Covid-19

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 am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for the way in which he makes his points, which is, as ever, measured and reasonable. As I have said, I entirely understand—as anyone in this House will, from looking at their own casework and their constituents’ letters—the situations that some people still find themselves in, despite the unprecedented package of support that has been put in place. I know that he would not expect me to speak for the Chancellor of the Exchequer, but I know that my right hon. Friend will have heard the point that he has made. Indeed, other Members of this House have made it on other occasions on behalf of their constituents.

This tough emotional and economic toll is why we are determined to make every day count in our battle against the virus. Our NHS has been preparing for this second wave for months, and as we move into winter, it is better prepared than before, with 30,000 ventilators and billions of items of PPE, mostly made here at home. In that context, I would like to take this opportunity to pay tribute to the Under-Secretary of State for Health and Social Care, my hon. Friend Jo Churchill, who has done so much, as the Minister with responsibility for this area, to ensure that we have the PPE that we need at this time. There are also over 13,000 more nurses and almost 8,000 more doctors, and £450 million is being spent as we speak to further upgrade accident and emergency departments. There is increased capacity in our hospitals, and the Nightingales are standing ready as an insurance policy.

What is more, we know more about the virus than before. We know how we can better stop it and how we can better treat it. We have therefore strengthened infection control procedures and, as a result, we are driving down hospital-acquired infections. We have also improved clinical techniques, and I pay tribute to the clinicians and scientists who have driven these developments. As a result, the number of people surviving covid in hospital is up, as I said earlier. But of course, an increase in survival rates means that the pressure on NHS beds remains high. Equally concerning to the House will be the toll this disease takes not just on immediate physical health but on mental health. Our medical community is also working hard to understand the impact of so-called long covid and the potential for long-term chronic conditions resulting from the illness, even when people may have felt they were unaffected when they had it.

In social care, too, we have rightly taken important steps to protect people in care and those who care for them. Our social care winter plan, led by my hon. Friend the Minister for Care, strengthens protections in social care, including on the provision of PPE, regular testing and updated systems for safe discharge. Those will be crucial in the months to come. She recently set out the latest guidance for care home visits, which sought to strike the incredibly difficult balance on providing vital protections for the health and wellbeing of our most vulnerable people, while protecting the people who work there and seeking to allow those vital family visits.

We have also built the largest testing capacity of any country in Europe. From an almost standing start in the spring, we have conducted some 34 million tests so far, and yesterday our polymerase chain reaction testing capacity stood at 504,491. More than 10 million people in the UK have been tested at least once through NHS Test and Trace, and our NHS covid-19 contact tracing app is approaching 20 million downloads. In Stoke-on-Trent and Liverpool, we are piloting cutting-edge lateral flow tests, which can deliver a result on infection in just 15 minutes. Starting yesterday, we are rolling out twice-weekly testing for all NHS staff, using a range of testing technologies so that we can better seek to keep both staff and patients safe. On Monday, the Secretary of State wrote to 67 directors of public health who had an expressed an interest to him to make 10,000 tests immediately available to other areas across the country and to make lateral flow tests available for local officials and devolved Administrations according to local needs, at a rate of 10% of their population per week.

Those bold new steps are a key weapon in our battle against the virus, but of course I know that the hopes of the nation are, understandably, pinned on the possibility of a safe and effective vaccine. That felt another step closer on Monday, as we all welcomed the announcement from Pfizer and BioNTech of a vaccine that they state is more than 90% effective. As an early mover, the UK has already secured 40 million doses of that vaccine. It is important to note that it is just one of many vaccines in development, and we have placed orders for 300 million further doses from five other vaccine candidates that are yet to report phase 3 results. I always seek to sound a note of caution at this Dispatch Box and in the media, and it is important that I echo the words of caution from the Secretary of State yesterday: the full safety data for the Pfizer and BioNTech vaccine is not yet available, and our regulator the Medicines and Healthcare Products Regulatory Agency and the Secretary of State will not approve any vaccine until it is proven to be clinically safe. This is a promising step forward, but we must remain cautious. So until we can roll out a proven vaccine, we must continue to follow the existing rules of “hands, face, space” because this remains a deadly virus.

In closing, let me say that in recent months this country has faced some tough and challenging times. We continue to face tough and challenging times, and many up and down our country have made huge sacrifices and continue to do so, be they individuals, families or businesses. I pay tribute to them all. There are no easy solutions, but we have risen to and beaten such challenges in the past, although different ones, and we can do so again, through a unity of spirit, by coming together as a country and by our shared determination to do the right thing. The recent announcement of a potential vaccine offers hope for the future, and while we pursue that prospect at speed, our greatest strength lies in the common sense, determination and resilience of the people of our great country. I am convinced that, with that and together, we will beat this dreadful disease.