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Covid-19 Update

Volume 679: debated on Thursday 10 September 2020

Before I call the Secretary of State, I would like to say that he and I had a conversation in a meeting last night, and I think we have some new arrangements coming forward to help the House.

Thank you very much, Mr Speaker. Just to concur with what you have said, I do regard it as incredibly important to come to the House as often as possible. Sometimes these are fast-moving situations, and I will ensure that I give the House my full attention and, as I try to do, answer as many questions as fully as I can.

With permission, I would like to make a further statement on coronavirus. We have done much as a nation to get this virus under control, so we have been able to restore so much. To give just one example, figures today show that radiotherapy services in England have now returned to pre-pandemic levels. This is good news and will save lives. But as I said to the House on Tuesday, we are seeing some concerning trends, including an increase in the number of positive cases, especially, but not only, among younger people. As the chief medical officer said yesterday, we must learn from the recent experience of countries such as Belgium that have successfully put in place measures to combat a similar rise in infections. So today, I would like to update the House on a number of new measures that will help us to get this virus under control and to make the rules clearer, simpler and more enforceable.

First, we are putting in place new rules on social contact. We have listened to feedback from the public and the police, and we are simplifying and strengthening the rules, making them easier to understand and easier to enforce. In England, from Monday, we are introducing the rule of six. Nobody should meet socially in groups of more than six, and if they do, they will be breaking the law. This will apply in any setting—indoors or outdoors, at home or in the pub. It replaces both the existing ban on gatherings of more than 30 and the current guidance on allowing two households to meet indoors.

There will be some exemptions. For example, if a single household or support bubble is larger than six, they can still gather. Places of education and work are unaffected. Covid-secure weddings, wedding receptions and funerals can go ahead up to a limit of 30 people. Organised sport and exercise is exempt.

These are not measures that we take lightly. I understand that for many they will mean changing long-awaited plans or missing out on precious moments with loved ones, but this sacrifice is vital to control the virus for the long term and save lives, and I vow that we will not keep these rules in place for any longer than we have to.

Secondly, we are putting in place stronger enforcement. Hospitality venues will be legally required to request the contact details of every party. They will have to record and retain those details for 21 days and provide them to NHS Test and Trace without delay when required. This system is working well voluntarily, with minimal friction, and it is very effective, but it is not in place in all venues. It is only fair that it is followed by all. We are supporting local authorities to make greater use of their powers to close venues that are breaking rules and pose a risk to public health, and fines will be levied against hospitality venues that fail to ensure their premises are covid-secure.

Our goal, as much as possible, is to protect keeping schools and businesses open, while controlling the virus. The data show that, while the cases among 17 to 30-year-olds are rising, the number of cases among the under-16s remains very low. We all know how important it is to keep schools open. As the chief medical officers have said, the long-term risks to children’s life chances of not going to school are significant and far greater than the health risks of going back to school. The latest data confirm that.

University students will soon be returning. The Department for Education has published the updated guidance for universities on how they can operate in a covid-secure way. That includes a clear request not to send students home in the event of an outbreak, to avoid spreading the virus further across the country. If you are a student who is about to return to university or go to university for the first time, please, for the sake of your education and your parents’ and grandparents’ health, follow the rules and do not gather in groups of more than six.

Our ability to test and trace on a large scale is fundamental to controlling the virus, as we have discussed in the House many times. The latest data show that we are doing more testing per head than other European countries such as Germany and Spain, and we have record capacity. We have increased capacity by more than 10,000 tests a day over the last fortnight. While there have been challenges in access to tests, the vast majority of people get their tests rapidly and close to home. The average distance travelled to a test site is 6.4 miles, and 90% of people who book a test travel 22 miles or less. We already have more than 400 testing sites in operation. We added 19 last week and plan 17 more this week.

However, as capacity has increased, we have seen an even faster rise in demand, including a significant increase from people who do not have symptoms and are not eligible for a test. That takes tests away from people who need them. If you have symptoms of coronavirus or are asked by a clinician or local authority to get a test, please apply, but if you do not have symptoms and have not been asked, you are not eligible for a test.

At the same time, we are developing new types of test that are simple, quick and scalable. They use swabs or saliva and can be turned round in 90 minutes or even 20 minutes. So-called Operation Moonshot, to deploy mass testing, will allow people to lead more normal lives and reduce the need for social distancing. For instance, it could mean that theatres and sports venues could test audience members on the day and let in those with a negative result, workplaces could be opened up to all those who test negative that morning, and anyone isolating because they are a contact or quarantining after travelling abroad could be tested and released. We are piloting that approach right now and verifying the new technology, and then it can be rolled out nationwide. [Laughter.]

I am going to depart from my script here. I have heard the nay-sayers before, and I have heard Opposition Members complain that we will never get testing going. They are the same old voices. They opposed the 100,000 tests, and did we deliver that? Yes, we did. They say, “What about testing in care homes?” Well, we delivered the tests to care homes earlier this week. They are against everything that is needed to sort this problem for this country, and they would do far better to support their constituents and get with the programme. I am looking forward to rolling out this programme and this work, which has been under way for some time already, and I am determined that we will get there. If everything comes together, and if the technology comes off, it will be possible, even for challenging sectors, such as theatres, to get closer to normal before Christmas.

Finally, the most important thing that each and every one of us can do is remember the small things that can make a big difference: hands, face, space, and if you have symptoms, get a test! Hands: wash your hands regularly and for 20 seconds. Face: wear a face covering over your mouth and nose if you are in an enclosed space and in close contact with people you do not normally meet. Space: always stay 2 metres away from people you do not live with, or 1 metre with extra precautions, such as extra ventilation, screens or face coverings. And of course, if you have covid symptoms, get a test and self-isolate.

Coronavirus is a powerful adversary, and when called upon, the British people have done so much to blunt the force of this invisible killer. Now, at this important juncture, we are being called upon once more to deliver our collective commitment to follow the rules and get this virus under control. I commend this statement to the House.

As always, I am grateful for my advance copy of the statement.

We welcome the restrictions that the Government have imposed—indeed, we would have welcomed them on Tuesday afternoon, had the Secretary of State confirmed what was being said on Twitter that morning. Case numbers have been rising sharply in recent days across all ages and sadly the number of hospital admissions is beginning to increase as well. We all want to avoid a second national lockdown. Lockdowns extract a heavy social and economic price on those already suffering, and we should also remember, especially today, which is World Suicide Prevention Day, the mental health impact of lockdowns.

Before I comment on the substance of the Secretary of State’s remarks, I want to ask about schools. We have had many examples across the country of classes and whole year groups—hundreds, possibly thousands, of pupils—starting the new term as they finished the last term: at home and not in education. Is it really the Government’s policy that if there are one or two positive cases in a year group, the whole year group is sent home for two weeks? If so, are parents and carers eligible for sick pay and financial support, given that they will have to take time off work to look after their children?

We were promised a world-beating test, trace and isolate regime by now. The Secretary of State says we have one. On Tuesday, I highlighted the deteriorating performance in finding contacts. He said that I had muddled my figures. Full Fact said I was right and he was wrong. I will leave it to him to judge whether he wants to correct the record. I would rather he just correct Test and Trace. In one study, researchers found that 75% of infected people did not adhere to the self-isolation rules. I know he is piloting extra support, but we need a system now, urgently, so that those who are low paid and in insecure work can isolate without fear of losing their jobs. We need a system immediately. We have been calling for it for months.

On testing, the Secretary of State told us a few moments ago to get with the programme. We just want him to deliver testing for our constituents. We have had example after example of people being told to go hundreds of miles. In Telford, the borough has been gridlocked because the system has been telling everybody to go to Telford. Yesterday, the Secretary of State was touring TV studios trying to dampen demand, even though he had previously said in the House in July to people with symptoms:

“If in doubt, get a test.”—[Official Report, 20 July 2020; Vol. 678, c. 1864.]

He was telling people to get tests.

Given that the Secretary of State had encouraged people to get tests, and with 8 million pupils returning to school, with thousands going back to workplaces, as his Prime Minister has insisted on, surely it was obvious there would be extra demand on the system, so why did he not plan extra resource capacity to process tests? It is not the fault of ill people asking for tests; it is his fault for not providing them. We have had no apology today to our constituents who have been told to travel hundreds of miles for a test.

Having failed to provide the tests that people need and, by the way, having failed to provide wider diagnostic tests—the waiting list for diagnostic tests hit 1.2 million today, the highest on record—the Secretary of State now wants to deliver 10 million tests a day as part of his so-called Project Moonshot. I have long been pushing him for a strategic mass testing regime, and from the start the World Health Organisation has told us to “test, test, test”, but we are all fed up with undelivered promises and “world beating”. Mass testing is too important to become another failed project. It is all well and good the Secretary of State talking about moonshots, or the Prime Minister telling us that we will be tested every morning, but even better would be simply to deliver the extra testing that is needed now, not just the headline figures.

I have some specific questions. First, the Prime Minister told the nation that he wants this in place by the spring. The chief scientific adviser pointed out that it would be

“completely wrong to assume this is a slam dunk that can definitely happen”.

How quickly will this be delivered, and how quickly will the pilots in Salford and Southampton be assessed?

Secondly, what is the cost? According to The BMJ—the British Medical Journal—leaked documents suggest that the cost will be £100 billion. Is that correct? If not, will the Secretary of State tell us his estimate of the cost of processing 10 million tests a day, and will he tell us how much has been allocated to Project Moonshot?

Thirdly, who will deliver that? There are universities piloting projects, such as the University of Leicester rolling out LAMP—loop-mediated isothermal amplification —testing, so what discussions has the Secretary of State had with them? However, it has been reported that he has already signed agreements and understandings for the delivery of this project with GSK, Serco and G4S. What procurement processes have been undertaken, and will he tell us whether that is correct?

Fourthly, what are the priorities? The Secretary of State is still not testing the loved ones of care home residents who are desperate to see relatives, and when will the Government actually deliver the routine testing of all frontline NHS staff, which we have been demanding for months? Effective testing depends on quick turnaround, local access and effective contact tracing. Given that he has not even been able to deliver those basics, how on earth do we expect him to deliver this moonshot?

The hon. Gentleman was rather better when he was supporting the Government action in the first part of his response. He cannot seem to decide whether he is in favour of more testing, or against it. All we get is complaint after complaint, rather than support for his constituents and the people of this country in our quest to get through this virus.

First, on who is eligible for a test, precisely as I said and as he literally read out, if you have symptoms, get a test. If you do not have symptoms, you are not eligible for a test, unless specifically asked for one. [Hon. Members: “If in doubt!”] Yes, if you have symptoms and are in doubt about whether those symptoms are coronavirus, get a test. If you do not have symptoms, do not get a test. That has not changed. It is exactly the same. What has changed is that the hon. Member for Leicester South (Jonathan Ashworth) does not know whether he is coming or going.

The hon. Gentleman does not seem to understand that the way in which we build a huge project like our testing, which is at record levels, is to back all the horses. Once again, he complained about businesses supporting us in our roll-out of mass testing. That divisive approach is wrong. We support universities, businesses and the NHS to deliver more testing; we do not support the totally confused approach of the Opposition. He does not know whether he is in favour of or against more testing.

The hon. Gentleman asked about the money, and £500 million has thus far been allocated to this project, but more is likely. He asked about staff testing in the NHS. As he well knows, we follow clinical advice, but always keep it under review. Finally, he asked about schools. The policy on schools is that, if somebody tests positive, that bubble needs to self-isolate. A bubble is defined as those who are in close contact within a school setting.

I will end on a point on which we agree strongly. On this, World Suicide Prevention Day, all of us are united in support of the mental health services provided across this country, and of all those who are working hard for those with mental ill health or at risk of suicide. That is a project on which all of us are on the same side and working together to support people.

As someone who has long campaigned for mass testing, I warmly welcome the ambition behind Operation Moonshot—and the implied characterisation of the Health Secretary as this country’s answer to Neil Armstrong. However, 10 million is a huge target. Could he give the House some idea of the proportion of that 10 million that is dependent on new technologies and the proportion that we can get to with existing technologies? Mass testing is so important to getting the country back to running as normal, and while we all want those new technologies, it would be helpful to have an understanding of how much expansion we can expect on the technologies we already have.

That is an extremely clear and strong position from the Chair of the Select Committee. Of course we are expanding the current technologies. We have a plan, when we are on track for it, to get to 500,000 tests a day by the end of next month, on the current technologies. On the next generation of technologies, I am not going to put a figure on it because it depends on the technologies coming off. The very nature of backing new technologies is that we do not know which ones are going to be verified. That is why we have so many that are being piloted and so many with whom we are working. We have tests right now in Porton Down being verified. We want this to go as fast as we can, and we want it to go as large as we reasonably can, but we do not put a specific figure on it—we put all our weight and support behind this project, which will have the positive benefits that my right hon. Friend so eloquently sets out.

Yesterday we heard the Prime Minister describe his Operation Moonshot as the

“only hope for avoiding a second national lockdown”.

Already some experts have described this mass testing strategy as being fundamentally flawed. So does the Secretary of State think that the Prime Minister is gambling on something that the experts feel cannot be delivered?

On Tuesday, the Secretary of State failed to answer my hon. Friend the Member for Central Ayrshire (Dr Whitford) when she asked if it would be better to allow tests to be carried out locally and just move the samples around the UK instead of potentially infectious people. As he did not give an answer then, will he consider this now?

Finally, will the Secretary of State join me in welcoming the launch of Scotland’s Protect Scotland mobile tracing app yesterday? What update can he give the House on his own Government’s plans to release a similar app?

We have been working with the Scottish Government, as well as with the Welsh Government and the Northern Ireland Government, and actually Governments internationally, on an update on the app technology.

On the hon. Gentleman’s second point, that is simply a mischaracterisation of the policy. Of course we move samples around the country all the time. What we want to do, of course, is to continue to reduce the distance people have to travel. As I say, the average distance that people have to travel to get a test is 6.4 miles.

On the hon. Gentleman’s first point, there were, in the spring, some people who complained about my determination to expand our testing capacity at a record pace. We are hearing some of those voices again complaining that we want to increase testing. Both the SNP and Labour are making a huge mistake in opposing mass testing. It is an incredibly important tool in our arsenal.

My right hon. Friend is a great supporter of the UK’s businesses and entrepreneurs. In his measures to tackle the virus, will he intercede with his public health colleagues to prioritise the businesses that generate economic growth so that when this is over we have an economy that is prosperous enough to cash the very generous cheques that we have written?

My hon. Friend is absolutely right and speaks with great knowledge, experience and eloquence on this matter. We have to protect livelihoods as much as possible, in the same way that we are trying to protect education as much as possible. That does mean sometimes that we have to take measures on social contact that people would prefer not to see, but unfortunately the measures that the Prime Minister outlined yesterday, and which I set out in my statement, are, in my judgment, absolutely necessary both to keeping the virus under control and to protecting education and the economy as much as possible.

A significant increase in covid cases has been confirmed in Liverpool over the past week, with widespread community transmission. I have been contacted by constituents with symptoms who are trying to book a test and either cannot, or are told to go to Oldham, Manchester, Powys, or Colwyn Bay, even though there is a testing facility at Liverpool airport just down the road, in the constituency. Will the Secretary of State explain why that is, and say why there is no availability of home test kits, given that there appears to be so much unused testing capacity?

As I said in my statement, there is record testing capacity, and most people get tested very close to home. We do have a challenge, however, because some people without symptoms who are not eligible for a test have been coming forward. Thus far, I have been reluctant to place a barrier and a strong eligibility check on the front of the testing system, because I want people with symptoms to get that test as fast and easily as possible. However, given the sharp rise in the past couple of weeks of people coming forward for tests when they are not eligible, we are having to look at that. The key message to the hon. Lady’s constituents is that the tests are vital for people who have symptoms, and therefore people who do not have symptoms and have not been told by a clinician or local authority to get a test, should not and must not go and use a test that somebody else who needs it should be using.

I understand the recent actions that my right hon. Friend has taken to limit gatherings to six people, and I encourage everyone in West Bromwich East and the wider west midlands to follow the new rules. Does he agree that West Bromwich should remain separate from any local lockdown in central Birmingham, given that they are two distinct areas with varying rates of infection?

Of course, West Brom is a distinct area and separate in its geography from central Birmingham. However, I caution my hon. Friend that we are seeing sharp rises in cases across many parts of the west midlands. We take these decisions on a localised basis; we do not take a whole local authority or area of regional geography in one go, but we do follow the data. I will make sure to keep in touch with my hon. Friend. She is a strong advocate for her local area, but sometimes action is necessary.

I thank the Secretary of State for the new test centre in Wythenshawe town centre that opened this week, but may I challenge him on the consistency of governance around his Department? In Greater Manchester, Manchester Evening News is reporting that Bolton has been subject to four sets of rule changes in the past fortnight. ITV is saying that 74 local authorities have a higher infection rate now than Greater Manchester had before it went into lockdown. Last week, my constituency of Wythenshawe and Sale East, which straddles Manchester and Trafford, would have been split asunder if the Department had not U-turned. Restrictions in Greater Manchester are not working because infection rates have mushroomed. What is next, Secretary of State?

I was in contact with the Mayor of Greater Manchester this morning on the question of what we do in Greater Manchester. The national measures that were announced yesterday will come into force in Greater Manchester, and it is important that people follow them. We took further action in Bolton. The case rate in Bolton was coming down well, but thankfully before we implemented the rule change to remove some of the restrictions, we were able to act and stop that relaxation from happening, and we then had to tighten the rules up. I am working closely with councils in Greater Manchester, and talking to the Mayor, and I will also take on board the hon. Gentleman’s views in ensuring that we get these measures right. The message to everyone in Greater Manchester is the same as it is across the country: follow the rules and follow the social distancing, because only by doing that can we get this under control.

The  Secretary of State must accept that there is a problem here. Constituents of mine in Kent displaying symptoms of covid were this week advised to go for tests in Bude in Cornwall and Galashiels in Scotland—and this is in a mild September, before the autumn and winter when people have coughs and colds that may look like symptoms of covid. It is no good blaming people who are asymptomatic. I would be interested if the Secretary of State could say what percentage of people turning up for testing do not have symptoms. This situation needs his personal grip. He referred to the need for him to increase testing capacity from 1,000 a day to 100,000 a day. This is an urgent matter that he needs to grip before the autumn and winter bites. Will he commit to ensuring that by the end of the month anyone who has symptoms of covid can get a test at a reasonable place that is convenient to their home?

It is of course my goal for that to happen immediately. The challenge is to increase capacity—a subject that my right hon. Friend and I have discussed at length, and of which I know he is a strong supporter—and to make sure that that capacity is used by the right people. That is why I am clear about the eligibility for testing. It is really important that people hear the message that if they have symptoms, of course they should get a test; we urge them to get a test because we need to find out if it is covid for their sake and for everybody else’s. But at the same time, it is important that people who are not eligible do not come forward for tests because they are taking a test away from somebody who has symptoms. Yes, I want to solve this with ever more capacity, but I also want to ensure that the tests are used by the right people.

Many of my constituents are incredibly anxious about schools reopening and want to send their children off to school in the knowledge that they are safe. I am sure that the Health Secretary agrees that keeping schools open safely requires a testing infrastructure that is fit for purpose, so can he explain to the House why each school has been provided with only 10 testing kits?

We have strong protocols on the return to school. I am really glad about the success of the policy to get all schools back; it is one of the Government’s unsung successes over recent weeks, and is working effectively. The guidelines set out very clearly when testing is appropriate. Testing is appropriate for people who have symptoms. Close contacts of people who have symptoms need to self-isolate and not get a test unless they have symptoms because getting a test would not allow them to leave self-isolation anyway because of the risk of false negatives. That is why the policy is as it is. We have given each school 10 or more tests so that they can easily use them in an emergency, and that has been warmly welcomed by most schools.

A successful return to school in west Berkshire has been matched with a reduction in the availability of testing. I have listened to my right hon. Friend this morning; if there is a reluctance to impose more stringent eligibility criteria, would he consider an order of priority based on, for example, working parents and teachers being able to access tests sooner?

Again, there has not been a reduction in capacity in Berkshire or anywhere else in the country. There has been an increase in capacity. My hon. Friend makes a good point, though, about prioritisation. The question is how to enforce prioritisation without putting in place barriers that slow down access to tests for people who need them. We are looking at that now.

Will the Secretary of State please explain the lack of availability of home testing kits, which has dropped dramatically in my area of West Lancashire? In the absence of home testing kits, very ill pensioners are being offered tests 80 or 100 miles away. The confusing message in the assurance that he is trying to give is that there are too many getting tested, but that, if in doubt, people should get tested. How does that deal with the asymptomatic carriers or spreaders? This is a huge hidden danger. In the light of the Secretary of State’s earlier comment, my constituents would genuinely love to get with the programme, get tested where necessary and stay safe—if only the Government’s words met their actual experience of the system.

The clarity that the hon. Lady calls for can be provided as follows. If you have symptoms, get a test. If you do not have symptoms, and you have not been asked to get a test, please do not use a test that somebody else needs because they do have symptoms—they might be elderly, for instance, and she rightly refers to her constituents—because the tests are there for them. The capacity is expanding every day, but we need to ensure that we get those tests to the people who need them.

To reiterate the point made by my constituency neighbour, my hon. Friend the Member for West Bromwich East (Nicola Richards), my communities in Wednesbury, Oldbury and Tipton are in themselves unique and very diverse, particularly from Birmingham. I was very reassured by my right hon. Friend’s reply to my question last week about a sub-local level approach to national restrictions. Can he confirm what that looks like in detail and, in particular, where the lines will be drawn, and can he assure me that the approach taken will not be an arbitrary line-drawing process but a real engagement with local stakeholders?

We consider the approach to local action on a ward by ward level. For instance, in parts of east Lancashire and west Yorkshire we have a ward-by-ward decision. That is driven by the data, so we do have to look at the data across the board. I take very seriously the views of the local directors of public health. There are several parts of the country, including my hon. Friend’s constituency, where I am concerned about the rise in the number of cases.

The lockdown in Bolton will devastate the hospitality industry and affect the physical and emotional health of my constituents, so will the Secretary of State ensure that they can be tested in Bolton as soon as they require it? Will he ask his friend the Chancellor to provide more financial assistance to the Bolton economy, because the maximum £1,500 for three weeks is not enough; it just about pays for one employee on the minimum wage?

Of course, those who have been on furlough can reapply for furlough, and yesterday the Chief Secretary to the Treasury set out further support that is available for businesses in areas where we have had to intervene. The measures that we have taken in Bolton are strict but absolutely necessary, as I set out on Tuesday. I am grateful for the hon. Lady’s support for those measures and the discussions that we were able to have before they were introduced.

I thank my right hon. Friend for his statement and very much welcome the exciting progress on developing saliva testing. Outstanding progress has already been made on expanding testing capacity, and he deserves our thanks for his tireless work. Inevitably, this is not without its challenges. On Tuesday evening, hundreds of cars from across the country—and I do mean hundreds—descended on Telford’s testing site, as they were directed to do by the booking system. Tests quickly ran out, roads became blocked, people who had travelled from as far away as Cornwall, Stockport and London were turned away, and my constituents were no longer able to access tests in the area and so in turn were sent elsewhere. What assurances can he give that the error in the booking system that directed so many people to Telford has now been corrected, and does he agree that people should not be criss-crossing the country and travelling for many hours to secure a test?

Yes, I absolutely agree, and I also agree with my hon. Friend’s description of the situation, which is that we have built this system at great pace. I did not know about the example in Telford, although I had heard that many people had been directed there in this instance. In fact, only on Tuesday evening, after being in the House, I had a meeting about the problem of people being directed to travel too far. We are absolutely looking at the broader problem, and I will take away that particular example and find out exactly what glitch caused it.

I note from the statement that organised sport is exempt from the new regulations. We all want life to return to normal, including sport, which is an important sector of our economy, but, as things stand, next month 20,000 spectators are scheduled to travel to Twickenham. Can the Secretary of State help me to understand the logic whereby the scientific advice suggests that a family of six cannot meet a relative in their garden, yet the Prime Minister is saying that the guidance on sporting events, which means thousands of spectators will be travelling around the country to stadiums, drinking and socialising, is still only under review?

The hon. Lady has answered her own question, because the Prime Minister did announce that that programme is under review, and the results of that will be announced shortly.

We accepted massive restrictions on our liberty in March because we wanted to protect the NHS from being overwhelmed, and we achieved that—indeed, not all the capacity was used. We are now imposing more restrictions on people’s liberty. Does the Secretary of State’s strategic goal for England continue to be to protect the NHS from being overwhelmed, or has he now gone further and is aiming for zero covid in England?

We did protect the NHS all the way through the peak, and this country can rightly be proud of the building of the Nightingale hospitals. We saw a hospital in China being built in two weeks and lots of people told me that we would never do that here, but we did it here in nine days. I am very proud of the team who delivered on that. The strategic goal is to keep the virus down. The problem is that if the R goes above 1 and the numbers start going up, they inexorably continue to rise. So it is not okay just to let it rise a bit; the problem is that once it is going up, it keeps going up unless we take action. That is one lesson we learned in the spring and we have re-learned it; we can see it if we simply compare what has happened in Spain, France and Belgium. In the first two, the curves have kept going up, whereas Belgium took significant action, similar to what we announced yesterday, and its curve has come down again. So that is why there is not a trade-off between taking action, even if it is tough action, and protecting the economy and, for instance, the ability to open schools. I hope that that answers my hon. Friend’s question. We have seen a number of countries around the world announce that they are going for an eradication strategy—indeed, the Scottish Government announced that—but this virus has shown that it is very, very hard to eradicate. We want to keep it under control while we pursue both the mass testing and then the vaccine, to deal with it once and for all.

Tomorrow, I will be at Rowlands Pharmacy in Sundon Park, where I hope I will be able to get my flu jab, if supplies allow. This year, it is more important than ever to get a flu jab, to protect capacity in our NHS. Will the Secretary of State provide an update on the number of vaccines that have been secured for people this winter? Will he guarantee that there will enough vaccines for all at-risk groups?

The answer to the second question is yes. We are rolling out the biggest ever flu vaccine programme. We continued to buy flu vaccine throughout the spring and summer, as it was obvious that we needed a much bigger programme than is normal. In the first instance, the vaccine will be available to the at-risk groups, including the over-65s and those with health conditions on the flu list. We will then expand the provision to the over-50s, depending on the take-up in the highest-risk groups. We set that out a couple of months ago. The flu jab is coming onstream soon. I was at a pharmacy this morning, where the flu jab is being rolled out from Monday. This will be accompanied by a huge advertising campaign to encourage people to get the flu vaccine.

From Monday, the Government are imposing the most profound restrictions on people’s personal liberty and family life. Why has there not been a debate and a vote in the House of Commons this week?

I will take away the point my hon. Friend makes and discuss it further with the business managers. I have come to the House today to be able to answer questions on this matter. I take the point that that is not the same as the statutory instrument itself, and it is something on which I have had discussions with the business managers. Inevitably with a pandemic, we do have to move fast from the health perspective. I will make sure that I get back as soon as I can to my hon. Friend once those discussions have concluded.

South Shields is on the watchlist. We have a testing station in my constituency, yet people cannot get a test at all or are being told to travel, with symptoms, to the other end of the country. So far this week, the Secretary of State has said, “It’s the fault of young people. It’s the fault of schools. It’s the fault of holidaymakers.” In fact, it is everyone’s fault for doing exactly what he asked and trying to get tested. He should show some leadership, own his failures, and tell us how and when he is going to rectify this awful mess.

Across the country, the average distance people have to travel is 6.4 miles. It is really important that the messages from all those who are responsible public servants and those who have strong public voices, as the hon. Member does, in South Shields, across South Tyneside, in the north-east and, indeed, across the country—and it is incumbent on us all to repeat these critical public health messages—are, “If you have symptoms, get a test, but if you are not eligible, then please don’t use up the tests that are needed for other people.”

Youth organisations, such as scouting and guiding, and sports training clubs are vital for the social development of young people in Dudley South. Will my right hon. Friend do everything he can to make sure that such youth organisations and sports coaching can continue for as long as it is safe to do so?

Yes. My hon. Friend, who speaks so clearly for his constituents and for the young people who enjoy those facilities, will I am sure be pleased to know that youth groups are exempt from the rule of six, because they have their own covid-secure guidelines, in the same way that schools do and in the same way that organised sport is exempt.

In his statement yesterday, the Prime Minister said he would introduce an army of covid marshals to help ensure social distancing in town centres. Can the Secretary of State tell me how these covid marshals will be recruited, how much they will be paid, how they will be paid for and what powers they will have?

This programme will be rolled out by the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government, because we will be working very closely with local authorities to make it happen, and we will publish the details in due course.

I know how hard the hospital and A&E leaders are working at Leighton Hospital to prepare the hospital for winter in the context of covid, which is why I was incredibly disappointed to see the local Labour party telling residents that they were not going to get any extra funding to do that. Can the Secretary of State assure my local residents that that is not the case, but also agree to meet me to discuss the issue of much-needed longer-term investment in the Leighton Hospital site?

I am very happy to meet my hon. Friend, who speaks so strongly for Crewe and all of its residents, on the need for a high-quality NHS. Of course, my hon. Friend is a qualified doctor who, during lockdown, spent a huge amount of time in hospital and working on the frontline of the NHS, and I think we should all applaud him for that work. I am absolutely happy to meet him. He knows, with enormous expertise, of what he speaks. We are all grateful for his service, and I hope that we can continue to make improvements to Leighton Hospital.

Some 10% of infectious people are being sent over 22 miles—some, hundreds of miles—without contact tracing, for testing, so would the Secretary of State agree that the current testing system also amounts to a spreading system for the virus?

No, because the testing sites operate, of course, in a covid-secure way; we put a huge amount of effort into the infection control procedures at testing sites. I want to reiterate, for anybody listening who has symptoms and might be worried by some of the things they are hearing, that the average distance that people go is only 6.4 miles, and that 90% of people travel less than 22 miles to get a test. If you have symptoms, please get a test.

My right hon. Friend has said time and again this morning that if people do not have symptoms, they should not get tested, because the antigen test does not work if someone does not have symptoms. Patrick McLoughlin—a good friend of ours, now in the House of Lords—always used to say to me, “If you want to keep a secret, say it in the Chamber of the House of Commons.” How can we get this message across with some snappy title, rather like the rule of six? It is very straightforward. How can we get across the message that if people do not have symptoms, it is pointless and a waste to go and get tested?

I can think of no better way in Lichfield than to get my hon. Friend out and about making that case—in a socially distanced way, of course. He is quite right. We have to get the message across, in the first instance to Members of this House, and I hope we are doing that today. We are also making clear in the communications around the process of getting a test that, if people do not have symptoms, they are not eligible. We are reviewing what more we might need to do, because we have to use our record testing capacity for the people who need it most.

This morning, the Transport Secretary was unable to say what enforcement powers the Prime Minister’s new covid marshals will have and what their responsibilities will be. Further to the question from my hon. Friend the Member for Enfield, Southgate (Bambos Charalambous), does the Secretary of State know what powers these marshals will have and what training they will have to undergo?

We are giving local authorities more enforcement powers—for instance, to be able to close venues should that be necessary on public health grounds. We will set out more details of the marshals shortly.

What revisions to the technology supporting the booking of testing can be undertaken to match local demand more closely to local supply?

That is something we work on constantly. It is not always perfect, as this questions session attests, but it is something we are constantly working on to try to minimise the distance that people travel. The team have done a good job of getting that distance down to 6.4 miles, not least with the roll-out of dozens of new testing sites every week, but there is always more work to do.

The reason why Kirklees has managed to buck the national trend and keep our infection rates relatively stable is the great work that the council has been doing with Government and other agencies. We have been working really hard in Batley to get our restrictions lifted. Coming into what could be a difficult autumn and winter, can the Secretary of State commit to keeping the extra resources—the mobile testing units—in our community, so that the R rate does not spike and we have to close down again?

I pay tribute to Kirklees and colleagues who represent the seats within it, who have worked across party lines with national and local government. We have put more resources in, and they will continue for the time being when they are needed. We are, of course, driven by the data, so in a way, it would be good news if they were not needed, because that would mean that the number of cases had come down. The hon. Lady represents exactly the sort of approach that we should be taking. We are all on the same side against this virus. It is far better to be constructive and work together in a team effort. That is what the public want and expect. They do not want sniping from the sidelines, like we have seen from the Labour Front Bench.

I welcome my right hon. Friend’s commitment to mass testing. In rural constituencies like mine, mobile testing units such as the one in Uckfield are key, but there seems to be a glitch in the system. A constituent called Colin, who lives in the village of Fletching, was directed miles away when he could have been directed to the local mobile unit. Will my right hon. Friend ensure that the glitch is fixed?

We know the Secretary of State is fond of technology, and we welcome that. I wonder if today he will welcome the 160,000 downloads of Protect Scotland—the app launched by the Scottish Government. Both I and my hon. Friend the Member for Kilmarnock and Loudoun (Alan Brown) are tracing, so if anyone shows symptoms, that will show up. When will England catch up and launch a contact tracing app similar to Protect Scotland?

It is a real pleasure to be commended on my enthusiasm for technology—normally comments about my enthusiasm are followed by a large “but”. In this case, I totally agree about the importance and use of technology, and that will be coming to English pockets very soon.

It is inevitable that, with the return of our schools this week, we have seen increased demand for testing across the country, not least in my own patch of Bracknell. In true military fashion, may I ask what scope there is for flexing or surging resources at short notice. Indeed, how do we ask for it?

My hon. Friend is a former military logistics expert, and in my experience—especially my recent experience during this crisis—there are no greater logistics experts in the world than those in the British military. He knows of what he speaks. We are surging, but doing so particularly in the areas where the case rate is higher, and thankfully in his part of the world the number of cases remains relatively low.

I am sympathetic to the idea of mass testing and have been for some time, but what does the Secretary of State say to someone like Professor David Spiegelhalter, who said that mass testing could lead to hundreds of thousands of false positives, with the knock-on effect of over a million people who have been in contact with those individuals being told to self-isolate? What assessment has the Government made of that issue?

I welcome the hon. Gentleman’s enthusiasm for mass testing. He might want to have a word with his Front-Bench colleague, the hon. Member for Leicester South (Jonathan Ashworth). Of course the specificity of the test is incredibly important, so that we do not get false positives. There are ways to deal with it, and those are taken into account in the moonshot programme.

As children return to school, there is understandable anxiety among parents in Gedling about getting ready access to testing if they require it. The head of Richard Bonington school wrote to me this morning saying that delays and difficulties accessing testing keep children away from school. Will my right hon. Friend assure me that as well as access to testing centres, parents can continue to apply for home-testing kits to get prompt results?

Someone who has symptoms can of course apply for a test in a drive-through centre or to have the home test. Of course, those are available; it is just that demand has gone up, especially demand from those who do not have symptoms. Those who do not have symptoms but have been in close contact with someone who has tested positive should not be applying for a test, because, as was mentioned earlier, they may get a false negative and actually need to self-isolate. We are really clear about who should be getting a test and who is eligible for a test. In a way, though, my hon. Friend’s question demonstrates why mass testing is also so important—it means we can roll out testing even further. The hon. Member for Leicester South used to be a great supporter of Tony Blair—

In that case, maybe he needs to have a word with the former Prime Minister. Tony Blair is a big fan of mass testing. It is a pity the hon. Gentleman does not know which way he is looking.

I thank the Secretary of State for his commitment to the job in hand. In the approach taken, there is a balance to be struck between health and ensuring that the economy is okay, so will he outline what discussions have taken place with those who have successfully implemented a different type of response to the coronavirus, such as Norway and Sweden? Does he believe that we can learn lessons and perhaps consider other approaches?

My hon. Friend is absolutely right to raise this question. We are constantly looking across the world at different approaches. Sweden, unfortunately, has had many, many more deaths from coronavirus than Norway next door, so we do look at the difference in approaches. For instance, we are looking at the difference between the response to the second rise that we have seen across parts of Europe from Spain and France as against and that of Belgium, which I mentioned earlier. We are constantly vigilant and looking abroad, and trying to find the best way not only to keep the virus under control but to support education and the economy.

I wonder whether the Secretary of State could give some advice to my constituents. One teacher had symptoms on Tuesday. She rang for a test and was told to go to Oldham, which is a 160-mile round trip. Because she has a one-year-old child, she did not want to do that and she was feeling too ill to do the drive, so she opted for a home test, which came, but she has not got the results back yet. In the same school, another teacher’s daughter was ill. She has not been able to get any test anywhere apart from it being sent. She still has not got the results.

Another school—this has come in this morning while I have been sitting here—has had 20 pupils off with covid symptoms out of a cohort of 106. One of the parents subsequently rang in to say that they had tried to book an appointment for their daughter. They spent nine hours online and were offered an appointment in Glasgow. Derbyshire is in the middle of the country and Glasgow is several hundred miles away. She turned this down, which is not a surprise, but persevered and got an appointment today at Burton. She went to Burton-on-Trent but the staff would not carry out a test as the parents do not have a barcode—a barcode that has still not been received by them. There were four booths at Burton. No one else was there using them—only this parent, his wife and their daughter. What do parents do in this situation?

If people have symptoms of coronavirus, they should self-isolate and get a test. We have heard examples—of course we have—of people having challenges getting tests. I am very glad, though, that in two of the cases that my hon. Friend outlined, home tests have been sent. In the third case, there was clearly a technical problem, given that the barcode is emailed to people who supply their email address. People with covid symptoms need to self-isolate and then, if somebody gets a positive test result, their households also have to self-isolate. These policies are absolutely critical to the control of the virus.

It has been reported that the coronavirus pandemic is leading to a second, quieter epidemic in mental health. The amazing north-east suicide prevention charity, If U Care Share, says that calls to its helpline have risen by nearly 300% during covid, and a survey of Samaritans volunteers found that callers across the country are generally more anxious and distressed than before the pandemic. Will the Secretary of State tell us what plans are in place to ensure that there is support for areas such as mine—Gateshead—before this becomes a crisis?

Yes, absolutely. The hon. Lady is right to raise this. We are putting more support into mental health services, but there is a challenge, especially with people who were not able to access mental health services during the lockdown and therefore their condition got worse and more acute. This is an area that I am working on closely. I have had meetings with the Royal College of Psychiatrists throughout the crisis. I would also like to correct or amend a response I gave in a previous exchange, about which the hon. Lady has written to me, when I said that the number of suicides had fallen. The fact is that the number of suicides reported has fallen, but there are concerns about how many were able to be reported because of delays with coroners. I just want to put on record my correction to that fact, in acknowledgement of the problems in reporting. I reported on the figures as fact, but we should report that those figures are the reported facts.

Is there no scintilla of doubt in my right hon. Friend’s mind, occasioned by the growing body of scientific opinion that questions the interpretation of the data and concludes that the policies of Governments—I use the plural—are having an impact worse than the disease itself?

I am afraid to say that, although I would love my right hon. Friend to be right, I firmly believe, based not only on the clinical advice but on my own analysis and judgment of the facts and the international comparisons, that it is necessary for the public health of the nation to take actions to control the spread of the disease and to take the firm and now legislative actions that we are taking. The reason is that if the virus spreads, we know that it then spreads into the older age group, who too often die from this disease. We also know that it does not just go up in a straight line, and that if we let this disease rip, it goes up exponentially. That is why, with a heavy heart, I strongly support the extra measures that the Prime Minister outlined yesterday and the strategy of this Government and most Governments around the world to handle this pandemic.

Nobody pretends that this is easy, but there are real problems in the system. The latest figures for test and trace in England are now out, and they are the worst figures since it started. The numbers have actually gone down since last week. That is the fact, I am afraid. The Secretary of State might not have seen the latest figures. In relation to testing, my constituents have, ironically enough, been told to go to Derbyshire, Aberdeen, Weston-super-Mare and all sorts of places. Considering that we have one of the lowest car ownership rates in the whole of the UK, it is difficult for many people to go at all, if they are not allowed to use public transport and do not have much money and cannot afford a taxi to go to Aberdeen or Derbyshire. Given the number of times that my constituents have been told, including today, either when they ring or when they use the website that there are simply no tests available at all anywhere in the whole of the United Kingdom, this is a shocking problem that we all need to address. I just hope that the Secretary of State will please, please, please stop with all the huffing and puffing and simply get on with trying to solve these problems. Our constituents are really worried that they are not able to do the right thing, and if people stop doing the right thing we will lose control of this completely.

That is exactly what I am trying to do, and I appreciate the tone in which the hon. Gentleman asked the question. To be clear about the data on contact tracing that have just been released, on the number of people who have provided details of one or more close contacts, we reached 82.0% of those in the last week up to 2 September, which was up from 79.9% in the previous week.

Care homes in my constituency are allowing family visits in their gardens. However, they are concerned that the weather is about to turn. What is my right hon. Friend’s advice to my care homes?

The challenge of how to keep people in care homes safe is a really tough one, because visits to care homes are important not only for our wellbeing and our desire to see our loved ones but for the mental and physical health of those who are in the care homes. However, we also need to protect them from the disease, because they are among the most vulnerable to it in the whole of society. There are covid-secure ways to have visits to care homes, including indoors. Again, once we get to a position of mass testing, this is the sort of thing we will be able to deliver in order to enhance that support and make it easier. My hon. Friend is quite right to raise this, and it is something that I long to be able to provide a solution to.

I agree with the Secretary of State on the importance of mass testing. However, I am afraid to say that a number of residents in Ceredigion are being directed, under the current system, to travel much further than the 6.4-mile average he referred to in his statement. Indeed, in some instances they have been asked to travel as far away as Birmingham, over 100 miles away, while we know that Londoners are being told, in turn, to travel to Aberystwyth to get their tests. My question is a simple one: how does he intend to work with the Welsh Government to address this problem?

The solution, as I have mentioned a few times this afternoon, is to ensure that we continue the expansion of capacity—as the hon. Gentleman knows, there is now record capacity in the testing system—and, at the same time, ensure that those who are eligible for tests come forward to get those tests. Some people have been asked to travel, but the vast majority of people get tests close to home and get the results back very quickly.

Whether on vaccines or testing, British scientists have been at the forefront of our efforts against this pandemic. I am very pleased that GlaxoSmithKline in Barnard Castle is playing its part, working with the Government on this national effort. May I encourage my right hon. Friend to also consider working with Honeyman Group, which is also Barnard Castle based? At the moment it has the potential capacity to deliver up to 10,000 tests per day and I know it is very keen to work with us.

Excellent. I would love to work with the companies my hon. Friend mentions and work with her on trying to make that happen.

With the six-person rule not coming in until Monday, that effectively gives people encouragement to have large gatherings of up to 30 people in their households over the weekend. That is clearly a risk when there is, at the moment, an increase in the spread of the virus. It also means that it is even more important that the Government have the best test, track and trace systems in place. As my hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow East (David Linden) pointed out, the Scottish Government have already got the Protect Scotland mobile app up and running. That has been used by 160,000 people already. When oh when will the Secretary of State and his Government have their tracing app in place?

Very soon. As the UK Secretary of State, I urge all people in Scotland to download the app. I know that the Scottish Government’s app is technically excellent and I strongly endorse it, as I will strongly endorse people in England to download the English app, people in Wales to download the Welsh app and people in Northern Ireland to download the Northern Ireland app to support the whole of the UK to do everything we all can to tackle this problem.