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 Lord Bethell Lord Bethell The Parliamentary Under-Secretary for Health and Social Care 6:13 pm, 23rd April 2020

My Lords, I greatly thank the noble Baronesses, Lady Thornton and Lady Brinton, for their extremely perceptive and thoughtful questions. I will answer them, in the words of the moment, at pace.

The noble Baroness, Lady Thornton, asked about BAME. The precise figures for BAME deaths are not to hand. PHE will have a very thorough investigation into this. It will come up with a scope and a delivery date shortly.

On isolation, one of the frustrating and awkward things about the virus is how unpredictable it is and how many unknowns there are. It confounds expectations. The question of isolation remains one for which we are reviewing our advice. We are in constant contact with other countries to learn more about best practice.

On the European project, I make it absolutely 100% clear that there was a cock-up, not a conspiracy. There were emails from Europe to us that were missed; there were meetings that our side missed. It was a great shame that that opportunity was missed, but we have put in place the processes and arrangements to work with our European partners on future procurement if they are helpful to the NHS and our care system.

The noble Lady, Baroness Thornton, is quite right to ask about capacity and testing. The blunt truth is that infection rates have gone down dramatically. The lockdown has had a profound impact. The KCL infection rate graph has gone from 2 million to half a million. That has a profound effect on demand for tests. Access is no longer a problem. At 5 pm, on the No. 10 presser, the Secretary of State explained how key workers can access a test for themselves. A major advertising campaign will begin tomorrow. They can either attend the drive-ins or Amazon will deliver a test to their home. Therefore, for those without a car, travel is not necessary. That capacity will be essential when we build the kind of track and trace capability that we will need to take us out of lockdown.

The noble Baroness, Lady Thornton, asked about postponed treatments. I echo her sentiments entirely. It is of grave concern that the numbers of non-Covid deaths can be worse than of those who die of Covid themselves, as in any epidemic. The message in the Statement is crystal clear: if you need treatment, contact your GP or your hospital. We will do everything we can to give you the treatment that you need. We are trying to use this hiatus to clear some of the backlog. The noble Baroness mentioned cancer. That is a particularly tricky problem because those cancer patients in treatment who have challenging immune systems will not wish to attend hospitals where there is Covid. We are doing all that we can to try to make arrangements and provide hygienic arrangements for them.

The noble Baroness, Lady Brinton, asked about care beds. Let me slay one myth: the ONS is very clear about the proportion of deaths at care homes. It is 10%. It is an offence to misrepresent the cause of a death. Causes of death are reported to PHE. The CQC carries that information to the ONS. These are reliable figures and I would be glad to send those who suggest that it is more than that the details on the ONS website. There is no pressure on anyone to be in a bed that is not recommended by strong clinical advice. It is true that we have spare hospital bed capacity, but it is not true that we are pressurising anyone to stay in a care home who should be in a hospital bed.

The noble Baroness, Lady Brinton, raised the question of medicines. That is an area where our supply chains have been put under extreme stress. Suppliers in China, India and America have all been under pressure and we have been in conversation at government and corporate level to ensure we have supplies. The noble Baroness is right that some of the first-choice medicines for sedation have been in short supply, but there are ample and various back-ups for those medicines. She is right that a feature of the Covid disease, is, it seems, that it attacks the kidneys and there has been a big increase in the need for kidney dialysis and the drugs associated with it. We are putting in place the supply chains necessary to fill that need.

As for the Turkish ambassador, I am not going to give a blow-by-blow account of every plane and truckload of kit that comes to Britain; all I can say is that we are extremely grateful to both the Turkish ambassador and to our Turkish corporate providers and we find the scrutiny they have been put under unfortunate and regrettable.

Turning to track and trace, I confirm that isolation is an absolutely intrinsic part of the track and trace regime: it just does not rhyme so well, so you never put it at the end, but “track, trace and isolate” is the programme. I have been given a thorough briefing by the Taiwanese CMO on their use of track and trace and, having a Taiwanese wife, I can tell noble Lords that I am up to speed on their achievements in that area.

On app security, I assure the House that the Bluetooth we are using is the latent, not the overt, Bluetooth: data is not carried in the same way as in overt Bluetooth, and one of the reasons we have chosen that method is the strong security offered. I also reassure the House that we have strong data arrangements. It is one of the reasons we have gone for a latent Bluetooth technology, and no data will be shared with our technology providers.

Lastly, the noble Baroness, Lady Brinton, is entirely right to raise the tracing part of track and tracing. I reassure her that we will be using a variety of different methods. There will be a central bank of callers. We will also be using local resources where they are necessary, and we will also be using friends networks. We have learned from the best case studies from abroad that often the influence of friends in persuading people to isolate has the most profound effect.