Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 4:56 pm on 11th November 2020.

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Photo of Edward Argar Edward Argar Minister of State (Department of Health and Social Care) 4:56 pm, 11th November 2020

I beg to move,

That this House
has considered covid-19.

Last Wednesday, this House came together to vote in favour of a new time-limited set of national restrictions across England—our strategy to suppress the virus, support the economy, education and our NHS until a vaccine can be deployed, and in doing so, to ensure that the NHS was not overwhelmed. It is clear that, in tackling this virus, there are no easy or simple choices for anyone. While Members may differ in the perspective they take on what is the right balance to strike, as we would expect in our open and vibrant democracy, it is important to say that it is clear that all Members of this House share a common objective, which is to beat this disease and see our country flourish once again. As Members will know, I entirely respect and recognise the sincerity and strength of feeling of all Members of this House on this most difficult issue, irrespective of the stance they take on it.

Difficult though they are, entailing further sacrifices, the steps that this Government and this House took last week were the right ones, because the alternative of not acting would have been far worse. Throughout this pandemic, we have always sought to base our decisions on evidence, data and scientific advice, but we must also recognise that this is a disease about which we have learnt more every day and about which we knew nothing a year or so ago. Throughout, we have always been willing, and we must remain willing, to reflect on and adapt to changing scientific evidence and scientific debate and to move with that debate.

The evidence we faced last week before the Prime Minister’s announcement was stark and changing rapidly: an R rate above 1 in every region and more than 100 cases per 100,000 of the population. The data indicated that the number of people in acute hospital beds in England was due to exceed NHS surge capacity in the forthcoming weeks and, in some hospitals, the number of patients was already higher than at the peak of the first wave. For me, one thing was abundantly clear: our NHS was at risk of seeing demand exceed capacity if nothing was done.

There was a sharp acceleration in infections in September and October, as was the case across Europe and, as we know, many of those infections lead to hospitalisation further down the line, with a roughly two-week lag. As Sir Simon Stevens, the chief executive of the NHS, recently set out, at the start of September, there were around 500 people hospitalised with covid. By the start of October, there were around 2,000 people hospitalised with covid and, by the start of November, that figure had sharply increased to around 11,000.

We were already at the point where hospitals were becoming very busy, and that was before the normal winter and flu-related demand. It appears that, with the new treatments that are being developed, more people are likely to walk out of hospital after treatment than sadly was the case during the first wave, and I am thankful for that, as I am sure the entire House is, but the fact remains that those people still need hospital treatment. Each day the R rate remains above 1 is another day that cases rise, with more hospital admissions, more patients deprived of other types of care and, tragically, more deaths.