Covid-19 Update

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 4:23 pm on 5th October 2020.

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Photo of Matthew Hancock Matthew Hancock Secretary of State for Health and Social Care 4:23 pm, 5th October 2020

With permission, I would like to make a statement on coronavirus. The virus is spreading, both here and overseas. In the past week, over 450,000 people tested positive for coronavirus in Europe, almost double the number of cases a month ago. Here in the UK, the number of hospital admissions is now at its highest since mid-June. Last week, the Office for National Statistics said that while the rate of increase may be falling, the number of cases is still rising. Yesterday, there were 12,594 new positive cases. The rise is more localised than first time around, with cases rising particularly sharply in the north-east and the north-west of England, and in parts of Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. Now more than ever, with winter ahead, we must all remain vigilant and get the virus under control.

Let me turn to the operational issues on data publication, the future plans for medicine licensing and, of course, the announcement of 40 hospitals made by the Prime Minister on Friday night. I wish to take the first available opportunity to set out to the House the technical issue relating to case uploads that was discovered by Public Health England on Friday evening. It is an ongoing incident and I come to the House straight from an operational update from my officials.

On Friday night, Public Health England identified that over the previous eight days, 15,841 positive test results were not included in the reported daily cases. This was due to a failure in the automated transfer of files from the labs to PHE’s data systems. I reassure everyone that every single person who tested positive was told that result in the normal way and in the normal timeframe. They were told that they needed to self-isolate, which is now required by law. However, the positive test results were not reported in the public data and were not transferred to the contact tracing system.

I thank colleagues who have been working since late on Friday night and throughout the weekend to resolve this problem. I wish to set out the steps we have taken. First, contact tracing of the relevant cases began first thing on Saturday. We brought in 6,500 hours of extra contact tracing over the weekend. I can report to the House that, as of 9 am today, 51% of the cases have now been contacted a second time for contact tracing purposes. I reassure the House that outbreak control in care homes, schools and hospitals has not been directly affected because dealing with outbreaks in those settings does not primarily rely on this particular PHE system.

Secondly, the number of cases did not flow through to the dashboards that we use for both internal and external monitoring of the epidemic. Over the weekend, we updated the public dashboard, and this morning the Joint Biosecurity Centre presented to me its updated analysis of the epidemic based on the new figures. The chief medical officer’s analysis is that our assessment of the disease and its impact has not substantially changed as a result of the new data, and the JBC has confirmed that it has not impacted the basis on which decisions about local action were taken last week. Nevertheless, this is a serious issue that is been investigated fully. I thank Public Health England and NHS Test and Trace, which have been working together at speed to resolve this issue. I thank everyone for their hard work over the weekend. This incident should never have happened, but the team have acted swiftly to minimise its impact. It is now critical that we work together to put the situation right and make sure that it never happens again.

Another important area of our coronavirus battle plan is treatments. As the House knows, the only treatment known to work against coronavirus was discovered here in the UK. As we leave the EU, I want to use the opportunity to improve how quickly we get new drugs to patients, so the UK is joining Canada, the United States, Australia, Switzerland and Singapore in Project Orbis, which will allow international regulators to work together to review and approve the next generation of cancer treatments faster. It will mean that pharmaceutical companies can submit treatments to be reviewed by several countries at the same time, meaning that we can co-operate with the best medical regulators in the world and make approvals quicker so that we can get patients the fastest possible access to new drugs. It is an exciting development. We will join the scheme fully on 1 January, after the end of the transition period, because we will stop at nothing to bring faster access to life-saving treatments on the NHS.

We are investing in hospitals, too. Two weeks ago, I announced to the House that we are investing an extra £150 million in expanding capacity in urgent and emergency care so that hospitals have the space to continue to treat patients safely in the pandemic. I am delighted that on Friday my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister set out the 40 hospitals we will build by 2030, as part of a package worth £3.7 billion, with eight further new schemes, including mental health facilities, invited to bid for future funding and also to be built by 2030. This is the biggest hospital building programme in a generation, and the investment comes on top of an extra £33.9 billion a year that the Government will be providing to the NHS by 2023-24. We passed that into law right at the start of this Parliament, and the 40 new hospitals across England will support our mission to level up our NHS so that even more people have top-class healthcare services in their local area, and so that we can protect the NHS long into the future.

Finally, it is critical that our rules are clear at local level so that the public can be certain of what they need to do to suppress this virus, and I will update the House in due course on what action the Government are taking, so that we can have more consistent approaches to levels of local action, working with our colleagues in local government. For now, it is essential that people follow the guidance in their local area, and if they need to check the rules, they can check on their local authority website. History shows us that the battle against any pandemic is never quick and never easy. It requires making major sacrifices and difficult choices. I know that this has been a tough year for so many, but we are asking people to persevere as winter draws in, because the only safe path is to suppress the virus, protecting the economy, education and the NHS, until a vaccine can make us safe. I commend this statement to the House.