Covid-19

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 4:42 pm on 22nd October 2020.

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Photo of Rosena Allin-Khan Rosena Allin-Khan Shadow Minister (Mental Health) 4:42 pm, 22nd October 2020

We have heard some superb speeches in this debate, but due to limited time, I cannot personally refer to them all. We have heard stories from every part of our nation, of the heroism of our NHS workers, of the stoicism and resolve of the British people, and of the tragedy and loss caused by this cruel disease. But there is something else too: a growing sense of frustration, a loss of confidence and a lack of trust in this Government; a feeling that decisions are guided by politics and public relations, not by science and evidence; and a sense that many sacrifices have been in vain, and that the current strategy has all the pain but so little gain.

We heard in Prime Minister’s questions yesterday that there is no clear route out of the tier 3 system if the R remains above 1. We have seen Ministers in broadcast studios squirm as they try to explain byzantine rules to an increasingly bewildered public. We have seen advisers flout the coronavirus rules while calling for stiffer penalties for the rest of us. We have heard the cries of anguish from hospitality and events, retail, the arts, aviation, small businesses, the wedding sector and 3 million freelancers excluded from any support. Job losses mounting; young people’s education in chaos; students treated like prisoners; a crisis in our care homes; people scared for their future; and, all the while, the number of infections rising, hospital admissions rising, the death toll rising.

The Government’s strategy is not working. Winter is coming and we all understand the pressure that winter places on our NHS. I know from serving on the NHS frontline that winter is the cruellest season, from slips to falls to flu to loneliness to hypothermia to respiratory diseases to depression and other mental health conditions triggered by these darkening days. Now we are piling on the huge pressures from covid-19. There is a real risk that, just as Ramadan as well as the Jewish high holidays were disrupted by covid restrictions, so too will Christmas be on the line. After this terrible year, people deserve to know whether they can spend Christmas with their families; whether they can hug their loved one in a care home for what may be their last Christmas. The Government have shown that they are willing to take free school meals from the mouths of children. Surely Ministers do not want to steal Christmas as well?

A harsh winter without respite will hit the nation’s mental health and it will hit it hard. I have heard from the Samaritans that many, many more young people are struggling. Self-harm among women has increased. Older people are isolated. University College London reported that after a month of lockdown, nearly a fifth of people had thoughts of self-harm and/or suicide. The charity Rethink says that 79% of people with an existing mental health condition have experienced it getting worse. Mind found that a quarter of people trying to access mental health services were simply unable to do so. Mental health services, especially child and adolescent mental health services, were stretched to the limit before covid. Now they are being pushed over the edge. I hear every day from teachers in schools and desperate parents crying out for help from CAMHS, but who are unable to get on the waiting list and unable to get help. A new report out today highlights that one in six children have been identified as having probable mental health illness, increasing from one in nine in 2017. One in six children—that is staggering.

We know that covid is having a marked impact on our children and young people. We know the impact on people in abusive relationships. We have heard about the impact on cancer patients, on people with addictions, on people and families in prison, on people waiting for operations or diagnostic tests. We know the waiting times in A&E have increased nationally. The fact is that we are storing up a huge public health crisis that will last well beyond the last case of covid-19. NHS staff are exhausted. I have seen tears of desperation, of frustration, of rage, of exasperation and, now, of disappointment that the Government are not listening to frontline workers and their pleas.

Just today, the NHS absence rates for June were published. Alarmingly, 32% of all sickness absence in the NHS in June was for mental health reasons, up 3% from May. Mental health-related absences were three times higher than covid-related sickness at that time. Frontline workers have had to bury their colleagues. They have had to deliver the most painful of news and be the last point of call for so many of their patients. They are suffering immeasurably, so many of them, with post-traumatic stress disorder. All they are asking for is some timely help before it gets so unmanageable that they cannot manage their own lives and their families, and have to be off long-term sick. We owe them that at the very least. Every month, I highlight the growing absences and tell the Government that they should serve as a wake-up call, but clearly they just keep hitting snooze. We must ease the pressure, care for our carers and pay them properly.

The track and trace system is failing, so let us get rid of the private consultants and let the public health teams take over. The tier system is confusing, it is unfair and, seemingly, without a way out. It wrecks our national unity. The Government have been pitting Mayor against Mayor, business against business, region against region. It has to be fair. That is why the Labour party is calling for a national circuit breaker. As the Government’s own scientific advisers say, it would save up to 7,000 lives and halve admissions to hospital. Two to three weeks to curtail this disease, followed by the real prospect of a Christmas as close to normal as possible.

This House has heard many great clashes of ideology over the centuries, but this is not one of them. This is not the time to be playing politics with people’s lives or their livelihoods. This is the time to listen to science, reason and evidence, and to show humanity. There is no shame in the Government reversing their position, even at this late stage. There is no burn in a U-turn. I tell Ministers that the Opposition will support them, the nation will applaud them and history will judge them well if they announce a circuit breaker this afternoon. It is time to do the right thing.