Covid-19 Update

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 11:50 am on 10th September 2020.

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Photo of Jon Ashworth Jon Ashworth Shadow Secretary of State for Health and Social Care 11:50 am, 10th September 2020

As always, I am grateful for my advance copy of the statement.

We welcome the restrictions that the Government have imposed—indeed, we would have welcomed them on Tuesday afternoon, had the Secretary of State confirmed what was being said on Twitter that morning. Case numbers have been rising sharply in recent days across all ages and sadly the number of hospital admissions is beginning to increase as well. We all want to avoid a second national lockdown. Lockdowns extract a heavy social and economic price on those already suffering, and we should also remember, especially today, which is World Suicide Prevention Day, the mental health impact of lockdowns.

Before I comment on the substance of the Secretary of State’s remarks, I want to ask about schools. We have had many examples across the country of classes and whole year groups—hundreds, possibly thousands, of pupils—starting the new term as they finished the last term: at home and not in education. Is it really the Government’s policy that if there are one or two positive cases in a year group, the whole year group is sent home for two weeks? If so, are parents and carers eligible for sick pay and financial support, given that they will have to take time off work to look after their children?

We were promised a world-beating test, trace and isolate regime by now. The Secretary of State says we have one. On Tuesday, I highlighted the deteriorating performance in finding contacts. He said that I had muddled my figures. Full Fact said I was right and he was wrong. I will leave it to him to judge whether he wants to correct the record. I would rather he just correct Test and Trace. In one study, researchers found that 75% of infected people did not adhere to the self-isolation rules. I know he is piloting extra support, but we need a system now, urgently, so that those who are low paid and in insecure work can isolate without fear of losing their jobs. We need a system immediately. We have been calling for it for months.

On testing, the Secretary of State told us a few moments ago to get with the programme. We just want him to deliver testing for our constituents. We have had example after example of people being told to go hundreds of miles. In Telford, the borough has been gridlocked because the system has been telling everybody to go to Telford. Yesterday, the Secretary of State was touring TV studios trying to dampen demand, even though he had previously said in the House in July to people with symptoms:

“If in doubt, get a test.”—[Official Report, 20 July 2020;
Vol. 678, c. 1864.]

He was telling people to get tests.

Given that the Secretary of State had encouraged people to get tests, and with 8 million pupils returning to school, with thousands going back to workplaces, as his Prime Minister has insisted on, surely it was obvious there would be extra demand on the system, so why did he not plan extra resource capacity to process tests? It is not the fault of ill people asking for tests; it is his fault for not providing them. We have had no apology today to our constituents who have been told to travel hundreds of miles for a test.

Having failed to provide the tests that people need and, by the way, having failed to provide wider diagnostic tests—the waiting list for diagnostic tests hit 1.2 million today, the highest on record—the Secretary of State now wants to deliver 10 million tests a day as part of his so-called Project Moonshot. I have long been pushing him for a strategic mass testing regime, and from the start the World Health Organisation has told us to “test, test, test”, but we are all fed up with undelivered promises and “world beating”. Mass testing is too important to become another failed project. It is all well and good the Secretary of State talking about moonshots, or the Prime Minister telling us that we will be tested every morning, but even better would be simply to deliver the extra testing that is needed now, not just the headline figures.

I have some specific questions. First, the Prime Minister told the nation that he wants this in place by the spring. The chief scientific adviser pointed out that it would be

“completely wrong to assume this is a slam dunk that can definitely happen”.

How quickly will this be delivered, and how quickly will the pilots in Salford and Southampton be assessed?

Secondly, what is the cost? According to The BMJ—the British Medical Journal—leaked documents suggest that the cost will be £100 billion. Is that correct? If not, will the Secretary of State tell us his estimate of the cost of processing 10 million tests a day, and will he tell us how much has been allocated to Project Moonshot?

Thirdly, who will deliver that? There are universities piloting projects, such as the University of Leicester rolling out LAMP—loop-mediated isothermal amplification —testing, so what discussions has the Secretary of State had with them? However, it has been reported that he has already signed agreements and understandings for the delivery of this project with GSK, Serco and G4S. What procurement processes have been undertaken, and will he tell us whether that is correct?

Fourthly, what are the priorities? The Secretary of State is still not testing the loved ones of care home residents who are desperate to see relatives, and when will the Government actually deliver the routine testing of all frontline NHS staff, which we have been demanding for months? Effective testing depends on quick turnaround, local access and effective contact tracing. Given that he has not even been able to deliver those basics, how on earth do we expect him to deliver this moonshot?