Covid-19 - Statement

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 6:13 pm on 23rd April 2020.

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Photo of Baroness Thornton Baroness Thornton Shadow Spokesperson (Health) 6:13 pm, 23rd April 2020

My Lords, I thank the Minister for repeating the Statement. I join him and the Government in saying that our thoughts are also with all those who have lost their lives to this horrible virus. I pay tribute to the NHS and social care staff who have lost their lives. I know the Minister agrees that the number of victims who appear to have come from BAME communities is very concerning. Can he confirm reports that BAME people make up 72% of all NHS and carer deaths with Covid-19?

We welcome the announcement of an inquiry. It would be great if the Minister could provide further information about the scope of the inquiry and when it will report its initial findings.

The Minister said he believes that we are now at the peak, but we are nevertheless heading for one of the worst death rates in Europe. The Government have told the public that their response to the pandemic will always be guided by science but, as the Minister will be aware, there are often different views within the scientific community, so I repeat the call that we have made from these Benches in the past that the Government should publish the evidence underpinning their decision to recommend, for example, a seven-day rule for isolation. This is important for public confidence, given that the Government’s advice appears to contradict the advice by the World Health Organization, which advocates a 14-day rule for isolation based on evidence that people can still transmit the virus after 10 days or more.

Despite many questions, it remains unclear why the UK did not participate in some of the European procurement projects. The Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster said this was because we missed an email, whereas a senior civil servant at the Foreign Office said in evidence to a Select Committee that it was a political decision, before retracting that comment several hours later. The lack of transparency is deeply unsatisfactory. It would help if the Government published a background briefing so that we could see exactly what happened. We believe that it is necessary to get to the bottom of this situation now to ensure that the UK takes part in any future EU schemes that may help us deliver PPE to those putting their lives at risk on the front line.

The Government have repeatedly said that they are “ramping up”—this is an expression I do not enjoy, and I certainly intend never to use it myself—testing capacity, but the latest statistics show that only 14,629 NHS tests were carried out in the last 24-hour period, eight days before the Health Secretary’s self-imposed deadline to reach 100,000 tests. This is despite testing centres having a capacity of 39,000 checks a day. Why is more than half the country’s testing capacity still going unused when tens of thousands of NHS and social care staff, along with other critical workers, are being forced to self-isolate because they have not been tested? It is very concerning that the number of tests being undertaken is not increasing. Even if the capacity does reach 100,000, that is not the same as access. The latest statistics reveal that the number of tests performed on Tuesday was two-thirds that of the previous day. The Minister needs to tell the House what on earth is going to happen and when we can see the daily increase of tests.

Earlier this week the Health Secretary pledged to test immediately anyone in the social care sector who needed it. While elderly residents can be tested in the homes they live in, staff still have to travel. I learned earlier from the Minister that there are plans in place to change that, so I would like him to explain how soon those alternatives will come on stream.

Testing and contact tracing are vital to managing the UK’s response and easing lockdown restrictions. The new NHS app mentioned is very welcome. Can the Minister set out the timeline for when that will become available?

Finally, will the Minister confirm that the combination of some spare capacity in the NHS and the Government’s view that we now have reached the peak of the virus means that postponed NHS treatments and procedures will resume imminently? Although we understand why some elective treatments were postponed, the delay for many illnesses, including cancer, involves its own risk. It is therefore important that people receive the necessary treatment as soon as possible when it is safe to do so considering the impact of the virus. What support are the Government giving to trusts to help them manage demand amid the ongoing situation and give patients confidence that they will be treated in a Covid-free hospital?