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Topical Questions

Volume 673: debated on Tuesday 10 March 2020

The global coronavirus outbreak is clearly growing. Last night, Italy placed the whole country in quarantine. We have updated our travel advice to advise against all but essential travel to Italy. All those returning from any area of Italy must self-isolate for 14 days. That is in addition to our advice that anyone who visited the specific areas of northern Italy that were originally locked down in the past two weeks should self-isolate for 14 days. We will do everything we can to keep people safe, based on the very best scientific advice.

A recent survey by the Teenage Cancer Trust found that 29% of young people who were treated for cancer did not have a discussion about their fertility with a healthcare professional. Of those who did, 44% were not satisfied with that discussion. Will the Secretary of State meet me and representatives of Teenage Cancer Trust to work towards some much needed progress in assuring young people and their families that fertility is of extreme importance?

I know that the hon. Lady has personal experience in this area. I entirely understand the concern she raises. The personal plans that are being brought out from next year should help to address this problem, but the Under-Secretary of State for Health and Social Care, my hon. Friend the Member for Bury St Edmunds (Jo Churchill), is very happy to meet her to make sure we get this exactly right.

T2. Over three and a half years ago, Grantham Hospital was closed overnight owing to temporary measures. This has gone on for far too long. Enough is enough. Can the Secretary of State help me and offer any guidance or update on what we can do to get those doors back open 24 hours a day? (901443)

It is vital that the people of Grantham are able to access 24-hour care for both accident and emergency and urgent treatment needs. I urge my hon. Friend to continue to work with his local health services and commissioners to develop plans to ensure the needs of his constituents are met. I know he has already been a strong advocate on this matter in this House for his constituents since his election, but I am of course very happy to visit him in Grantham if that would be helpful to him.

Personal protective equipment can be as important in social care settings as it is in hospital or GP settings, but care staff report having to buy their own gloves and one care provider had their order of protective equipment requisitioned by the NHS. The Secretary of State says that he is all over this issue, so what plans does he have to ensure that care staff have access to protective equipment to protect them and the people they care for?

Of course care staff too are absolutely vital in the national effort to address coronavirus, not least because of the increased risk to many people who are in residential settings and who receive domiciliary care. The work to make sure that protective equipment is available extends to social care staff. Of course, most social care is provided through private businesses, and the delivery model is therefore different, but that does not make it any less important. I am very happy for the hon. Lady and the Minister for Care to have a meeting to make sure that we can listen to the concerns that she has heard about, because we want to address them.

There are already 120,000 vacancies in the care workforce and we now face the prospect of large numbers of care staff having to self-isolate because of coronavirus. With the NHS also needing staff, as we have discussed already, what plans does the Secretary of State have to ensure that care providers are still able to fulfil their contracts and provide their clients with support?

This is also an incredibly important issue that we are considering and working on. We will make sure that we address any barriers to social care operating. In all contingency plans on the reasonable worst-case scenario, plans are needed for being able to operate with a 20% reduction in workforce, but making sure that the best care can be provided in what is going to be a difficult time for social care is a really important part of the effort that we are making.

T5. When he announced the medicines and medical devices safety review of, among other things, vaginal mesh implants, the then Health Secretary, my right hon. Friend the Member for South West Surrey (Jeremy Hunt), described the response to these tragedies as “not good enough”. Will the Secretary of State assure me that women who now need mesh removal are receiving all the support that they need and that adequate resources are in place for the treatments that they require? (901447)

My hon. Friend is quite right to raise this—it is true that that the NHS has had to rise to address the scandal over mesh. There is a lot of work still to be done.

T3. The Secretary of State is absolutely right to say that we need to take advantage of all the medical evidence. In the light of that, is it not deeply damaging for the Prime Minister to go on morning television and start musing on the idea that we might have a theory of letting coronavirus have its bounce out and see how it goes? Does that not absolutely fly in the face of the efforts that the Secretary of State is making? Can he clarify that that is not the policy of this Government and tell us what the hell the Prime Minister was talking about? (901444)

No, the hon. Gentleman is wrong to raise this issue in this way. It was addressed in the House yesterday actually—the Prime Minister was explaining that that is not Government policy.

T7. Loneliness will affect most of us during our lifetime. It can define our lives and have a significant impact on our health and wellbeing, as well as increasing pressure and costs on our health services. There are some brilliant voluntary health support services to combat loneliness, so can the Secretary of State advise me on what plans he has to join up the NHS, health and social care and our voluntary support sector to provide the best possible care for victims of loneliness? (901450)

My hon. Friend is right about both how widespread loneliness is and the costs. The cross-Government loneliness strategy does indeed join up the voluntary sector and many parts of Government, led by the brilliant Baroness Barran in the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport. For our part, in this Department we are particularly supporting the growth of social prescribing, which enables GPs to direct their patient to a host of activities, many of which help people to overcome loneliness.

Let us try to keep a sense of perspective. Last weekend, Government sources indicated that the worst-case scenario would be 100,000 deaths due to the current virus outbreak. Given that China has reported just over 3,000 deaths and that it has been at the epicentre of the virus for 10 weeks but has a population 20 times greater than the United Kingdom, was the 100,000 figure a helpful reference?

Of course we have to plan for a reasonable worst-case scenario, but we are working incredibly hard to avoid it. The Chinese Government undertook some very significant actions, and it is not yet clear whether the impact of those actions was to slow the spread such that when those actions are lifted the spread will continue, or whether the virus has in effect gone through the population of Hubei. We do not yet know that, so it is not yet possible to interpret the epidemiological consequences of the deaths figure in China.

Last Friday I held an open meeting so that my residents could better understand the proposals for Epsom and St Helier University Hospitals Trust. While I understand that the Minister cannot comment on the consultation, does he not agree that my residents would do better to consider the evidence that shows these proposals will improve access and quality and have no adverse impact on health inequalities?

My hon. Friend is right. I do not intend to prejudge the consultation, but I agree that his constituents should look very carefully at the evidence of what it will do to save lives and improve healthcare and respond accordingly.

T6. In response to an urgent question from the shadow Health Secretary yesterday, the Secretary of State confirmed that emergency legislation being introduced to tackle coronavirus would include changes to statutory sick pay. Can he confirm to the House that the emergency legislation will include specific proposals to remove the lower earnings limit of £118 per week in order to provide access to statutory sick pay for 1.8 million low-paid workers? (901448)

I can confirm that we will ensure that whatever the status of people working across the economy, whether they are self-employed or employed but working fewer than the set number of hours a week, they will get the support that means they are not penalised for doing the right thing.

Workforce pressures are rightly on the agenda at the moment, and we hear a lot about recruiting internationally, but what are we doing to promote the home-grown workforce—through training and lifelong learning—and get people to enter the health profession at any time of life?

There has been much discussion today of international recruitment, but alongside that we are committed to boosting our home-grown workforce, particularly to achieve our ambition of an extra 50,000 nurses in the NHS and 6,000 more GPs.

At a time when the NHS is under pressure as never before because of coronavirus, does the Secretary of State agree that to close Mildmay Mission Hospital in my constituency would be an act of unbelievable folly? It is a specialist unit for people with HIV/AIDS, and to force those patients into the mainstream would endanger lives. Can he commit today to providing the much needed additional funding of £5 million a year to save this very important hospital, which is doing very important work?

I welcome, as I am sure we all do, the huge advances in HIV/AIDS care and treatment in recent years. The hon. Member and her trust came to see me recently to discuss this case. Following that meeting, I understand that NHS England, the clinical commissioning group and others met the trust to discuss the issue and the way forward. That is the right forum in which to find the right way forward—a way forward driven by the clinical evidence of the right approach.

In Windsor we have an ageing but distinguished population, and we recognise that adult social care is one of the biggest challenges facing the country and local authorities. I thank the Secretary of State for his dedication to resolving these issues, with the better care fund allocation and his call for input from MPs, among others. In those discussions, will he have an open mind to the concept of a precept for adult social care for local authorities?

My hon. Friend will be aware that already some of the funding that adult social care receives is through a council tax precept, but I would be delighted to meet him as part of the cross-party talks we have initiated to address the challenges in social care.

There are numerous reports of people with symptoms of coronavirus being refused a test by 111 because they cannot name an individual who has been diagnosed with the virus. Yesterday the Secretary of State’s ministerial colleague, the noble Lord Bethell, said about 111 that there must be people who had had “bad experiences”. Will the Secretary of State confirm whether it is indeed policy not to test those with symptoms who cannot be contact traced, or whether many people are simply having a bad 111 experience?

The 111 protocols are of course driven by the clinicians. I will look into the specifics of the case that the hon. Lady mentions was raised in the other place yesterday, but we keep those protocols under constant review—not least as the epidemiology of the virus changes as the number of cases increases—to ensure that we have the very best advice.

Although Blackpool Victoria Hospital has one of the busiest accident and emergency departments in the region, its staff reduced A&E waiting times this winter thanks to changes in the triage process. Will my right hon. Friend congratulate those staff, and will he work with them to ensure that the planned £11 million investment in A&E can reduce waiting times still further?

I thoroughly enjoyed my visit to Blackpool. I cannot remember whether it was in November or in the first half of December, but it was very enjoyable. It was great to see what the trusts are planning to do with the extra investment that is coming their way. I also want to congratulate all those at the trust who have done such a fantastic job in deciding how best to ensure that people are treated as quickly as possible. They have improved their systems, they have learnt from what works, and they are doing brilliantly.

Research has shown that CT scans can diagnose covid-19 with 98% accuracy, taking less than 10 minutes. Have the Government any plans to use CT scans in diagnosis?

Yes, we are looking at all possible methods of diagnosis, and we have funding to ensure that we can improve the research. Diagnostics must be effective, but our goal is to for them to be done next to the patient and turned around rapidly, which, obviously, is what everyone the world over is seeking.

I thank my hon. Friend the hospitals Minister for his personal attention to Kettering General Hospital, and for the plans for a new £46 million urgent care hub. Can he assure me that progress on the delivery of that facility is on track?

I am happy to give my hon. Friend that assurance. The fact that the money is being invested is largely due to his campaigning efforts and those of his colleagues. I look forward to the opportunity to visit him again soon, and to see progress on the ground when I meet the team.