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Topical Questions

Volume 679: debated on Tuesday 1 September 2020

As well as our work to fight coronavirus, we are continuing our historic levels of investment in the NHS. Good progress is being made in the projects for 40 new hospitals. The number of NHS nurses in England has increased by more than 13,000 compared with this time last year, and the number of doctors is up by over 9,000. This landmark investment is bearing fruit.

Thank you very much for that welcome, Mr Speaker. I am one of those who most certainly owes an awful lot to the care and dedication of NHS staff. May I ask the Secretary of State a very simple question? One waiting list that is going up is the amount of time that overseas doctors offered jobs in the UK have to wait for a visa. Will he have a quiet word with Home Office Ministers to ensure that we have a joined-up Government and that these doctors, who are part of the solution, can get their visas?

May I join you, Mr Speaker, in welcoming the hon. Member back to the screens—and hopefully, one day soon, back to the House in person? The question that he raises is an important one. I am working with the Home Office to introduce the NHS visa, which will mean not only that the numbers are uncapped, but that the administration around visas is much reduced. It is not just about Home Office administration; it is also about reducing the burden of bureaucracy from the General Medical Council and others. The GMC is working incredibly hard to reduce the bureaucratic requirement while still ensuring that any doctors who come to practise in this country are fully qualified and can speak English to a high enough standard, as the people of Rochdale and the whole country would expect.

The ongoing problems in maternity units in Shrewsbury, Telford and east Kent hospitals have shown that independent, blame-free investigations into baby deaths have never been more important. Will the Secretary of State confirm that it is still the Government’s intention to put the healthcare safety investigations branch on to a statutory footing, and that those plans will remain in the Queen’s Speech later this year?

Nobody has done more for the cause of patient safety in this country than my right hon. Friend. We are seeking to put the health service investigatory branch into law at the earliest legislative opportunity. He will know that, as a Minister, I could not possibly pre-empt what Her Majesty might say in a few months’ time in the other place, but I will say that, in the same way that we introduced the Health Service Safety Investigations Bill just before the election, it is our full intention to legislate for it at the earliest chance.

I listened carefully to the Secretary of State’s response to the hon. Member for Southend West (Sir David Amess). Can he guarantee that he has currently sourced enough flu vaccine to vaccinate all 50 to 64-year-olds by Christmas?

We have the biggest flu vaccination programme in history, and we set out very clearly when we announced the plans our proposals, which are that we will vaccinate those who are clinically most vulnerable—that starts with the over-65s and those with another health condition that causes them to be particularly vulnerable to flu—and then move to vaccinate the 50 to 64-year-olds. We set that out several weeks ago. It is exactly as clinically recommended, to make sure not only that we have the biggest flu vaccination in history but that we get it to the people who really need it first.

I think the Secretary of State was saying there that he cannot guarantee vaccinations for all 50 to 64-year-olds. We are heading into a difficult winter. He knows that; the whole House will know that. One area of the health service that is particularly under pressure is rehab services and community mental health services, because they often now treat people who have had covid and have long-term conditions associated with having covid, yet many local areas are currently putting local community and public health contracts out to competitive tender. That could mean staff being made redundant. It could open the door to Virgin Cares coming in. At the very least, it is distracting and wasteful. Will the Secretary of State halt all competitive tendering of community and public health contracts until the end of the pandemic?

What I will do is ensure that we put in the best possible resources to improve the public health of the nation. That is our goal; that is our policy. It of course follows on from the policy that was put in place by the Government of which the hon. Gentleman was a behind-the-scenes part. He knows very well that I admire the work that he did when he was trying to expand the provision of health services. No matter where those health services come from, what matters is the quality of the service that people get on the frontline, and that is what we on the Government Benches will be focused on.

Tomorrow, the people of Burnley will have the additional restrictions that have been in place for the last month removed. That is possible only because of the efforts and sacrifice of people across Burnley, so I want to start by putting on the record my wholehearted thanks to people in Burnley, Padiham and all our villages. These have been difficult measures, but they have been effective at driving down the virus. Can the Secretary of State reassure me, though, that as an area of enhanced support, we will still get access to Government support to ensure that we continue to make progress? (905287)

My hon. Friend has been a tireless advocate for Burnley. He is quite right to praise the people of Burnley, who have had local restrictions put in place. Because of the actions they have taken—because they have followed their duty and followed those tougher rules—and the sacrifices they have made, the case rate has come down in Burnley, and I pay tribute to my hon. Friend and to every single resident of Burnley who has played their part. Absolutely, the enhanced support will continue in Burnley, as it does across those parts of Greater Manchester, East Lancashire and West Yorkshire that we have been able to take out of the most restrictive measures, and we continue to watch with vigilance.

The Secretary of State will know that on Friday, the Royal College of Nursing launched a campaign for a 12.5% pay increase, which would do only a little more than restore real pay to the value it had in 2010 when the Conservatives were elected. There is huge public support for all who work in our health and care system, so, ahead of the Budget, will the Secretary of State commit to pressing the Chancellor for the funds necessary to pay all our health and care staff properly? (905285)

Of course we have put in over the last two and a half years some very significant pay rises for nurses, and the whole House commends the work that the nursing profession as a whole, and each individual nurse, has done during this pandemic. Of course we are putting unprecedented sums into the NHS, and we work to make sure that everybody has the best possible working conditions, both now and in the future.

LGBT so-called conversion therapy is an abhorrent and fraudulent practice, so please will my right hon. Friend confirm to me and all my Conservative colleagues across the House who care deeply about this issue that he will do all he can to end this abusive practice at the very earliest opportunity? (905289)

Yes, I will. I agree wholeheartedly with my hon. Friend that so-called conversion therapy is abhorrent. I praise her for the campaign she is running on this. I agree with the Prime Minister who, from this Dispatch Box, committed to ensuring that that practice is stamped out. We have a review under way. I will make sure that I work very closely with my hon. Friend, who has done so much to make the case.

Care homes in my constituency and right across the country are currently waiting several weeks to access coronavirus tests and those in supported living still cannot access regular testing. I wrote to the Care Minister last month about this issue, but I have yet to receive a reply. So will the Secretary of State please confirm today when regular and swift testing will be available in care homes and supported living, or will he finally admit that the so-called protective ring for social care simply does not exist? (905288)

Yes, we have been rolling out the asymptomatic testing for residents and staff in care homes. As the hon. Member will know from the statement I gave to the House in July, we had a problem with the supply of tests from one particular company, which caused some difficulties. We have spent the summer catching up on that programme.

Will my right hon. Friend join me in welcoming the appointment of Jo Whitehead as the new chief executive of the Betsi Cadwaladr University Health Board in north Wales, and wish her every success with resolving specific issues, such as the cramped doctors’ surgery premises in my constituency of Clwyd South and Hanmer, and more generally in reducing the stubbornly high waiting lists in north Wales? (905291)

Yes. The direct provision of healthcare is of course devolved, but as the UK Health Secretary I take an interest in ensuring we have high quality healthcare right across the country. I am very happy to work with my colleagues in the Welsh Government on improving the delivery of services in the Betsi Cadwaladr health service. I wish the new chief executive all the very best. I am sure she will take the service, improve it and work with her colleagues in this House to make sure that the people of north Wales get the very best health services that they deserve.

Having used the coronavirus testing kit produced by Randox, which was awarded a £133 million contract by the Government, care homes in Blackburn were told that the kits were unsafe and re-tests should be carried out. As the Secretary of State knows, people in Blackburn have worked extremely hard to get the virus rates down. However, when care homes asked for replacement kits, they were informed that they had already received their quota and that no kits would be available until September. On the one hand the Government are saying, “Don’t use the kits” and on the other hand they are saying, “We have no kits to replace them with.” When will the Government reassure care homes in Blackburn that they will receive test kits regularly and, more importantly at this stage, the rapid results of those tests? (905290)

In response to the last point, the turnaround time for test results is now the next day for almost every one. However, there has been a challenge, referred to just now and in a previous question, with the Randox kits. The test results from the Randox kits that were withdrawn were accurate. The challenge was that the Randox kits did not pass our very high and stringent standards; essentially they were not as clean as we would have wanted. I am informed by the clinicians that there is no evidence of any health threat from that, but of course we have to make sure that we protect people as much as possible. Hence, we had to withdraw the kits. As I said, we have a catch-up programme that is under way.

During the pandemic, I have been volunteering at my local hospital and have seen first-hand the outstanding dedication, enthusiasm and care given by all who work at North Tees Hospital. This fantastic, award-winning workforce deserve to work in a modern, fit-for-purpose building. Will my right hon. Friend join me in visiting this ageing building to see how we can make it fit for the future? (905292)

Yes, I would love to come up to Stockton and have a look round. I have enjoyed my many visits, especially the one in December, which went particularly well, just before the House reconvened after the general election.

Yesterday, a dear friend of mine died of stage 4 pancreatic cancer. It has the lowest survival rate of all common cancers, yet it receives less than 2% of funding for cancer research. Half of all the diagnoses come about only after emergency admissions to hospital, because patients commonly visit their GPs three or four times with symptoms before being referred to a consultant. What will the Secretary of State do to improve early diagnosis of this disease, because it is killing 10,300 people a year, which is 28 people a day? (905296)

My heart goes out to the hon. Member and to the family and friends of his friend, about whom he spoke so movingly just now. He is absolutely right to raise this. The early diagnosis of cancer is a critical part of improving cancer survival rates in this country. We have talked an awful lot in this House over the last six months about the testing and diagnosis of covid, but frankly this country needs to increase its testing and diagnosis of all diseases, including cancer. For a generation, we have not had enough testing. He is quite right to raise this issue, because it is not just about people coming forward; it is also about the problems being spotted earlier. We are investing £2 million in more rapid diagnostic centres, and we are trying to get diagnostics not just in the major hospitals but out into the community so that they are closer to primary care. There is also a major piece of work under way to recover the backlog that was necessarily built up during covid—that is under way and the backlog is down by about half—and also to go further and never give up on trying to have earlier diagnosis of cancer.

In order to allow the safe exit of hon. Members who have participated in this item of business and the safe arrival of those participating in the next, I am now suspending the House for three minutes.

Sitting suspended.