Covid-19

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 4:31 pm on 18th November 2020.

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Photo of Alex Norris Alex Norris Shadow Minister (Health and Social Care) 4:31 pm, 18th November 2020

The hon. Gentleman gives a concerning example that shows how the system is struggling in general. I hope that the Minister will address that issue when she winds up the debate, and I will refer more directly to local authority public health shortly.

I do not want to carp on about what is not working without providing any solutions, so I come armed with three things that Ministers could do at a stroke of their collective pens that would radically improve test and trace in short order. First, we must better use NHS lab capacity to turn tests around. I very much welcome what the Minister said about megalabs, which we have eagerly anticipated for some months. However, there has been a large gap in which we have not had that lab capacity, and we will not have it for some time yet. In the meantime, let us put our NHS lab capacity to use in getting tests turned around.

Secondly, we should give control and resources to local authorities to run the tracing operation. They know our communities and already have a local presence. They are a trusted voice and, crucially, they do this routinely. They do this already. Admittedly, that is on a smaller scale—perhaps related to an outbreak of food poisoning linked to a takeaway—but they do it effectively. Let us support them to do it fully. Thirdly, we must develop a proper package of support for those who need to isolate—that is self-evident. Those three things could be done immediately, and we would all be better off if they were.

We have seen the consequence of failure and of a test and trace system that is struggling, and that is another lockdown. This time last year we were banging on doors in the cold and the rain, and none of us supported the lockdown because we want to keep family members away from each other, or to shut businesses in our community or anybody else’s. However, the failure to break the transmission rate of the virus leads us there.

There are two important things that I wish the Government would communicate more. This is not a choice between lockdown and the economy; it is not a choice between lockdown and non-covid healthcare treatment in the NHS. We must have the lockdown for those purposes, and the longer we delay putting restrictions in place, the worse are the long-term impacts on our economy. If we do not introduce regulations to reduce the transmission of the virus, the greater are the pressures on our hospitals, and the less likely they are to be able do other treatments. Those things are not in tension; they are very much complementary.

The failures of test and trace may have led us to a lockdown, but that lockdown buys us time to sort out problems in the system. We must see progress. Lockdowns alone will not tackle or eradicate the virus, but they buy us time to put in place the things that do. We have now had two weeks of lockdown, but we have not heard about what is improving in the test and trace system, or what will be better, including in the next two weeks. Ministers really need to say this today, so we can be sure and confident that the time is being used wisely. Otherwise, when we leave lockdown, this will all recur again, something that none of us wants.

We are all very wary of Christmas. Depending on which newspaper Members read, they may have woken up yet again to see that the Government’s plans, this time regarding yuletide festivities, had been briefed out to national newspapers. Putting aside the discourtesy to the Speaker and Deputy Speakers, to all of us and to this place in general, that is all well and good, but those plans are only going to be feasible if the right efforts are put in place now and this time is used wisely.

It also ought to be stated that this lockdown is longer and more painful than it needed to be because, once again, the Government acted too slowly. The scientists told them they needed to lock down, as did we, but for two weeks the Prime Minister disregarded reality, which meant that the situation worsened. That has meant that the lockdown will be longer and harder, and also meant that we lost the benefits of the school holidays. These are mistakes that cannot be repeated in the future.

As we exit lockdown, the Government need to be honest with the British people—not in off-the-record briefings to mates in the media, but to the British people—about what will come next, both at Christmas and in the return to a tiered system. I know from our experience in Nottingham that trying to negotiate restrictions was painful, even when we wanted them at the beginning of October as our infection rates increased precipitously. We could not get the initial restrictions we wanted, because the Government were moving to the tiered system and it did not fit their timeline. We then managed to get into the tiered system at tier 2; the next day, the Government said that they wanted us to move into tier 3 and were going to call us, which they did not for a further week. Eventually, we had the painful negotiations about what that actually meant for Nottingham: we brought those restrictions in on the Friday, and by the Saturday, the national lockdown had leaked out. The system has not worked for Nottingham, so we need to know that in any return to a tiered system, the Government are going to work much more quickly and in a more agile manner. Every day wasted is a day when the virus thrives, so we need to be better upon exit.

Turning to the vaccine, we strongly welcome the Government’s efforts in this area: they were right to pre-order doses across a wide portfolio, and they were also right to back British. With our excellent research and our proud record in this area, we should be in the vanguard of it, and patriotic about our efforts to tackle this global issue. Last week, I responded on behalf of the Opposition in an excellent Westminster Hall debate on the covid-19 vaccine, secured by Bill Wiggin, the day after the news broke that the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine had achieved success in a phase 3 study. Since then, we have heard similarly positive news about the NIH-Moderna vaccine candidate, which is likely to be followed by other candidates, whether that of the University of Oxford and AstraZeneca, the candidate referenced by the Minister, or candidates developed elsewhere. I understand that overnight, there have been further promising developments for a Chinese candidate.

During that debate, colleagues and I raised the challenges and considerations that need to be addressed to make sure that this is handled and executed well. I will not repeat those contributions in the level of detail we went into then—they are on the record in Hansard for people to read. However, the theme was that we cannot repeat the slowness or logistical challenges that we saw early in the pandemic with regard to the procurement of personal protective equipment and testing: no Nottingham people being sent to Llandudno or Inverness for their healthcare this time, please, Minister.

As we have done throughout the pandemic, we on the Opposition Benches will work constructively with the Government to support viable vaccines being secured, ensure the right groups are being prioritised, develop an effective delivery programme, counter vaccine hesitancy—that is critical—and continue to support these efforts globally. A failure on any of those points will undermine the whole process, so it is absolutely crucial that we come together, and I am sure that Ministers will welcome that.

However, I want to briefly reference a point that my hon. Friend Karin Smyth made regarding the NAO report. Again, we understand—as that report did—that the Government were having to do things that would normally take 18 months’ worth of planning in hours and days, and that comes with some efficiency trade-offs. However, we did not hear clearly enough in the Minister’s opening statement a sense that that has been reflected upon, and we did not hear what will be different in future to make sure those mistakes are not repeated.