Covid-19

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 7:32 pm on 11th November 2020.

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Photo of Rosena Allin-Khan Rosena Allin-Khan Shadow Minister (Mental Health) 7:32 pm, 11th November 2020

On this day of remembrance, I pay tribute to all those who made the ultimate sacrifice so that we can stand here today with the freedoms we hold dear. And I would like to formally put on the record my congratulations to President-elect Joe Biden and Vice-President-elect Kamala Harris. We look forward to working together to tackle this global pandemic.

We have heard today that the UK has tragically become the first country in Europe to pass 50,000 covid-19 deaths. It speaks to why we are all here today to discuss the greatest challenge of our time. We have heard some superb speeches in the debate. I pay a special tribute to Mary Hutchins, the nan of my hon. Friend Emma Hardy, who does her community proud. I also pay tribute to Joy Morrissey, who was incredibly powerful in speaking up for Jamie and his family.

My hon. Friends the Members for Sefton Central (Bill Esterson), for Nottingham East (Nadia Whittome) and for Brentford and Isleworth (Ruth Cadbury) all rightly raised the murky world of procurement and the complete lack of transparency. My hon. Friend Matt Western spoke movingly about the need to do better for those in care homes.

There is a clear sense of hope about the prospect of a vaccine. It has come at the end of a particularly bleak year that has left none untouched by the effects of the virus, but we need to ensure that this is not false hope. There must be a clear plan for manufacture and distribution. With little time to get that right, can the Minister please outline how the Government will ensure that those deemed a priority to receive the initial dose will be able to access it?

On the topic of priority groups, in June, the Health and Social Care Secretary said that the Government would consider black, Asian and minority ethnic groups as a priority for a vaccine, but that does not seem to be the case now. Why? I have seen at first hand patients in intensive care fighting for their lives because of this virus. I was overwhelmed by how many of them were from our BAME communities. Is it not possible for the Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation to consider multiple risk factors when rolling out the vaccine? What about all those adults who have been shielding for months? Throughout the summer they urged the Government not to forget them. What is the Government’s message for them today?

Finally on a potential vaccine, I sincerely hope that we are successful, but if there are setbacks that mean that the vaccine is not rolled out until later in 2021 the Government must have a plan in place that is communicated effectively to the public and which outlines what restrictions may look like. I hope to see the Government planning for that scenario, so that as a nation we are not caught off-guard again by the virus.

Sadly, people feel left behind. They need to feel that they have a Government on their side. The feeling of isolation and loneliness needs urgent attention from the Government this winter. The Minister for Patient Safety, Mental Health and Suicide Prevention tweeted only a couple of days ago that mental health services have never closed, and have continued throughout, but for many, especially those who rely on group therapies, that has not been the reality.

It is important that we do not forget those who need to access mental health services for the first time and simply do not know where to turn. Our wedding industry, talented people involved in the arts, musicians, photographers and small family-run businesses feel as if no one is listening to them. The Government did them a great disservice by describing their careers as unviable—that cut to the core of who they are, the talents that they have and the way in which they give back to our economy. I have heard from people in the industries that I have mentioned who felt that the Government were questioning their viability not just in the workplace but as husbands, wives and parents. That has affected their mental health greatly. When Ministers come to the House they must take responsibility for the language that they use and understand the detrimental knock-on effects that it can have on people’s mental health. Artists, creatives and entrepreneurs need a Government who are on their side, showing them that they care not only about their livelihood but about their mental health. How will they be supported through the winter?

As the days become shorter at a time when people are missing their families and way of life, what provisions are in place for anyone who needs help with their mental ill health? What support will be offered to organisations and communities across the country that are lifelines to people who rely on them for a bit of brightness in their day? On suicide, is there a plan for a comprehensive national real-time monitoring system for suspected suicides that will allow us to monitor and respond to new concerns among particular groups of people or in particular areas of the country? I am sure, whatever side of the House we are on, we agree that this is important.

What is the Government’s suicide prevention strategy in the light of covid-19? Many people with serious mental illnesses have been feeling left out of the Government’s strategy to tackle covid-19, with research finding that people with a pre-existing mental health diagnosis were 65% more likely to be diagnosed with covid-19 than those without such a diagnosis. Will the Minister outline any work that the Government are conducting to provide assistance for people with schizophrenia, psychosis or borderline personality disorder?

Members have raised many times in the Chamber the fact that expectant mothers are suffering immeasurably because they cannot bring a birthing partner with them into hospital, whether to accompany them to tests to check on their unborn baby, or when they are giving birth. What support has been offered to those suffering from post-natal depression? Some expectant mothers and fathers have had to endure the worst and find out that they are miscarrying. What support is available to mothers who have to be told that alone, and break down on the phone trying to tell their partner or a loved one? We have to do better for those people.

What support has been offered to mental health trusts for the winter? Are they able to access funding to support the safe discharge of patients from hospital in the light of the second spike? It is crucial that this is given the attention it deserves.

I welcome the announcement of routine testing for frontline NHS staff. We have been requesting that for months, and it is an important development for not only protecting staff but infection control in healthcare settings. There have been other changes to testing, and I would like to take this opportunity to pick up on plans for the mass distribution of lateral flow tests. What resources are being allocated to the local councils that are getting access to 10,000 lateral flow tests, including in my borough of Wandsworth, to make this a success? For areas with a disproportionately high number of vulnerable groups, how will the Government address any strain on council resources?

After weeks of unnecessary delay, the Government have now addressed the need to get students home safely over Christmas, and tests will be made available. Could the Government outline how they plan to work with universities and local councils to ensure that rapid and accurate testing is available for all students who need it? How will the tests be administered, and are the Government prepared to comment on what students should do in January?

We must understand that our students have endured a particularly difficult time, with the exams fiasco, being told it was safe to go to university, arriving at university only to be made to feel responsible for the second spike of covid-19 and then being trapped in dormitories with strangers, unable to leave to do their shopping or see their families. We have to get it right for our students, who we are allowing to go home over the Christmas holidays.

We have a long road ahead, and we cannot lose hope. The Government need to get their response to this crisis right, and they do not have to spend taxpayers’ money on PR consultants to do so. For many months, brave people across the country have played their part in fighting this virus. We cannot let them down now.