Covid-19

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 6:23 pm on 14th December 2020.

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Photo of Rosena Allin-Khan Rosena Allin-Khan Shadow Minister (Mental Health) 6:23 pm, 14th December 2020

I would like to start with a tribute to Dame Barbara Windsor. She holds a special place in the affections of the nation from her earliest days with the Joan Littlewood Theatre Workshop to being landlady of the Vic. Barbara Windsor asked us to make a stand against dementia, and we will. Our thoughts are with Dame Barbara’s friends and family.

It is now nine months since the first British patient contracted covid-19—nine months that have tested our national character, our national health service and our national leaders; and nine months of terrible grief for tens of thousands of families who face a Christmas with an empty chair at the family dining table. Torn apart with anguish and united in pain, those families were robbed of their chance to say goodbye and robbed of the last hug or kiss, and they are still unable to sleep at night.

Rates of depression doubled during the first wave, but referrals to mental health services dropped. Couple that with nine months of economic turmoil exacerbated by the Brexit shambles, with millions facing the dole or losing their homes and businesses, and people need assurances that their wellbeing will be protected. There are still 3 million freelancers and small business owners excluded from Government support and facing utter ruin, which takes a terrible toll on their mental wellbeing. Some of the 3 million excluded have even, tragically, taken their own lives. It is not too late for Ministers to do the right thing and support the 3 million excluded.

What a year it has been. When the British people were called upon to stand together against a common enemy and to rise to greatness, they were not found wanting. I am thinking of the people who queued down the street to volunteer to deliver food and medicine; people who donated to food banks and looked in on neighbours; and people such as Captain Sir Thomas Moore, who raised not just money, but our spirits and our sense of ambition. I am thinking of those who spearheaded the #WhatAboutWeddings campaign, supporting people whose wedding day plans were derailed and people in the wedding industry whose businesses disappeared. I am thinking of people in the Beauty Backed campaign, supporting workers—mostly women—in the multi-million pound beauty sector whose salons were closed and who could not work to feed their families.

I am thinking of our refuse collectors, delivery drivers, shop workers, shelf stackers, cleaners and others who kept the country running. I am thinking of workers in the social care sector—low paid and so often stigmatised—working at the sharp end of the pandemic in our care homes. These unsung heroes deserve real recognition. Perhaps next time we discuss low pay and minimum wage, we will remember how much we owe all these workers who make Britain tick. I want to give a special mention to Britain’s postal workers, who have played a special role in supporting our communities—not only delivering the post come rain or shine, but looking in on the vulnerable, raising the cheer of isolated and lonely people and being a friendly face amid uncertainty and fear. Britain’s posties, we salute you.

Of course, we praise the 1.4 million of us who work for our national health service. So many NHS workers risked their lives to fight the pandemic, and so many have tragically died. Many more are left with the trauma of dealing with mass casualties. The latest absence figures from the NHS show that just under half a million days were lost to mental ill health in just one month alone. With infections continuing to rise throughout the country and the Christmas easing of restrictions imminent, how will the Government ensure that the NHS has capacity to cope in January? Staff are already burned out and exhausted by the virus. What plans do the Government have to support our NHS to deliver the care that patients need throughout January and prevent the NHS from becoming so overwhelmed that the vaccination programme is affected?

Staff across our health service are struggling, and they know that the adversity is not over yet. I want to take this opportunity to praise workers across the NHS: our ambulance drivers, nurses, student nurses, doctors, health visitors, mental health professionals, midwives, pharmacists, porters, receptionists, radiographers, physiotherapists, admin staff and healthcare assistants. Not only that, but I want to praise the cleaners, the kitchen staff, the gardeners, the dispatch drivers, the record keepers, the chaplains, the volunteers and so many others.

When I turn up for my shifts at St George’s Tooting as an A&E doctor, I know that I am part of an NHS family in which every part relies on the others—a complex web of care and compassion. We as a country rely on them, so let us do more than offer them applause. Let us rebalance the system of wages and rewards in this country so that the most valuable people, such as care workers and nurses, are valued above shareholders and stockbrokers. I have mentioned our national character and our national health service. Both rose to the challenge admirably, but what about our national leadership? Her Majesty’s official Opposition have maintained a consistent position: we will support the Government in tackling this pandemic, but we reserve our right to scrutinise decisions and ask questions on behalf of the people. That is our proper constitutional role.

We will be demanding a full public inquiry into the Government’s response to covid-19, and one particular area that will require forensic dissection is ministerial decision making on procurement. On 18 March 2020, the Cabinet Office issued guidance on public procurement of personal protective equipment and other equipment to tackle the pandemic. That guidance noted that public bodies were permitted

“to procure goods, services and works with extreme urgency.”

By 31 July 2020, more than 8,600 contracts had been awarded, with a value of £18 billion.

Of course we recognise that there was a need for speed, but the National Audit Office reported that there is

“a high-priority lane to assess and process potential PPE leads from government officials, ministers’
offices, MPs and members of the House of Lords”.

Many suppliers with connections to the Government and Ministers obtained lucrative contracts. One such supplier was PestFix, a vermin control company valued at just over £19,000, which was given a contract worth £108 million for PPE that had not been properly tested. The House has heard of the case of Mr Gabriel González Andersson, who was awarded more than £20 million as a middleman between the UK Government and a PPE business founded as the pandemic took hold by Michael Saiger, a Florida-based jewellery designer. And the NAO showed that Stroud Conservative councillor Steve Dechan, who ran a small, loss-making firm, signed a £156 million deal to import PPE from China.

Those are just a few instances of a procurement scandal that will only grow as more of the truth emerges. The Prime Minister says over and again that any Government would have done the same. He is wrong. He must not judge others by his own standards. This is a Government who have stretched the procurement rules to breaking point, overseen a bonanza for chancers, spivs and Del Boys, and wasted millions on the cronies and chums of Government insiders. Doctors and nurses were sent to the frontline without working PPE while profiteers lined their pockets. The truth will come out. The public will get the answers they demand, and the guilty men and women—the hard-faced men who have done well out of the pandemic—will be called to justice.

Now, we face the first Christmas alongside covid-19. Ministers must do more to explain the science behind their current plans for the tier system and their plans to relax the rules during Christmas. The PM says we must be “jolly careful”, but are his Government? Is the Minister aware of the advice of Professor Andrew Hayward, director of the University College London Institute of Epidemiology and Health Care and a member of the Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies, who told the BBC that allowing people to meet up over Christmas amounted to

“throwing fuel on the Covid fire” and that it would

“definitely lead to increased transmission” and was

“likely to lead to a third wave of infection, with hospitals being overrun, and more unnecessary deaths”?

Is the Minister confident that the Government have done everything possible to avoid a third wave in the new year?

With today’s announcement that London will be moved into tier 3 just a week before rules are relaxed, is the Minister confident that the Government can effectively communicate these three rule changes to the public in the next week? What assurance can she offer the millions living in London and the south-east of England who will be under the tier 3 rules on Wednesday that the measures taken will actually halt the spread of the virus and keep them and their families safe over Christmas?