Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 2:23 pm on 22nd October 2020.

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Photo of Matthew Hancock Matthew Hancock Secretary of State for Health and Social Care 2:23 pm, 22nd October 2020

It is a brilliant idea—so brilliant that the NHS has spent the summer working on that concept. We cannot do it as perfectly as my hon. Friend suggests, and the reason is the practicalities of the treatment of covid—for instance, if someone has covid and something else, they need a normal intensive care unit. But the Nightingale hospitals are there—in fact today, sadly, the Nightingale hospital in Manchester is reopening. For all the rest of the hospitals, we are making sure that different parts of the hospital are deemed either blue or green—essentially covid-free or at risk of covid. Some of the different buildings are covid-free or non-covid, or, in some cases, whole hospitals are covid green sites and people cannot go to them unless they have tested negative. That means we can have a high degree of confidence because, for instance, if we are treating cancer patients, we want to ensure that there is not any covid in there.

We need these long-term solutions and, like other liberal democracies around the world, we are wrestling with this question—as we have wrestled with it in the last few minutes—of how to keep people safe from the virus while protecting other important things in life: our liberties, our livelihoods and the things that we love. That is what leads us to the strategy of suppressing the virus and supporting the economy, education and the NHS. The NHS needs to be supported to do all the other things that it needs to do until a vaccine is available.

I reject the false choice that says we must pick a side and choose between a healthy economy and a healthy nation, because the two are intrinsically linked. If, God forbid, we were to let the virus unleash its full force, the damage to not just the NHS and the hundreds of thousands of lives, but our livelihoods would be catastrophic. We can only get our economy and our society going gangbusters again if we drive this virus down, so that people have the confidence that they need to live their lives to the full—and drive it down we must.

This is a deadly virus, and, yes, it reserves its biggest impact for the oldest in society, which means the rise in the number of cases among the over-60s gives me a lot of cause for concern. We also just heard compellingly from the Minister for Equalities about the impact on people from ethnic minority backgrounds, but the impact is not confined to these groups. The virus can affect anyone of any age and any background, and we have already seen worrying numbers of young, fit, healthy people suffering debilitating symptoms months after contracting covid. Yesterday, a study by King’s College London showed that one in 20 people with coronavirus is likely to have virus symptoms, such as fatigue, breathlessness, muscle pain and neurological problems, for eight weeks or more. Yesterday, I visited the cutting-edge long covid clinic at University College London hospital. I have met people in their 20s and 30s unable to work, sapped of all their energy, living with the long-term effects of a virus that has completely changed their lives. Therefore, to anyone of any age, catching covid can be very grave indeed. Long covid underpins, again, our strategy for suppressing the virus until a vaccine arrives.