Covid-19 Update - Statement

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 1:05 pm on 14th October 2020.

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Photo of Baroness Evans of Bowes Park Baroness Evans of Bowes Park Leader of the House of Lords and Lord Privy Seal 1:05 pm, 14th October 2020

I thank the noble Baroness and the noble Lord for their comments and questions. First, they are right to point out some of the statistics to highlight the situation we are in. As the noble Baroness rightly said, there are now more people in hospital with Covid than when we went into lockdown on 23 March, and the number of people testing positive for Covid has quadrupled in the last three weeks, so we are very cognisant, as I know we all are in this House, of the issues that face us.

The noble Lord and the noble Baroness referenced the need for action in September. We did take robust and proportionate action when introducing measures in England, including the rule of six and the 10 pm curfew, which we discussed in this House, as well as advising people to work from home when they can. Each of those was carefully judged to protect lives and reduce transmission, while minimising the impact on people’s livelihoods.

So, we did take robust action, but with the step change in cases, more action is needed, which is why we made the decision to move to the tiered approach. The reason we have gone for the tiered approach rather than the circuit breaker is that, as the Prime Minister said to the leader of the Opposition at Prime Minister’s Question Time today, the disease is appearing more strongly in some areas and regions than others, which is a different situation from March. That is why we are introducing this approach, which can be tailored more effectively to local situations. However, having said that, we regularly, and will regularly, keep measures under review to ensure that we are always taking the best action we can.

The noble Lord and the noble Baroness mentioned evidence. Evidence is considered by SAGE and its advice is published regularly online when it is no longer under live consideration for policy decisions. That is exactly what happened in this case. I hope I can reassure noble Lords that we will continue to take advice from a wide range of scientific and medical experts, as we have done throughout the pandemic, to inform our decisions. We are, as the noble Baroness rightly said, constantly having to evaluate the balance between protecting the NHS, saving lives, keeping our economy moving and keeping our children in school. These are very difficult issues to balance and I think the tone of the noble Lord’s and the noble Baroness’s questions, which I very much welcome, expresses the gravity of the situation and the difficult decisions that are being made.

I can assure the noble Baroness that as a member of Cabinet I have regular briefings, along with my Cabinet colleagues, from the Chief Medical Officer and the Chief Scientific Adviser about the latest data. As I have said, the Prime Minister and the Cabinet have to take decisions based on the best available science, along with considerations of the economic, operational, social and policy implications that follow, and that is what we do.

The noble Lord and the noble Baroness both reiterated criticisms of the test and trace system. I remind noble Lords that our daily capacity for testing is now around 340,000, with the aim of reaching more than 500,000 by the end of October. We increased capacity by around 30% in September alone. We are testing at a higher rate than other European countries and we have assembled the largest testing network in our history, including 96 NHS labs, 151 walk-in sites, 258 mobile testing sites and 77 regional sites. We are also looking to combine, as effectively as possible, the national framework and local expertise, which is why, since August, NHS test and trace has provided local authorities with dedicated teams of contact tracers to work alongside local public health officials to provide a more specialist service. We have provided more than £300 million to local authorities to help with this and, across the country now, we have 95 local authority contact tracing teams that are live, and more are coming online in the coming weeks. We have been very cognisant of some of the criticisms and are improving the situation on the ground. More than 700,000 people have been contacted and advised to isolate through the system and the latest figures show that more than 82% of contacts were reached and asked to self-isolate where contact details were provided.

The noble Lord, Lord Newby, asked about moving between tiers. Decisions on which areas are in which tier are made on a number of factors, including the rate of transmission, how quickly it is increasing and the effectiveness of current interventions, as well as hospitalisations and hospital capacity. Of course, all is also done in line with work and conversations with local leaders to discuss all their evidence and what they are seeing on the ground. It is a collaborative effort, but a range of factors is taken into account.

The noble Lord also asked about the Harrogate Nightingale Hospital. I am not sure whether he is aware, but it is currently being used. CT scanners have been made available to provide people with safer and faster access for a range of conditions, including cancer. As he will be aware, there are two hospitals providing that kind of support, Harrogate and Exeter, and another three Nightingale hospitals in some of the areas with the highest rates have been put on standby in order that they can play their part, along with the rest of our fantastic NHS, as we deal with this crisis.