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 Brinton Baroness Brinton Party Chair, Liberal Democrats, Acting Leader, Liberal Democrats 6:13 pm, 23rd April 2020

I thank the Minister for repeating the Statement and for his work on testing. We may have some difficult questions for him, but I hope I have the support of the whole House in saying thank you to him and his team for the work they are doing on this difficult area.

I too thank all the staff and volunteers in the NHS and the wider social care sector and other key areas who have been working during this crisis, whether directly on the front line or in supporting families and our children in schools. We send our condolences to the families of the bereaved, and are pleased that many people are recovering, even though we know that, if they have had it badly, it takes time. From these Benches, we echo the concerns about the high percentage of BME deaths, among workers and non-workers alike.

The Statement says that there are 3,000 spare critical care beds, but ITV reports that care home residents now account for up to half of Covid deaths. However, last week the Daily Mail reported that care home residents were still being asked to sign letters to say that they would not go to hospital in the event that they had Covid-19. Will the Minister confirm that these critical care beds in hospital are not spare? There are plenty of people in care homes who could use those beds but they have been put under pressure, no matter how gently, to sign the letters.

It is good to see the Nightingale hospitals coming on board—even if they are empty, for the right reasons. One of the concerns expressed has been about the staffing and the initial request that any patient had to have staff accompanying them from their previous hospital. Can the Minister say that this has now definitely stopped and that staff with appropriate critical care experience are able to be recruited? I gather that this has also been a problem for increasing the number of beds.

There was a good message in the Statement for people to go to their GPs and to use 999 for emergencies, but today there was a report of somebody who had a severe heart attack not being picked up urgently, as heart attacks are still second-level priorities to Covid. As a result of that 20-minute target rate, sadly the patient died. Is there any rebalancing of priorities for ambulances now that we seem to be over the peak of cases?

On equipment and medicines, it is good to hear that there are now just over 10,000 ventilators. Are they full ventilators, or does that include CPAP and BiPAP machines? How many more are to come? There have been some worrying shortages of medicines for those who need to be sedated, and recently we have heard news that there is a problem with kidney dialysis and kidney medicine for people who have come out of intensive care and require long-term support. Is there a shortage of such medicines, what other medicines are at risk and what proposals are there to remedy that problem?

We have spent many hours today talking about PPE. We are still waiting for supplies for everything outside hospitals. On 6 April, Clipper was heralded as being about to solve this problem, but it is still woeful. Until the social care and community sectors get the support they need, they will continue to be worried about the spread of Covid.

The Turkish ambassador has written to various people in the APPG on Turkey, setting out the actual arrangements—as opposed to those reported by the Government—concerning the delay in the package that appeared to get stuck. Turkey actually donated 250,000 pieces of medical protection equipment to us; the rest came through privately. Can the Minister say when the remainder of the consignment due from a Turkish supplier will arrive?

It is good to hear that formal arrangements for testing, tracking and tracing are now under way, but the WHO always puts in a third word alongside “test” and “trace”: “isolate”. Any mention of isolation in the Statement is notable by its absence. Taiwan, South Korea and Hong Kong have all managed to suppress further bursts of Covid because of the arrangements for not just testing and tracing but isolating. It is good to hear that an app will be available, but the Minister will know that there are people with technical experience concerned about whether it is appropriate to use Bluetooth for it, because of security issues. Can the Minister assure the House that this is not the case and that people’s data will be used only for NHS purposes and will absolutely not be able to be used by any providers of the app or beyond? The 18,000 tracers announced by the Secretary of State just before this Statement are a good start, but we will need more for good national coverage. Worryingly, Mr Hancock said a few days ago that all this will be operated centrally. Is that still the case, or will he use the existing trained tracers that there are in local communities, whether environmental health tracers in councils or in local health teams? It seems rather bizarre to try to cover the country on that level.

On shielding, it is good that there is a request to create more volunteers and to celebrate the volunteers, but notable by their absence in the Statement are the many people who have not yet had their letters on shielding and whether any further groupings may have to consider shielding—which I understand is the case.

I congratulate the Government on their progress on test and trace, but confirm that we are extremely concerned about supplies of equipment and medicine and hope that things will be remedied speedily.