Thank you for allowing me to make a statement at this time, Mr Speaker. The coronavirus pandemic is the most serious public health emergency that our nation has faced for a generation. Our goal is to protect life. Our actions have meant that the spread of the virus has been slowed in the UK. I pay tribute to the officials of Public Health England and the NHS for their exemplary approach to contact tracing and their work so far. However, the disease is now accelerating, and 53 people have sadly now died. Our hearts, across the whole House, go out to their families.
Our policy is to fight this virus with everything we have. Last week, my right hon. Friend the Chancellor confirmed a £30 billion package of financial firepower, including a £5 billion contingency fund to ensure that the NHS and social care system have the resources they need. We will give the NHS whatever it needs, and we will do whatever it takes. We will get through this by working through our action plan to contain, delay, research and mitigate the virus. That plan has two overriding aims: to protect the NHS by building it up and flattening the curve, and to protect life by safeguarding those who are most vulnerable. We will do the right thing at the right time, based on the best scientific advice.
Earlier, I attended a Cobra meeting chaired by the Prime Minister to decide on the next steps in our plan. I can report to the House that we have agreed a very significant step in the actions that we are taking from within that plan to control the spread of the disease. Those actions will change the ordinary lives of everyone in this country. We appreciate that they are very significant, and I understand that people will be concerned, but we have come to the view that they are necessary to save lives and to stop this disease.
First, based on the updated scientific advice, we are today advising that if you or anyone in your home has a high temperature or a new and continuous cough, you should stay at home for 14 days. If at all possible, you should not go out even to buy food and essentials. Instead, you should ask others for assistance with your daily necessities. The exception to that is for exercise, but even then you should keep at a safe distance from others. If it is not possible to receive deliveries at home, you should do what you can to limit your social contact when you leave the house to get supplies.
Even if you or anyone in your household does not have symptoms, there is more that we have to ask of you. Today, we are advising people against all unnecessary social contact with others and all unnecessary travel. We need people to start working from home if they possibly can. We should steer clear of pubs, clubs, cinemas and restaurants. We should use the NHS only when we really need to. This advice is directed at everyone, but it is especially important for the over-70s, for pregnant women and for those with some health conditions. It is especially true of London, which the evidence suggests is several weeks ahead of the rest of the country.
These measures will be disruptive, but they will save lives. In a few days’ time, by this coming weekend, we will need to go even further to ensure that those with the most serious health conditions are largely shielded from social contact for around 12 weeks. We want to ensure that the period of maximum shielding coincides with the peak of maximum transmission. While the risks of transmission at mass gatherings, such as sporting events, are relatively low, from tomorrow, we will be withdrawing our support for mass gatherings. That will free up the critical workers we need to deal with the emergency and ensure a consistent approach to social contact.
Secondly, we are increasing our testing capabilities yet further. The UK has tested more people than almost any other major economy outside of China, South Korea and Italy. We have already increased the number of tests to 5,000 a day, and that is now on its way to 10,000, then radically further.
Thirdly, we are boosting the NHS. Ventilation is mission critical to treating the disease. We have been buying up ventilation equipment since the start of the crisis, but we need more. Today, the Prime Minister hosted a call with the nation’s advanced manufacturers asking them to join a national effort to produce the ventilators we need. We have set up a dedicated team to do that, and we are hugely encouraged by the scale of the response so far. Later today, the NHS will set out the very significant steps it is taking to prepare.
Fourthly, on Thursday, we will introduce to the House the coronavirus emergency Bill, which will give us the powers to keep essential services running at a time when large parts of the workforce may be off sick. Some of those measures will be very significant and a departure from the way that we do things in peacetime. They are strictly temporary and proportionate to the threat we face, and I hope that many will not have to be used at all. They will be activated only on the basis of scientific advice and will be in place only for as long as clinically necessary. Finally, of course, we are ramping up our communications efforts, so that people know what steps they need to take to protect themselves, others and the NHS.
Tackling coronavirus is a national effort and everyone has their part to play. The more people follow the public health advice, the less need to bring in draconian actions that I am keen to avoid. Of course, we must not forget the simple things that we can all do—washing our hands, following the public health advice if we have symptoms, and looking out for the most vulnerable in the community.
The measures that I have outlined are unprecedented in peacetime. We will fight this virus with everything we have. We are in a war against an invisible killer and we have to do everything we can to stop it. I commend this statement to the House.
I thank the Secretary of State for keeping me informed of developments. Our thoughts must be with the loved ones of those who have sadly died from the virus, including the family of the man who died at the Leicester Royal Infirmary in my constituency over the weekend.
I pay tribute to all our NHS staff, our social care staff and, indeed, all who work in public services. Never have we been more in their debt, and will be in the coming weeks. The public, as indeed all Members of the House, want the national effort to succeed. Every one of our constituents wants to do the right thing for their loved ones, for their neighbours and for themselves.
The virus spreads rapidly. It exploits ambivalence. It demands clarity of purpose. It demands Government effort as we have never seen before in peacetime. With that in mind, I put a number of questions to the Secretary of State, which I trust he accepts are raised in a constructive spirit. Specifically, on today’s measures, which we endorse, if we are asking people to work from home if they can, what is the advice to those who are not able to work from home because of their occupation—millions who work in the retail sector, for example?
Today, the Government will ask the elderly and those with long-term conditions to shield themselves, starting at the weekend. Can the Secretary of State give us more details of how that will work in practice? Will they be able to exercise or go for a walk? What happens if someone refuses to follow the advice? How will those who need social care support get the care they need? What protections are in place for social care staff embarking on regular 15-minute visits? How will those with complex needs and disabilities be supported?
We know that those with co-morbidities and a compromised immune system are also vulnerable. What specific advice is there for those with conditions such as diabetes, hypertension, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, asthma and cardiovascular issues, who the emerging literature shows to be particularly vulnerable at the moment? How will those people access repeat prescriptions?
I understand the gravity of the situation. Could the Secretary of State update the House on how far away from the peak he thinks we are? While I understand the reasoning for the decisions the Government have made today, surely there will now come a moment when schools will close. Teachers are already anxious, and parents need to plan. Can he offer some advice to parents, who will be worried tonight?
Throughout the outbreak, we have been as one in agreeing that all decisions must be based on science and evidence, but the Secretary of State, of course, will know and understand that different scientists can reach different conclusions, even when presented with the same data and evidence, so does he agree that all the evidence informing the UK’s strategy must be transparent, and that the modelling and the evidence base should be published, so that it can be peer-reviewed and stress-tested? This is about maintaining public confidence.
May I press the Secretary of State on the controversy, if I may put it like that, of recent days, in the debate about so-called herd immunity? He said yesterday that herd immunity is not the goal. The chief scientific adviser suggested something slightly different on Thursday. Could the Secretary of State clarify the Government’s position?
May I put a point that is repeatedly raised by our constituents? I hope that the Secretary of State appreciates the way in which we are putting these points to him. Many of our constituents are asking us why the UK has hitherto seemed to have taken a different course from other nations. They have suggested that other nations have been deliberately trying to delay, and to buy time to prepare for, future outbreaks. Will he explain what ideas the Government have and have not rejected, and what lessons they have learned, from countries such as Singapore, Taiwan and South Korea, which have brought the virus under relative control through containment policies? What lessons can we learn from Germany and Scandinavia, which, in recent days, according to the data, are reporting death rates of less than three per 1,000 covid-19 cases, whereas in the UK and France, the figure is much higher?
May I press the Secretary of State on the advice of the World Health Organisation? It has been clear that testing and contact tracing should continue. Many of our constituents are saying to us that surely we need community testing to continue, because we need to know the percentage of the population infected at any one time. Otherwise, the percentage of immunity will be unknown. People who are ill, those who work in the NHS or the care sector, and anyone caring for elderly relatives will surely want to know their covid-19 status, because it will have an impact on how they interact with other people in the community. NHS staff are being asked to care for covid-19 patients, not knowing whether they themselves are transmitting the virus. If they get ill, will they now be asked to stay at home for 14 days? Surely if we can test those NHS staff, and the test returns negative, we can get them back on the frontline sooner.
Is the issue around testing about capacity? If it is, has the Secretary of State considered demanding that UK-based pharmaceutical companies hand us their labs? Can we use the testing labs in higher education institutions and universities? Can diagnostic kit makers be urged to manufacture more testing kit urgently?
On a vaccine, we understand the timescales involved, but can the Secretary of State confirm that he will approve funding for scaling up manufacturing of the vaccine candidates that are being developed in the UK? On antivirals, clinical trials on repurposing drugs are under way across the globe; can he provide a written statement to the House on what capacity the UK has to assist in that process?
Turning quickly to the capacity of the national health service, our NHS and social care staff need support. They need quality personal protective equipment, whether in secondary care or primary care. Can the Secretary of State tell us how many additional intensive care unit beds have been opened? I think he has hinted that non-emergency elective treatment will now be suspended; could he confirm that? Members have long been asking him about ventilators. Can he outline the latest numbers, and say where he thinks we will be by this time next week? Can he update us on ECMO bed capacity, and say whether he is also increasing the availability of non-invasive ventilation, such as BPAP? If we need beds and equipment from private sector organisations, we should requisition that equipment, not pay for it.
Finally, we will co-operate with the Government on the proposed emergency legislation, and I am grateful for the discussions we have had, but the biggest challenge to the public health social distancing measures will not be boredom and fatigue; it will be finances and affordability. The poorest, who struggle to pay the rent, those who worry about putting food on the table, and those who have no savings to dip into, will be faced with impossible choices between hardship and health. From sick pay and lost earnings protection, to universal credit changes and rent and mortgage payment deferrals, we need a package of financial support, and we look forward to working with the Secretary of State on that front.
These are indeed serious times. Many of our constituents are anxious, and want as much certainty as possible. We have put these questions to the Secretary of State because the health and safety of the nation must always come first.
I commend the shadow Secretary of State for the tone he has taken throughout this crisis. He rightly asks questions; I will seek to address each and every one of them, but before I do, I repeat something that I have said to the House a few times. We welcome questioning of the approach, because we are constantly looking for the very best solution for this nation, and the very best way through this, in order to protect life. I would rather have questions from all around the House, asked in the tone in which he has asked them, so that we can ensure that we are constantly doing the best we possibly can. That goes for publishing the science and the modelling, which we absolutely will do, because the very best science is done in the open.
The hon. Gentleman asked about the NHS being prepared. I am thankful that we have the NHS all the time, but in a crisis like this, I am doubly thankful, because we are reliant on those who work in the NHS. Thanks to the NHS, we are as well prepared as any nation can be. We are, by some measures, the best prepared for this stage of the spread of the virus, but what matters is giving the NHS all the support that it needs, and especially having regard to the capacity of the NHS, so that it can address the symptoms and consequences of this particular virus. The issues are around ventilation and oxygen supply, as he says. We are increasing the number of ventilators. We have been buying ventilators for several weeks now, but we also need to manufacture more. As we have discussed in the House, there is no limit to our appetite to buy ventilators, and there should be no limit to the appetite of industry to make them, because around the world, everybody is trying to increase their ventilator capacity.
As the hon. Gentleman knows, we have ensured that we can use all hospital capability in this country, public or private, and bring it to the task. We are expanding the use and production of personal protective equipment. Making sure we get PPE to every single part of the NHS is absolutely vital. We will be cancelling or postponing non-time-sensitive elective surgery; the NHS will make a statement about that later today. We are increasing ICU bed capacity, but I want to make sure that the House understands that we do not need a generic type of intensive care capacity. Of course we need intensive care capacity, but we need very specific intensive care capacity with the ventilation that is needed in many of these cases.
I turn to the other questions asked by the hon. Gentleman. He asked, “What if you can’t work from home?” The answer is that if you are healthy, and if you are not being asked to isolate because a member of your household or you have symptoms of the virus, then of course you should still go to work. It is important that this country keeps moving as much as we possibly can, within the limits of the advice that we have given.
The hon. Gentleman asked about shielding, and about the elderly. The policy of shielding is specifically about reducing contact for the most vulnerable. For those who have significant health conditions, the NHS will be in contact with you over the next week. We will publish a list of those conditions, and if you think you should have been contacted and you have not been by next week, get in contact with the NHS. The shielding policy starts later than the general household isolation policy and the general advice to reduce social contact, because the reduction in contact that we need to see among those whom we are shielding is much more significant, and we need to see it last for a significant period of about 12 weeks.
The hon. Gentleman asked about those who refuse to follow advice. I do not think that many people will refuse to follow advice. Of course we have powers, and powers are proposed in the Bill, should we need to take further action, but I hope and expect that that will not be necessary.
The hon. Gentleman asked about schools. The scientific advice is not only that closing schools has a significant impact on people’s ability to work in, for instance, key areas such as the health service, but that if we get it wrong, children may stay with elderly grandparents instead of going to school, and thus increase the risk. We keep this matter under review and we are in constant discussion about it, but we have not changed the advice on schools today.
The hon. Gentleman asked about other countries. Of course we are constantly looking to all other countries around the world—including South Korea and Singapore, which he mentioned—to see what we can learn about how we can do things better. We are taking these measures at a different time from other European countries because we are behind them in terms of the progress of the virus, which is a good thing. In fact, as the chief scientific adviser has said, we are taking these actions earlier in the curve than, for instance, France and Germany did, but behind in time, because the progress of the virus is further advanced in those countries.
The hon. Gentleman asked about testing. That is very important, because of course people want to know their covid-19 status, and we are expanding testing as fast as we possibly can. The test that the world is looking for is the test that can check whether people have the antibodies because they have had coronavirus, because then we can find that out not just by testing people while they have it but afterwards, if they have had it, and therefore have the antibodies with the immunity that comes from that. That test does not yet exist, but we are putting an enormous amount of effort into creating it. We also need testing that can be done at the bedside rather than in the lab, and a huge amount of work is under way to bring that about. The same goes for vaccines and antivirals, on which the hon. Gentleman asked for a written ministerial statement, and I will of course ensure that the House is provided with one.
Finally, the hon. Gentleman asked about a package of financial support. We established a significant package in the Budget last week, and I had a meeting with the hon. Gentleman earlier today to discuss what further amounts might be needed.
There are many young people in my constituency, but when I was first elected it had the highest proportion of people above retirement age in the country. Most of those people are economically active, and many of those who are not are volunteers. I pay tribute to those over 70 who are helping people even older than themselves.
I welcome all the points that the Secretary of State has made so far, but may I put three quick points to him? He does not need to answer them in detail now. First, senior general practitioners are worried that some medicines—controlled drugs, which are safe—are being destroyed because the patient for whom they were first ordered may have died. If a shortage of morphine and the like happens, it will lead to distress and agony for people unnecessarily. Will the Secretary of State look into that, and see whether, whatever the requirements are, they might be lifted during this period?
Secondly, the advice to reduce social contact may be right and important, but if people are fit and healthy and are running a business, it is not necessarily right for that business to be closed down just because they have hit a certain age.
Thirdly, may I add to a sensible point made by the hon. Member for Leicester South (Jonathan Ashworth)? There is some help for people with mortgages, but many people who will lose their jobs are paying rent. Will the Secretary of State also ensure that no one is unnecessarily evicted or threatened during a short-term period of shortage of money?
The measures on shielding are specifically for those who have significant health conditions and will be contacted by the NHS. They are not for the generality of over-70s who are healthy, for whom the guidance is the same as that for people of working age, except that we strongly advise, as opposed to advising. That is for their own protection, because the over-70s, and especially the over-80s, are at significantly higher risk of mortality—of dying from this virus.
The other points made by my hon. Friend are welcome. He made a very important point about rent, which featured in the discussions that we had earlier today. I have been talking about it to those at the Treasury and to the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions. Many banks have already taken action on mortgages.
My hon. Friend’s point about the availability of drugs is, of course, critical. We have a very comprehensive drug supply chain system that we understand well, thanks to the planning that we have done over the last couple of years. Thus far we have not seen shortages beyond those that already existed before the virus, such as the one that we debated in the autumn in the context of HRT, but of course we keep the position under constant review.
The Secretary of State will be aware of the concern about why the UK Government’s approach was such an outlier until now, including the talk about herd immunity, when it is not clear that any immunity from this virus is long-term. The UK is now facing an exponential rise, and I therefore welcome what the UK Government have said about decreasing all non-essential contact, as I think that it is critical to slow down and limit the spread of the virus.
The briefing from the Prime Minister talked about not providing emergency services for large gatherings, but can the Secretary of State clarify whether the Government are advising against or forbidding mass gatherings? I welcome the talk about increasing testing capability, but the briefing talked about only testing those in hospital and key workers. In Scotland, surveillance testing in practices that monitor disease in the community is continuing. Will that also be the case here in England?
Following the confusion over the weekend and, indeed, the comments that he has just made about healthy people over 70, will the Secretary of State clarify what exactly is the advice for people over 70 who live in their own homes or in care homes? Are they meant to be staying at home, or are they simply meant to be decreasing contact? In particular, is the Secretary of State discussing with social care providers lengthening the time of each visit so that there is time for the careworker to take precautions? He says that the healthy should go to work, but what if they work in a club? What provision is being made for socially vulnerable people such as the homeless or those who have no recourse to public funds, such as refugees or asylum seekers? We on these Benches welcomed the measures in the Budget, but when will the devolved Governments know exactly how much funding they will have to mitigate the economic impact of this in the three devolved nations? Finally, what further changes will be carried out in the Houses of Parliament to ensure that core services continue without increasing the risk to, in particular, older Members of both Houses?
We do not support mass gatherings. We have advised against unnecessary social contact, so it goes without saying that we do not support mass gatherings.
The hon. Lady asked about surveillance testing. Across the UK, we have one of the biggest coronavirus surveillance operations in the world. Of course it happens in Scotland, but it happens throughout the UK. She also asked about Parliament. I understand, Mr Speaker, that you have been having discussions today about how Parliament will operate, but I think the whole House will be sure, in our collective decision, that although Parliament may have to operate differently, it must remain open.
May I join the Secretary of State, and the shadow Secretary of State, in commending and paying tribute to all who work in our national health service, on whom we rely from day to day, but on whom we rely all the more under these conditions?
May I press the Secretary of State on two points that have been raised by others? The advice from the World Health Organisation was very clear: test, test, test. At an earlier stage the UK changed its testing requirements, and those who have symptoms and self-isolate are no longer tested. If the full information is to be available, surely the testing has to be very significantly increased. Who exactly is going to be tested?
One of the difficulties has been the way in which information has been presented. To pick up the point made by the SNP spokesman about the over-70s that was echoed elsewhere, the headlines are that over-70s, even now, are going to have to stay at home for 12 weeks. Can the Secretary of State be absolutely precise as to what the advice is for over-70s and those with other conditions, and what those conditions are? Finally, on the question of seven or 14 days’ self-isolation, my understanding was that if someone had symptoms and were on their own they should self-isolate for seven days, but if they were in a family the whole family should self-isolate for 14 days. Perhaps my right hon. Friend could confirm.
My right hon. Friend is precisely correct on the third question. The difference between the advice for seven days and 14 is precisely as follows. If you have symptoms yourself, if you live on your own you should self-isolate for seven days, but if you live in a household with others, the whole household now needs to stay at home for 14 days. The reason is that if you live in a household with someone who has coronavirus it is highly likely that you will catch it, so it is important, to protect against onward transmission, that everybody stays at home. That is the reason for the distinction between the seven days and the 14 days, and I hope that is clear—seven days for individuals, 14 for households.
On the point about the World Health Organisation saying that we should “test, test, test”, I wholeheartedly agree. We have continued the increase in testing in this country throughout this outbreak. The point that was made last week was that as the increase in the number of cases continues, so our testing capability must increase faster, and at this stage we have to make sure that the use of the tests we have are prioritised. As we expand testing capability, we will expand the number of people who can get hold of those tests. I understand the frustrations of those who want a test, but the whole House will agree that we have to make sure that we use those tests on the people who need them most, which means saving lives in hospitals.
On the point about the over-70s, to reiterate the answer that I gave a moment ago, the advice to everybody is to avoid unnecessary social contact. For the over-70s, for their own protection, that is strongly advised. The shielding, which is essentially reducing all contact as much as possible, is for those who have underlying health conditions and will be contacted by the NHS. The precise details of all these will be published on the gov.uk website so that everybody can see not only the answers I am giving to the questions, but the precise wording of what we expect everybody to do, as I have set out in the statement.
Can I say to the Secretary of State that the House has always come together at times of national crisis as one, and that is the spirit across the House today? In that spirit, can I ask him to match the unprecedented public health measures that he has announced today with unprecedented economic measures to support all the businesses, large and small, their workers, and the self-employed, who will be affected by the measures announced today? We have seen across the world—for example, in Denmark—workers’ wages being guaranteed by a combination of Government and employers. It is no fault of the Chancellor of the Exchequer that his Budget last Wednesday is now out of date, but can I ask the Secretary of State to urge him to come back to the House with economic measures that match the gravity of the moment?
I absolutely understand the point that the right hon. Member is making, and he is right to make it. Of course, these are matters for the Chancellor of the Exchequer, rather than me. There was a G7 call today, in which the Prime Minister participated, during which economic considerations like this were considered. Finally, every single one of us in the House will have businesses in our constituencies that are already facing the brunt of this virus. We saw from the collapse of Flybe right at the start—that feels like weeks ago—the very significant economic consequences, and we have our eyes wide open to those.
I warmly welcome the measures announced today. People have debated when they were going to be introduced, but the Government have shown today that they have the courage to introduce very tough measures that will have profound economic consequences, which will reassure many people up and down the country. In the constructive spirit adopted by the shadow Health Secretary, I want to ask a couple of things about the measures that have been introduced.
First, the Secretary of State is advising people not to go to clubs, cinemas and restaurants. Will he also advise clubs, cinemas and restaurants to close their doors, so that there is absolute clarity that people should not, at this moment, engage in those activities? Secondly, if someone in a household is symptomatic, he is advising the whole household to self-isolate for 14 days. I understand the logic behind that, which was very clearly explained, but the World Health Organisation advice is to test and isolate every single suspected case of the virus, so would he explain why there is divergence?
Thirdly, to follow up the question asked by my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister—[Hon. Members: “Former”]—the former Prime Minister, is the advice to healthy over-70s who do not have an existing long-term condition that they should be part of a new shielding policy that is happening at the weekend, or is that shielding policies just for over-70s with an existing health condition?
On that last point, no—the shielding policy is only for those with existing health conditions. Those whom we are going to ask to participate in shielding, from next week, will receive a contact from the NHS, and we will publish the list of conditions that we consider necessary for shielding. On the point that my right hon. Friend makes about testing and isolating, I strongly agree with the World Health Organisation about the need for testing. I spoke at the weekend to Dr Tedros, head of the World Health Organisation, and we strongly agree on the need for testing. The question is how fast can we ramp up testing capability for the tests that we need—the blood tests to know who has had coronavirus and the bedside test or the home test, so that these tests can be expanded rapidly across the whole country. The first has yet to be invented, although we hope that it will be fairly soon, and the second has just been invented in the past few days, and we are in intense negotiations about rolling those out very rapidly.
Today I bring a message from my colleagues who are working hard on the NHS frontline. They say that they do not have the protective equipment that they need, nor do they have the capacity to manage the spread of infection in their own departments. There is clear concern among hospital staff and the wider public alike about the transparency of the plan to tackle the virus. Does the Secretary of State agree with me that our incredible staff must immediately have the protective equipment that they need to be safe; that they should be tested if they show symptoms of virus infection, as currently not all of them are being told that they can; and that more information must be transparent so that medical teams across the country can prepare their departments for the very worst?
The whole of our action plan is based on the science and on as much transparency as possible. We have exhibited unprecedented transparency in this crisis so far, and I pledge again full transparency— publishing, for instance, the modelling that underpins the scientific advice, and also the action plan two weeks ago. At the time, that felt as if we were looking at some things that were quite out of the ordinary, and I do not think that anybody then anticipated that we would have to bring them in in the way we have, and as many countries have now brought them in. I pledge once again that transparency.
The hon. Lady is completely right about PPE, and we need to expand the amount of PPE. Again, we are buying it, as with ventilators, as fast as we possibly can, and part of our call for a national effort to manufacture includes PPE.
I want to end my answer to the hon. Lady by saying something about those who work in the NHS. The NHS will face an extraordinary period and many people will do extraordinary things, but it will be very, very difficult. I pay tribute in advance to the service that every single person who works in the NHS will give.
The hon. Lady is right to remind me. Of course we want as much staff testing, as soon as possible. We are using the testing capacity we have to save lives, and that includes saving the lives of medics.
In the past 24 hours or so, I have spoken to a great number of the headteachers in my constituency. I think it is a fair summary to say that there is support for the decision to keep schools open, and I agree with them. However, there is great concern that no matter what they or we might want, an increasing number of teaching staff becoming unwell and therefore unable to be in school might end up forcing the issue, leaving heads in an impossible position. I feel slightly guilty asking the Health Secretary these questions, but his is the statement we have today. What is the Government’s view on relaxing the student-staff ratio and getting Ofsted off schools’ back now, please? Also, if we were to run a skeleton service in schools to allow key workers to keep working, how are we to define key workers, given that we are in the middle of a national crisis?
We are looking at all those questions. The proposal to relax student-staff ratios is in the Bill. We will publish the content of the Bill tomorrow and the Bill itself on Thursday. The point about key workers is incredibly important. I am working hard with the Education Secretary to address precisely the concerns that my hon. Friend raises. Of course schools play an important part not just in educating our children but in allowing so many people to go to work, but we have to make sure that they are safe as well. One of the blessings of this virus is that it almost entirely spares children, which means that it is safe for children to go to school.
Can the Health Secretary give the public some reassurance about his plans for social care, which many vulnerable elderly and disabled people rely on? In particular, what plans does he have to ensure that the care workforce can continue to be effective? We already have more than 120,000 vacancies in the sector, and half of all home care workers are on zero-hours contracts. Is he confident that the care workforce can do what elderly and disabled people and the NHS need?
Obviously, that is an incredibly important area. Earlier today, there was a call with local authority leaders, my right hon. Friend the Communities Secretary and the Care Minister. Enormous amounts of work are being done and we will do everything we can to support social care.
I congratulate the Secretary of State and the shadow Secretary of State on the tone both have adopted. It is inevitable that most people will be infected. Most people will recover. When can the people who recover return to work, and what will the impact be?
Yes, most people recover within seven days of first showing symptoms—most people, not all. Many become very ill, but for most people this is a mild to moderate illness, and the vast majority of the evidence is that once they have recovered, the illness does not come back for some time. Of course, all the evidence is kept constantly under review.
Will the Secretary of State clarify some details of his answer to the hon. Member for Tooting (Dr Allin-Khan) regarding testing of our frontline healthcare workers and, just as important, our frontline social care workers? Our services are stretched to the max already. We cannot afford to have those who do not need to self-isolate self-isolating, potentially multiple times if they do not know whether they have had the virus.
I entirely understand that point. I want to get testing to everyone who needs it as soon as possible.
I join the Secretary of State and the shadow Secretary of State in extending sympathy to those who have died of the virus and admiration for NHS staff members and others who are coping with it. May I press my right hon. Friend on testing? First, if we are relying on scientific evidence, it is important that we are transparent about it. When will he publish the scientific evidence that he mentioned in his statement? Secondly, there has been a change in policy on testing. Up to the end of last week, people could be tested via drive-in or home visits; that is no longer the case. Is that because there is not the necessary quantity of test kits available? If so, will that type of test be restored when they are available, and when does he expect that to be?
At the start, when the number of cases was very small, we had enough tests to test everyone who had suspected symptoms. The number of cases has risen exponentially and the number of tests has been increased, but we need to make sure that the tests we have available are there for saving lives. We hope that the introduction of a home test or equipment for bedside testing, which my right hon. Friend and I have discussed previously, will enable us to increase the number of tests radically, and get ahead of the epidemiological curve as soon as possible. We are in live negotiations about bringing that in.
Order. I will let this run for about one hour, so if we can speed up questions—[Interruption.] It might helpful if we try to help each other and not hold each other up.
Many of us have thousands of constituents who are either on zero-hours contracts or are self-employed. I have raised this question before, but unless the Government can offer those people some sort of minimum income guarantee, they will quickly be facing repossession and homelessness.
Of course I understand that, and it is part of the discussions I have been having with the Welfare Secretary and the Chancellor of the Exchequer.
I thank my right hon. Friend for his statement and everyone in the House for their calm response. I have two brief questions. One has been raised several times, and although it may sound flippant, it is important. People are asking whether they can walk their pet if they are self-isolating. I ask because people want to know whether self-isolating means that they should be fully housebound, or that they can go to a park and walk their pet.
The second question—[Interruption.] I will be very quick. In Watford, we have a great volunteer network popping up. I am sure that is happening across the country. Will there be guidance for volunteers on how to ensure they do not spread the virus by doing the right thing?
The answer to the second question is yes. The answer to the first is yes, people should go outside. Walk your pets. People in household isolation should go out, but they should try to avoid other people. It is very important that we look out for others in our communities and that people get the exercise they need.
I realise that this is not in the Secretary of State’s remit, but he announced that the Government will advise people not to go to pubs, clubs, restaurants and so on. Unless the Government mandatorily close them down, they cannot claim on their business insurance. Will he please get a diktat from the Government that formally closes such businesses down?
We have set out the advice today, and I will look at the point the hon. Gentleman raises.
Will the Secretary of State make sure that in the legal powers and guidance will be provision to ensure that all our councillors who are over 70 can participate fully in council and committee meetings from their home, using technology?
Indeed, technology has a huge role to play in helping people to get through this.
Everyone wants us all to pull together and support the same strategy, and the Health Secretary will be aware of the real unease about the differences between the UK’s approach and other approaches taken internationally. Can he reassure us that the Government’s objective is the same as the WHO’s, which said today that we should be testing everyone who has symptoms, not waiting for a future test that might work in different circumstances? Is that the objective: to test everyone who has symptoms now? What is his target for how many new tests a day he wants to be able to do and by when? I have been contacted by GPs who are self-isolating because they cannot get tests.
The answer is, yes, we want, of course, all the tests that we need.
Does the test give evidence of no infection? That goes to the point that has been made about frontline health workers. Is the Secretary of State saying today that there is an immunity that builds up? Has that been medically confirmed for people who have had this once?
On the latter point, the chief medical officer has set out today that immunity is built up by having had this virus. That evidence is constantly being kept under review, but immunity does appear to be built up. On the testing point, as I said to the right hon. Member for Normanton, Pontefract and Castleford (Yvette Cooper), of course we want tests to be available for everyone. Our goal is to beat this virus. We want to make sure that all our frontline medical staff can have the testing and that everyone in the community can have those tests, but where only a limited number of tests are available we have to use them to save life. I am working as fast as I can to increase the number.
The Secretary of State said that this was a national effort and he is right, but it is more than that; this is a global crisis that has seen different approaches taken in different countries. Does he not accept that we need stronger, co-ordinated, global leadership, both on the health front and on the economic front, to get the best possible response to this global crisis?
I half agree with the right hon. Gentleman, and that is because I think that international co-ordination is important—I have been participating in regular G7 calls, as have the Prime Minister and the Chancellor of the Exchequer—but different countries are also in different places on the curve. For instance, we have introduced measures such as these earlier on the curve than similar countries, such as France and Germany.
May I repeat the point made by the hon. Member for Edinburgh South (Ian Murray) about pubs and restaurants? I have been contacted by a number from the Moorlands today that are particularly concerned in the run-up to Mother’s Day, which would normally be one of the busiest days of the year. Can the Government give firm advice now as to whether pubs and restaurants should close or not, so they can claim on insurance?
We are advising against all unnecessary social contact. I appreciate that this has consequences and I regret having to take these measures, but we are having to fight this virus.
When exactly did the Government start buying extra ventilators? How many more have they managed to get? How many more do they need?
We started weeks ago. I can get back to the right hon. Gentleman with the exact date of the first time I authorised the purchase of more ventilators, but I can say that it was very shortly after it became clear that ventilators are the thing needed to support people who have coronavirus. On the question of how many more we will need, I can say that we will buy however many will be produced.
This morning, I was pleased to hear Nicola Sturgeon say that she supported the UK Government’s approach, but of course the devolved health service, the police and the education service are different and different operational decisions will inevitably be made in Scotland. How can that be respected at the same time as ensuring that we have a common message across the UK?
My right hon. Friend is right about the advantages of a common message across the UK, and we have worked hard to try to achieve that. I visited the three devolved nations on Friday to meet my counterparts to try to ensure that we have as co-ordinated a message as possible, but of course there are differences in the delivery of our local NHS.
The Secretary of State made reference to the special measures announced by the Chancellor last week, yet the Northern Ireland Executive have yet to have been given a clear indication as to what the consequentials are for our funding in Northern Ireland. That inhibits our ability to respond to this crisis, and to provide leadership and direction to people in Northern Ireland on the schemes we can implement.
My hon. Friend the Economic Secretary to the Treasury tells me that undoubtedly the devolved nations will very rapidly get the information they need. After all, this is a UK-wide effort.
Will my right hon. Friend join me in thanking the thousands of local community groups that are already mobilising in order to deal with what may be a very serious situation in their communities, involving looking after vulnerable people and even nursing the sick? Will he, with the Prime Minister and others, make sure that we mobilise these people and empower them to take decisions without having to wait for instructions?
Yes, this is incredibly important. Communities have a huge role to play in this; it is truly a national effort. I want to empower people on the ground in communities and within the NHS to do the right thing by what is in front of them. We will support wherever possible, but people should not wait for the instruction—they should get on with it.
The World Health Organisation has given the advice of, “Test, test, test”. The Secretary of State has said that there is a limited capacity in terms of testing kits. When will those kits be made available? What is the timeframe? How many does he think we are going to need?
As many as possible, as soon as possible.
I thank my right hon. Friend for the sterling job that he, his ministerial team, his officials and everybody on the frontline of this crisis is doing. Does he share my concern about reports I have had in my constituency in the past few days of local pharmacies hiking up prices of products such as sanitiser and masks, given that we should all be working together and, rather than profiteering, acting responsibly?
Everybody has a responsibility: citizens have a responsibility to follow the public health advice; all of us have a responsibility to make sure we buy only that which we need; and of course businesses have a responsibility to look after the communities they serve.
Will the Secretary of State confirm that it is now the Government’s wish, subject to capacity being available, to test all those with symptoms who are at home? If so, as the capacity ramps up, how does he intend to prioritise tests of people living at home, potentially with the disease?
The right hon. Gentleman asks the question very precisely and correctly. The answer is: yes, that is our intention, and Public Health England will advise on the order of priority for the use of these tests.
People want accurate information during this crisis. Are the Government considering creating an offence of the malicious spreading of disinformation about the coronavirus with the intent of harming public health? Are they considering requiring social media platforms to act against known sources of such disinformation, should it occur?
My hon. Friend is an expert in this area. So far, the social media companies have acted with great responsibility in this area and have responded to all the asks we have had of them.
The Government are trying to regulate behaviour, so to avoid some of the scenes we have seen at the weekend would he encourage supermarkets to allow the elderly to have one hour a day when only they can shop to get their essentials?
I have seen this call and how the Australians have done this, and I discussed it with the Environment Secretary today.
May I ask my right hon. Friend about specific very vulnerable groups? A mother in my constituency is keeping her four children off school because her husband is a diabetic and she does not want to put him at unnecessary risk. Is she doing the right thing? More generally, what should pregnant teachers be doing? Should they be going into work now, or is that too risky?
Both cases are covered by the formal public health advice that will be published on the gov.uk website. For all specific questions such as that, which of course our constituents will have, I refer them to that advice, to make sure that we get the answers completely accurate.
We are now rightly asking people, including the self-employed, to self-isolate for seven or 14 days if they show symptoms of coronavirus. The self-employed do not qualify for statutory sick pay and there is no one else to pay them, so will the Government revisit statutory sick pay for the self-employed, and pay it at a rate that enables them to put food on the table and pay their bills? Unless we do that, we are asking people to make impossible decisions.
I discussed this issue with the hon. Member for Leicester South (Jonathan Ashworth). The delivery of support to make sure that nobody is penalised for doing the right thing is incredibly important but, as the hon. Lady says, there is no employer for those who are self-employed, so it has to be delivered through the benefits system.
With flight restrictions around the world, many of us have constituents who are stuck abroad. Will my right hon. Friend provide reassurance that consular assistance is available and that he is working closely with the Foreign and Commonwealth Office so that stranded constituents in countries that have imposed flight bans can get home?
Yes. That is an incredibly important point that I discuss regularly with the Foreign Secretary.
Food banks will be under unprecedented pressure in this period, so what measures will be put in place to provide volunteers with protective equipment? Will the Secretary of State consider requiring supermarkets to put aside stocks and provide donations to food banks in this crisis?
As we expand the amount of protective equipment available, we should look to and work with food banks, which have an incredibly important role to play. I certainly urge supermarkets to do what the hon. Lady asks.
In welcoming this package of measures, I very much urge my right hon. Friend to encourage businesses to be as flexible as possible so that employees can work from home, and to step up testing for emergency and public sector workers. Will he particularly focus on the elderly and the vulnerable who are living alone? There is a risk that in this sort of scenario they become inadvertently ignored by the system. What more can the Government do to reach out to these people—whether by looking at the voting register or whatever—to ensure that they are catered for? They are particularly vulnerable if they live alone.
My hon. Friend makes an incredibly important point. One reason why we have held off from taking measures like this for as long as we have is because they have significant downsides, many of which have been discussed in the Chamber today. I of course urge people to follow the advice that my hon. Friend gave, and I urge communities to come together as much as possible to help each other through.
We need a plan for scaling back schools. Teachers are saying to me that they are part of a mass collection of people every day and are concerned not only about being infected but about relatives who may have secondary illnesses and about colleagues who are pregnant. Schools are losing pupils and losing staff. They will close of their own volition unless we have a plan to scale them back and provide essential childcare for those workers who will still need to work and the children who will still need to go to school.
I understand why some parents are concerned, but the evidence is that children are not badly affected by this virus and it is important to take that into account. The hon. Gentleman makes the point about people who need to go to work not being able to because of childcare responsibilities, and that is very serious in terms of the impact that it could have and is therefore very important to take into account.
In the past two hours, the Prime Minister has said that school closures will be kept “under review”. In the event of a school needing to close, who takes the final decision—is it the Government, the local education authority or the headteacher?
It is the headteacher, and there are discussions with regional schools commissioners in such cases in England. We are looking to address that issue in the Bill.
I join other Members in placing on record my condolences to the families of those who have lost loved ones. I pay tribute to the workers in the NHS who are working around the clock and to those working in social care.
After a decade of austerity, our NHS and public health were already at breaking point, even before the coronavirus hit our communities. Public sector workers have borne the brunt of austerity over the past 10 years, and they are the very workers who are expected to continue to provide services to the most vulnerable people in our society.
Today, I have been contacted by Paul, a critical care nurse in my constituency who has had to self-isolate after developing a cough. He has been told that he will not be tested. His skills, along with those of his colleagues, are vital to care for patients. Frontline staff need to be—
Order. We are going to have stop the question there because we have to get everybody in.
Can I just say this, Mr Speaker? When will local government be provided with the additional ring-fenced funding for public health? When will public health officials be provided with their allocations for the new financial year?
I have addressed the question on testing repeatedly. I am delighted that we go into this situation with a record number of people in our NHS, and I pay tribute to each and every one of them.
Covid-19 may put particular pressure on the dozen or so unavoidably small hospitals that serve isolated and island communities. We have one respiratory consultant on the Island, and we are ferry-dependent. I know that the Secretary of State is very busy, but will he assure me that isolated communities will not be forgotten about when it comes to mutual aid, clear advice and the supply of medicine and equipment?
Absolutely. I discussed that issue with officials today.
Last week, I asked the Secretary of State why public advice about covid-19 had not been translated into any language other than English. Coronavirus has been present in the UK for more than a month, and it is five days since I raised the issue with the Government, yet there are still no translations available on the NHS England website. Will the Secretary of State provide an update on when exactly translations will be made available? Will he clarify which languages the Department is currently working on?
We are going to do that as soon as possible, but I am sure the hon. Member will understand that we have just published new guidance that we have been working on and it is a very rapidly evolving situation. We will translate it as soon as we possibly can.
I endorse the point made by the hon. Member for Glasgow South West (Chris Stephens) about having an hour in supermarkets—I believe Iceland is already doing this—when older people can purchase food before it is stockpiled and so on. Can mothers of very small children be included in that? I am afraid I have heard today of some scarcity in baby products, which is of course of great concern for us all.
Yes, that is a very good suggestion. It is one for the Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs and the supermarkets, of course, but is an example of people pulling together to help the most vulnerable.
In answer to the question from my hon. Friend the Member for Leeds West (Rachel Reeves), the Secretary of State stated that people had to take it through the benefits system, unlike maternity allowance, just as an example. I wish to speak for a moment about the benefits system. My own brother, who is a universal credit claimant and an agency worker, has likely lost his job because he had to self-isolate for a period and it will not be kept open for him. Given the lag of universal credit, he will not get anything until early May. The Secretary of State needs to tell us now when he will come before us with a package of financial benefits for business and people, because it is getting too late.
We changed the law on Friday to take into account the need to make sure that payments are made from day one, in some of the benefits. It is absolutely the case that statutory sick pay is paid by employers. For the self-employed, there is no employer. We cannot put in place, in the time that is necessary, a whole new system. We need to make sure that people use the benefits system that exists.
Will the Government consider giving the much needed funds to support businesses directly to regional mayors and combined authorities, so that businesses in Redcar and elsewhere that are affected by the coronavirus can get the help that they need without delay?
I am discussing with the Chancellor of the Exchequer a further package of support, because it is absolutely clear that the measures that we are having to take will have a very significant impact on business.
Professor Costello of University College London says that the virus is particularly contagious at the early stages before symptoms present. Given the prevalence of this virus in London in particular, is the current Government’s strategy based too heavily on responding to observable symptoms and is there not a case now for going further faster, particularly in London?
The point behind household isolation is precisely to address the concerns that the hon. Gentleman has raised. Furthermore, by reducing all unnecessary social contact, we will help to reduce the sorts of transmissions that he talks about.
Will the Secretary of State explain how he and his team have been working to learn from the experience of other countries that are ahead of the curve, so that we can see the things that they have done well, and the things that they have not done so well?
Yes, we are constantly looking at what is happening around the world, what people are doing and the research in order to try to make sure that we calibrate the very best possible response.
Many of my constituents live in severely overcrowded accommodation or in single hostel rooms. There is a looming public health crisis in the short term and a looming long-term mental health crisis because of the conditions in which they will have to self-isolate. What will the Secretary of State do about those people and what advice will he give?
Yes, of course, we are incredibly concerned about that, and it is reflected in the guidance that we have specifically put out. It is one of the many reasons why we encourage people to get outside, even if they are in household isolation, so long as they do not come into contact with others. Of course, I understand the consequences of the advice that we have given for the hon. Lady’s constituents.
Many of those whom the Secretary of State will want to shield at the weekend and who are self-isolating are in receipt of at-home social care. Can he be clear about the guidance that he is going to give about whether they should continue to be visited, or what else he will put in place to protect those individuals?
Yes, of course, the further advice will go out for social care. We put updated advice out at the end of last week knowing that that was a likely step, and there will be further advice precisely to help people to address exactly that question.
Given the anxiety in schools, colleges and universities about exams, will the Minister reassure students and staff alike that there is provision in place for exams to take place within the cycle of this academic year? Will he also reassure the House that, in the event of school closures, there is provision in place to feed those children who are currently in receipt of free school meals?
Those are both very important points. Children who receive free school meals often receive their best or, in some cases, their only meal at lunch time at school, and it is an issue that I discussed with the Education Secretary over the weekend.
My hon. Friend the Member for Folkestone and Hythe (Damian Collins) talked about the importance of information consistency, but some constituents are seeing competing messages which look like they come from credible sources and are then passed on in good faith. In the worst cases, not only do they mislead, they can even be dangerous. May I encourage my right hon. Friend to continue his work with the platforms not only to ensure the primacy of the official information, but actively to work against that which disinforms?
Yes, my right hon. Friend is absolutely right.
The Spanish Government recently announced sweeping measures to take over private healthcare and to requisition products such as ventilators, testers and, indeed, facemasks. We have heard that, in the UK, the Prime Minister has ordered the NHS to acquire resources from the private health system to the tune of something like £2.4 million today. Will the Secretary of State outline measures that the Government will take to ensure that we put public health and public safety before private profit?
I am absolutely delighted at the response of the private hospitals which are rising to that challenge, and we are working very closely with them.
Will my right hon. Friend outline what discussions he has had with the First Minister of Wales to ensure that the plan is consistent and that constituents do not get mixed messages? Furthermore, will he appeal to certain sections of the media to realise the power of their platform and encourage them not to undermine the official advice?
Yes, that is very important. I was in Cardiff on Friday to discuss that with my opposite number who attended the Cobra meeting today. We are working very closely with the Welsh authorities, which, of course, run the NHS in Wales.
What consideration have the Government made of the possibility that some people, especially those living in London, may, in light of today’s announcement, decide to move from more urban areas to rural areas? Will the Secretary of State reassure us that additional resources will be made available to local health authorities should there prove to be a significant shift in population?
Yes, of course, I will keep both of those under review.
Last Friday, the heads of all the NHS services in Gloucestershire held a conference call with the six MPs in the county, and very helpful it was indeed in answering all our questions and giving us information to share with our constituents. Does my right hon. Friend think that this is something that could be done in every NHS cluster around the country?
Yes, and I have asked Simon Stevens, the head of the NHS, to ensure that local trusts and clinical commissioning groups keep their local MPs informed of what is happening locally, what is having to happen and how they are responding. Of course, the NHS is incredibly busy at this time preparing for events to come, but that would be a good idea.
What extra support will be available for pharmacists, and when will local authorities know what their public health funding allocation will be?
The public health budget is going up and pharmacists are an incredibly important part of the NHS family.
The people most seriously at risk are those with underlying conditions. Will the public health agenda being published promote how people can minimise those conditions—for example, by giving up smoking and leading a healthier life—so that we can minimise the number of serious cases that are seen by the NHS?
That is absolutely right. It is abundantly clear from the research into previous coronaviruses that smoking makes the impact of a coronavirus worse.
Every time the Prime Minister makes a statement on coronavirus and the advice changes, the 111 hotlines go mad. Our 111 call handlers are asking that the script changes in real time, because they are required to keep to the scripts, and on Thursday there was a three-hour delay before the scripts were updated. Please will the Secretary of State look into this and change it for next time?
Yes. First, let me pay tribute to the 111 call handlers and the clinicians who have done an amazing job over these past few weeks. I do not know what we would have done without them. Secondly, the three-hour turnaround of the script changes was an unbelievable task for those who implemented it. They did a magnificent job to turn it round so quickly, and I, of course, applaud them for doing so, and would wish them to be able to turn it round even quicker, but they did an amazing job doing it as fast as they did.
The Secretary of State’s announcement today will mean that large numbers of elderly and vulnerable people will be required to self-isolate. Will the Government therefore co-ordinate all the volunteering organisations because large numbers of people will be required to deliver necessities to those vulnerable groups?
Just as we have introduced a national effort for ventilators, so we are introducing a national effort for volunteers, and my right hon Friend the Secretary of State for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport is leading that drive.
In answering my right hon. Friend the Member for Leeds Central (Hilary Benn) earlier, the Secretary of State made it clear that he wanted everybody to be tested at home if they had the symptoms. What is the difference between the number of new cases currently and the number of tests that are currently available per day?
Our estimate of the total number of new cases is significantly higher than the available number of tests right now, which is why we need to increase testing capacity so quickly.
Something that will unite us across this House is our utter admiration for the great British public. All parts of our society have responded to this crisis—our public health officials, families, communities and, today, businesses that have heeded the call for ventilator production. Can the Secretary of State confirm that, as well as the hotline, there is now also an email address for businesses to send their response to if they want to contribute to the national ventilator effort?
Yes, there is. We have been absolutely overwhelmed with the positive response to the national effort for building ventilators. That email address is up and running, and we are trying to engage with everybody who contacts us.
Can the Secretary of State assure the House that if schools are closed because of the coronavirus, money will be made available so that lunches and hot food are provided to the children who are the most in need? Also, he said that he took advice from other countries—Ireland has closed its schools.
We are looking at the impact of all the decisions that different countries have taken. There will be lots of consequences should we take the decision to close schools, but we have not taken that decision today.
May I pay tribute to my right hon. Friend, and to all the staff and officials at the Department of Health who are working around the clock in incredible situations to deal with coronavirus? Indeed, I also pay tribute to the Secretary of State’s counterpart in the Scottish Government and to all her staff, who are working to do exactly the same north of the border; I know that my constituents in West Aberdeenshire and Kincardine appreciate it. Does the Secretary of State know whether the Transport Secretary will be coming to the House at some point soon to update us on any discussions he is having with the airline industry? The maintenance of routes is very important to the economy of the north-east of Scotland, and the survival of those airlines is vital.
It is of course a matter that I discuss with the Transport Secretary, who I am sure will be coming to the House sooner rather than later.
May I encourage people across the country to have complete confidence in the Government’s medical and scientific advice? That is essential for the safety of the country. I also encourage the Secretary of State to ensure that the population as a whole have confidence in their own economic futures. We spent £500 billion bailing out the banks in 2008. We need to be prepared to go even further than that to ensure that people—for example, the 60,000 people working in tourism and hospitality in Cumbria—know that their economic future is not about to be burnt.
I understand the concerns raised by the hon. Gentleman, and it is important that they are addressed. Coming from a small business background myself, I understand the impact that a change like this can make, especially to the tourism industry, which is so important in the hon. Gentleman’s constituency. We regret having to take the measures that we are taking today. As I said earlier to the former leader of the Labour party, the right hon. Member for Doncaster North (Edward Miliband), this is something on which we are working at pace.
The Secretary of State should be congratulated for the calm and responsible leadership that he has shown during this crisis, but may I draw his attention to the subject of a hugely vulnerable group—that is, children with immunosuppression with underlying health concerns? The advice to those children is still to go to school, but he will know that any virus can be devastating to them given their low immune systems. Will he issue specific guidance to parents with such children who have these concerns?
I have talked to my local trust this afternoon, and it is doing everything it can to prepare for the potential surge in covid-19, but it told me that the big problem it has is knowing what to do if schools close, and what that will mean for the workforce and their ability to turn up to work. Can we please have an assurance that there will be a national childcare policy, particularly for key workers in the NHS?
This, allied with the fact that children are safe at school because they do not have significant symptoms from covid-19, is the reason that we are keeping schools open for now.
Charities and third sector organisations are also going to be deeply affected. Will the Secretary of State inform the House what support will be available to them, especially when they are trying so hard to help in our communities?
My hon. Friend is absolutely right to raise such an important point. We need communities and people to come together to help out those who are badly affected by the virus. Of course, that means supporting charities to ensure that they can keep providing the sort of support that we were going to need in the weeks and months to come.
If schools are to close—I appreciate that that is not the Government’s position currently—headteachers in my constituency have asked me to convey to the Government that a particular priority must be given to child safeguarding, and that this should also become the priority for Ofsted. Will the Secretary of State discuss that with the Schools Minister?
I will. The hon. Member makes a very good point.
British businesses—large and small, including those in West Sussex—stand shoulder to shoulder with the Secretary of State on the excellent work that he is doing. May I commend the advanced manufacturing initiative for ventilators, but encourage him to go much further into other hard-pressed categories across our health and social care system?
Yes, the response to this crisis has been extraordinary. Things are happening in this country that nobody would have wished, and things are happening faster than so many people anticipated, but people’s ability to respond—even to changes that nobody would have wanted to see—has so far been, in many cases, remarkable. Of course we talk about the NHS and social care, but so many businesses that are also under intense pressure and stress are looking to see what they can do to help.
The Secretary of State has made it very clear that it is no longer business as usual, but for families and businesses up and down this kingdom, it is bills as usual. What measures can the Government take to introduce rates relief for families and businesses and a VAT delay for the coming year, and, importantly, for Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs to ensure that it gives people time to pay the most critical bills for their businesses?
The hon. Gentleman is right to raise all those issues, and we will address them all.
We are all looking for clarity in these uncertain times. I have just been contacted by the owners of a café and a hairdressing business in my constituency, who have heard the strong advice for people not to frequent their businesses, putting them at great risk of not being viable. A lot has happened since the Budget last Wednesday. Does the Health Secretary agree that it would now be useful for the Chancellor to return to the House this week, and clearly to lay out the latest raft of measures available to support large and small businesses, employees, the self-employed and freelancers?
I will absolutely take that concern directly back to my right hon. Friend the Chancellor of the Exchequer.
The Government have talked of drafting in volunteers to provide care, but people with disabilities often have some of the most complex needs and it is highly unlikely that volunteers would be able to provide the care that is needed. How will the Government ensure that people with disabilities continue to receive the support to stay in their own homes?
Of course, volunteers have a huge role to play in doing jobs that work for their skillset, but an incredibly high set of skills are needed to support some people—for instance, the people with disabilities that the hon. Member mentions. Supporting those people to get the social care they need is a critical part of our response to this virus.
What steps are the Government taking to increase the availability of high-quality masks and other protective equipment for NHS workers?
We are distributing personal protective equipment across the NHS from the stockpiles and supplies that we have in place for this purpose, but we are also seeking to enhance the production of these items because it is clear that we are going to need a lot.
Many pharmacies across the country refuse to take prescription requests over the phone. Will the Health Secretary explain what he is doing, with the other Health Ministers across the UK, to ensure that people can access prescriptions over the phone or electronically that are then transmitted directly to pharmacies, and to relax restrictions on the supply of medicines—for example, so that people can get a three-month prescription, rather than a month?
The hon. Member is quite right to raise this point. In England, where I am responsible for these matters, we are addressing all these points. I am sure that the devolved nations are looking at them too.
Given that the new advice today is that people should remain at home for up to 14 days if they have a high temperature or a continuous cough, I wonder if my right hon. Friend can clarify for constituents what actually constitutes a continuous cough—is it half an hour or half a day?
It is a cough that does not go away. It is not an irregular cough. I cannot give any more detail on the specific advice than that. It is a continuous cough; that is the best way to describe it.
If pubs are unsafe, why is it being left to customers to decide whether they should go to them or not?
Because our advice to everybody is to reduce unnecessary social contact to protect themselves.
I commend the personal resilience of the Health Secretary during this crisis, and all the staff at Kettering General Hospital. Do we have any lessons to learn from the German experience, given that Germany has had five times as many confirmed cases, but only a quarter of the number of deaths?
I have discussed that point with my German counterpart, and I am afraid that I wish there was something we could learn because it is important. We think that the reason for the difference in ratio is that the early cases in Germany were largely people who had been skiing in northern Italy and therefore were more healthy, whereas the mortality of this disease is very strongly correlated with age.
I live with my 80-year-old mother, my wife who has a heart condition, my daughter and sons, who attend educational settings, and my three-year-old grandson. What advice can the Secretary of State give to multi-generational households such as mine, where self-isolation is not a viable option and alternatives are far from obvious?
That point is incredibly important and is directly addressed in the advice that will be on the gov.uk website.
I have been approached by many who are 70-plus years old who are still in full-time employment. They want to know, if they are still healthy and willing to go to work, that the Government are supportive of them doing so.
The shielding measures, where we insist on the lowest possible social contact, are for people who have existing conditions and will be contacted by the NHS. For those over 70 who are healthy and, for instance, in work, as my hon. Friend says, we strongly advise them to minimise their social contact.
To prevent people from stockpiling and panic buying infant formula, will the Secretary of State speak to supermarkets and perhaps insist that they limit sales to two per family? In the event that breastfeeding support groups are unable to meet, will he direct people to the national breastfeeding helpline, which runs from 9.30 am to 9.30 pm every day?
I will look into the second point. On the first point, those conversations are happening.
I congratulate my right hon. Friend on his openness and on the quality of the information he is giving us. Will he please offer some guidance to the large number of religious communities—churches, mosques, gurdwaras—on what actually constitutes a large gathering of people?
We address that in the advice, and this is a very important point. We have taken advice on how to respond to the crisis, including from our ethics committee, which includes representatives of the major religious faiths. It is true that we include religious groups in our advice about social contact. We have seen from elsewhere in the world how sometimes it is through religious gatherings that the virus can spread so, with the deepest regret and the heaviest of heart, we include faith groups and gatherings of faith within the advice.
Will the Secretary of State and the Chancellor at the very least write to all Members this week to set out the measures that they understand will be taken to support the self-employed and small businesses in our constituencies? That information is vital. May I also ask him about local authorities? They will be on the frontline of supporting families facing hardship, as well as ensuring that services reach those in need. It will be a mammoth effort, undertaken at the same time as employees will have to be encouraged to work at home. What financial support, including hardship funds, are the Government providing to cash-strapped local authorities and how, alongside the enormous effort provided by community organisations, will the Secretary of State ensure the safeguarding of older people?
These are all important considerations. The financial ones are of course a question for the Treasury, which is looking at how to address all these things.
Hundreds of thousands of students are currently revising for their public examinations. Does the Secretary of State have a contingency plan for GCSEs and A-levels to be sat on time?
That is a matter that the Education Secretary is considering.
Seventy per cent. of people over the age of 70 are living with hearing loss, so it is welcome that most public health messaging on TV is subtitled. However, for those whose first language is British Sign Language, reading written English can be really difficult, and much of the public health messaging is inaccessible. Given the seriousness of this fast-moving situation, will the Secretary of State ensure that all press conferences featuring a Minister, the chief medical officer or the chief scientific adviser have a BSL interpreter present? Also, how is he ensuring that the communication needs of those with hearing problems are being met when they require health treatment?
That is an incredibly important point. Many of the statements on coronavirus from the Dispatch Box have been signed, and I understand that the press conference that the Prime Minister gave today with the chief scientific adviser and the chief medical officer was also signed on the BBC.
May I put on record my thanks to our NHS and careworkers for their fantastic work and pay tribute to the immense public support out there from community organisations? Although we are no longer performing community testing, with consideration given to testing of NHS staff as a priority, will my right hon. Friend advise whether that will be extended to social care staff, the police and teachers, to ensure that our frontline services continue to operate?
That is an incredibly important point. Public Health England is addressing the order of prioritisation, and we are also trying to drive up the number of tests available, as we have discussed many times earlier.
Schools are closing. London Oratory School in Fulham, which had 1,300 pupils, closed today. One effect of that is that other schools in the vicinity then come under pressure to do likewise from the school community. That is no criticism of anyone, but can the Secretary of State review and clarify the policy on schools and what happens if they have to downsize or if the policy changes?
We are of course reviewing all those points, and there are some measures in the Bill tomorrow to enable them to be addressed directly.
The week before last it was “shortly”, last week it was “imminently”. Does the Secretary of State know when the public health budgets will be announced, and if he does, can he shed some light on that?
It is as soon as possible. There are so many things that we need to get on with, and this is one of them.
My hon. Friend the Member for Leicester East (Claudia Webbe) referred earlier to reports that the private health industry is planning to charge the NHS £2.4 million a day for the rental of 8,000 beds. Does the Secretary of State really feel that that is the right way to go, given that this is a national effort and that we are all in this together? What steps will he be taking to ensure that private health providers are doing their bit?
I do think it is the right way to go, to make sure that private sector capacity is urgently available to address this crisis. It is a matter of all working together to deliver.
My constituent cannot get mortgage payment support because she does not have a sick note to go with self-isolating. When will electronic online sick notes be available through the NHS 111 service?
We are fixing that, but we are also changing the law to ensure that people who are self-isolating are clearly deemed to be sick for these sorts of purposes.
Among those who cannot work from home and who feel vulnerable are GPs. Will the Secretary of State heed the advice of the locum who came to see me, and sort out the inconsistencies whereby 111 has been diverting people to surgeries? Can he also do away with the box-ticking target culture that makes GPs terrified to perform a number of consultations in a certain length of time, and also get rid of the quality and outcomes framework appraisals, which are just unnecessary, and let doctors be doctors?
My message to everybody in the NHS is that they should do what they need to do to keep people safe in front of them. We are reducing a whole load of the bureaucracy that gets in the way —for instance, with measures from the Care Quality Commission—to ensure that people just do what is right in front of them. As the hon. Lady says, GPs cannot work from home. Some GP appointments do need to be face to face, but increasingly they can be over the phone or over Skype, and so they should be.
Several Members have raised concerns about care staff. As we all know, many of them are on zero-hour contracts and work for multiple providers. That means that they struggle to prove that they are eligible for statutory sick pay, forcing them to choose between protecting their clients and paying their bills. What action will the Secretary of State take to help healthcare staff who are not eligible for statutory sick pay and cannot prove their eligibility?
This is an issue that I discussed with the hon. Member for Leicester South, the shadow Health Secretary, earlier today. The package of measures in the Budget addresses it as much as is possible, and we are prepared to go further if that is what is needed.
I have been contacted by constituents concerned by the lack of health and safety and testing at our borders. Do the Government have plans to implement stricter measures at our airports, ports and rail terminals?
Now that there is onward transmission in the UK, those sorts of measures are less efficacious. Of course, we have been doing that all along and strengthening it, but there are also those who said, “Go further and stop all the flights.” Of course, the Italians were the ones whose who initially stopped flights from China and ended up as the European epicentre anyway.
The Secretary of State has indicated a willingness to revisit the statutory sick pay issue if, as many of us think, the current arrangements do not go far enough. When will he make that assessment?
We are making it constantly.
Coronavirus has already claimed the life of one of my constituents, and my thoughts are with his family. What action will the Secretary of State take to prevent the closure of the Mildmay Hospital in my constituency, which is much needed to relieve some of the pressure on the Royal London Hospital? Will the Secretary of State explain what action the Government will take to put restrictions on the increasing price hikes on the supply side of goods and on panic buying? Panic buying is understandable, given that the guidance is changing, but we need to get a grip on it to protect vulnerable and poor people in our constituencies.
We are looking at all those points. With respect to the last one, that is a matter that the Environment Secretary, who is responsible for the food supply, is looking at very closely. We are confident in the food supply of this country, even in the grip of this crisis, but we have to make sure that people behave responsibly in buying only what they need.
If the advice to customers is that it is safer not to go to bars, restaurants and theatres, presumably the same advice applies to members of staff in the hospitality sector. Why therefore are the Government not saying to all businesses in those sectors that they must close, which would then put them in a much better position to claim on their insurance?
We have taken a decision on health grounds to make the changes to the advice that are deemed necessary, according to the scientific advice and the medical advice, to keep people safe. I understand that there are huge consequences from that for businesses right across the country, and my right hon. Friend the Chancellor is leading the work to support those businesses.
In Shetland we have 15 of the 171 confirmed cases in Scotland. That is almost 9%, from an island community of 22,000. In normal circumstances, anyone requiring intensive care in Shetland is taken by air ambulance to mainland Scotland. Because of the nature of coronavirus, we cannot do that. I understand that military assets will be engaged for that transportation, but clinicians tell me that there is no understanding of the protocols and there has not yet even been a dress rehearsal. Will the Secretary of State speak to his right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Defence to ensure that all necessary communication happens to ensure that when the service is needed, it will work?
Yes, I will. We will make sure that we support people on all parts of these islands, including all islands that are part of these islands.
I have been contacted by a constituent of mine in Erith and Thamesmead. His elderly grandparents are stranded on the Fred Olsen liner. Will the Secretary of State please tell me what action he will be taking to provide support to those stranded with coronavirus?
That is an important point. My right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary is leading on that response. We have already provided medical capability to try to support people who are on board. It is a difficult situation, as I am sure the hon. Lady will understand. We are doing the very best we can.
In recent days, I have been speaking to health workers across the sector and also to the local council about our schools. I understand that there is a strong under-supply of hand sanitiser. Warwickshire County Council tried to order £19,000-worth and could only get half that for its schools. Will the Secretary of State update us on what he is doing in terms of generating production for that?
Yes. We are keen to see further production of hand sanitiser. There are not many hand sanitiser production plants in the UK, and I would add that soap is better than hand sanitiser. Nevertheless, it is something we are working on.
Will the Secretary of State for Health and Social Care please speak to his right hon. Friend the Environment Secretary about what more can be done to guarantee essential food supplies to those who are symptomatic and self-isolating? In the absence of the Health Secretary’s national volunteering scheme, which is not yet in operation—at least, not in my part of south-east London—people were phoning me over the weekend to say that they cannot get essential home deliveries. They have been cancelled and they cannot get them for three weeks. They have no friends or family around and they are too sick to go out.
I talk to the Environment Secretary almost daily about this issue. It is obviously incredibly important, and it is important that within communities people help each other to be able to get essential supplies.
This morning I visited Turney School in my constituency. It is a special educational needs school with an outstanding track record on the education it provides for its students. As well as education, the school provides vital emotional and social support and respite for families, and the staff are very worried about what will happen, in the event that the school has to close, to the provision of social care for families who often live in overcrowded accommodation. Some 90% of them are eligible for free school meals. Will the Secretary of State say what measures he is taking to ensure that social care capacity for such families will be expanded in the event that schools are forced to close?
The hon. Lady makes an important point, which is that the consequences of closing schools are very complicated. It is something that my right hon. Friend the Education Secretary is addressing directly.
Lots of my constituents in Bradford West in the Muslim and Jewish communities have concerns about burials because they want to bury as soon as somebody dies. Given that we might sadly lose people to the virus, what conversations has the Secretary of State had with religious institutions across the country in that regard?
The Communities Secretary leads on that question, because ultimately local authorities have an incredibly important role to play in making sure that such things happen smoothly. There are further powers in the Bill. The detail of those will be published tomorrow to try to make sure we have what we need to address that difficult situation.
Over the past month, we have heard an awful lot about the Government’s science-based strategy to deal with the crisis. Will the Secretary of State provide me and my constituents with an idea of the modelling he is using so that we can understand just how many fatalities we could see in this country under the herd immunity strategy that the Government seem to have been pursuing? Are they still pursuing that strategy, or have they instead changed strategy and gone in the direction of actually saving lives?
No. We are very clear that herd immunity is not part of our plan. It is a scientific concept; it is not a goal or a strategy. On the first part of the hon. Gentleman’s question, yes, we will be publishing that modelling.
In the interests of transparency and public confidence, will the Secretary of State clarify whether he will be publishing the advice that explains the rationale for how testing will be expanded, so that people understand what groups are going to be tested next and how those cohorts are to be prioritised?
I will look into that question and get back to the hon. Gentleman.
People without a home of their own have particular challenges when seeking to self-isolate, which puts their health at risk, as well as that of the wider public. Can the Secretary of State assure me of two things? First, will everybody who is street homeless be guaranteed the opportunity to self-isolate if they start showing symptoms? People are being turned away from shelters at the moment. Secondly, given that tens of thousands of people are evicted every year, will he take action now to ensure that more people are not added to the homelessness total?
That is a very important point that is being addressed by my right hon Friend the Communities Secretary, along with the mayors and local authorities, who lead in many cases on the provision of those sorts of services.
Many local services in my constituency are supported by the third sector, including charities such as Luton Foodbank. They will be hit by a double whammy of many of the volunteers being 70 or over or living with people who may have long-term conditions, and equally having to cancel large fundraising events because they are large gatherings. What support can be provided for those organisations?
In answer to a previous question about charities, I made the point that we have a charitable sector that has a huge role to play, including with the increase in volunteering in response to this unprecedented crisis. We will support them in whatever way we can.
Thank you for your generosity in letting this statement run, Mr Speaker, and I thank the Health Secretary for dealing with all the questions. What advice does the Secretary of State have for my constituent Mr Emerson, who is in London today to collect a private script for medicinal cannabis for his daughter, who, at three years old, relies upon it? He can only cash the private script in London, and he has to travel to London every month. He has asked for three months’ supply in case he cannot travel from Belfast to London in the months to come. Can the Health Secretary give any advice or guidance to him or to the chief pharmaceutical officer?
We are trying to address the precise point of the supply of medicinal cannabis products through a change to the Home Office regulations anyway. The advice is against unnecessary travel, and the sort of travel that the hon. Gentleman describes sounds very necessary to me.
Later, at the height of the crisis, the Secretary of State will be judged on the answers he gives today. At the beginning of the crisis, there were estimated to be only 5,000 ventilators in the NHS. Can he tell us exactly how many ventilators he has purchased, what the modelling says about how many ventilators will be needed at the height of the crisis, and whether we will be able to get everybody on a ventilator at that point?
As the hon. Gentleman knows from my previous answers, that is not the way we are addressing this question. The way we are addressing it is that we will buy as many ventilators as are made. It is not a question of putting a target on it. We are just going after as many as we possibly can.