Covid-19 Update

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 1:25 pm on 2nd March 2021.

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Photo of Jon Ashworth Jon Ashworth Shadow Secretary of State for Health and Social Care 1:25 pm, 2nd March 2021

As always, I thank the Secretary of State for advance sight of his statement. On the Brazilian variant, in January and February cases here were running at tens of thousands a day and we were in lockdown—we are still in lockdown—because of our own home-grown new infectious variant, yet people were allowed to fly in from abroad, bringing the P1 Brazilian mutation with them. Throughout history, epidemic after epidemic has exploited international travel. Surely it is obvious that tougher border controls should have been in place sooner.

I welcome the progress that the Secretary of State has made on identifying the batch, but how on earth can a test be processed that does not collect the contact details? What mechanisms will be put in place to fix that in the future? Twenty-two billion pounds has been allocated to this system, and it feels as though someone has vanished into thin air. Can he assure us that it will not happen again?

I note that the Secretary of State said that there is no information to suggest wider spread of this variant, but he will recall that John Edmunds from SAGE told the Home Affairs Committee in January that for every identified South African variant, there were probably another 30 unidentified. Can the Secretary of State tell us whether he has received any estimates of the number of unidentified cases in the wider community?

I welcome the tremendous progress that has been made on vaccination and driving infection rates down. It is a testament to the NHS and everybody involved in the vaccination programme, and to everybody who is playing their part in this lockdown. We also know that the virus can quickly rebound and that mutations could evade vaccination. We are in a race against evolution, so we have a long way to go. To be frank, nowhere is covid-safe until everywhere is covid-safe. None of us wants to yo-yo in and out of lockdowns, so will the Secretary of State guarantee that the lockdown easing will, as promised, absolutely be based on data, not dates, and that the assessment time between each step is not compromised? I welcome the extra surge testing, but what is the current timeframe for genetic sequencing? How can it be sped up?

Overall trends are coming down, and that is welcome, but infections in some areas remain stubbornly high. The national average is 100 cases per 100,000, but in Leicester, my city, the infection rate is one of the highest in the country at 222 per 100,000. In Ashfield, the infection rate is 246 per 100,000. In Hyndburn, the infection rate has increased to 162 per 100,000. In Oadby and Wigston, it has gone up. In Watford, it has gone up. In Worthing, it has gone up. What steps will be taken to ensure that areas such as Ashfield, Leicester, Watford, Worthing, Hyndburn and so on are not left behind when the national lockdown restrictions begin to lift, or will those places remain in localised lockdowns? Will the local authorities be given extra resources to do more door-to-door testing and retrospective tracing? Will workplaces in those areas be inspected by the Health and Safety Executive to ensure they are covid-secure? And of course, will people finally be given decent sick pay and isolation support?

Many areas such as Leicester are facing a double whammy of relatively high infection rates and relatively low vaccination rates. What further action will now be taken to drive up vaccination rates among hesitant communities? Will the Secretary of State fund faith groups, community groups and local public health teams to develop more targeted and tailored local vaccination campaigns?

Tomorrow’s Budget cannot be about the Chancellor’s Instagram account; it has to be about the NHS and social care accounts. Can the Secretary of State guarantee that tomorrow we will get an increase in public health allocations to help public health teams plan their local covid response over the next year? Will our NHS heroes get the pay rise they deserve? With 224,000 patients waiting more than 12 months for treatment, will our NHS get the resources it needs to deliver the patient care that patients and our constituents deserve?