Covid-19

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 6:34 pm on 12th January 2021.

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Photo of Justin Madders Justin Madders Shadow Minister (Health and Social Care) 6:34 pm, 12th January 2021

We have had another well-subscribed debate, and Members’ contributions have been short as a result but no less effective for it. On the Opposition Benches, we have heard from my hon. Friend Richard Burgon, who expressed concern that the current lockdown rules are inadequate and that the Government’s response is to blame the public for non-compliance. My hon. Friend Mick Whitley talked about the heroes who have kept this country going, and I join him in paying tribute to them. He said that they are the “very best of humanity” but are often among the lowest paid.

My hon. Friend Ms Brown gave a typically passionate speech. She described NHS staff as exhausted, stressed and traumatised, and she asked the right question: if the Nightingales are reopening, how can they be staffed when NHS staff are already at breaking point? She was outraged, as many of us are, at the paltry offering that our nation’s children have been told is enough to feed them for a week. My hon. Friend Jessica Morden paid tribute to the work of the Welsh Assembly and made the fair point that, when it has made decisions to lock down, financial support from Westminster has not always followed automatically.

My hon. Friend Catherine West expressed regret that the Government did not formally review their actions after the first wave, because if they had, mistakes might not have been repeated. My hon. Friend Emma Hardy was, as always, a powerful advocate for her city, and she spoke about how businesses and individuals have suffered during the last year. My hon. Friends the Members for Coventry North East (Colleen Fletcher) and for Brentford and Isleworth (Ruth Cadbury) drew attention to the widening health inequalities in the past decade that have now been exacerbated by the pandemic. My hon. Friend Mike Amesbury spoke about the patchiness of vaccine supply in his constituency. As his neighbour, I recognise those concerns, as many Members do, and we hope to see great progress on that in the coming weeks.

Finally, in a powerful speech, my hon. Friend Siobhain McDonagh reminded us that the link between covid cases and poverty is a stark one. She made a strong case for why more support is needed to enable people to self-isolate. In fact, just about every single Opposition Member raised that in one way or another. We have been making this case since the start of the pandemic, so why has it not happened?

We are in the darkest hour yet, but we still see the same failings again and again that have led us to this place. More people have been infected this year already than in the whole of October, when, let us not forget, things got so bad that we had to have another lockdown. Worse still, more people have died this month already than died in July, August and September put together. Every death is a tragedy. Every death leaves behind a grieving family, and while not every death is avoidable, not every one was inevitable.

The Government follow the same pattern every time, waiting until the last possible moment—until a decision becomes unavoidable. It is an ongoing cycle of bluster and denial, losing valuable time through delaying the inevitable and then running to catch up but never quite getting there. We can trace that pattern right back to even before the start of the pandemic, when warnings about preparations were ignored and the Prime Minister missed five Cobra meetings when our initial response to this threat was drawn up.

The Government have repeatedly been too slow to act. They were too slow to lock down the first time, and the second and the third. Ignoring the scientific advice from SAGE on a circuit breaker lockdown for six weeks was unforgivable. The Government certainly were not following the science then, nor were they when they said they would not change the Christmas relaxation rules because it was too late to do so, only to then do it three days later. They then told teachers, parents and children that it was safe to return to school one day, only to close them the next.

The Government ignored the World Health Organisation’s advice to test, test, test and stopped contact tracing altogether in March. As my hon. Friend Claudia Webbe set out, the Government’s failings in social care are many, the most serious of which was allowing patients to be discharged into care homes without testing them for covid. We also had people being sent hundreds of miles just to get a covid test, all the while people were still coming into the UK without any checks at all. That still is not going to be corrected until the end of this week. The promise of all test results being returned within 24 hours has never materialised. Even now, the vast majority of tests take far longer than that to return.

They also delayed the roll-out of routine testing for care home staff but failed to anticipate the increase in testing capacity that would be needed when people returned to schools and workplaces, and they missed thousands of new cases because the spreadsheet was full. They set up a covid hotline that missed thousands of calls because of a failure to anticipate demand, again. On contact tracing, they developed the famous app and then could not get it to work. It was scrapped. They started again and finally delivered it four months’ late. Then, when it arrived, a notification to self-isolate from it did not count for claiming the self-isolation payment.

Worst of all, they handed massive sums of money to private companies with no record of contact tracing to deal with test and trace, repeatedly ignoring the evidence that locally led teams consistently delivered better results. The consequences of that were that thousands of people every day were not contacted quickly enough or were not contacted at all, meaning they continued to unwittingly spread the virus. They also did not require those private testing companies to report their results back to local public health bodies, meaning that opportunities for early action on local outbreaks were missed.

On PPE, where do we start? Stockpiles were allowed to run down. The Government allowed desperately needed PPE to be exported abroad, while our own health and social care staff were having to scrabble around or rely on homemade items. They signed £10 billion-worth of contracts on covid procurement without following the usual rules, including handing multimillion pound contracts to companies with no record of PPE production, some of whom supplied PPE that did not meet the required standards or, worse still, did not provide anything at all.

As we have said, they failed and are still failing to support people to self-isolate, bringing in a scheme of support that only one in eight people qualified for, with the unsurprising consequence that many people cannot afford to self-isolate. This is one of the first things we brought up at the start of the pandemic almost a year ago and it is unbelievable that it has still not been resolved.

Finally, the Government introduced a tier system that did not work and then another tier system that experts told them from the start would not work, so they had to introduce yet another tier system that did not work before finally creating extra tiers to the tier system that also did not work. They have over-promised and under-delivered every step of the way. There is a tragic failure to learn from mistakes. That must not be allowed to happen with the roll-out of the vaccine. It is, after all, our only way out of the situation.

It is, of course, a source of great national pride that we were the first country to approve a vaccine for distribution and that our own scientists were integral to the development of the second vaccine that was approved. So it would be a huge failing if we then did not become the first country to mass vaccinate our population. For the families forced to part, for the businesses facing bankruptcy and for the NHS staff exhausted by the relentless pressure that the virus has created, we all want the quickest possible route out of this.

The vaccines Minister said yesterday that the limiting factor to the vaccine roll-out at the moment is the volume of vaccines available, but has provided little detail on future supply. Where has it gone? AstraZeneca promised 30 million doses by September. That went down to 4 million by the end of year and clearly much less has actually been delivered on the ground. All the best laid plans will not matter if the supply is not there, so I hope the Minister can set out a detailed schedule of how many doses have been received to date, how many are expected each week and what the weekly projections are for delivery moving forward. Once we have got that sorted, let us go for 24-hour delivery. I can assure the House that there is an appetite for that.

On the vaccination of NHS staff, the latest estimate is that there are now some 46,000 staff off ill with covid, so it is vital that all NHS staff receive their first dose as soon as possible. Will the Minister commit today not just to delivering them as soon as possible, but to ensuring that they all get their vaccines within the next two weeks? We very much welcome the vaccines data that will be published each day from Thursday, but will she also commit to publishing the daily total of health and social care staff vaccinated so we can see progress there, too. We absolutely need the NHS to be protected. In that regard, one way to relieve pressure is to ensure that discharges into the social care sector are managed. Can the Minister update us on when the 500 covid-secure care homes will finally be on stream?

I just want to say a few words on the current lockdown. As we have heard, there has been much debate, both in here and in the media, about whether the current measures in place are sufficient. Once again, we hear at second hand from media briefings that Ministers are considering introducing new measures. Can the Minister update us in here, today, on whether any further measures will be introduced? Advice in December called for the Government to reconsider the 1 metre-plus rule, and we hear that SAGE has urged the Prime Minister to go further and increase 2 metres to 3 metres. We cannot be too late on that as well, so can the Government set out today what their position is on the social distancing rules and whether they need to change?

We know that the Government have also been advised to reinforce the importance of face coverings, including in settings where they are not currently mandated, such as workplaces and outdoor spaces. There was a two-month delay in advice on face coverings moving from just being guidance to becoming law. We cannot wait another two months for a change again if that is needed.

We all know why we need to look at extra measures, but to reinforce just how important that is, I want to conclude with a message that I received this morning from a constituent, who is an ICU nurse. She told me:

“I work full time plus extra, as we’re so, so busy. It’s horrendous. I am exhausted. I am still awake after a night shift, as I can’t switch off. I had four patients last night, I should only have had two. Then on my days off, I’m having to home-school as my husband, who is a store manager, is having to go to work and do click and collect. He says there are huge queues. It’s an absolute joke. This is not a proper lockdown.”

We need to listen to her. Our own eyes should tell us that this lockdown is not as strict as the first one, yet we have a more transmissible variant of the virus in circulation. Let us not delay again making the difficult but necessary decisions. Let us not put more pressure on an NHS already at breaking point. Let us not make those same mistakes again.