With permission, Mr Deputy Speaker, I would like to make a statement on coronavirus. As a country, we have made huge strides in our fight against this invisible killer. Today’s Office for National Statistics figures show that weekly coronavirus deaths have dropped to the lowest number since mid-March, and the latest daily number of recorded deaths is three. However, we have seen a concerning rise in the number of positive cases, particularly among younger people. These figures serve as a salutary reminder that this virus is still very much with us and remains a threat, so it is critical that we maintain our collective commitment to controlling this disease.
Social distancing is the first line of defence. While young people are less likely to die from this disease, be in no doubt that they are still at risk. The long-term effects can be terrible, and of course they can infect others. Six months on, many people are still suffering chronic fatigue, muscle pain and breathing difficulties. Previously fit and healthy people have been reduced to barely being able to function. A King’s College survey published today shows that 300,000 people in the UK have reported symptoms lasting for more than a month and that 60,000 people have been ill for more than three months.
I also want to address the point, which is of course good news, that the number of people who are sadly dying from coronavirus in this country is currently low. We have seen all across the world how a rise in cases, initially among younger people, then spreads, leading to hospitalisations and fatalities. In Spain, where the rise in cases started around two months ago, hospitalisations have risen 15 times since mid-July. The number of daily deaths there has reached 184. In France, hospitalisations have more than tripled in the same period.
This must be a moment of clarity for us all. This is not over. Just because we have come through one peak, it does not mean we cannot see another one coming towards our shores. But together we can tackle it, so long as we remember that, in a pandemic, our actions today have consequences tomorrow for the people we love, for our communities, and for our country. Each and every citizen has a responsibility to follow social distancing and help to stop a second peak. After social distancing, the next line of defence is test and trace. Over the past six months we have built the biggest testing system of any major European country, and one of the biggest testing systems in the world. Today, I can tell the House that we have met our target to provide testing kits to all the care homes for older people and people with dementia that have registered to get tests.
But I will not rest. We are working flat out to expand our testing capacity even further. Using existing technology, we are expanding our capacity right now, and we are investing in new testing technology too. Last week, I was able to announce £500 million for next-generation tests such as saliva tests and rapid turnaround tests that can deliver results in just 20 minutes. The ability to get rapid, on-the-spot results will significantly increase the weapons in our armoury, in our fight both against coronavirus and for economic recovery. We are rolling out these tests right now, and plan to use them to relieve capacity constraints, to expand asymptomatic testing to find the virus and to give people the confidence that a negative test result brings.
Where it is necessary, we will not shy away from taking targeted local action. In June, I established the Joint Biosecurity Centre, to provide the best possible data analytics, using information from all possible sources. Our local action is driven by the data. We now publish daily local data on cases, so that everyone can see the data on which these decisions are taken, and this shows that our approach is working. For instance, in both Leicester and Luton, the weekly case rate more than halved during August. I want to thank the people of Leicester, including Jonathan Ashworth, of Luton and of the other areas where we have taken local action, who have followed social distancing and helped to bring the virus under control.
Sometimes local action requires us to act fast and respond to changing circumstances. Unfortunately, after improving for several weeks, we have seen a very significant rise in cases in Bolton. Bolton is now up to 120 cases per 100,000 population—the highest case rate in the country—and I am publishing the data behind the decisions that we have taken. I must therefore tell the House that, working with the local council, we are taking further local action. The rise in cases in Bolton is partly due to socialising by people in their 20s and 30s; we know that from contact tracing. Through our contact tracing system, we have identified a number of pubs at which the virus has spread significantly. We are therefore taking the following action in Bolton, starting immediately. We will restrict all hospitality to takeaway only, and we will introduce a late-night restriction of operating hours, which will mean that all venues will be required to close from 10 pm to 5 am. We will urgently introduce further measures that put the current guidance—that people cannot socialise outside their household—into law.
I want us to learn the lesson from Spain, America and France, not to have to learn the lesson all over again ourselves through more hospitalisations and more deaths, and take this local action in Bolton. Crucially, we all have a part to play. Young people do not just spread the virus to each other. They spread the virus to their parents and their grandparents. They spread it to those they come into contact with and others who they love. I know that social distancing can be hard and that it will be extra tough for students who are starting university, but I ask them please to stick with it and to play their part in getting this virus under control.
We are also putting in place extra measures, including visitor restrictions, to restrict the spread of the virus into care homes and hospitals in Bolton. I want to thank the leadership of Bolton Council, who are doing an outstanding job in very difficult circumstances, and colleagues who represent Bolton in this House, with whom I have discussed these measures. I want to say this directly to everyone living in Bolton: I know how anxious you will be, and I know the impact that these measures will have. We are asking you to take a step back, at a time when we all just want to get on with our lives and what we love and get back to normal, but we need to take this crucial step to keep the virus at bay, because as we have seen elsewhere, if we act early and control the virus, we can save lives.
As well as controlling the virus using the tools we have now, we will do everything in our power to bring to bear the technologies of the future. Over the past few months, we have seen the pivotal role that technology has played in our response, such as next-generation rapid testing, machine-learning tools to help the NHS predict where vital resources might be needed, and the discovery here in the UK of the only two treatments known to save lives from coronavirus. We want to keep that momentum going, so today, we are allocating £50 million from our artificial intelligence in health and care award. That fund aims to speed up the testing and evaluation of some of the most promising technologies, because through bringing new technologies to the frontline, we can transform how we deliver critical care and services across the country.
Finally, the best way out of this coronavirus pandemic remains a vaccine. We have already announced that we will roll out the most comprehensive flu vaccination programme in history this winter. We now have agreements with six separate vaccine developers for early access to 340 million doses of coronavirus vaccines, and we will use every method at our disposal to get as many people protected as possible.
This virus feeds on complacency, and although time has passed since the peak in the spring, the threat posed by the virus has not gone away. Now, with winter on the horizon, we must all redouble our efforts and get this virus on the back foot. I commend this statement to the House.
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.
I will certainly answer the questions posed by the hon. Gentleman, but as for his proposal to dismantle the testing system that we have built so painstakingly over the past six months using not only the NHS and PHE, but all the testing capacity of the nation, that is one that I and the British people will reject. We need to build our capacity, and we need to build on what we can do. We have built one of the biggest testing capacities in the world over the past six months, and I will reject all narrow, partisan calls to dismantle a testing capacity that is working.
Of course, with the increase in demand for tests that we have seen in the past few days, there have been challenges, which we have acknowledged, and we are working day and night to fix them. The long-term solution, using the new technologies that are coming on stream, is a critical part of ensuring that we can expand testing capacity still further.
I am afraid that the hon. Gentleman got into a bit of a muddle on contact tracing, saying that under 70% of contacts are traced. That is simply untrue and below the number that we publish weekly—we published the latest figure last Thursday.
Some of the hon. Gentleman’s questions were sensible. On schools, he is quite right that having clear guidance on how we approach schools and on what schools should do in the event of an outbreak is important. That guidance has been published and sent to schools. In the first instance, of course, a school should work with their local director of public health to minimise the impact of an outbreak.
The hon. Gentleman also asked about financial support for those who have to self-isolate, and we have put that in place. We have rolled that out in areas of the north-west, and we are watching the progress effectively.
The hon. Gentleman rightly asked about Leicester, where, of course, he has both national responsibilities and a local interest. The local lockdown in Leicester has resulted in a significant drop in the number of cases, and we will take a formal review of the measures in Leicester on Thursday. I will be certain to talk to him in advance of that and take his local intelligence and views into account.
The hon. Gentleman asked for a plan for higher education. An enormous amount of work has been done with all universities to ensure that the sector can open safely in the coming weeks.
Finally, I am glad that the hon. Gentleman started his response in a constructive form in respect of the measures that we must take in Bolton. I have communicated with the Mayor of Greater Manchester and he has had a briefing from the official team—that has been offered. The statutory responsibility of course lies with Bolton Council, with which we have been working very closely to put into place measures that in essence build on the measures that Bolton Council has been putting in place. I put on the record my thanks to those in Bolton Council—its leader, David Greenhalgh, who has been doing an excellent job, as well as the director of public health and the chief executive—because it has been a difficult challenge in Bolton.
Thankfully, what we have learnt from this sort of local action elsewhere in the country is that we do not see large-scale numbers of people travelling to other areas nearby where there is a problem. We have not seen that yet. Of course, we remain vigilant on that and on all these measures, but I am sure that the people of Bolton will understand how significant this problem is and will follow the guidance and, indeed, the new laws that we will bring in to back up the proposals we have made today.
I thank the Secretary of State for his public recognition of the terrible symptoms that many people face many months after their coronavirus bout has ended; his words will give great comfort to the 60,000 people who have been suffering for more than three months.
On testing, it is important to recognise the step change that we have seen and the massive increase in the volume of testing that is now taking place. Will the Secretary of State give the House some sense of the confidence he has that, with the increased testing and the local lockdowns that are now being rightly pursued, we will be able to follow the low infection levels seen in South Korea, Taiwan, Singapore and Hong Kong, and not see the increases we have seen in France and Spain and have to go back into another national lockdown?
The Chairman of the Health and Social Care Committee precisely sets out our goal. Some countries—not only in the far east but closer to home—have seen a rise in cases, especially among younger people, and taken action that has turned the curve. That is particularly true in, for instance, Belgium, which we were very worried about a month ago: the case rate came right down when Belgium put a curfew in place. We are taking local action here, and our approach to local action has been commended by the World Health Organisation.
Of course, the responsibility is on all of us. I know that this is a riff that we talked about a lot in March, April and May, as the cases were coming right down, but we all have a role to play in this, because the local action and the test and trace—actions that we take in Government and with local authorities—are only the second and third line of defence. The first line of defence, for everybody in this Chamber and all our constituents, is to follow the social-distancing advice. We will be stepping up the communications and making sure that people are reminded very clearly of the rules, and we will also be taking action to step up enforcement, to make sure that we can keep this virus under control until we can build up both the mass testing capacity and ultimately, as I mentioned in my statement, the vaccine on which the scientists are doing great work, although all vaccine work is uncertain until we get clarity from the regulators that a vaccine is safe and effective to use.
I agree that it is indeed critical that everyone recognises the importance of our own personal actions in controlling covid, but we also need an efficient test, trace and isolate system, the first step of which is for people to get access to a test. With UK cases having trebled over the past fortnight, demand has increased and there have been many reports of people being sent hundreds of miles to get a covid test. One of the most extreme examples was somebody in Plymouth being sent by the booking system to the test centre in Inverness.
I understand that demand varies depending on local incidence, but surely it is dangerous to have possibly infectious people travelling long distances when they are unwell and may need to use motor-services facilities on the way. Would it not make more sense to allow covid tests still to be taken locally, and just shift the samples around the UK to the labs with the greatest capacity?
While the commercial pillar 2 testing has increased dramatically since April, the laboratories are very centralised, whereas NHS hospital laboratories are far more numerous and based within easier reach of communities. To meet the high demand that is likely this coming winter, will the Secretary of State consider additional funding to the NHS to allow the expansion of its PCR facilities and to maximise pillar 1 testing capacity?
The answer to that last question is, absolutely, yes. The hon. Lady is quite right that expanding the NHS capacity, as well as expanding the so-called pillar 2 capacity, is right. The SNP spokesperson and I sometimes have robust exchanges but on this, she is completely right. It is an “and/and together” strategy of having the pillar 2 mass testing across the board and the expansion of NHS capacity. I am working as closely as I possibly can with Jeane Freeman, my opposite number in the SNP Government in Edinburgh, to deliver that as effectively as possible right across the UK.
Please do not take this as unduly critical, because none of us could have done any better, but the problem for the Secretary of State—[Interruption.] It is easy to be wise after the event. The problem for the Secretary of State is that given the contradictory nature of advice given to people—maybe necessitated by events—fewer and fewer people are listening to him, particularly young people. I think we need a different approach. The approach of the nanny state, of ordering people about, particularly in this country, is not going to work. We have to appeal to the good sense of young people—“Stay away from grandpa and grandma. It is your responsibility.” These lockdowns and things are not going to work—it is their responsibility. And for us grandads—“Stay away from your grandchildren”. The problem is that if we order people about more and more, they stop listening. They realise the Secretary of State cannot enforce anything. He will become the emperor without clothes, and we will go backwards. We need an approach based on traditional self-reliance and to trust the people.
I understand the argument that my right hon. Friend is making. Unfortunately, we have seen this play out in other countries around the world. We have seen a sharp rise in the number of cases—in the first instance, among younger people—and we have seen people make this argument, entirely understandably, because younger people are much less likely to die of this disease. Notwithstanding the point about long covid and the fact that young people can have debilitating long-term consequences from this disease, the problem is that the isolation of older people who are more likely, because of their age, to have very serious consequences has simply not been effective anywhere in the world. The challenge is that younger people may pass it on, for instance, to their parents, who, in turn, can pass it on to theirs. This disease is absolutely insidious in getting from person to person. In its natural state, it spreads on average from one person to between two and three others, and it doubles in the community every three to four days.
The challenge is that without widespread social distancing, as opposed to the segregation that my right hon. Friend proposed, all the evidence is that we will end up with more hospitalisations and more deaths. I would rather get ahead of this here, learning the lessons from what we have seen first in America, and then in Spain, and now, sadly, it is starting to happen in France. I absolutely take the point about the need to communicate more but I believe, with my whole heart, that we need to communicate that we all have a responsibility, including young people, and we cannot let this rip through any part of the population, because it will inevitably then get into all.
Today in Hull, the prospects of getting a timely local covid-19 test are patchy. People are being sent as far away as Leeds and Withernsea, so how can it be right that local councils such as Hull City Council, with statutory public health responsibilities, are being kept completely out of the loop in sorting out local testing problems, in a system that seems all about protecting Deloitte, G4S and the noble Baroness Harding, rather than having that joined-up national and local system that safeguards public health during this pandemic?
I will do everything I can to solve the problems and the challenge of having more demand than supply in testing capacity everywhere in the country, including in Hull. However, trying to split, according to their employer, the different people who are working on this, be they in local authorities, the local NHS, Public Health England or the private sector parts of this delivery, is just not going to help—in fact, it will make the problem worse. It was a pity to hear this from the shadow Secretary of State, Jonathan Ashworth, because he is so often a very sensible person. What we have to do instead is all work together to solve these operational problems.
I congratulate the Secretary of State on the positive elements of his statement, but he will know all too well that rural communities have lived in fear in the past few months, especially during lockdown. He and the Chancellor have made a great deal of money accessible and available through the budget, but can he provide further funding for our rural healthcare network as we enter winter, not only to ramp up testing, but to deal with undiagnosed cases and operations not undertaken?
My hon. Friend makes an important point; especially in parts of the world such as the south-west, we have to make sure we get the treatment out and we get the recovery of the NHS from covid, so that we can get things going again for people who have been waiting for operations, which might have been delayed necessarily because of the pandemic. The NHS has set a goal of getting back to 95% of these elective operations and has put with it the funding to make that happen, and we have to make it happen, especially in rural communities and right across the country.
The Secretary of State says that we all need to work together, and I am sure he will agree that we need to make better use of the excellence of public health officials at the local level. The director of public health in Sheffield, Greg Fell, has said to me that there are two obstacles to doing that. One, of course, is the need for more resources from the centre to enable local level activity to take place. Secondly, he says that local authorities such as Sheffield have not got full access to the data under the contact tracing and advisory service system. Currently, they have access only to the case management element of the system and not to the contact management element. That second element is made available only to authorities on the watch list. Will the Secretary of State now remove that obstacle and make sure that all authorities that really want to engage fully in this are enabled to do so?
I really welcome the announcement about the increase in testing capacity, the comprehensive flu vaccination programme and, of course, the early access to coronavirus vaccines. My right hon. Friend will, obviously, have heard that there are some problems on access and availability. Will he set out his plans to overcome those operational difficulties, so that we have availability at local centres?
In the short term, we have seen a rise in demand for testing, and the capacity—the supply—has been increasing too. We had some short-term problems with contracts; before the summer, I came to the House to describe the problem with a particular contract to do with swabs and the cleanliness of the swabs. The bigger challenge is to make sure that capacity stays ahead of demand, and when demand has gone up sharply, we need to make sure that capacity expands. There are two ways of doing that. The first is more expansion of the current technology, which we are doing, both within the NHS, as the Scottish National party spokesperson correctly called for, and by using more private sector capacity—the combination of the two. The second, where we can really break through this, is with the new generation of tests, which are much, much easier, much better value for money and easier for people to use. The combination of trying to drive up capacity in the existing system, as we have been doing for months and months, and then bringing onstream these innovative new tests is what we are trying to pull off.
If I was in England, I would be, but I am in Scotland, so I am SNP.
I have much sympathy for the Secretary of State, who is doing a difficult job at a difficult time. If he is promoting a precautionary approach, he will have allies on these Benches. That said, does he agree that the exhortations from the Prime Minister to get people back into crowded transport systems, crowded city centres and congested offices is irresponsible at this time and undermines his public health messaging?
It is incredibly important that people have the confidence to know that when workplaces are covid-secure, it is safe to go to them. Trying to get through this pandemic, protecting as much as possible the education of our young people and the livelihoods of people in work, while keeping the virus under control, is a difficult and challenging balance, but it is the right balance to be attempting to strike. The hon. Gentleman might note that both the actions of the Scottish Government and the actions that we are taking locally, for instance today in Bolton, have economic consequences, and I regret that, but they are targeted as much as possible on reducing the social activity, which is where we are increasingly seeing transmission.
We heard further evidence from Prostate Cancer UK today of how the original national lockdown impacted detrimentally on cancer referrals and other aspects of cancer care. I entirely accept that that was unavoidable because of the necessity of protecting the NHS through the peak of the pandemic in the spring, but as we move to a new phase of hopefully local rather than national lockdowns, can the Secretary of State assure me that the NHS will do everything possible to ensure that rising numbers do not again translate into a negative impact on those with other conditions that can, after all, also be fatal?
Yes, absolutely. My hon. Friend makes an incredibly important point with which I agree wholeheartedly. The backlog that was caused by the inevitable and, as he put it, unavoidable delays to treatment in the peak has more or less halved, which is good news. So there is progress. We have changed the NHS to be split, essentially, between sites that are covid-secure and sites where there may be covid. That will help us to protect cancer treatment, as we go forward, exactly as my hon. Friend asks.
We have the largest testing system imaginable. We want to expand it further and of course there are challenges, as many Members have raised, but the imperative for people who have symptoms to get a test is important. We are trying to solve the operational problems that the hon. Lady raises.
I was saddened yesterday to hear that, because of a rise in local cases, care home visits in Wolverhampton are to be severely restricted again. I have a dear friend, Felicity, who lives in a care home. Without regular visits from family and loved ones, her mental health and wellbeing has declined very noticeably over the past months. I absolutely recognise the heroic efforts of care home staff, but how can we facilitate safe family visits so that care home residents can enjoy quality of life?
My hon. Friend asks an incredibly important question with great sensitivity. The decisions over the visitor arrangements for care homes are rightly made by the care home in consultation with the local director of public health, according to the local risk. Of course I want to see as much visiting as possible and to see it done safely. That is the difficult balance that needs to be struck, not least because of the negative health impacts, both mental and physical, of the restriction of visiting to care homes. I also very much hope that, as testing expands, we will be able to use that more and more to provide for safe visiting.
Looking to the long term, obesity is a leading risk factor for contracting covid-19, and problems with obesity usually start in childhood. By this year, the Government were aiming to reduce sugar by 20% in the food products most popular with children, but Public Health England’s 2019 review showed a sugar reduction of just 2.9%. The Government are clearly way off track. Why has the 20% ambition not been met?
I entirely agree with the premise of the question, which is that tackling obesity is critical for the long-term health of people, and that has been highlighted yet further because of the impact of obesity on the likelihood of someone dying from covid if they get it. Of course I want to see that sugar reduction. The sugar tax has had a very significant impact on the areas that it covers, and we have a wider obesity strategy that the Prime Minister set out in July to drive forward this agenda.
Across Watford and the entire UK, volunteers have been going out on the frontline, helping our brave NHS workers. One group that I met recently was from St John Ambulance, and they explained to me that the red tape in place a year ago would have made it impossible for them to be able to help, and now they have been able to cut through that during the covid crisis. Can my right hon. Friend please assure me that as we move forward, that red tape will not start binding their hands again and they can continue to help?
Absolutely. My hon Friend is quite right. There are improvements that we made in the heat of this crisis that we should never go back on. He has just highlighted one example. There are legion others. In this House, we discuss the problems that need to be fixed. That is quite right, and often they are raised and I did not know about them in advance and I go out and fix them. That is my job, as Jonathan Ashworth raised with his example, but we should also note where things have gone well because of changes and be clear that we will not be going back on that.
This month, more than 1 million students are moving to university for the new academic year. I welcome the thousands who will be joining Coventry University and the University of Warwick, both of which are in my constituency. Both SAGE and Independent SAGE have warned that the Government need to get a grip and work to minimise the risk of that return to university leading to more covid-19 spreading. Will the Secretary of State work with his colleagues to support universities and to heed the recommendations of scientists, the University and College Union and the National Union of Students, including the recommendation to move to remote learning by default?
We are working very closely with the universities sector, including the two universities that the hon. Lady mentions, to make sure that we can get the universities open in a covid-secure way.
From today, indoor gyms and dance studios can now open in Keighley, so I thank my right hon. Friend for that move, which I know is welcome to many. However, I have been contacted by many shop owners who, unfortunately, are being verbally abused when reminding customers to wear face coverings. Will he join me in calling for all to adhere to the basic rules of washing hands, wearing face coverings and social distancing?
Yes, and people will be hearing far, far more about hands, face, space. It is really simple: wash your hands, wear a face covering when you need to and keep that social distance. That is the responsibility of everybody to help us control this virus.
The Secretary of State has had four months to respond to a letter I sent as the chair of the all-party parliamentary group on cancer, requesting a national cancer recovery plan. Of course I recognise the extreme strain that covid-19 has put on the NHS and his Department, but people living with cancer—diagnosed and yet to be diagnosed—have been left in limbo. When will the Secretary of State respond to my letter, and when will he make public his Government’s national cancer recovery plan?
I will respond right away. I am very glad that the hon. Lady has raised this issue. It is something that I have been doing a huge amount of work on, along with the Under-Secretary of State for Health and Social Care, my hon. Friend Jo Churchill. We have been working on it intensively and, as I say, the backlog has come down by about half, but clearly there is much more to do.
Testing is a vital line of defence against coronavirus. Although we have one of the best testing systems in the world, I appreciate that there is much more that can be done. What steps is my right hon. Friend taking to explore the benefits of repeat population testing; and if that is effective, will he look to scale that up throughout the country?
We are looking at the asymptomatic testing of parts of the population where the virus is rife. Testing roll-out is about the prioritisation of what can be done with the capacity that we want to grow. As the capacity grows we could do more, but also it is necessary to prioritise within that capacity. It is not impossible to envisage reaching a point where everybody tests, say, weekly or more regularly, but there are very many steps along the way.
With the universities returning shortly, there will be lots of students moving into shared houses, so there is real concern in communities like mine in south Manchester, where there are lots of houses in multiple occupation. There is clearly plenty of good work going on to make campuses covid-secure, but the recently published SAGE advice is very thin on community spread around universities. Will he urgently provide a national plan for managing that situation by limiting transmission in communities around where students live, to include comprehensive testing at universities?
We are doing a huge amount of work on the very issue that the hon. Gentleman raises. Ultimately, when students are off campus they are citizens like everyone else—hence the focus on the social distancing rules that we all have to follow. However, he is right that we have seen the biggest rise in infections among 17 to 21 year-olds, many of whom will be going to university in the next few weeks.
I thank the Secretary of State and his team for their tireless work throughout the pandemic. Last week, I had the pleasure of visiting the Kuumba centre in West Bromwich, where I met Patricia and her team to hear about their passion for helping the local BAME community get through this difficult time, including by providing mental health support to the local area and some junior doctors. What further support can he make available to similar organisations that are supporting the community and are heroes on the frontline of the NHS?
This is another important question about how we can provide support locally, especially in the west midlands, where it is so important, especially with cases rising, not only that we have the national response that we are discussing in this Chamber, but that we ensure that the local community, which my hon. Friend supports so effectively, can get the support it needs. I am happy to write to her with details of the extra funding that we have put into her area and to discuss with her what more might be done.
I appreciate that we must keep a very close eye on infection rates and respond quickly and effectively. The Government say that they are listening to local leaders on the local restrictions, yet the very clear data-led recommendation from myself and Calderdale’s leaders last week was for the restrictions to be lifted in Halifax, with a continued focus on test and trace and the incredibly effective targeted community work that has been undertaken by Calderdale Council. Now that Calderdale has significantly lowered infection rates in areas that do not have the restrictions, can the Secretary of State tell me when Halifax will see those restrictions lifted and what else needs to happen to make that a reality?
We look at the issue of restrictions in Halifax every week. Calderdale has seen a fall in the number of cases; it is an example of a local lockdown being effective. I was really pleased that we were able to take some parts of the local authority area out of the restrictions 10 days or so ago now, and it was very good to be able to make that progress. I accept that we had to leave Halifax in the restrictions and I look forward to working with the council and with the hon. Lady and other local colleagues. We shall consider the matter again this Thursday.
The scaling of testing has been an incredible achievement over the summer, and I heard from many constituents who were able to get same-day tests with results in as little as 12 hours. However, in recent days I have had a number of cases of constituents unable to get timed testing or being asked to travel an unacceptable distance. I welcome my right hon. Friend’s commitment to further scaling testing capacity, especially by embracing new technology; but what assurances can he give Buckinghamshire residents that that will be a rapid scaling, and that they will be able to get local and quick tests?
My hon. Friend is exactly right—we are going as fast as we can. I recognise the importance of this. There was spare capacity earlier in the summer. We have maintained the turnaround times—they are very rapid—but there have been challenges in the last couple of weeks because of that increase in demand and some of the operational issues that we have discussed. He is right to raise this, and he has raised it with me privately before. There is no one more assiduous in putting forward the needs of their constituents than my hon. Friend, and I will keep him posted on how much we can expand testing in Buckinghamshire.
On a similar point to the one raised by Jonathan Ashworth, can the Secretary of State tell us what advice and guidance his Department is issuing to employers that are trying to use covid-related absence to trigger points for absence management interviews and to remove occupational sick pay? We saw recent such attempts by IKEA, which then dismissed the trade union representative who had the temerity to tell trade union members what their employer was up to. Will he condemn those employers that are trying to use covid-related absences to remove occupational sick pay and the like?
The hon. Gentleman raises a point that I know the Secretary of State for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy is looking at. Of course, returning to a covid-secure setting is safe and the right thing to do, and that is a matter between the employer and employee, but people must follow employment law. After all, as an employer, that is their statutory duty.
We have seen incredible advances by the UK’s scientific community throughout the pandemic, and it is great news that scientists at the University of Sheffield are joining the UK Coronavirus Immunology Consortium to undertake research that we all hope will lead to an effective vaccine. Until we have that vaccine, we have to take seriously the threat of a rapid rise of the virus again. Does my right hon. Friend agree that, with cases on the rise, we must not hesitate to use local lockdown measures such as the ones in Bolton, to ensure that increased infection rates in the young do not lead to increased hospitalisations in the older population?
That is spot on. The logic that we have seen repeated in country after country is that a sharp rise among younger people leads inexorably to a rise in the number of hospitalisations and deaths, even though it is not the younger people who tend to get hospitalised, but others who catch it from them. It is really important that we get that argument across, so that everybody feels the necessity to follow the social distancing rules that are incumbent on us all.
I think the Secretary of State has got the message about the need to sort out the testing problem, not least to help councils such as Leeds that are working really hard to limit the increase in cases. I hope he will join me in paying tribute to the public health team and the council for the great efforts they are making. He knows that local contact tracing is the most effective. I understand that the figures in Leeds for contacts are in the high 90s when it is done locally, as opposed to a lower figure when done by the national system. Given the position in Leeds, can he commit to provide more support and resource to local contact tracing in the city, to help try to prevent a further increase in the number of cases?
We are absolutely putting more resources into that local end of the contact tracing, but I stress that it is one system. I think the right hon. Gentleman has made the same category error as Jonathan Ashworth. If we count contact tracing results from institutional settings within the local categorisation, of course the number of contacts that we reach is higher—for instance, in a care home it is very easy to reach 100% of contacts, by the nature of the setting. The hon. Member for Leicester South, who is also a very sensible fellow, tried to make that comparison, and it is not quite fair—it is not comparing apples with apples.
The Secretary of State is right to warn against complacency, and perhaps it would be wise to remind people that we are in this for the long haul. My I ask him a question about testing? The director of testing for NHS Test and Trace has confirmed that we have testing capacity at all our testing sites, but that there is a critical pinch point in the laboratories. My director of public health, who is excellent, and a number of her colleagues in the south-west would prefer that, rather than artificially limiting access to testing sites and home testing kits, we ensured that people could take those tests locally and managed the pinch point at the laboratory end of things, because that would improve public confidence in getting testing. Is that something that my right hon. Friend could take away and look at? If he cannot do that, can he at least give me a good reason that I can take back to her about why that is not possible?
I entirely understand the point, and I can see the argument that is being made. The challenge is, since lab capacity is what we need more of, that if we take more swabs locally and send them in to the lab, we need to have the lab capacity to be able to turn them round. Otherwise, we get a much slower response, which means that we are not getting back to people fast enough for them to be able to act. That is the nature of the challenge, and the answer is more lab capacity, which is what we are driving through.
In Wirral, there has been a sudden, sharp rise in covid-19 infections, with yesterday’s figures standing at 33 infections per 100,000. What extra assistance can the Secretary of State promise to my local authority, which is fighting hard to suppress this outbreak? On Test and Trace, if he does not want a reorganisation of Test and Trace because he thinks it will slow down progress, can he tell us why he is reorganising Public Health England in the middle of this dangerous pandemic?
Well, of course I am improving the public health responses by bringing together different organisations. I am not sure that the hon. Lady is doing anything other than—[Interruption.] Well, I am not going to query her motives, because we have worked together, at the start of this crisis especially. On her question about the Wirral, absolutely, we are vigilant in looking at the Wirral. That will be reconsidered in the Joint Biosecurity Centre silver meeting tomorrow and in the JBC gold on Thursday. Part of the improved data that we have now, compared with a few months ago, means that we will be able to pinpoint where the problem is and, working with the council, make recommendations on what action needs to be taken.
Can my right hon. Friend explain to the House exactly what are the main reasons behind the fact that although the level of infection often continues to rise, the numbers of deaths is now so absolutely small?
My right hon. Friend asks an important question, and the first answer is that there is a lag between people catching the disease and the statistics for new cases and those who sadly die. The second is that this most recent rise has been predominantly, although not entirely, among younger people, who are much less likely to die. However, the danger is that they will pass it on to others and it will spread more broadly into the community. So it is important to act on these cases even though, thankfully, the current number who are dying is small.
I will try to give a better answer. Let me put it this way. If we were to wait until we saw the number of deaths rising before we took action, there would already be many people who had caught the disease and who would end up hospitalised and unfortunately die of coronavirus. We have to act before that happens and before the disease spreads to those who may die from it, because the alternative is that we will inevitably see the number of deaths rise.
Given covid, the Health Secretary said it was “mission critical” to prepare the NHS for the winter, as he unveiled the biggest flu vaccination programme in history; that is very Trumpian, I have to say. In the light of the lockdown delay, the PPE debacle, testing and tracing chaos—we could not get tested yesterday in my borough, with 300,000 people in it—not to mention, I will remind the Secretary of State, the 40,000 people already dead from covid on his watch and that of the Prime Minister against, and he is quite happy to compare internationally, 9,400 in Germany, why should we have any confidence in this bungling Government’s ability to get the flu vaccination programme in shape for this winter?
We are going to have the biggest flu vaccination programme in history. I think the hon. Gentleman simply has not taken into account the action that was taken to protect the NHS in the crisis, building a capacity for testing that is bigger per head of population than any other major European country. This country is the only country in the world that has discovered treatments that reduce people’s likelihood of dying from coronavirus. I think he should get onside with what this country is doing, not keep squabbling from the sidelines.
The Government and the Secretary of State have messed up. The result has been loss of life and an economy in tatters. It is little wonder that my home, South Shields, is now seeing a rapid spike in cases, and we are approaching a potential lockdown that will irrevocably devastate us. Instead of just pointing the finger at our young people, will he take some responsibility and explain what extra direct support he is going to give us locally to help us stop this spread?
I regret the tone of the question. I think it is far better for everybody if we all work together. I know the hon. Member and Peter Dowd seem to have taken the attitude that it is better to have brickbats thrown across this House, but I think the public would expect us to work together—to work together for the benefit of South Shields and to work together for the benefit of the north-west. I am very happy to meet her to discuss the situation in South Shields and see what we can do to try to tackle the problem, and it is better to do that together.
My right hon. Friend has identified that our response to covid is about personal responsibility, but it is made much harder when the young have the lure of socialising and the risks are substantially borne by unseen others. However, in my view, the young are just as civic-minded as all the rest of us, but it is a complex message, so what is the communication strategy to get that message over effectively to our young people, particularly when access to Parliament TV seems unaccountably low?
It is so important that we explain to everybody that they have a responsibility to “hands, face and space”—to their social distancing. The two critical messages for younger people who may think that this is not a disease that affects them are, first, that they can transmit this disease and cause great harm or death to their loved ones, but, secondly, that nobody is immune from this disease. The long-term impact of covid—so far, we have seen this with 60,000 people who have suffered for more than three months—can be devastating, and that can happen to anyone.
The credit checking company TransUnion has had difficulty issuing home testing kits to people because they are not on the public electoral register. We know that, for good reason, some people are not on the public electoral register, perhaps due to fleeing domestic violence or abuse. Can I ask the Secretary of State if he will go away and have a look at this, and see what he can do to make sure that everybody can get a home test, regardless of whether they are on the on the public electoral register?
I am very happy to look at this point. Of course, we do have to verify the identity of people who are asking for home testing kits, and there have to be protections against fraud, and we take advice from the National Cyber Security Centre on that, but I will look at the point the hon. Member raises.
May I commend my right hon. Friend on the swift action that he takes, and the way in which he comes before this House on a regular basis to update us? I think that is important, as are the lessons that are being learned from other countries. In his statement, he actually announced something as well as the lockdown in Bolton, which is that his current guidance regarding people in high incidence areas socialising only with those in their own households will be turned into law. That is presumably to strengthen enforcement. Could he take a moment to explain what that will mean in practice and whether there be an impact on venues that may be required to be part of that enforcement process, and when does he intend to bring that before the House for discussion?
That measure is specifically in Bolton, which has brought into place at a council level the guidance that people should not socialise outside their households. We will be turning that into law in Bolton. Of course, we keep all those sorts of things under review nationally, but to be absolutely clear, the measure that I announced today was specifically with respect to Bolton. I also thank my right hon. Friend for her kind words—I do my best.
We are still not fully over the Dominic Cummings cross-country drive farcical fiasco, yet day after day, we are faced with a string of embarrassing Government U-turns, which not only demonstrate incompetence, but further erode public trust and confidence in the Government at a time when we most need it to overcome the virus. To get on message, what discussions is the Secretary of State having with the Prime Minister to ensure that the next time he makes a public statement, it will not be followed by yet another excruciating and embarrassing U-turn?
I pay personal tribute to my right hon. Friend. Bury has been under restrictions for six weeks, and both he and his team have been a constant source of support not only to me and the leader of the council but to the people of Bury through this difficult time.
I agree with everything that the Secretary of State said, but I would welcome his views on this point. One challenge being faced in my constituency is childcare. We are in a situation where many people are looking to get back into work. Many grandparents look after children, but they are struggling because they remain in the bubble that we have in Bury, which is one person to another household, and many of them still live together. They are asking whether the bubble can be extended to two people per household to allow them to provide emotional, practical and social support to their family at this difficult time.
I understand why grandparents in Bury and across the country want to see that happen. The challenge is that the support bubbles are there primarily so that when people are living on their own, they can get that emotional and mental-health support from having some people with whom they can closely communicate, whereas a couple living together have each other for that.
The challenge in terms of childcare is that although children rarely experience any negative impacts of covid, they can transmit the disease. Grandparents are typically at risk if they are over about 70, so we are quite cautious about encouraging them to look after their grandchildren, because of the problem of transmission. That is the challenge that we are trying to address, but I understand why people want to see that.
The question is about the timing of the tests. The proposal for care homes is for repeat asymptomatic testing. As I said in my statement, we have sent test kits out to eligible care homes. The challenge for asymptomatic testing at the border is that if we do it just once, that does not give confidence. The proposal on which we are working with the industry is for a way to do that with repeat testing to test that people have not later developed symptoms that they might have been incubating previously.
In recent weeks, my constituency of Hyndburn and Haslingden was removed from local restrictions. I wish to put on record my heartfelt thanks to all of my community as they are why we have now fallen in line with the national picture. I would also like to thank everybody in the Department and the Secretary of State for being so responsive throughout, but can he please press that local resilience forums and local outbreak management boards set out and publish the criteria used to make their decisions for areas moving to higher or lower levels of restrictions, so that the decision making is fair, consistent, transparent and justifiable to constituents?
I will absolutely take forward the proposal that my hon. Friend rightly makes. She has been an unbelievably hard-working and assiduous voice for her community in Hyndburn. We have had a lot of contact during a difficult period and I want to join her in paying tribute to the people of Hyndburn who have followed social distancing and brought the case rate right down. It is another example of local action that has worked, but we must remain vigilant because, of course, east Lancashire, close as it is to Greater Manchester, is an area where we have seen a lot of cases, including, as I have said today, in Bolton. None the less, she has done her area and constituents proud in the way that she has represented them and made the case for them during this very difficult period.
From 6 pm today, Caerphilly will become the first area of Wales to enter a local lockdown. Does the Secretary of State agree that Wales urgently needs more financial powers to support people affected by these necessary precautions?
I shall speak to my opposite number in the Welsh Government about that suggestion. I know that taking local action, whether in Caerphilly in Wales, in and around Glasgow and Aberdeen in Scotland, or, of course, in parts of England, which is my responsibility when it comes to local action, we only take this action with a heavy heart and when it is necessary.
Yes, I absolutely will. The UK Government and the Welsh Government working together is incredibly important. We have weekly calls, and Vaughan Gething and I speak and are in contact regularly. I support the action that he has had to take, as I say, with a heavy heart, but it is necessary action. My message to the people of Caerphilly, who are so ably represented in this House, is that this action and following the stricter local rules are absolutely critical to getting this virus under control locally, to protecting people themselves and to protecting their loved ones.
I would like to thank the Secretary of State for his statement today.
Before I take the point of order from Maria Miller, I ask those leaving the Chamber to please do so with care and in a socially distanced way.
Virtual participation in proceedings concluded (Order,