Covid-19 - Statement

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 6:02 pm on 23rd April 2020.

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Photo of Lord Bethell Lord Bethell The Parliamentary Under-Secretary for Health and Social Care 6:02 pm, 23rd April 2020

My Lords, I shall now repeat a Statement on coronavirus that was made yesterday in the other place. The figures have changed since then and this Statement contains up-to-date figures. The Statement is as follows:

“Mr Speaker, first, may I say how pleased I am that the House is sitting once again? At this important time, it is critical that we have the scrutiny and debate provided by this House. I would like to thank everybody involved in setting up these new arrangements. This has demonstrated that no virus, and no threat, will thwart our democracy.

Coronavirus continues to spread throughout the world. The latest figures show that 18,738 people have sadly died here. Our hearts, and the hearts of the whole House, go out to their loved ones. I know that, across the House, we are all united in our determination to fight the virus with everything we have. Today, I wanted to update the House on each part of our battle plan.

First, on the resilience of the NHS, I can tell the House that, for the first time, we now have over 3,000 spare critical care beds in the NHS. That is over three times more than we had at the start of the crisis. It is thanks to the incredible work of an awful lot of people that we have this extra spare capacity, even before we include the new Nightingale hospitals.

Over the past two weeks, I have been lucky enough to attend, either in person or virtually, the opening of four of these new Nightingales—in London, Manchester, Birmingham, Bristol and Harrogate—and there are several more to come, all across the UK, including in Belfast, Glasgow, Cardiff, Exeter and Sunderland. These incredible efforts from our dedicated staff, supported by our Armed Forces, mean that our NHS has at no point been overwhelmed by the coronavirus. Some said this would be impossible.

Today, I want to reinforce the message that non-Covid NHS services are open to patients; the NHS is there for you if you need advice and treatment. I want to address that message very clearly to those most vulnerable to heart attacks and strokes, to parents with young children, to pregnant women and to people with concerns that they may have cancer. I want to emphasise that people with non-coronavirus symptoms must still contact their GP. If you think you need medical help, please contact your GP either online or by phone to be assessed. If you need urgent medical advice, use the NHS 111 online service, or if you cannot get online, call 111. And, of course, if something is serious or life-threatening, call 999. If you are told to go to hospital, the place you need to be in is a hospital. The NHS is there for you and can provide the very best care if you need it.

The second point of our battle plan is on supply and working to boost supplies of core equipment. The full weight of the Government is behind this effort, and again we have brought in our Armed Forces to help us to meet this demand. This includes ventilators—both purchasing extra stock and increasing the production of new ones. We now have record numbers of ventilators, with 10,800 available for use by patients. It includes medicines, so that we can make sure everyone has access to the supplies and treatments they need. And, of course, it includes personal protective equipment too.

In normal times, the NHS PPE supply chain supplies 233 hospital trusts. Currently, 58,000 separate health and social care settings are being supplied with PPE, so we are creating that whole new logistics network from scratch. We have some of the best minds in the country working on this. I am grateful to colleagues from the NHS and Public Health England, the Crown Commercial Service and the Cabinet Office, the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government, the Ministry of Defence and the Armed Forces—again—the devolved Administrations and territorial offices, the Business Department, the Treasury, the Foreign Office and the Department for International Trade, because they are all playing their part.

Last week, I appointed my noble friend Lord Deighton, who delivered the Olympics, to a new role to drive forward PPE manufacturing here. Since the start of this crisis, we have delivered 1 billion items of PPE. We are constantly working to improve the delivery system by buying PPE from around the world. We are also working to make more at home, and I would like to thank all the businesses that have generously come forward with offers to turn their production lines to part of this national effort. I would also like to thank Members from across the House who have put us in touch with businesses in their constituencies. We are actively engaged with more than 1,000 companies that buy from abroad, and we are working with 159 potential UK manufacturers. We have a rigorous system of verifying the offers that we receive, because not all offers have been credible, and it is important to focus on the biggest, most credible offers first. This work is crucial so that we can get our NHS and care staff the kit they need so they can do their jobs safely and with confidence.

The third part is to scale up testing. I have set the goal of 100,000 tests a day by the end of this month. I am delighted to say that that capacity is ahead of plans, even though the demand has thus far been lower than expected. We are therefore ramping up the availability of this testing and expanding who is eligible for testing and making it easier to access the tests. The tests are being conducted in NHS hospitals, as well as through our drive-through testing sites, mobile units and home deliveries. The tests are then sent to laboratories. We now have completed the construction of three Lighthouse Labs, in Milton Keynes, Glasgow and Cheshire. Each site took just three weeks to complete and begin testing. Further, as we have reached the peak and as we bring the number of new cases down, so we will introduce contact tracing at large scale.

The introduction of the new NHS app for contact tracing is also in development. As we do this, we are working closely with some of the best digital and technological brains, along with renowned experts in clinical safety and digital ethics so that we can get all of this right. The more people who sign up for this app when it goes live, the better informed our response will be and the better we can therefore protect our NHS.

Fourthly, we need to make sure that we make the best possible use of science and research to pursue the vaccines and treatments that are essential to defeat this virus once and for all. Here, the NHS is at the forefront of the global effort. We have put more money into global efforts to search for a vaccine than any other country, and yesterday I announced over £40 million of funding for two important projects at Imperial and at Oxford. The vaccine from the Oxford project will be trialled in people from tomorrow, and I am sure the whole House will agree that this is a very promising development.

I will repeat what I said yesterday. In normal times, reaching this stage would take years, and the combination of innovative groups of people at the Jenner Institute in Oxford and the regulator, the MHRA, deserve our special praise because they are both ensuring that the process is safe, yet conducted probably more rapidly than ever before. They deserve the support of the whole House in that work. At the same time, we will invest in manufacturing capability because, if either of these vaccines work, we must make it available to the British people as soon as humanly possible.

The fifth measure that I will talk about in the time available is the one where everyone can play their part: social distancing. I want to thank everyone, across the country, for their steadfast commitment in following the rules, including in this House. It is making a difference. We are at the peak. But before we relax any social distancing rules, or make changes to them, we have set out the five tests that have to be met: first, that the NHS can cope; secondly, that the operational challenges have been met; thirdly, that the daily death rate falls sustainably and consistently; fourthly, that the rate of infection is decreasing; and, most importantly, fifthly, that there is no risk of a second peak.

Finally, we are working to protect the most vulnerable through shielding—this is the sixth part of our battle plan. There has been a huge effort under way across government to contact and support those at risk. We have been boosted by the support and help of the heroic NHS volunteer responders, who signed up in droves within two days of our call to action. An unbelievable 750,000 people put themselves forward for this initiative. With those volunteers, and with the support of the Ministry for Housing, Communities and Local Government, the NHS and local councils, which have done amazing work on this, we are shielding the most vulnerable.

These are unprecedented times for us all. We have all seen the extraordinary impact of coronavirus in our constituencies and all across the country. And even though today we are physically separated, this House is at its best when we are united in our purpose and our resolve. I will keep working with Members right across the House in this fight against this invisible killer. This may be akin to a war, but it is one where all of humanity is on the same side. I commend this Statement to the House.”