secretary of State has just announced the closure of pubs and other parts of the hospitality sector across Bolton. Has that been discussed and agreed with the Mayor of Greater Manchester? Can I ask the Secretary of State a very practical question? He may not realise it, but I grew up in Radcliffe, which is next to Bolton. What happens if people in Bolton want to go for a drink and end up going to Radcliffe or Bury, or indeed Chorley—which will be of interest to Mr Speaker? Will they be allowed to travel to neighbouring areas for a drink? How will restrictions be enforced? Given the action that the Secretary of State has taken on the hospitality sector in Bolton, is he keeping that sector under review in other hotspot areas? What guidance has he issued to pubs, restaurants and so on in those areas?

I am grateful for what the Secretary of State said about Leicester, and we have made great progress in the city of Leicester, but we still have in place the rule that people cannot congregate in private gardens with their extended family. Can I ask him again to set out the evidence for that? Can he update us on when Leicester will next be reviewed, because infection rates have come down?

Universities are set to return imminently, yet the SAGE analysis was not published until last Friday. Will the Secretary of State urgently produce a national plan for reducing transmission of the virus in the higher education sector? On schools, we have seen several outbreaks in recent days, including at the school the Prime Minister visited in Coalville a few weeks ago to promote the opening up of schools, yet the exact circumstances in which a school ought to close if a pupil displays symptoms are still unclear. In what circumstances does the Secretary of State believe a school should close?

The Secretary of State may recall that I warned him early on that one of the biggest barriers to self-quarantining would be not fatigue but personal finances. Does he accept that the Government need to go much further in helping people who need financial or housing support to self-isolate? Otherwise, he will never get on top of infections in areas characterised by low pay, child poverty and overcrowded housing. Does that not help to explain the poor record of contact tracing in these areas? In Bolton, contacts were reached in only 57% of non-complex cases; in Oldham, only 50%; in Blackburn, only 47%; in Bradford, only 43%. Nationally, only 69.4% of contacts are now reached and asked to self-isolate. [Interruption.] These are the latest statistics—his own statistics that he publishes. What is world-beating about that?

There was little explanation in the Secretary of State’s statement of what has gone wrong with testing in recent days. He tells us we have capacity for about 300,000 tests a day and that about 100,000 of those are antibody tests. What is the current capacity for testing? How many PCR tests are available at the moment? Yesterday, he said no one should have to travel further than 75 miles for a test, but for many people, such as the 20% of home careworkers on zero-hours contracts, taking a 150-mile round trip for a test simply is not feasible. At the moment, it is not even possible! Last night, it was reported that there were no tests in London. People in Kent were asked to travel to Cardiff. In Denton, they were advised to visit Llandudno. In Leicester, someone was advised to head north to Edinburgh. Helpfully in Devon, people were told they need only travel 20 miles, but unfortunately that involved crossing the sea to get to Swansea. Now, I know the Secretary of State thinks he walks on water, but many of our constituents cannot.

In the Health Select Committee earlier, the Secretary of State admitted that it would take weeks to fix these problems, yet last week he was boasting of plans for 10 million tests a day as part of his Operation Moonshot. When he cannot get the basics right, never mind Moonshot—people will think he is on another planet. His testing regime has been a fiasco in recent days, yet we have had no apology from him today. Is not the core of the problem that he did not listen to the experts? They all advised him to invest in public health teams and NHS labs. Instead, he gave contracts to outsourcing firms such as Deloitte, Serco and G4S, which had no experience in testing and tracing. He should now accept that that was a mistake and invest in public health teams.

We must do everything reasonable to suppress this virus, but in recent weeks we have had muddled messages, failed testing and ineffective contact tracing. Winter is coming, and the Secretary of State needs to get a grip.