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Topical Questions

Volume 681: debated on Tuesday 6 October 2020

On Friday we confirmed the 40 hospitals we will build by 2030 as part of a package worth £3.7 billion, with a further eight new schemes also invited to bid, all to ensure that we protect the NHS long into the future.

All I want from the Secretary of State today is a simple yes or no answer. It has come to light that the Northern Ireland authorities have taken unprecedented action and committed to pay for private prescriptions for medical cannabis for severely ill children. Will he do the right thing and follow the example set in Northern Ireland in supporting other children with intractable epilepsy by paying for their private prescriptions—yes or no?

The hon. Lady has long been a campaigner on this subject. We have made significant progress in terms of expanding access where it is clinically safe to do so. On this, as on so many things, I will make sure that I constantly follow the clinical evidence.

My right hon. Friend knows that for every person who tragically dies from coronavirus, at least one other person has long-term symptoms lasting more than three months, meaning that they have breathlessness and chronic fatigue and often cannot go back to work normally. In his letter to me of 14 September, he said that clinics were going to be set up so that they could get mental health support, face-to-face counselling and rehabilitation. Have those clinics been commissioned, and when will those long covid sufferers be able to access them throughout the country?

My right hon. Friend makes an incredibly important point. I know very well the impact of long covid; it is something that I understand deeply. We are in the process of setting up those clinics and there will be further information on this very shortly.

Given that the Office for National Statistics has said today that deaths have increased three weeks in a row, and given the rising prevalence of the virus, can the Secretary of State understand the upset and the anger over the Excel spreadsheet blunder? Can he tell us today what he could not tell us yesterday: how many of the 48,000 contacts—not the index cases, the contacts—have been traced and how many are now isolating?

We have obviously been continuing to contact both the index cases and the contacts. The total number of contacts depends on how many contacts each index case has. That information will of course be made available in the normal way when it has been completed. However, we cannot know in advance how many contacts there are because the interviews with the index cases have to be done first.

So essentially thousands of people who have been exposed to the virus could be wandering around not knowing they have been exposed and infecting people, and the Secretary of State cannot even tell us if they have been traced.

Let me move on to something else. I listened carefully to what the Secretary of State said about a vaccine yesterday in light of the news that the Government are aiming to vaccinate about 30 million people—just under 50% of the population. There has been an expectation that the whole of the population would be vaccinated, not least because he said at the Downing Street press conference that he “would hope, given the scale of the crisis, we would have the vaccine and everyone would be given the vaccine.” Those are his words. We accept the clinical guidance. However, can he tell us how long it will take, for the 50% of people who will not be vaccinated, for life to return to normal for them?

As the hon. Gentleman well knows, decisions on the distribution of any vaccine have not been taken. The Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation is the body that advises the Government on the appropriate clinical prioritisation of vaccines. It has published an interim guide, which he well knows about and we have discussed. That sets out the order of priority as an interim measure, but we await the data from the clinical trials of the vaccine before we will come to a clinically validated full roll-out plan. We are putting in place the logistical plans now, but on the decisions as to the clinical order of priority, we will take the evidence from the Joint Committee.

Can I just say to those on both Front Benches that these are meant to be short and punchy topical questions, not full debates?

With many GPs surgeries adapting to coronavirus guidelines by holding surgeries outside, often in car parks, one of my constituents was left feeling embarrassed and upset by having to discuss a sensitive and personal health issue within earshot of other patients waiting in line. Does my right hon. Friend agree that in times when alternative methods are replacing the usual privacy of face-to-face appointments behind closed doors, GPs surgeries must be sensitive to the whereabouts and comfort of their patients to ensure that others do not have the same experience as my constituent? (907160)

Yes, I wholeheartedly agree with my hon. Friend, who speaks well for her constituent. I am very sorry that her constituent had that experience, and of course GPs should be sensitive, as the large majority are.

The implications of coronavirus include rising levels of loneliness, which can impact on mental health and physical wellbeing while increasing pressure on the NHS. Last Friday, I visited Henley Green community centre in my constituency of Coventry North East and saw the work it is doing with health services to combat loneliness and deliver positive health and wellbeing outcomes. What resources can the Government provide to accelerate the spread of such social prescribing schemes so that community groups can deliver tailored local support to tackle this growing problem? (907161)

I pay tribute to the group that the hon. Lady mentions. I have put a huge amount of effort into supporting social prescribing, including with funding, and I encourage her CCG to engage with such bodies to make sure that we can get funding to support them on the frontline.

At the start of this pandemic, in the first lockdown, abortion services were relaxed to allow women to enable them to access the service from home, but I am particularly worried about the effect that has had on those women who are particularly vulnerable, subject to abuse or in coercive relationships. Now that we know that the risk to women of childbearing age from attending a face-to-face appointment is extremely low, what assessment has my right hon. Friend made of the ongoing need to continue in this way? (907167)

The Under-Secretary of State for Health and Social Care, my hon. Friend the Member for Bury St Edmunds (Jo Churchill) has committed to consult on the subject to make sure we get to the right outcome.

This Government have repeatedly refused to meet the group representing covid-19 bereaved families. I met the group last week, and they confirmed that they are not in litigation with the Government and never have been. They simply want to put across the concerns of thousands of people who have lost loved ones to coronavirus, so will the Minister now commit to meeting the group and hearing their concerns at first hand? (907162)

Of course I have met and continue to meet the families of those bereaved through coronavirus. With this particular group, I am afraid that when I last looked into it, they were in legal action—in pre-action protocol—with the Government, so I am advised that I should not therefore meet them.

It is important that communities, such as mine in Middlesbrough, can see a way out of the tighter local restrictions that have now been imposed. Notwithstanding my right hon. Friend’s earlier, very reasonable answer to the hon. Member for Bradford South (Judith Cummins) about the impossibility of setting hard metrics for the release from lockdown, can he set out what would constitute a path out? Does it include, for example, a sustained fall in transmission rates? (907169)

The level of cases matters, but so too does the direction of travel, and when the number of cases is falling—especially if it is falling rapidly—that is the sort of indicator that we will look at. One example is the action we took in Leicester a few months ago now, where we removed some of the most restrictive measures when the numbers were coming down sharply.

Please, please, Secretary of State, my constituents need extra support. Despite the outstanding efforts of the staff at Northumberland County Council, covid-19 is running rife through our towns and villages. Since stricter local lockdown measures were introduced, we have seen a huge increase in transmission levels. Parts of Ashington, Bedlington, Morpeth and Newbiggin have seen rates of almost 500 per 100,000. Secretary of State, please help us. (907163)

I am very worried about the rates of transmission in the north-east, as I am about parts of the north-west of England. I look forward to working with the hon. Gentleman and colleagues from across the regions affected to take the action necessary to suppress this virus and to support the economy, education and the NHS right across this land.

I have first-hand experience of how effective the app has been, as it has kept my father covid-free before he goes into hospital tomorrow. Could my right hon. Friend update the House on the success of the app and advise me of what more Members can do to ensure that the covid-19 app continues to keep us all safe, including my father? (907168)

The covid-19 app has now been successfully downloaded by around 15 million people, including my hon. Friend’s father. Every extra person who downloads it helps to keep themselves safe and keep others safe. I urge everybody in this House to download it—I hope you have, Mr Speaker. It is one of the tools in the armoury, and everybody can play their part in keeping this virus under control by downloading the app.

As you can imagine, Mr Speaker, I was astounded to be told that people living in Devon were being advised to go to Inverness for a covid test. Can the Secretary of State reassure me that a truly collaborative effort is being made by Her Majesty’s Government and the Scottish Government to beat this virus? (907164)

Yes, absolutely. The testing facilities are one example of that. Testing facilities across the UK work very closely with the Scottish NHS, to ensure that people can get a test as close to them as possible. I think we have reduced the problem of people being sent to Inverness, but we continue to work to increase the capacity in Inverness and right across the country.

Partly in response to large queues and hours-long waits for tests in Canada, Health Canada has followed the US Food and Drug Administration in approving rapid testing, such as the ID NOW test, which can give a result in 15 minutes. Can the Secretary of State update us on where we are with the roll-out of rapid testing? (907171)

We are making good progress in validating the tests and in doing what needs to be done to be able to use them effectively. I have seen some of these reports from around the world, and I talk regularly to my opposite numbers about how we can get this sort of next-generation testing going.

With Spina Bifida Awareness Week coming up, can the Secretary of State say when the Government will respond to the consultation on putting folic acid into flour? It is a move that could help to reduce the number of babies born with defects of the spine, and it is important to hear when that might happen. (907165)

I am a strong supporter of the work we have done to look at that approach. The hon. Lady is right to raise it, and I will write to her with a timetable for that response.

Positive outcomes are more likely when cancer is detected early through breast screening, and evidence suggests that take-up of screening is generally higher when mobile units are used, yet women in Heald Green have missed out on local screening and been directed out of Cheadle to Macclesfield. It is the second time that their three-yearly checks have been disrupted, potentially affecting uptake and risking cancers going undetected. Will the Secretary of State agree to meet me to discuss ways to address the situation in Stockport and give women in my constituency access to the local mobile screening units they need? (907173)

Yes, of course I would. I would underline some news announced by the Under-Secretary of State for Health and Social Care, my hon. Friend the Member for Bury St Edmunds (Jo Churchill), which is that the breast screening backlog from the first peak, which was 450,000, is now down to just over 50,000. I pay tribute to the NHS and all those involved in screening who have done so much work to bring that backlog down, and I am very happy to meet my hon. Friend to discuss this subject.

The pharmaceutical industry has highlighted supply difficulties due to covid-19 as a challenge to recreating stockpiles before the end of the transition period in December. How will the Secretary of State ensure that there are no drug shortages, particularly of medicines such as insulin, which is not produced in the UK? (907172)

A huge amount of work is under way to ensure that we are fully prepared for all eventualities this winter. It is an important piece of work across the Department.

I would like to thank the Secretary of State for his commitment to Northumberland hospital investment, with the Northgate Hospital investment announced last week. Does he agree that rural hospitals such as Berwick Infirmary—one of the most rural English hospitals—are places to develop the technology to enable us to reach many more patients, without them having to travel long distances to get to hospital? (907174)

We have ended where we started this questions session: with my delight at a new hospital that has been funded and announced by the Prime Minister on Friday—Newgate in Northumberland. That is a very important development. My right hon. Friend makes a wider point about the importance of community hospitals, which are local to where people live. With modern advances in technology, we can deliver more services closer to people’s homes and in people’s homes, and then in community hospitals, while of course needing to build those superb hubs of science and care that our great hospitals are.

In order to allow the safe exit of Members participating in this item of business and the safe arrival of those participating in the next, I am suspending the House for a few minutes.

Sitting suspended.