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Covid-19 Update

Volume 678: debated on Thursday 16 July 2020

Virtual participation in proceedings commenced (Order, 4 June).

[NB: [V] denotes a Member participating virtually.]

Let me just say that I was asked for time for a statement this morning. The copy of the speech arrived at 16:59. I do not think that is acceptable, and I am not sure when the Opposition got theirs. As I was asked this morning, I would have thought there would have been better preparation to ensure that the Opposition and my good self received a copy. I hope you can bear that in mind, because it was not given the urgency that was needed, so a little bit more attention to detail and to making sure the speech is shared would be helpful. Let us come to the Secretary of State for Health—[Interruption.] It is no use shaking your head: it is one of those things. It is a fact.

With permission, I would like to make a statement on our action against coronavirus and the decisions we have been taking through the day today to determine the future of the action needed in Leicester.

We continue our determined fight against this invisible killer. The number of new cases yesterday was 642, lower than when lockdown began. According to the latest figures, the number of deaths in all settings is down to 66. We are successfully turning the tide, and part of that success lies in our ability to take action locally whenever we see it flare up. Often this is on a very small scale, swiftly and quietly, such as in an individual farm or factory, but when necessary we also act on a broader basis, as we have done in Leicester.

Today, I want to update the House on the situation in Leicester. At the end of June, we made the decision to close schools and non-essential retail in the city, and not to introduce the relaxations that applied elsewhere from 4 July such as the reopening of pubs. That was not an easy decision, but it was one that we had to take. At that point, the seven-day infection rate in Leicester was 135 cases per 100,000 people, which was three times higher than the rate in the next highest city, and Leicester was accounting for 10% of all positive cases in the country.

That decision was taken with the agreement of all local leaders, and I am grateful to the leader and officers of Leicestershire County Council, and the officers of Leicester City Council, for their support and continued hard work. Since then, we have doubled testing in the city and, through a monumental programme of communications and community engagement, we have been pushing our important messages.

I committed myself to reviewing the measures in Leicester every two weeks. This morning, I chaired a gold meeting of the local action committee to discuss the latest situation, and this afternoon I held a further meeting with local leaders, Public Health England, the joint biosecurity centre, the local resilience forum and my clinical advisers. The latest data show that the seven-day infection rate in Leicester is now 119 cases per 100,000 people, and that the percentage of people who have tested positive is now at 4.8%. Those are positive indicators, especially in the light of the huge increase in testing in the local area, but they still remain well above the national average and the average for surrounding areas.

Thanks to the incredible efforts of people in Leicester who have followed the lockdown, even while others across the country have had their freedoms relaxed, we are now in a position to relax some, but not all, of the restrictions that were in place. From 24 July, we will remove the restrictions on schools and early years childcare and take a more targeted approach to the restrictions on non-essential retail, replacing the national decision to close non-essential retail outlets with a local power to close them where necessary. This is all part of our more targeted approach.

However, other restrictions, such as those for travel and having social gatherings of only up to six people for example, will remain in force, and measures introduced on 4 July such as reopening the hospitality sector will also not yet apply. The initial definition of the geography covered by the lockdown was a decision that I delegated to Leicestershire County Council and that it made and published. The leader of Leicestershire County Council, Nicholas Rushton, has advised me, on the basis of the data and the best public health advice, that he recommends that the restrictions now apply only to the Oadby and Wigston area of Leicestershire, as well as the city of Leicester itself, and I have accepted his advice.

Some say that the local lockdown is unnecessary. I wish that were true, but sadly it remains vital for the health of everyone in Leicester, and the rest of the country, that these restrictions stay in place. We will review them again in a fortnight. I hope that this careful easing of restrictions will provide some comfort to people in Leicester and Leicestershire. I say directly to the people of Leicester and Leicestershire, “I pay tribute to you all. Your perseverance and your hard work have brought real and tangible results, and you have shown respect for one another.”

I understand that this has not been easy. Strong representations have been made to me by my hon. Friends the Members for Charnwood (Edward Argar), for Harborough (Neil O’Brien) and for South Leicestershire (Alberto Costa), and by Opposition Members who represent the city of Leicester on behalf of constituents who have been impacted, and constituents who want to see the lockdown lifted. However, there is still a lot to do and the public health messages remain critical, so to them I say, “Please get a test if you have symptoms, keep following the rules that are in place, and please do not lose your resolve, because the sooner we get this virus under control, the sooner we can restore life in Leicester and across the country to normal.”

This statement also gives me the opportunity to inform the House of an issue relating to testing. We have identified some swabs that are not up to the usual high standard that we expect. We will be carrying out further testing of this batch. As a precautionary measure, and while we investigate further, we are requesting that the use of these Randox swab test kits is paused in all settings until further notice. This problem was brought to my attention yesterday afternoon. We contacted settings using the swabs last night and published the pause notice immediately. Clinical advice is that there is no evidence of any harm and that test results are not affected. There is no evidence of issues with any of our other swab tests, and there is no impact on access to testing.

Our ability to take action on the local level in Leicester is the keystone of our plan to defeat the coronavirus, ensuring we can keep the virus on the run and defeat it once and for all. I am grateful to you, Mr Speaker, for allowing me to make a statement at this time, and I commend the statement to the House.

Before turning to Leicester, may I ask the Secretary of State to update the House and comment on Sir Patrick Vallance’s remarks at the Science and Technology Committee, where he said that SAGE had advised the Government to implement lockdown measures as soon as possible on 16 March? Why did it take a further seven days for the Government to implement lockdown if SAGE was advising them to do so on 16 March?

Let me start by putting on record my thanks to the city council and all the health officials, particularly our director of public health, Ivan Browne, for all the work they are doing to drive our infection rates down in Leicester. I welcome the extra testing capacity we have received as a city, including the door-to-door testing, and I put on record my tribute to the people of Leicester, the city where I live, for their fortitude in doing all they can to drive this infection down through 17 weeks of lockdown.

If we still have to make further personal sacrifices to keep people safe and hunt this virus down with the lockdown, so be it, but there is no doubt that there will be a degree of dismay across the city in response to the Secretary of State’s remarks. We welcome the opening of non-essential retail, but many businesses were preparing to open their doors for the beginning of July and still cannot open their doors, and they will want to know whether they will get any specific extra business support. The Secretary of State suggested in a previous statement that they would, but the Under-Secretary of State for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy, the hon. Member for Stratford-on-Avon (Nadhim Zahawi), ruled it out.

The continued lockdown coincides with the traditional Leicester fortnight. I do not know whether the Secretary of State is familiar with the Leicester fortnight. It is the two weeks in July when our schools break up earlier than other schools across the country. That is a time when many Leicester families will have booked holidays, but they cannot go on holiday because they are not allowed to, and many travel companies are refusing to pay them compensation. Will he guarantee that families will not be out of pocket because they are not allowed to go on a holiday they have saved up for all year round? Will the Government step in, or can he force those travel companies to reimburse those Leicester families?

As the Secretary of State knows, Leicester is a city that suffers from high levels of child poverty, insecure work, low pay and a lack of decent sick pay. We have many deep-rooted economic problems and the spike or larger outbreak in the city appears to coincide with the inner-city areas where we know there are high levels of deprivation and overcrowding. We also have a large ethnic minority community, so will he explain why he has not yet implemented the recommendations of the Public Health England report on protecting those from minority ethnic backgrounds?

There has been widespread speculation about the garment industry. Can the Secretary of State tell us how many inspections by the Health and Safety Executive and Her Majesty's Revenue and Customs have now taken place in Leicester’s textile factories, particularly since the Home Secretary a couple of weeks ago promised us that she would stamp out any illegal exploitation?

We note that the Secretary of State has rejected the advice of the city mayor of Leicester to partially ease restrictions in parts of the city, although he has taken advice from the leader of Leicestershire County Council to ease restrictions in part of the county. Can he explain what the public health evidence is behind that decision? If the public health advice is to maintain, for example, the lockdown in the west of the city, when we know that the infection rates are at their highest in the east of the city, why does not that advice also apply to the neighbourhoods that border the city boundaries? This is one greater urban area. What is the public health reason why someone living on one side of Gilmorton Avenue—I do not expect the Secretary of State to know Gilmorton Avenue in my constituency, but it illustrates the point—is subject to restrictions because they fall under Leicester City Council, but is not allowed to cross the road to speak to the neighbour who lives opposite, because they fall under Blaby District Council? There are other examples across the city as well. If he could offer us that advice, we would appreciate it.

Leicester went into lockdown because of the infection rate and because it took so long to get us the specific data. Local authorities are still complaining that they are not getting patient—identifiable data, they are not getting data on a daily basis, and they are not getting contact tracing data. Yesterday, at Prime Minister’s questions, the Prime Minister said that we have a world-leading system—the best system in the world—for testing and tracing and it will avoid a second spike this winter, but we know that there have been problems with testing and tracing throughout. Last week, Sky News revealed that he has been overstating the test numbers by 200,000. Today, the Health Secretary has come to the House—we are grateful to him for updating the House—to explain what is happening with Randox. I believe that the £133 million contract was given to Randox without any competitive tender. Can he explain what is exactly wrong with these kits? How many of these presumably faulty kits have been used? Is there a health risk to anyone who has been tested with these kits?

The hon. Gentleman says from a sedentary position that there is not a health risk, but the Government are withdrawing these kits. How many people have these unsafe kits been used on, and why were the certifications not checked before the kits were used? These kits tend to be used in many care homes. We want care home residents to be tested regularly. We want care home staff to be tested regularly. Can the Secretary of State guarantee that those care homes will now get alternative kits rapidly?

Today we have seen more testing data come out. The Prime Minister promised that tests would be delivered within 24 hours by the end of June. I think the figures today show that only 66.9% of them are. On the tracing data, we see that only 71% of people are being contacted, not the 80% we were promised. Is not the truth that we now have swabs being recalled, contact tracing not meeting the targets, and Serco call centres with people not doing anything? It is all costing £10 billion and the Health Secretary is now bringing in McKinsey. Why is he throwing good money after bad? Why does he not invest in public health services, primary care and local health teams instead to do this testing?

The hon. Gentleman has spent weeks complaining about capacity to do things such as contact tracing and now he complains that we have too much capacity. He should decide on a position and stick to it. On the point about Randox and the kits on which we put a pause, the reason is that they had a CE stamp and, on investigation of the certification of that stamp, the certification was not forthcoming, so physical checks were done and we found that the swabs were not up to the standards that we expect. This is limited to the Randox element of the testing system, not the broader testing system that we have. I explained the clinical position, which is that there is no evidence of any harm having been done and that there is full access to testing, because we have plenty of other test kits available.

The hon. Gentleman asked about test and trace. Ninety-nine per cent. of the tests that need to be done quickly are returned the next day. More broadly, he asked about the comments of the chief scientific adviser to the Select Committee. The 16 March is the day I came to the House and said that all unnecessary social contact should cease. That is precisely when the lockdown was started. It is unusual to be attacked for saying exactly the same as the chief scientific adviser.

On the questions with respect to Leicester, the hon. Gentleman rightly raises the Leicester fortnight. Schools have effectively risen for the summer in Leicester already. Of course, I would urge holiday companies with which people in Leicester might have booked a holiday to reimburse them at this point.

The hon. Gentleman mentions the problem and challenges of insecure work in Leicester, and he is absolutely right to do so. This is a long-standing problem, and I think the whole House would strongly support action to ensure that illegal insecure work is stamped out. My right hon. Friend and colleague the Home Secretary is taking action where appropriate, but, of course, the public health response is vital.

Finally, the hon. Gentleman asked about the public health advice on geography. Given that there were no cases in many areas of the county that are part of the conurbation of Leicester over the past week, it was, I think, a reasonable recommendation to me by the county council to lift the lockdown in those areas. I gave the Mayor of Leicester the opportunity to put forward any changes he might have wanted within the city boundary, but he declined to do so.

Based on public health across the whole city of Leicester, within the city geography, incidence of this disease is higher than a sustainable level, and we absolutely need to bring it down. It is on the basis of that advice, and working with and listening to local leaders, that we took the decision on the geography of the lockdown in Leicester. I end by again paying tribute to people in Leicester, who are enduring the lockdown longer than others; it is their fortitude that will help to make their city safe again.

Thank you, Mr Speaker, for special dispensation to ask this question remotely. I want to ask the Health Secretary about the worrying variation in coronavirus mortality rates between hospitals, which appear to range from 12.5% to 80%. There may be some issues of deprivation or ethnicity, but some of that variation is likely to be due to a failure in some hospitals to adopt best practice, which is what the Getting It Right First Time programme, led by Professor Tim Briggs, addresses. Will my right hon. Friend agree to meet me and Professor Briggs to discuss whether the Getting It Right First Time programme could help to reduce covid mortality rates?

I would be very happy to meet my right hon. Friend and Professor Tim Briggs, who does an incredible job. He is a brilliant public servant, who has done great work on the Getting It Right First Time programme. As my right hon. Friend knows better than almost anybody, the unjustified variation in performance between different hospitals within the NHS is a huge issue across the board, because if the standards in every hospital were the same as the standards in the best hospital, the performance of the whole would be so much higher. That is exactly what the Getting It Right First Time programme was designed to deliver. It was instigated by my right hon. Friend, and I would be very happy to listen to what both he and Professor Briggs have to say.

Directors of public health in England are still complaining that they are not getting the information they need. They started to get area data only from late June, when it became clear that Leicester had had 900 cases in less than a month. Within a week, Leicester was back under lockdown. The Prime Minister has described this as his “whack-a-mole” approach to controlling covid, but does the Secretary of State recognise that for the people of Leicester it has felt just as bad as the national lockdown?

I have raised many times the issue of test results from the UK Government labs not being sent to general practitioners or local public health teams. Is it true that that was not even specified in the contract? Even after Leicester, and despite covid being a notifiable disease since 6 March, local authorities and health protection teams in England are still being sent only anonymised area data, which is of little use to identify clusters, and only on a weekly basis, which is far too slow. Does the Secretary of State not accept that public health teams need daily data, with work and home postcode details, so they can spot an outbreak, and that they need individual test results, so they can isolate all those involved to break the chains of infection and prevent the further spread of the virus?

The Secretary of State rarely mentions isolation, but surely he knows that that is what actually breaks the chains of infection. It should be isolation of affected individuals, however, not our whole society or a whole city. The test and protect system in Scotland has been up and running since the end of May and was able to disrupt a cluster of just 12 cases in the south of Scotland. That is the level of detail required to drive an elimination strategy.

The Secretary of State says that local lockdowns will be the cornerstone of his ongoing strategy, but how does he plan to deal with the social and economic impacts? Will he not join the devolved and Irish Governments in following an elimination strategy to avoid repeated local lockdowns? When does he envisage having a fully functioning test, trace and isolate system in place across England?

I am terribly sorry that I am not going to be able to answer all the points that were made. All I can say to the hon. Lady is that I will send her an update on the data that, in England, local directors of public health get, because there has been huge progress since many of the situations that she described.

I bow to no one in my desire to use data to make policy and to get the best data out. We have been getting better and better and better data out to local areas. We have been publishing more and more and more data. Many of the hon. Lady’s comments were out of date.

Out there in the country, confidence that we have a clear path out of the global coronavirus pandemic is key, as is confidence that the Government will take the right, necessary but sometimes difficult, decisions for us all. We have seen some of that today with the two decisions that the Secretary of State has taken.

On behalf of my constituents, I thank the people of Leicester for the perseverance that they are showing. Will the Secretary of State assure me and my constituents in North West Durham, and in fact the whole country, that he will not hesitate to take similar decisions about local lockdowns if necessary in future?

Yes, of course. We do not ever want to have to bring in local lockdowns, but they are an important tool in our armoury to tackle outbreaks where we find them. I much prefer local action to involve individual specific premises or surgeries in a more targeted way.

I also pay tribute to Blackburn with Darwen Borough Council, which has done a good job of bringing in local measures when it saw its numbers going up, before the numbers were anywhere near to where Leicester got to. That local council has done a terrific job. It is vital that we have that local action and that we do not resile from taking it. That said, we also recognise the impact that it has, of course, on the people and businesses involved.

Today, Sir Patrick Vallance told the Science and Technology Committee:

“It is clear that the outcome has not been good in the UK; I think we can be absolutely clear about that.”

Although I am delighted by the Prime Minister’s commitment to my right hon. Friend the Member for Kingston and Surbiton (Sir Edward Davey) yesterday that we would have an independent inquiry, we need to learn lessons urgently now, ahead of a second wave, not least following the warnings in the Academy of Medical Sciences report earlier this week, which suggested that we need to rapidly improve test and trace capacity and our PPE resilience. Will the Secretary of State tell the House what he is doing to make sure that we learn from our mistakes?

We are learning all the way through about how best to respond to this virus. In fact, changing measures—making changes such as those we have made in Leicester today—is a good example of learning from the progress of the virus and learning about how best to tackle it. That is just one of myriad ways in which we are learning and improving all the time.

I want to ask the Secretary of State about the revelations that the Americans and the Canadians have come out with about Russia trying to break into the vaccine testing regimes in their countries and possibly in the UK as well. How secure are the vaccine processes in the UK from cyber-attack from elsewhere, and is there anything further we need to do to make sure that other countries are not looking on this as some kind of stupid competition? We are all in this together, are we not?

Absolutely. Our approach is that the vaccines developed in the UK—supported by UK Government and, ultimately, UK taxpayers’ money—are of course there, should they come off, to provide protection to the UK population, but also to the population around the world. We are using our official development assistance money to help ensure that there is broad global access, should they work. On the question about cyber-security and potential hacking, the hon. Member will understand why I cannot go into the full details, but I can reassure him that the National Cyber Security Centre is taking this very seriously.

May I return to the question of public confidence? I thank my right hon. Friend for the tireless way that he submits himself to scrutiny by parliamentarians and the press, but will he accept that the public do want to understand more clearly what mistakes were made and what lessons have been learned? Can I perhaps invite him at least to table a written ministerial statement, before the rising of the House next week, setting out the key lessons learned and how they are being implemented as we go into the autumn, which could be another very testing time for our country?

I am very happy to do that—I would not deny the Chair of the Liaison Committee his wishes on that—and I am very much looking forward to appearing before the Science and Technology Committee next week to answer any questions it might have.

What does the Secretary of State say to the man in Barnsley who, when asked whether he was contacted by test and trace whether he would isolate, said no; when asked whether he got covid symptoms he would isolate, said he would have to think about it, but probably not; and when asked why, said it was because if he did not go to work, his kids could not eat? This is the stark reality for many people in this country. What are the Government doing to make sure that people have the financial support so they can follow the Government guidance?

The hon. Lady asks an important question, and it is a question that we address by ensuring there is local support available, in particular when there is a local lockdown. Of course, there is the statutory support that is available, and good employers will ensure that people are supported. Our overall principle is that people should not be penalised for doing the right thing, and I would say to the man, “Please, get the test, and if you are asked to isolate, isolate, and make sure that you seek the support that’s available.”

Many of my constituents are a little confused about where they will have to wear masks in public places from next week. Could the Secretary of State just confirm once and for all: if they go to fetch a takeaway, will they have to wear a mask?

If people go to a shop, it will be mandatory from 24 July to wear a mask. If they go to a hospitality venue, it will not.

As chair of the all-party parliamentary group for disability, I am concerned by results from the charity Scope, which has undertaken research showing that one in five adults with a disability has said they will not leave their house until a vaccine for covid is developed, while just 5% said they would feel safe when shielding is paused. What steps will the Secretary of State take to ensure that people with disabilities are protected, but also given confidence to resume their lives after lockdown so they do not slip further into social isolation and loneliness?

The hon. Lady raises an incredibly important point, and she has rightly raised this point before. It is so important, especially as we lift the shielding measures at the end of this month, that people who have been shielding have the confidence to know that we are able to lift those measures because the rate of transmission of this virus is so much lower now. It is safe—indeed, it is recommended—that they go out and about. Many charities, including many that we have funded through this crisis, are available to help and support people in these circumstances. She is right to keep raising this issue, and we must keep working on it.

Can my right hon. Friend assure me that lessons will be learned from the experience of the councils in Leicester and Leicestershire—to which he has rightly paid tribute—to ensure that all local authorities, including Buckinghamshire Council, receive all the detailed information that they need from his Department in the form and timeframe in which they need it, so that they can take action to protect their local populations?

Yes. My hon. Friend has raised this point with me, privately as well, about access to the data. It is incredibly important. We are constantly improving the data that is available because we are constantly getting better data. That is an important part of the work strand.

We cannot praise enough carers, key workers and NHS staff during this pandemic, including, of course, in Leicester. My constituent Anthony Francis launched a petition for a national day of recognition for our NHS and key workers. He proposes 26 March, which was the first day of the clap for our carers. The petition has reached over 100,000 signatures from across the country. Will the Secretary of State commit himself to this?

I will certainly look at that; it seems like a very interesting idea. I think that clap for our carers was an absolutely brilliant initiative. I love the fact that it was essentially a social initiative. It did not come from Government. We embraced it enthusiastically and all went out clapping, as did everybody, and a way to mark that permanently is something that I am absolutely open to.

On Monday morning, I will attend the opening of the brand new Guildford ward at the Royal Surrey: a 20-room isolation ward, fully equipped with CPAP—continuous positive airway pressure—and built in just four months. Will my right hon. Friend join me in congratulating the local council on the pragmatism shown, and the hospital on its forward planning? Does he agree that in the event of a localised spike in cases requiring hospitalisation, the Royal Surrey will be well placed to deal with it effectively?

Yes. My hon. Friend is a great champion of the Royal Surrey at Guildford. The hospital has done a brilliant thing by, in short order, expanding its capabilities in this crisis, as have many other hospitals around the country. One of the positive things that have come out of it has been the dynamism and flexibility of parts of the NHS and their collaboration with local authorities. Both of those have risen to heights never previously seen, and I hope that we can bottle that best practice and make sure that we keep a dynamic, flexible NHS that works collaboratively with local authorities long into the future.

I accept that today we have to focus on Leicester, but perhaps I can revert to the general. Will the Secretary of State, during the recess, prepare a national plan for recovery to announce when we reconvene in September, and does he accept that we may have to face up to the fact that while we have to contain the virus, we may have to co-exist with it? We are facing over the summer a tsunami of job losses and business closures, and we will have to get Britain back to work.

The right hon. Gentleman is absolutely spot on in highlighting the two vast challenges that this country, and every country, face: an unprecedented health challenge and an unprecedented economic challenge as a consequence. Both of those are extraordinary. Rising to and making sure that we deal with each of them as best we can is at the heart of every single Government across the world.

I congratulate the Secretary of State on coming to the House first to update us on the situation in Leicester. This week, a report from the Centre for Social Justice stated that we have 100,000 modern-day slaves in this country. It appears that many of those are in Leicester and that, unfortunately, created this high infection rate. What are the Government going to do to look into this matter and, if this is happening, to clamp down very hard on the people who are causing it?

The allegations my hon. Friend makes are ones that have been widely made and are widely understood to be a potential part of the problem. I speak carefully in terms of the language, because I know there are ongoing operations to deal both with the public health problem and with other illegality. This is a sore that has long gone untreated and undealt with in Leicester. It is absolutely vital that we add national resources to ensure we get to the bottom of the problem in Leicester once and for all, both the public health response and dealing with some of the potentially illegal employment practices that many people have raised.

I thank the Secretary of State for his statement on the health update for Leicester. On masks, I fully understand the need to wear a mask when travelling on a bus, a train or a plane, as I do twice a week. Everyone else I have seen who travels also adheres to that. However, there is uncertainty around wearing a mask and we need to bring the general public with us. Does he not agree that the Government message on masks must be clarified, as many people are questioning the appropriate time and the appropriate place to wear a mask?

It will, by 24 July, be mandatory to wear a mask in a shop, on public transport and in any NHS setting. It is then recommended in a broader range of settings. That is based on medical advice and on the judgment that we want to bring confidence to people that they can and should go shopping, precisely because of the economic benefits, which were raised a moment ago, that that would bring.

Medical nutrition has been vital for the treatment of covid patients in hospital, but it is also vital for those who require to be fed by tube at home. During this period, GPs have not, owing to working remotely, been able to use the electronic prescription service in the most appropriate way, which that has meant that many of the providers of medical nutrition have run up huge prescription debts. That is a risk for the future, so will the Secretary of State look at what can be done to ensure that the supply of these vital medicines can continue?

Yes. I am very grateful to my hon. Friend for raising that question, both because it is important and because in many places the electronic prescription was absolutely vital to getting through the covid period. I want to know of the examples he raises where it has not been able to be used during the crisis, because, in many parts of the country, using this sort of digital technology has been part of the way we have got through it.

Leicester’s director of public health has said that getting the information needed about the outbreak in Leicester—data and so on—has been particularly challenging. That is of particular interest to my constituents, given that the demographic of Ilford South is remarkably similar, with large ethnic minority populations and many south Asian constituents. As we know from the recent Public Health England review, they have seen a disproportionate number of deaths from covid-19. I would therefore like to know directly from the Secretary of State what he is doing to get not only Leicester the information and data it needs, but every borough, including Redbridge.

This is incredibly important. As I said before, I bow to nobody in my enthusiasm for using data to inform better decision making, so we have been constantly improving the data available at both national and local level. There are now very sophisticated systems in place to ensure that the directors of public health can get that information. We are constantly improving the information available to those who have statutory duties and have signed data protection agreements, so they can have access to much more information, and publicly without giving away confidential information about individual people.

The Secretary of State is working on a package of support for care homes with an unusually high rate of vacancies due to a lack of applications at the moment. May I impress on him that for some the situation is becoming desperate? In Trafford, the number of vacancies is now 160. A week ago it was 147. That is an increase of nearly 9% in a week. May I ask him to give those homes some hope by communicating when they can hope to hear about the support package?

My hon. Friend has pushed on this point repeatedly, and all I can tell him is that that is vital and ongoing work inside Government.

The fourth annual report of the Learning Disabilities Mortality Review Programme was published today, and it showed that people with learning disabilities continue to die prematurely and from treatable causes. Since March, nearly 40% of the deaths notified to the LeDeR process were linked to covid-19, compared with a quarter of all deaths in the UK. That group of people have been let down by our health and care services. They die 22 years before their peers, and they are now dying disproportionately from covid-19. Will the Secretary of State look urgently at the 10 recommendations in the LeDeR report, and consider what can be done to reverse that tragic loss of decades of life for people with learning disabilities?

Yes, of course. The hon. Lady rightly refers to an incredibly important report. We brought in a system of annual reports precisely to bring such issues to public attention. I am also glad to report that the number of people with learning disabilities and autism who are in secure settings has fallen significantly over the past few months—that is a connected area in which I know the hon. Lady takes a great interest.

May I offer my support to the Secretary of State, who has been working tirelessly during this crisis? Epilepsy Society is a major charity based in my constituency. It states that people with epilepsy are adversely affected by covid-19, particularly because the fever associated with coronavirus can trigger an increase in the number of seizures and cause breakthrough seizures. Despite that, as the Secretary of State will know, people with epilepsy are not classified as clinically vulnerable for coronavirus or the flu, and they do not qualify for the free flu vaccine or any future covid vaccine. Will the Secretary of State look into that and ensure that it is remedied as soon as possible, so that we can protect that valuable cohort of people?

My right hon. Friend is an incredibly strong voice for those who suffer with epilepsy, and I will ensure that the clinical decision makers who make recommendations on the order of priority for any vaccine, both flu and coronavirus, take a specific look at the latest evidence on epilepsy. I cannot give her the guaranteed assurance that she seeks, because those decisions are rightly taken on the basis of recommendation from clinicians. I would not want to break that important principle, but I can ensure that the latest information, including information on the impact of coronavirus on those with epilepsy, is taken into account in the decisions.

Before I call Neale Hanvey, let me appeal for quick questions, not statements. If the questions are quick, the Secretary of State, who is being most assiduous in answering thoroughly, will be able to give quicker answers.

A learning culture is the hallmark of any robust patient safety strategy, and being able to own, reflect on and learn from past errors is a defining characteristic of that. Across health and social care, that tone is set by the Secretary of State, so when concerns such as those of Professor John Edmunds about the loss of life relating to the timing of lockdown are raised, it behoves him not to be dismissive but to take them seriously. How can clinical staff and the wider public have confidence in the Secretary of State’s leadership, when they can readily fact—check that his assertions were wrong?

The last bit of the question was a bit broad.  Not all my assertions have been wrong, but I do learn and try to learn. Indeed, I have discussed openly some of the things that went badly and wrong judgments, as well as things that have gone well. I have mentioned, for instance, the fact that when we first brought in guidance on funerals, it had the impact of too many people staying away—spouses who might have been married for 50 years. We changed that, because it was an error. Absolutely, the learning culture is important. It is important that it is set from the top, and I am happy to be open about the errors that I have made—others can be open about their errors—and learn. I also think it is important to be robust where you think you have made a decision correctly.

Will my right hon. Friend commit to using the experience of what has happened in Leicester to inform future measures in other areas, with a ruling on which essential workers should be able to keep working, with all the appropriate safeguards, such as those in our high-class engineering companies in South Derbyshire and elsewhere?

Yes. That links to the previous question, and this is one of the things we learned from Leicester. We had the power to close non-essential retail across the city. We will now take the power to enable the local council to close non-essential retail where necessary and therefore take a much more targeted approach. That allows us to fight the virus but with a lower negative impact on business. We are constantly seeking to improve the tools at our disposal—in this case, legislative tools—to fight the virus.

This afternoon, the Government’s chief scientific adviser revealed that the SAGE committee urged the Government to impose a lockdown on 16 March, a week before they did. The Secretary of State has just suggested that he responded by advising people to practise social distancing on that date, but advising people to socially distance is not the same as imposing a lockdown. That week-long delay could have cost thousands of lives. Why did the Government fail to act when SAGE called on them to, and does the Secretary of State regret that delay?

The shadow Secretary of State said this, and the hon. Lady is now trying again. On 16 March, I said to this House—and it was welcomed by the shadow Secretary of State—

Thank you. What I said on 16 March was:

“Today, we are advising people against all unnecessary social contact with others and all unnecessary travel.”—[Official Report, 16 March 2020; Vol. 673, c. 697.]

That is when the lockdown truly started.

I am grateful to my right hon. Friend for the actions he has taken, which have isolated the virus and protected nearby areas such as mine. For our neighbours in Oadby and Wigston, can he confirm that these decisions are being made on the basis of scientific data and that the city and county councils have a significant voice in the decision-making process?

Yes, absolutely. The decisions that we have taken in Leicester are based on the data and the best public health, scientific and clinical advice, in consultation with the local leadership, hence the decision to ask for the advice of local leaders in terms of the geography of coverage and ask for their insight. As I said in my statement, I accepted those recommendations. As we have seen across the country, local councils have such an important role: Blackburn and Darwen, for instance, took the initiative to take the action that was needed. I pay tribute to what the council did there, because I hope that it will stop its area getting into the position that Leicester got itself into.

It was shockingly clear at Prime Minister’s questions this week that the Prime Minister had not read the report commissioned by his Government on the worst-case scenario for a second spike of coronavirus, which suggests that there could be upwards of 120,000 hospital deaths. Given the seriousness of this report, can the Secretary of State confirm that, unlike the Prime Minister, he has read it? What steps is he taking to implement the recommendations of the report, to prevent a catastrophic second spike of the virus?

The report was incredibly important in making sure that we cast ahead and look at all the challenges facing us, but it took the assumption that there would be no action from the Government should the R go to 1.7, and it is our stated policy not to allow that to happen. So although the report showed a worst-case scenario based on a set of assumptions, we are constantly vigilant.

I appreciate the Secretary of State’s answer to several questions about the learning he has done, because 10 days ago I asked him about information for the people of Hinckley and Bosworth, in Leicestershire. They want to know where the boundary is and what the implication is of any changes. Would he be kind enough to point out exactly where the boundary is? For the people who are now out of lockdown, will he say what that means in terms of the measures they are taking, so that they have a clear message to take home tonight?

I am happy to give that answer, which is very clear. For those in the city of Leicester, and in Oadby and Wigston, the position is that of the measures that I have set out: releasing, from 24 July, non-essential retail closure and closure of schools and childcare facilities, but keeping all the other measures in place. Those not in those two specific areas return to the same measures that the rest of the country is living with, except of course that we will keep the higher vigilance, the higher level of testing and the communications in those areas. The decisions on this geography were taken on the advice of local council leaders. While I have been on my feet, I have seen that the Mayor of Leicester has made some comments on this. I did ask him whether he wanted to put forward a different geography within the city of Leicester and he declined to do so, but we work very hard and as closely we can with Leicester and especially with the public health officials there, who are doing a valiant job in difficult circumstances.

On lessons learned, given the circumstances in Leicester, does the Secretary of State agree that the Government made a terrible mistake in cutting the Health and Safety Executive’s budget by 48% and in instructing the HSE to reduce inspections in the textiles industry by a third?

I have not seen those figures, but what I do know is that local councils have incredibly important responsibilities in this space and we will now act to make sure that we tackle some of the challenges that we find, especially in Leicester.

I welcome the targeted new approach to business closures in the local lockdown area. However, the current lockdown has affected businesses both within that area and outside it, because people have decided not to open for fear of an unmanageable number of people coming to their establishments. Will the Secretary of State look to offer additional support for those businesses?

The support available nationally to businesses, which is incredibly generous, is of course available to those outside the areas in question. I do understand the impact on businesses, both in Leicester and more broadly. All I can say is that that national support is available to all.

Over the past few weeks, I have exposed a significant risk of covid-19 in some York care homes. Those findings have wider application. Measures in the Coronavirus Act 2020, poor decision making and poor governance have undoubtedly led to increases in infection and mortality, and there are serious questions over the recording and reporting of deaths. Will the Secretary of State or one of his Ministers meet me urgently before the recess to discuss these tragic findings, so that lessons can be learned and lives can be saved?

I am very happy to ensure that the social care Minister meets the hon. Lady as soon as possible.

The Secretary of State is assiduous and energetic in making himself available to answer questions at all times, and I am grateful that he has agreed to come before my Committee next week so that we have longer than we would have had today given this statement. In March, we did not have the testing capacity in place to cope with the volume of testing that was needed, and it took until May to get it. Sir Patrick Vallance said to the Science and Technology Committee this afternoon that we do not currently have the testing capacity needed for the coming winter. Will the Secretary of State guarantee that it will be available long before then, and that we do not repeat one of the principal mistakes of the current pandemic?

I was heavily and personally involved in making sure there was that rapid increase in testing capacity back then, and I am determined to ensure that the testing that we need for this winter is available. We have plans in place to deliver it. Of course, that needs to be built; it is not there now, but it will be built. Even if there are no breakthroughs on testing technology that would make testing much easier to access, we have plans to ensure that the testing capacity that is necessary for winter will be available by winter.

I thank the Secretary of State for his statement. We know that distinct areas of the country are seeing local rises in the number of cases, so can he explain what urgent steps the Government are taking to increase testing in those areas? With his indulgence, as someone who is on week 17 of long covid viral fatigue, may I also ask the Secretary of State what additional resources he is committing to NHS support services for those who are, bluntly, struggling to recover from the virus?

I am very sorry to hear that the hon. Gentleman is suffering from post-viral fatigue. It is a significant problem for a minority of people who have had coronavirus, and my heart goes out to him because I know how debilitating it can be. I am glad to say that we have brought in an NHS service. I will ensure that he has access to that service, as should anybody who is suffering from the symptoms of the fatigue that comes to some. I have also put just under £10 million into research to ensure that we get the best possible treatment. It is an area that is very close to my heart.

Tapadh leibh, Madam Deputy Speaker. In his statement on 7 July, the Secretary of State agreed with me that 80% of positive cases are asymptomatic and said, “We are using capability for testing of asymptomatic people.” Unless we patrol for the virus, today it is Leicester but tomorrow it will be somewhere else. One serious gap for many communities involves the people returning from work as merchant mariners and oil rig workers. Most workers are routinely tested going on to oil rigs, but not coming off them, and I know of some oil rig workers who have tested positive having taken tests for various reasons when they have come off a rig. Will the Secretary of State commit to testing returning mariners, and especially those coming off oil rigs, because it is a danger and a gap that we have left open—that unchecked people may be unwitting asymptomatic coronavirus carriers. Will he please do something to close this gap?

I would be very happy to look into that. We have a number of surveys to find out which are the highest risk groups by occupation so that we can put in place asymptomatic testing to address that risk. Of course, many oil rig workers come ashore in Scotland. The UK’s testing capability is significant on the west coast of Scotland, in Inverness, in Aberdeen and elsewhere. I would be very happy to work with my counterparts in the Scottish Government to test the hypothesis that the hon. Member proposes.

Will my right hon. Friend update the House as to the steps that Public Health England is taking to ensure that we are ready in the winter, if there is a second spike?

My hon. Friend is quite right to ask about that, but it is not just Public Health England—it is right across the board. It is about taking steps in the NHS and in test and trace to grow capacity in contact tracing. My right hon. Friend the Member for Tunbridge Wells (Greg Clark) just asked about testing capacity; we need to know that that is there right across the board. Public Health England has its responsibilities, but so do we all.

I am delighted that the Secretary of State is so keen on data. My local clinical commissioning group tells me that it is still not getting the right data to GPs—it is quite clunky—and I think it is right in saying that GPs can see comorbidities, so it is particularly important that they get data about people who have been tested. We currently have an outbreak in the north of my borough and although we have the postcode data, we do not yet have the full address data, which is isolated to households. If we can get that very precise location, it will prevent a local lockdown. Surely the track-and-tracers are getting that data; can they get it to local authorities so that we can handle this situation locally?

I will personally ensure that all the data that we have on the hon. Lady’s borough is made available to her borough—subject to a data sharing agreement, which I think is in place with Hackney—so that it can best address the situation. It may be that we do not have the data that is being sought, in which case we will be straightforward and open about that, and we might want to have a discussion about whether we can get any further data that is necessary.

I commend the Secretary of State, the Department of Health and Social Care and the people of Leicester for their heroic efforts to suppress the virus in the city and prevent further widespread infections throughout the country. However, will my right hon. Friend comment on the levels of support and co-operation that he believes these vital efforts have received from the Leicester Mayor Sir Peter Soulsby and from the Labour-controlled city council?

We have been working very closely with the city council, and the officers of the city council have been doing a heroic job. I think it is best if everybody pulls together and tries to come together to tackle the virus. Given that we have involved local leaders in all the critical decisions, it is best if people just try —try—to stay on the same page as much as is possible, no matter how hard some people seem to find that.

I do apologise, Madam Deputy Speaker.

As we look at the lessons that we learn from the first wave of this virus, at the threat of a second wave and at the fact that the British public have been so keen to thank those working on the frontline—we talked earlier about clapping for the NHS—would the Secretary of State consider using his influence with the Home Secretary to offer migrants working in health and social care in this country the right to remain indefinitely?

We absolutely value enormously all those who work in health and social care. Just this week I was able to say that the exemption from the immigration health surcharge has been extended right across those who work in health and social care. That demonstrates the value that we place on them.

My sympathies are with the people of Leicester. In north Wales, we continue to experience the low levels of infection that characterise a flat-topped curve, while containing local workforce outbreaks. I put on record my thanks to the care workers and staff at Betsi Cadwaladr University Health Board for tackling the different challenges presented by an outbreak of this kind. History teaches us that great tragedies present opportunities for innovation—for example, the great fire of 1666 gave us the origins of our fire service and modern insurance. Can my right hon. Friend give us any hope that any advances will come from this tragic pandemic?

I am a man who is an unashamed optimist. It is sometimes difficult to be an optimist in the middle of a global pandemic, but I am glad of the chance to answer my hon. Friend’s wise question with some enthusiasm, because, amid the great tragedy of this pandemic, we have seen some big steps forward. The use of telemedicine and improved access to medicine for so many people through the use of technology is one example. Another is the advance and the march of British science, which has led the world not only in terms of the discovery of the first drug known to reduce the impact of coronavirus, but across the board in the scientific work that has gone on. I talked earlier about the flexibility and the system working in the NHS, which have to be the hallmark of the future of our NHS.

Those are just three examples off the top of my head, but there are myriad others. Amidst this dark cloud, when we see a shard of light we must take great hope from it.

Virtual participation in proceedings concluded (Order, 4 June).