Covid-19

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 5:14 pm on 11th November 2020.

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Photo of Justin Madders Justin Madders Shadow Minister (Health and Social Care) 5:14 pm, 11th November 2020

It is now 293 days since the Secretary of State first came to this House and spoke about the emerging threat of covid-19. Since then, thousands of lives have been lost, both directly and indirectly, and billions of pounds have been spent. There has been great personal sacrifice, and we have all heard so many stories of individual courage and dedication that have been an inspiration, but there is no doubt that people are now weary. Not one corner of this isle or one aspect of our lives has been immune to the impact of this virus, so the news this week that there may be a way out of this nightmare has given people hope, and we all need hope at this difficult time.

However, that hope should not obscure the truth that we are in the midst of a second wave, so we must be sure to maintain vigilance. As we heard from the Minister, as of yesterday there were 20,000 new infections; more than 13,000 people are in hospital in England, with more patients in hospital in the north of England than there were at the peak of the first wave; and sadly, there were another 532 deaths yesterday, the highest number in one day for approximately six months. That is another 532 families who have lost a loved one, and among the huge numbers we talk about, we should never lose sight of the fact that each one of those numbers is a person. With the news today that we have now passed 50,000 deaths since the start of the pandemic, we know that the scale of human loss has been immense.

Those figures remind us that we still have a long way to go. Hope for the future is important, but it is not guaranteed, and neither is the end likely to be reached before we enter the difficult winter months, during which it is sadly likely that more people will catch the virus and more will die. It is right that plans are now being made for the roll-out of the vaccine, but that should not mean we take our eye off the ball when it comes to the immediate and pressing challenges that this virus presents. I know that time is at a premium today, so I will not detain the House for too long, but I want to say a few words about some of those immediate challenges.

Every challenge in the NHS is faced, first and foremost, by its workforce, so I will start by paying tribute—as the Minister did—to everyone in the NHS: the doctors, the nurses, the many allied health professionals, the porters, and everyone who has gone above and beyond over these past nine months to keep the NHS going. We know that working in the NHS is never easy, but the pressure, the workload and the trauma this year are of a scale and intensity we have never seen before. Not only must we show our gratitude to those who have given their all, we must demonstrate that we are listening to them by addressing their well-documented and legitimate concerns. That has to be more than a clap or a badge: there has to be tangible recognition that there are only so many times people can go to the well before they become physically and mentally exhausted. It is clear that burn-out is a real risk, as 14 health unions and royal colleges have warned in their letter to the Prime Minister earlier this week. They say that asking staff to carry on at this level of intensity is “increasingly unrealistic”. We have to listen to that warning.

Addressing workforce fatigue is not just the right thing to do: it is the only thing to do if we want the NHS to continue to be the jewel in this nation’s crown. I hope that the rumours of another two-year pay freeze for NHS staff are just that—rumours—because if that were true, it would send the most appalling message about the value this Government place on the NHS workforce. When the Minister winds up the debate, I will be delighted if she could put that particular rumour to bed.

Of course, NHS staff should be properly rewarded for the work they do, but they also need to be properly supported when doing the job. We cannot have a repeat of the obscenity of doctors and nurses bringing in home-made PPE while UK manufacturers are selling it overseas. I know that general practice is particularly concerned about the availability of PPE this coming winter, and while many of these debates have rightly focused on the hospital-based issues that covid presents, we should not underestimate the demand there has been on GPs this year. We know it is always the case that, when general practice struggles, the impact is felt elsewhere in the NHS. It is not yet clear what role GPs will play in the roll-out of any vaccine, but any additional demands placed on them in that respect must be matched by additional support.

We welcome the news that at last, many months after we first suggested it, there will be routine testing of frontline NHS staff. The Healthcare Safety Investigation Branch report on the transmission of covid in hospital settings, which came out last month, stressed the importance of increasing pillar 1 testing capacity, and it is a matter of deep regret that we are only just starting to see that now. Let us hope that that pledge does not face the same problems with availability that we had in the social care sector.