Covid-19 (Public Services Committee Report) - Motion to Take Note

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 4:10 pm on 22nd July 2021.

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Photo of Baroness Chapman of Darlington Baroness Chapman of Darlington Shadow Minister for the Cabinet Office, Opposition Whip (Lords) 4:10 pm, 22nd July 2021

It is a pleasure to follow the noble Baroness, Lady Brinton, and I begin by echoing the thanks that she gave to my noble friend Lady Armstrong of Hill Top for her introduction to this debate and the work she did in leading the committee. Her commitment to improving public services is second to none and, speaking personally, I have long been inspired by the tenacity that she has shown in that endeavour over many years. The work that she and her fellow committee members undertook in the preparation of the report is admirable and I get the impression, having listened to the debate, that all Members thought it to be a thought-provoking and paradigm-challenging experience—as well as, if I am reading between the lines correctly, about as much fun as is allowed in the course of parliamentary duties on Zoom.

It is regrettable, though, that the Government chose not to give evidence and, as the noble Lord, Lord Shipley, observed, to delay this debate for as long as it has been delayed. I hope that that does not reveal a wider reluctance to engage in scrutiny of the delivery of services during the pandemic. Perhaps the Minister can reassure us on that in his response. Ministers must guard against giving the impression that they are either insufficiently curious to learn lessons or perhaps fearful of what will be revealed. It is essential that any such misgivings are not allowed to interfere with learning from what has happened. I am sure that the Government will want to make sure that they can learn from this compelling report when finally they begin their own investigation.

I hope that my noble friend Lady Armstrong does not mind me saying this, and does not take it the wrong way, but, when I saw that she was leading this debate, I kind of knew what she was going to say, because she is such a respected voice on these issues. I have heard her talk passionately many times about the need for early intervention and the urgency of addressing the lack of co-ordination between health and social care in particular—but she has never been more right to say these things than she is now.

The report identifies fundamental weaknesses, insufficient prevention and early intervention, overcentralised delivery and silo working, lack of integration, problems with data sharing, and lack of user voice. As others have said, none of those observations is especially new, but Covid has exposed them starkly and that is why I encourage the Government to build on this report and proceed quickly with their own inquiry. For grieving families, the sense of loss never fades, even though the anger, shock and pain can ease with time. However, the ease with which precious lessons can be learned will fade with time. That is why this report at this time is so valuable.

There is clearly much to be proud of in the way in which our public services responded. The resilience shown, especially in the early months, was awe-inspiring. The way in which the public, private and voluntary sectors joined forces has been hugely beneficial to us all. The deployment of new technology has been rapid and impressive. Although the app is driving people mad at the moment, the ability to access health information and share it securely with providers could be game-changing. Remote consultations, used appropriately, could make accessing services permanently easier for patients. We should ask ourselves how we take this innovation, as my noble friend Lady Armstrong said, where it is good and lock it in. My noble friend Lord Haskel highlighted the success of the Welsh Government in sourcing PPE, which seems a good example of a lesson that could be learned and shared, to the benefit of all, as a consequence of a future government inquiry.

If the global financial crisis in 2008 did not persuade small-government advocates of the need for an active, flexible and engaged state at a national and local level, coronavirus surely must.

The noble Lord, Lord Young of Cookham, provided a detailed and revealing description of how other countries have coped. We need to contrast the outcomes of countries where political leaders stepped up and took decisive action, such as New Zealand, with those who wilfully neglected their citizens’ well-being, such as Brazil.

My noble friend Lord Hunt explained how comparatively poorly resourced our health services are. The UK’s death toll stands at almost 130,000. I do not want to stand here and point the finger at the Government—that is not what today has been about—but it is undeniable that weaknesses identified in the report should have been tackled sooner. Health inequalities are well known and we are going backwards. This must change. The committee points out that, while it is important to learn lessons from the data and the workforce, it is equally important to hear the voices of service users. Co-production is recommended and I look forward to learning more about that process.

Inevitably, our debate focused on health services and it has been good to hear noble Lords attending to the impact that the pandemic has had on the justice system, rough sleepers and our youngest citizens. The scarring on the education and mental health of all children, especially the disadvantaged and those who have lost as much as six months of education, will shame us forever unless we take urgent steps to correct it. The potential harm to them as individuals is not yet known, but neither is the harm to our society and future prosperity. The message to the Government could not be clearer: “Fix this. Fix it quickly, before it’s too late and the scarring is too deep to heal”.

The catch-up tsar may have resigned in despair, as many noble Lords have pointed out. That is always embarrassing, but this is not just about tsars and special projects. As my noble friend Lady Goudie said so compellingly, we need to see every lever pulled in every school, family and community for years to come to make sure that no child’s life chances are permanently damaged.

My noble friend Lady Armstrong hammered home the need to invest in thinking further ahead, intervening and preventing problems. So perhaps the most important lesson of all from this pandemic will be that short-term, reactive, politically driven decision-making costs lives. This report shows us that there is another, better way.