I beg to move,
That this House has considered covid-19.
This global pandemic calls on us all to make the best judgments that we can on behalf of our nation. This disease attacks us all because we are human, and it is only by coming together as humanity that we can solve it. It is a communitarian disease that passes from person to person among those who are closest to each other, and it is as a community that we must tackle it. The virus raises profound questions for each Member of this House, too, representing our constituencies as we do, to make the best judgments that we can in the face of uncertainty, immense challenge and with great weights on each side of the scales, in the best interests of the nation that we serve.
We have heard today from the Prime Minister of the grave steps on which the House will vote on Wednesday. We know of the real impact that those steps will have on so many lives and livelihoods. We know the hardships that would be faced and the jobs lost, and we cannot save them all, but the alternative of not acting would be so much worse.
When faced with such a deadly adversary, we cannot stand aside and let it spread unchecked through our communities when we know the devastation it would cause, not just to the NHS and not only in the mounting death toll, but I firmly believe the impact on our economy would be worse too. The devastation that the virus would wreak if unchecked would impact the NHS’s ability to treat covid and non-covid patients. For all those who need treatment in the NHS right now, the action we propose will help to ensure that the NHS has what it needs to give them the world-class care that we have all come to expect.
I applaud the congratulations that the Secretary of State has already extended to NHS workers. What message does he have for my constituent, Faye McDonnell, a student nurse? Will she be paid during this crisis? Will my other constituent, Kirsten Doran, a theatre nurse, be paid the increase in pay and fair pay that nurses are campaigning for?
Of course the NHS in Northern Ireland is the responsibility of the Administration there. I know of the issues around nurses’ pay, which has been the subject of much interest. I will not go into the individual details, but I recognise the case that the hon. Gentleman rightly makes on behalf of his constituents. We in this House support the staff of the NHS across the UK—in all four nations in all four parts of the NHS.
Across the UK, however, the case is the same. For people who need NHS treatment now, whether it is for covid or any other condition, the best course of action is to suppress the virus. Partly because of that, I therefore believe that the only strategy a responsible Government can take is to suppress the virus and support the economy, education and the NHS as much as possible until science can come to our rescue.
We are undoubtedly in a serious situation, and I am sure that the Secretary of State agrees that we need to take political gamesmanship out of the debate. Considering the measures and the month-long lockdown that have been announced for England, does he share my concern at the actions of some of his colleagues in Wales who have worked the whole situation up into a political frenzy with regard to the ongoing lockdown in my country?
The hon. Gentleman invites me to get involved in political controversy in Wales while rejecting the principle of getting involved in political controversy. Having thought about it, on balance, I am going to sidestep that particular political controversy. As it happens, I strongly think that the public expect us to work together in the national interest, and that is what we propose to do.
A crucial part of that national interest is protecting the most vulnerable. When coronavirus spreads rapidly, it reaches all parts. Many of the most vulnerable can live only with care and support from those outside their home, or live in multigenerational households. We must protect the most vulnerable from the disease, and we will, with renewed shielding advice and support for care homes, but we cannot rely on that alone.
There is no quick fix to this pandemic; there is no silver bullet. What makes this fight so tough is that the virus thrives on all the things that make life worth living, such as the joy of social contact and the communal events that give us so much happiness and fulfilment, but we must persevere together to get it under control.
One of the key things that we will depend on after the lockdown is over—assuming that the House gives its support—is a really effective contact tracing system. The Secretary of State knows as well as I do that, in the last couple of weeks, the system has been reaching only 48% of the contacts of those who have tested positive. The Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies says that for the system to be effective, it needs to reach 80%. In the 28 days of lockdown, what specific steps will he take to get it to 80%?
My right hon Friend is right; I was going to come on to that issue. Of course the contact tracing system needs to contact as many people as it can. The figures that he refers to include a huge array of different types of contact. I will update the House on the improvements that we have seen in contact tracing, including an increase in the absolute number of people who have been contacted and in the proportion.
We absolutely need the proportion to go up. A critical part of that is people’s engagement with the contact tracing system, as well as the system itself. Some of the proportion who are not reached are not reached because their contact details are not given. It is quite hard to blame the people who work in NHS Test and Trace, who are working so hard on it, for that particular reason. It is important to go into the details of why a particular contact is not made and try to improve all those details. That work is ongoing, but I accept the challenge.
As well as boosting contact tracing rates, which are absolutely critical, I hope the Secretary of State will address the issues with the app that have been revealed this weekend; it has not been contacting people who should have been contacted. Self-isolation is also important. The Prime Minister admitted today—he finally acknowledged—that self-isolation rates are far too low, but we have heard nothing about what steps are to be put in place. We need carrots, not sticks—support and incentives for people to self-isolate. The Secretary of State mentioned multigenerational households; there are many overcrowded households, particularly in inner cities, and therefore high-risk people who cannot self-isolate at home. Has he given any consideration to setting up self-isolation support facilities that those people can go to?
Of course, self-isolation following contact or following a positive test, or in quarantine from abroad, is absolutely critical, and we have brought in measures to improve self-isolation, such as the £500 payment and strengthening the enforcement around it, and we are always looking for what we can do to strengthen self-isolation; the Prime Minister was absolutely right in what he said earlier, and there is a huge amount of work under way on it.
Two weeks ago, I asked the Health Secretary about the button that was meant to be on the app to release a reference code for people to claim the £500. The Health Secretary specifically came to the Dispatch Box to say that they just needed to press that button. That button does not exist—it did not exist then and it still does not exist today—so why did he make that intervention and how is he going to rectify the situation so people can claim that £500?
Yes, the button is coming; it is in development. The hon. Member for Twickenham (Munira Wilson), who made the previous intervention, also spoke about the app. There was an upgrade to the app towards the end of last week, and I want to put on record my thanks to the app team, who have done such a great job in improving the app by, as the hon. Member for Twickenham said, improving the targeting so that more people are targeted and more people get the message. The app is also now getting fewer false positives so people can have more confidence that if they are contacted by the app and told to isolate, they need to do so. The button will come.
People up and down the country made enormous sacrifices during the first lockdown, and they were promised a world-beating contact, test and trace system. Some £12 billion has been spent on Serco to provide that. In areas such as mine with high levels of deprivation, health inequalities and high numbers of vulnerable people, people are already dying, and we do not have an effective testing and tracing system. So, given where we are, may I appeal to the Secretary of State to make resources available to areas where we have the local capacity to do testing and tracing, to help improve the system as quickly as possible in this lockdown?
Yes, as we have discussed many times, that is happening—absolutely—and it is the link between the national and the local that is the solution here. I will come on to testing in more detail later because I have some new things to say about it. In the meantime, the other thing we need to do, of course, is make sure that for this second peak—the second wave—we do all we can to support those institutions that are helping us through it, and first among those is, of course, the NHS.
The NHS is better prepared for this second wave, and I want to thank the NHS and everybody who works in it for their efforts over the past few months to ensure that we are better prepared. We know infinitely more things about coronavirus now than we knew as the first wave hit. Our Nightingale hospitals, for instance, stand ready and are being restarted in the parts of the country that need them. The independent sector has stepped up to the mark to help us work through the backlog of the vital elective operations and to help keep going with elective operations, even through this second peak. We have hired more staff, with 13,700 more nurses and 7,800 more doctors. We have provided £3 billion of extra funding across health and social care. Personal protective equipment is widely and freely available, and infection control procedures have been significantly strengthened, based on better understanding of transmission of the virus, including aerosol as well as droplet and fomite transmission.
I am glad to hear that preparations are under way. I have had several emails from constituents in Bosworth who are worried about their routine operations; their follow-up might be lost. They remember what happened in the last lockdown, when they were not able to get that follow-up. Can my right hon. Friend confirm that all NHS appointments will be going ahead as best they can?
Yes, absolutely, and my hon. Friend makes a critical point. If in Bosworth someone is waiting for an operation on the NHS, they are more likely to get it if we keep the virus suppressed—in fact, if we keep it down, they will get that operation and we will get it done. Unfortunately, in the parts of the country where things have got too high, non-urgent, non-cancer elective operations have had to be cancelled. That demonstrates that, both for covid and non-covid health reasons, it is better to keep the virus suppressed.
I was halfway through my long list of the things that the NHS has been doing to prepare over the summer. At the moment, we are delivering 159 A&E upgrades; as far as I know, that is the biggest number of concurrent upgrades to emergency care in the NHS’s history. We have radically expanded telemedicine in primary and outpatient care. We are introducing 111 First, with an expanded 111 service to help people get the care that they need.
The NHS has learned how to treat covid patients better too, of course: not just by discovering treatments such as dexamethasone, in which the NHS played a critical part, but by improving clinical techniques—earlier oxygenation and later ventilation, for instance. As a result, our rate of hospital-acquired infection is down and the number of people who survive covid in hospital is up. We have been able to set an explicit goal that all cancer treatment should continue throughout this second wave, which speaks precisely to the point that my hon. Friend the Member for Bosworth (Dr Evans) made.
But even with this expanded NHS and with the better treatments, the extra investment and the brilliance of the whole NHS team, who have done and learned so much about the virus and worked so hard to prepare—even with all that—and even if the NHS were twice as big as it is now, it could not cope, and no health service could, if the virus continued to grow as it is now. We must control the virus, to protect the NHS and ensure that it is always there, to treat patients with covid and patients with all other conditions.
One of the wonderful things that my right hon. Friend has done is make available so much data. I am looking at the case data for Liverpool, and there it is—daily cases by specimen date. Thank goodness the number is now falling, and on a seven-day basis, again, it is falling. I am just wondering why now anyone in Liverpool would say anything other than that the Government’s previous strategy is now working. Why on earth, then, would people in other areas that are not even as badly off as Liverpool—or indeed Manchester, where the cases seem to be stabilising—want to see an even tighter lockdown?
Unfortunately, in Liverpool the overall case rate includes a very high peak among students. The over-60s case rate, which is also published on the same website, shows a flattening, but a flattening at a very high level, such that Liverpool University Hospitals NHS Foundation Trust has already had to cancel non-urgent, non-cancer elective activity.
The danger of a plateauing at a high level, as the chief medical officer set out, is that if the rate starts to go up again, we are already under significant pressure in the NHS in Liverpool. The same argument goes for Tyneside, where again the overall case rate appears to be coming down, which is good news. The number among the over-60s, however, is flattening, again at a very high level, and in other parts of the country, including areas in tier 3, the numbers were going up.
It is not good enough just to control R and keep it lower than its natural rate; we have to get it below 1 to be able to change from a doubling time to a halving time of this virus. Even I—the most enthusiastic supporter of the tier system—can see that, unfortunately, cases were rising and the cases among the over-60s are rising, including in the areas with tier 3 restrictions. It is important to strip out from those data the outbreak among students. I have talked before about there being two overlapping epidemics: one among students and one among the wider community.
My right hon. Friend lists the many commendable achievements of the national health service in the period since the first wave, but the main contention is that this policy is for ICU capacity issues. What specifically has been done over the summer to increase that capacity?
There has been a significant capacity increase in critical care, which includes ICU but is not only ICU. We have a wider definition of critical care, which is important. Many people with covid do not need formal ICU intubation; they need critical care, including oxygenation, when they are not anaesthetised but on oxygen treatment. On that measure of critical care, which is the care required for covid, there has been a significant increase, including significant investment in the NHS around the country. I should have had that on my list.
Further to my right hon. Friend’s answers to my hon. Friend the Member for Wycombe (Mr Baker), it has been a fact for a long time that the three figures that are reported most often are the number of tests, the number of cases and, regrettably, the number of deaths. Does my right hon. Friend agree that the media and we should focus much more on the data on NHS capacity? That, rather than tests and cases, should be the message.
They are all important. Often, people focus on the cases, because they are one of the earliest indicators of the direction. The case rate among the over-60s is highly correlated with what happens to hospital admissions a week or 10 days later. That is why we focus on the over-60s case rate and now publish that data too, because looking at that as well as the overall case rate is important.
Nevertheless, my hon. Friend is absolutely right that although the translation of cases into hospitalisations and poor health outcomes is harder to estimate, the number of hospital admissions with covid is a concrete fact that we cannot get away from. We cannot escape the fact that that is rising and has been rising sharply. Even if we expanded the NHS enormously—we have, both in critical care and in terms of the potential capacity in the Nightingales, should it be needed, but even if we doubled the size of the NHS—once we are on an exponential growth curve, it would still be too small to cope if the virus were to run riot.
Returning to ICUs, the Secretary of State knows that nurses working in that environment are highly specialised; it takes a high degree of extra training. How confident is he, considering the potential for fatigue and for nurses to fall ill, given that this may last many months, that the line will hold against covid in ICUs?
With this action, I am confident that we can make that happen, but it is one of the reasons and justifications for this action that we are taking. The action is serious, and I do not deny or demur from the consequences that the action will bring. My argument is not that this action is good or anything other than regrettable; it is that the action is necessary because the alternative is worse.
I would like to address the specific point made about mental health. It is good to be here next to my hon. Friend the Mental Health Minister. There were a number of questions about mental health addressed to the Prime Minister earlier. Restrictions such as these do have implications for people’s mental health—of course they do—and we are expanding mental health support to address that. However, we also know that coronavirus itself, and the impact of high levels of covid on the NHS, has a significant impact on mental health too. The Royal College of Psychiatrists has said:
“Stricter measures to control the virus are needed to minimise Covid-related mental illness as much as possible.”
Today it said:
“The new lockdown will significantly impact mental health but allowing COVID to go unchecked would also have serious consequences for mental illness. We must ensure that people get the support they need.”
So yes, I am worried about mental health, but in my book that is another reason to bring this virus under control.
Turning to physical health, in the worst-hit areas we have already seen the cancellation of some non-urgent, non-cancer treatments, such as hip operations and cataracts. Without action to bring R below 1, the NHS would be overwhelmed, no matter what we did to expand the NHS and protect the vulnerable, and then we could no longer guarantee that solemn promise to every citizen that our NHS will be there for you when you need it. We must not let that happen.
I want to say this very directly to all those who need NHS services this winter: help us to help you. If you are asked to go to hospital, that is because it is the best place for you. I want to say this to all the staff working in the NHS: we will support you this winter. We are grateful for the sacrifices you are making and we will get through this together.
As we have learned more about this virus, we have been able to strengthen social care, too, and our winter plan sets out the work done to improve those protections, including free PPE, regular testing and the systems for safe discharge that will be so important over the coming months.
Finally, to escape the clutches of the pandemic, we must harness ingenuity and scientific prowess to make the breakthroughs that will help us turn the corner. Testing technologies are improving all the time. We are expanding our existing technologies, and since the pandemic hit we have been putting everything behind our mission to expand our testing capacity. In April, on schedule, we delivered the target of 100,000 tests a day. The Prime Minister then set the goal of testing capacity of half a million a day by the end of October, and I can tell the House that thanks to an enormous effort under the leadership of Baroness Harding and Sarah-Jane Marsh, to whom I give heartfelt thanks, we have hit our target. Testing capacity across the whole UK is now 519,770 a day—a phenomenal national achievement. We now have the largest testing capacity in Europe.
It has been a hard road. As with any new technology, there have been ups and downs, but I always knew we would get there. I am very proud of the team. The next stage is to harness the new technologies—the lateral flow tests that can take a matter of minutes, the high-throughput tests and the point-of-care tests, which are now bringing capacity into the hotspots and on the spot in our NHS hospitals. That is all part of a mass testing capacity that we are building right now, which, alongside the work on vaccines—that is progressing well—will give us so much greater protection from this disease in the months to come.
Before the Secretary of State moves on, just on the point about vaccines, it was reported yesterday in The Sunday Times that Kate Bingham, the chair of the taskforce, spoke at a commercial conference where attendees paid $200 to attend and revealed commercially confidential information. Certainly at the least she apparently revealed information about a vaccine being ready by Easter, which is welcome, and that the Government have done a rehearsal to get the vaccine distributed—again, that is welcome—but why has she revealed that information there? Why has the Secretary of State not revealed that information here? Members may want to take some of those things into account before they vote on Wednesday. Did he authorise her speaking at this event, and can he update us on what she said?
The covid vaccine taskforce is about the procurement of the vaccines. That is a matter for the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy. The Department has put out a statement and made clear the circumstances around that conference. What I would say is that I am very happy to answer any questions on vaccines. As the hon. Member says, we have procured a number of vaccines. We have procured six in total, two of which are the two leading vaccines in the world. The taskforce has done an excellent job of making sure that we have one of the strongest procurement pipelines for vaccines in the world.
While we are still on the subject of vaccines and the Secretary of State is answering questions, the biography of Kate Bingham on her own website on SV Health Investors says that she is in fact leaving the taskforce at the end of 2020. Who is replacing her and what confidentiality agreements will she be asked to sign on her return to an entirely profit-making business?
It was a fixed-term appointment in order to do that vital work, and was always due to come to a close. This comes back to the old thing that we have across these Dispatch Boxes: on the Government side of the House, we want to harness the capabilities of everybody; on the Opposition side of the House, unless a person is in the public sector, they do not seem to get the credit. I think we should welcome everybody who is willing to put their shoulder to the wheel to drive the action that is necessary to improve this country’s response.
Does the Secretary of State accept that there are those of us in this House who like a mixed economy and who recognise the role of the private sector and of business, but that that does not undermine the need for any Government to have transparency about procurement and to protect the spending of taxpayers’ money?
Yes, absolutely. With comments like those, the hon. Lady should come over to this side of the House if she wants to be part of the big team effort. She obviously did not get the memo that says, “If you sit on the Opposition side, you have to attack anybody in the private sector who is helping.”
We have to pull together, because coronavirus is a powerful adversary. It has the power to overwhelm our hospitals, disrupt our economy and suspend the moments that make life so special, so we must take the hard but crucial steps to get it under control, and we will stand behind every single person who joins in this national effort. Everybody has a role to play, and as we come together once more, we must all work and make sacrifices to protect those who we love at this time of national need.
As I am sure colleagues can see, a large number of people wish to participate in this debate. We did not manage to get everybody in the last general debate, so I am imposing a time limit for Back Benchers that will start at five minutes.
I appreciate that there are Members who applied for the previous debate and could not get in, so if Members will forgive me, I will take very few interventions. It would be a shame if Members could not get into this debate, as happened last time.
On 21 September, SAGE advised the Prime Minister to adopt a time-limited circuit breaker, and warned that
“not acting now to reduce cases will result in a very large epidemic with catastrophic consequences”.
On 13 October, when we debated the tiered approach, I warned that
“the embers are burning brightly”
nationwide, and that
“further action is going to be needed.”—[Official Report, 13 October 2020; Vol. 682, c. 205.]
Later that day, the Leader of the Opposition proposed to work with the Prime Minister in the national interest and help to introduce a time-limited, two-week circuit break across the school half term.
What was Downing Street’s response to our offer to work together? Downing Street branded us opportunistic. The Chancellor criticised us, describing the proposal as
“a damaging, blunt, national lockdown”
that would cause
“unnecessary pain and suffering”.—[Official Report, 22 October 2020; Vol. 682, c. 1252.].
Even though this morning he defended the decision to go into lockdown, there are now briefings—I am sure the whole House will be shocked by this—that the Chancellor does not really support this lockdown after all. I have been around for a long time, and I know that when a Chancellor tells a Prime Minister that he supports him, while simultaneously letting Tory Back Benchers think that he backs them, that is definitely a man on manoeuvres.
Then we have the Foreign Secretary, who said that
“the idea of a short, sharp circuit breaker is, frankly, something of an enigma. No one can say, if you go into a national lockdown at what point you get out of it.”
That brings me to the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster and Minister for the Cabinet Office—a man renowned for his long-standing loyalty to the right hon. Member for Uxbridge and South Ruislip (Boris Johnson)—who, in recent days, performed a pirouette with great panache. Two weeks ago on “Sophie Ridge on Sunday”, when asked whether a circuit break could be introduced, he gave an emphatic “No!” But yesterday, when asked on “Sophie Ridge on Sunday” whether the Prime Minister’s lockdown could extend beyond four weeks, he said yes. No wonder the Foreign Secretary is confused with that level of consistency from his Cabinet colleagues.
Then, of course, we have the Prime Minister. Two weeks ago, he said a lockdown would be the “height of absurdity” and he said that a lockdown would “turn the lights out”, yet here we are on the eve of a longer, deeper and more restrictive lockdown than we proposed. Fundamentally, this is about the Prime Minister’s judgment. Since SAGE advised a lockdown in September, over 4,000 lives have been lost. Infections have increased from 4,000 a day to over 20,000 a day. The numbers in critical care on ventilation have increased from 154 to 815. Deaths have been doubling roughly every two weeks since the beginning of September.
Thousands more, sadly, are likely to die over the next fortnight. Tragically, this lockdown is too late for them. Andrew Hayward from SAGE said earlier today on the radio that
“if we had chosen a two-week circuit break…we would definitely have saved thousands of lives and we would clearly have inflicted substantially less damage on our economy than the proposed four-week lockdown will do.”
On Wednesday, Labour Members will, in the national interest, vote in support of the necessary measures, but the House should be clear that this lockdown will be longer and more damaging because the warnings from SAGE in September and then from the Opposition in October were dismissed by the Prime Minister. There is a sorry pattern to this Prime Minister’s handling of the crisis.
The shadow Health Secretary risks inadvertently misleading the House in suggesting that SAGE was recommending a two-week circuit-breaking lockdown. As he knows, it has strongly suggested that what it was talking about was a series of lockdowns. Is that still Labour’s position?
I am sure the hon. Gentleman is familiar with the minutes from SAGE, which read:
“The shortlist of non-pharmaceutical interventions (NPIs) that should be considered for immediate introduction includes:...A circuit-breaker (short period of lockdown) to return incidence to low levels.”
That is the proposal that we endorsed, and it is the proposal that was rejected on 21 September by the Prime Minister. Now the Prime Minister is putting the country into a four-week lockdown, which the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster conceded yesterday could last beyond four weeks. This is fundamentally about the judgment of the Prime Minister, and indeed the Chancellor, who, we know from briefings, blocked the Government from making the choice to go for lockdown earlier.
Throughout this crisis, we have seen mistake after mistake. The preparations for this pandemic were poor and insufficient. The lessons of Exercise Cygnus were not taken on board. The country’s stockpile of PPE was allowed to dwindle, leaving frontline health and care workers unprotected and placed in harm’s way. I hope we can get a cast-iron guarantee that the same will not happen again this winter. Instead of putting the public health teams in charge of tracing, Ministers turned to outsourcing companies, with management consultants paid more in one day than care workers would be paid over four months. Week by week, the numbers followed up by the test and trace system fall. Directors of public health, who want to get on with contact tracing, complain that it takes days for them to receive the information on cases.
The app was months too late, and yesterday we learned that it has an not even been alerting people properly. The Secretary of State is supposed to be the digital whizz kid, and he could not deliver the app on time, and it has not been working sufficiently. Far too many test results are still not turned around in 24 hours, even though we know that we need speed when dealing with a virus that spreads with such severity. There have been 1,300 outbreaks in care homes since the end of August, and care staff still wait more than two days for results.
As we have heard, there is still inadequate financial support for people who need to isolate. It should be no surprise that there were reports of less than 20% of people isolating, given that they are expected to make a choice between feeding their families and their health. Rather than giving people proper, decent sick pay, the Chancellor spent hundreds of millions subsidising meals in restaurants through the summer. There is now evidence from academics to suggest that that led to the spread of the virus and seeded the virus in the early stages of this second wave. We welcome the announcement of the 80% furlough, but furloughed workers in the midlands and the north will conclude that their jobs were worth 13% less than those elsewhere.
The experiences of other countries were needlessly ignored, warnings were downplayed, and the precious advantage of time was squandered. Tragically, that has been as true in September and October as it was in February and March. The Government did not learn. It does not require a crystal ball to listen to scientists and make timely decisions in the national interest, so lessons must be learned, and this lockdown must be used wisely.
I welcome what the Secretary of State said about expanding testing capacity, but we also need to turn around the PCR—polymerase chain reaction—tests quickly for those with symptoms. They are still not turned around in 24 hours. If we are going to have extra capacity in the system, I hope there will be a commitment to turn those tests around in 24 hours for those who need them. We need to expand access to testing to more people, to rebuild confidence across society. UK universities are leading the way in piloting regular saliva testing for students, and some have extended that to the wider community. Rolling out these saliva tests across communities paves the way for weekly testing of key workers such as transport staff, care staff and, especially, NHS staff.
We have been calling for months for the Government to roll out a programme of regular, routine testing of frontline NHS staff. Surely, as we move into winter, that should be a priority. The saliva testing innovation should be brought on stream quickly to do that routine testing of all frontline NHS staff. If we could roll that out—I know that the Secretary of State agrees with me on this, and I do not disagree with him on the objective; I am urging him to use these four weeks to get a move on with it—it would allow us to identify asymptomatic carriers and protect the most vulnerable in society. Will he come forward with a plan to work with our universities on saliva testing, which he knows is very exciting and could make a huge difference?
Contact tracing has to be fixed. It has not been working properly through the call centre approach. The local directors of public health would do a more effective job, but they need to get the contacts within 24 hours, not within days. If they get those contacts within 24 hours, they can introduce as a matter of routine retrospective contact tracing, which finds where people got the virus from and identifies super-spreading cluster events. That approach has been taken in countries such as Japan, and we know that it is more effective. I know that it is happening in some hotspots, but it should be routine across the country.
As I said, we need reassurance that people will get support for isolation. In this lockdown, we will have a spending review, and the test of that spending review is how it will support our national health service and social care sector for the rest of this covid period. We entered this crisis after years of underfunding in the national health service, with capital budgets repeatedly raided—[Interruption.] There were years of underfunding in the national health service—of course there were. The national health service used to get a funding increase of around 4% to 5%. It got something like 6% to 7% a year under Labour Governments. Under this Government, for 10 years, it has got around 1%. Everybody knows that the NHS went into this crisis after years of underfunding. Everybody knows that the NHS went into this crisis with capital budgets having been repeatedly raided, which has left hospitals with a £6 billion repair bill. The NHS entered this crisis with around 15,000 beds having been cut since 2010.
We cannot let this stand—what a load of nonsense. The NHS went into this crisis with the highest funding level in its history, with more doctors than at any time in its history, with more nurses than at any time in its history and with the biggest hospital building programme in its history. The investment from this Government in this NHS is the highest that has ever been made by any British Government in history, and that is why it is only we who are the party of the NHS.
The national health service has been systematically underfunded for years under this Tory Government. The NHS went into this crisis without adequate levels of PPE for frontline staff, with nurses using curtains and plastic bags to protect themselves on the wards in the face of this horrific virus. [Interruption.] They are sighing, but they sent our staff into the face of danger without the proper protection; that is what happened going into this crisis, because of years of cutbacks and underfunding of the national health service. The cutbacks and underfunding mean that we have lost 15,000 beds in the national health service since 2010, and that our public health budgets have been cut by £800 million under this Tory Government and because of years of austerity for the NHS. There are people with serious mental health problems who will be spending this lockdown in Victorian-style mental health dormitory wards because of the cutbacks in the capital funding for the NHS.
The hon. Gentleman mentions dormitories in mental health services. Dormitories have plagued mental health services for years and years and years—and who are the first Government to not only commit, but to put the funding in to end dormitories in mental health services? It is this Conservative Government. It is not only that this Government are the Government for the NHS and that we are the party of the NHS; we are also the party investing record sums in mental health services, with the biggest increase of all the increases in funding going into mental health services, including to end the dormitories in mental health services that have existed ever since the NHS was created.
The Government have been cutting capital budgets in the NHS, which is why we have still got those horrendous dormitory wards, including at Leicestershire Partnership NHS Trust and Derbyshire Healthcare NHS Foundation Trust. Years of Tory cutbacks have meant that clinical commissioning groups have been raiding child and adolescent mental health budgets in order to fix the wider revenue gaps in the NHS. That is because of 10 years of underfunding in the national health service. We went into this crisis with an NHS that did not have enough staff—short of 80,000. It has seen 15,000 beds cut and public health budgets cut by £800 million. Hospitals have been left with £6 billion of repair bills and with these Victorian dormitory wards that have not been updated for years. The Secretary of State cannot stand there and say that the NHS had enough investment going into this crisis, because if it had we would not have had staff without PPE.
Perhaps my hon. Friend will take a look at the situation in Wales. Thanks to investment from the Welsh Government, I have a brand-new mental health facility at Llandough Hospital in Cardiff South and Penarth, with state-of-the-art facilities to deal with mental health issues in Wales.
Wales also has a much better test, trace and protect system because the Welsh Government did not outsource it to Serco. Of course, the Welsh First Minister showed some leadership and actually imposed his short firebreaker, when the Secretary of State’s leader was running away from the difficult decisions that were needed and was not following the advice of the scientists.
The spending review is due towards the end of November. The test will be whether the NHS and the social care system are given the funding they need. One matter that the Secretary of State did not go into in great detail—perhaps the Minister for Patient Safety, Mental Health and Suicide Prevention, the hon. Member for Mid Bedfordshire (Ms Dorries), could respond when she sums up—is what protection will be in place for the social care sector. We understand why we need to have a lockdown, but we know that a lockdown is going to be particularly devastating for those in receipt of social care. Many people have made great sacrifices, not being able to see their loved ones in social care throughout this period. There is a great worry that many loved ones are literally fading away in social care, not able to see their daughters, granddaughters, sons and grandsons.
We really need a system in place so that loved ones can see their families in social care. Some of the testing innovations that the Secretary of State has spoken of, which we welcome, should be used so that relatives can see their loved ones in social care regularly. He did not mention that today, but this is going to be a real issue in the coming weeks. I hope that the Minister of State can reassure the House that there will be a sufficient plan in place for those in receipt of social care to be fully protected throughout the four-week lockdown and the winter more generally.
Does my hon. Friend agree that not only do those in care need additional protection, but the black and minority ethnic death rates in the first lockdown were unprecedented? The Government published the disparities report, yet they do not have an action plan as we go into a second wave. We can see the numbers already; BAME deaths have already happened in my constituency in this wave. What are the Government going to do to protect those from BAME backgrounds who are particularly at risk?
This is a really important point, which my hon. Friend has raised many times in the House. We know that covid particularly thrives on inequalities in society and is particularly brutal with respect to socioeconomic inequities. We have seen the disproportionate impact on those from BAME backgrounds, particularly those who live in constituencies such as hers and mine, in overcrowded housing or in low-paid, public-facing roles. The Public Health England report and other reports published in recent weeks by think tanks all make welcome and sensible recommendations about targeted testing and particular protections in the workplace. Those need to be implemented because we know that this virus is particularly cruel when it comes to inequalities. That is why I have always made the broader point that getting through this virus in the end not only relies on mass testing—we agree on that—and the wider distribution of a vaccine, but fundamentally relies on a wider health inequalities strategy. We went into this crisis with inequalities getting wider, life expectancy going backwards and child mortality rates worsening. That is the result of 10 years of austerity, as Sir Michael Marmot says. If we want to get on top of this virus, which is now endemic, we are going to need a fully resourced and wider health inequalities strategy.
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman. I invite him to agree that the Treasury needs to up its game on its co-ordination with the devolved Administrations because, when Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland wanted to go into lockdown there was no extension to the furlough, yet there is when the policy comes to England. The Treasury needs to be working with the devolved Administrations so that they can pursue their chosen public health policy.
The hon. Gentleman makes a completely valid point, although it is not just about the devolved Administrations; the Chancellor should work more closely with the various civic leaderships across the country. When it was the north being locked down, they simply did not get the economic support for the jobs and livelihoods in their areas. If the Government are moving to a tiered system post this lockdown, whenever it ends, I hope that they will not make that mistake again.
If this pandemic has taught us anything, it is surely that our NHS and social care service, and the staff who care for all of us, need to be fully funded and supported in the months ahead. We will support this lockdown on Wednesday—we will vote for it—but the British people are again being asked to make huge sacrifices, so, in return, Ministers must not waste this lockdown. They must take action to improve the test and tracing system, they should expand the new testing techniques and we must give the NHS and our social care system the support they need to get through the months ahead.
I wholeheartedly support these measures. When we look at the starkness of the data presented to the country at the weekend, we see that the issue is not whether the lockdown is wise, but whether we use the lockdown wisely. I hope that the Health Secretary will forgive me, as his predecessor, if I set out one or two of the things we need to use the next month to sort out if we are to ensure that this is the last coronavirus lockdown and that it is a short one.
First, it will not surprise the Health Secretary that I say this, but we must introduce weekly testing of NHS staff. In the first wave, up to 11% of coronavirus hospital deaths happened to people who picked up their infection in their own hospital. For the basic principles of patient safety and staff safety, we must make sure that that does not happen a second time; otherwise cancer patients will worry whether it is safe to go to their hospital, staff will worry about whether they are infecting their own patients and we will see the NHS again descend into being a covid-only service. We had some hospitals in London where more than 40% of staff were infected in the previous wave. It would be unforgiveable to let that happen again. I know that the Secretary of State is sympathetic and would like to do this. I would just urge him to do it as soon as possible.
I would be very grateful, and I know that staff everywhere would be grateful, if my right hon. Friend could give some indication of when all NHS staff can be confident that they will be tested, but I thank him very much for that answer.
Secondly, I hope the Secretary of State will not mind me saying that this is the moment when we have to fix contact tracing. To be reaching only 60% of people’s known contacts is not good enough. He knows that, and he does not try to defend it—
No, no. This is the point: when we have 50,000 people being infected every single day, it is a massive logistical task, but if we are honest, we still had problems when it was a tenth of that number being infected every day. This is the moment to recognise the uncomfortable truth that this would be better done locally, with local authorities taking the ultimate responsibility. While we are making these changes to the contact tracing regime, to have only 20% of people who are infected and told to self-isolate actually complying suggests only one answer, which is that we as the state should pay their wages for the period that they have been asked to isolate. That is expensive, but it is less expensive than the cost of them not complying with the important direction to isolate.
On a more technical matter, I ask the Health Secretary to consider whether there is a way we can speed up the approval of the new therapeutic drugs that are coming online. As he knows, we generally wait until both safety and efficacy are proved before approval is given to a new drug. However, in a pandemic, would it not be right to allow the mass marketing of drugs to go ahead as soon as they are deemed safe, even though we cannot guarantee their efficacy? That could save lives, and any delay might mean that people could not get the benefits of those new drugs.
I want to finish on the issue of population testing. My right hon. Friend and I have had many discussions about this and again I know that he is sympathetic. We are in an immensely stronger position because of the huge improvements in testing capacity that he rightly celebrated in his earlier comments. However grave the situation we are in now, it would be a whole lot graver if we had not increased testing capacity from 10,000 a day to 100,000 a day, and then to 500,000 a day last week and potentially 1 million a day by Christmas. We are not far off the 2 million a day that would be needed to test the whole population every month.
Now is the time for us to tell the public how we are going to chart a course to that destination, because this is the only true light at the end of the tunnel. Charting a course to that destination means charting a course through the incredibly complex logistics and through the technology that will be necessary to record who has or has not had their positive test on time, but if we can show people that there is a date next spring by which the whole population will be tested on a regular basis, we will also be showing people that there is a way through this pandemic. In that way, our national depression would be lifted and we would be able to give the hope to our constituents that is now in such desperately short supply.
Covid-19 has produced the biggest health and economic challenges since the war. Those two factors are inextricably linked, and until we have the virus under some kind of control, the economic impact will continue to be felt in all areas of our economy and, indeed, our country. We must end the fallacy promoted by excitable columnists and their right-wing chums that there is a choice to be made between protecting the economy and protecting the people. There is not, and those who spread this dangerous nonsense should know the damage and distress they are causing. For example, the founder of Pret a Manger has said:
“Society will not recover if we do it again to save a few thousand lives of very old or vulnerable people.”
I wonder what Mr Metcalfe’s elderly relatives thought of his outright dismissal of the value of their lives. That sort of dangerous and nonsensical rhetoric implies that there is some sort of trade-off between premature death and our society’s wealth. I do not accept that for a moment, and I hope that this Government will condemn those attitudes completely. Society itself is linked to the economy and, until we are past this virus, ensuring that people stay alive, safe and healthy is not just the right thing to do as human beings, but the right thing to do for our wider society and prosperity.
The economy is not an abstract concept; it is where my constituents, indeed all our constituents, earn their living. As a constituency Member representing an airport, I am all too aware of the huge pressures that the aviation industry in particular has been under during these past eight months. I totally respect the UK Government’s view that travel outwith the UK will not be allowed for residents of England. They are entitled to draw up restrictions that best fit England, but they will have an impact on aviation and airports across England, and the Prime Minister and his Government have to recognise that. Even with furlough, this industry, which directly and indirectly employs nearly a million people across the UK, needs the kind of bespoke support that the Chancellor promised at the beginning of this pandemic. Regional economies across the country face disaster if that support is not forthcoming. There must be a recognition that the restrictions that come into force this week in England require not only a furlough package, but targeted intervention in key sectors of our economy, including in aviation. That targeted intervention must also encompass the wider transport industry.
Already we have seen Alexander Dennis announce 650 job losses driven by a collapse in demand for buses from operators. We face the prospect of high-skilled, high-value jobs being lost forever, because the Government will not come up with a plan to secure our manufacturing industry that faces a short-term crisis in the middle of long-term growth and strength. The Transport Secretary stood at the Dispatch Box in July and promised £3 billion to help build 4,000 buses. That is welcome, but that money and those orders are needed now to protect the remaining jobs at Alexander Dennis and beyond, otherwise by the time that money gets spent, we will be buying those 4,000 buses overseas rather than supporting indigenous businesses and jobs.
The Scottish Government are doing everything in their power to stimulate a sustained economic recovery, but while other Governments are able to borrow to finance a response, the Scottish Government are unable to do so. In fact, Transport for London will be able to borrow 400% more this year than the entire Scottish Government will be able to borrow for this year. Such are the constraints that are put in place by the devolution settlement.
That being said, Scotland is seeing some early tentative success in driving case rates down with the measures introduced in the central belt last month. That is down to the hard work and collective action taken by the majority of people in Scotland. Indeed, Scotland’s five-level restriction system went live today. It is a system aligned as much as possible with England’s three tiers for simplicity and the easier application of Treasury support. This has been hard for all, but harder still for many. It is also clear that the situation is still finely balanced, and that balance is not helped by devolved and local authorities being hamstrung by a Treasury that does not recognise that the world and the UK constitution have moved on in the past 30 years, and that its grip has to loosen, especially as we are in the middle of a public health emergency.
I urge the Treasury to come to its senses and agree a framework with the devolved Administrations that gives real flexibility on furlough and allows Governments to protect jobs and protect the economy. Announcements of this kind need to be taken in close consultation, not by surprise announcements on Twitter or from a No.10 podium. Following the failure to confirm this over the weekend, the general secretary of the Scottish Trades Union Congress said that continued UK Government opposition to flexible furlough
“would mark a new low point in the UK government’s treatment of Scottish workers and public health in Scotland.”
Even the hon. Member for Moray (Douglas Ross), the leader of the Scottish Conservatives here, believes that that should be the case. He asked,
“how could a Unionist government not restart the scheme if a second lockdown is required in Scotland?”
Let us try to forget the fact that he has come a little late to the party and embrace the fact that he has shown up at all. None the less, it does take something special to unite the Scottish Tories and the Scottish trade unionists, but that was and is the reality in Scotland following the Prime Minister’s Saturday night address.
We face a fairly chaotic situation now following the Prime Minister’s answer to the aforementioned hon. Member. He arrogantly dismissed questions from many Members from across the UK—not just from SNP and Scottish Members—about furlough being extended to Scotland, Wales, and Northern Ireland when it is needed. He went on to give a fairly woolly assurance to the hon. Member for Moray who is now running around quoting him, trying to claim a grand political victory for the Scottish Tories when, a very short time ago, there was no agreement that the furlough scheme actually had to be extended at all. The sad thing is that the statement the Prime Minister gave is not what the Scottish Office is saying, it is not what the Scottish Conservative shadow economy spokesperson said on the radio and, crucially, it is not what the Treasury is saying to the Scottish Government. I am not saying that I mistrust the Prime Minister, but until I see an assurance in writing from the Treasury, I will assume the status quo remains.
Of course, this U-turn, coming as it did well beyond the eleventh hour, has come far too late for many businesses and many workers who are without a livelihood as we approach the bleakest winter for job prospects for decades. This disrespectful approach to the devolved Governments confirms what most people in Scotland have thought for years—that it is Greater London that drives the political agenda of the UK. When devolved Governments joined business leaders and unions to ask for furlough to be extended to save jobs and give Cardiff, Belfast and Edinburgh flexibility in their public health approach, the Government said, “No, we can’t afford it.” When MPs, Select Committee reports, business groups and others called for support for the 3 million excluded from Government programmes, the Government said, “No, we can’t afford it.” When the Mayor of Manchester asked for Treasury funds to support the local lockdowns, the Government haggled and said no. But when it was suggested that an English national lockdown was required and that London and the south-east would be affected, the Chancellor suddenly remembered where he had put the magic money tree and said yes.
The truth is that the Government like to call themselves a one-nation Government, but if there was any doubt whatever which country that was, we can now see it, plain as day. Even if only for their precious Union, the Treasury must see sense, treat the devolved Governments and the people of Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland with respect and agree a scheme that recognises the different needs across these isles. It must be on the same basis as the Chancellor has delivered for England.
May I add to the point that the hon. Gentleman is making? He will be aware that the Welsh Government have given care workers a £500 bonus, but I have constituents whose families have lost benefits because the Treasury has treated that bonus for care workers working during the pandemic as income. It is disgraceful.
That is the first time I have heard that and it is absolutely disgraceful. The DWP and the Minister should really look at that. It is not on, particularly in the pandemic situation that we are facing at the moment, and the hon. Gentleman makes his point well.
We are now 60 days away from a potential no-deal Brexit. The EU offered, indeed practically begged, the UK to postpone negotiations until we have all collectively dealt with the pandemic, but the fanaticism of the British state in believing that they could carry on singing “Rule Britannia!” in the middle of the biggest health emergency the world has seen is breath-taking. I am extremely worried—I do not believe I am alone—that we could be headed for a situation in the new year that will have an impact on our collective response to the pandemic, and which may cost unnecessary lives. No one disputes the scale of the challenge faced by the Prime Minister and his Government. It is a challenge that Governments across the world and these isles are having to face, but there should be no doubt that the Prime Minister and his colleagues are failing that challenge.
The Government are driven by old chums, cronies and cash—taxpayers’ cash. There is no logical reason why someone who was at the helm of a company responsible for one of the biggest data breaches in British history is now in charge of England’s Test and Trace system. There is no logical reason why that Test and Trace system has been privatised into the hands of Serco, Deloitte, G4S, Mitie, Sodexo, Boots and a labyrinth of subcontractors, agencies, consultants, spivs and chancers, or that substantial PPE contracts should be awarded to a loss-making company in Gloucestershire that—coincidentally—happens to be run by a Conservative councillor.
The contempt for those outside the gilded circle extends to anyone outside the M25. When the Mayor of Greater Manchester called for employment support when tougher regulations were introduced in his area, he was accused of playing politics. When the First Minister of Wales asked for additional support to help his people during the firebreak, he was ridiculed and ignored. When the First Minister of Scotland asked for flexibility in extending furlough in the event that Scotland needed it, she and the Finance Secretary were told no.
The people of Scotland can see the chaotic and bumbling style emanating from No. 10, and an analysis of recent polls suggests our judgment of the Government, and the Prime Minister in particular, is bleak and total. The Prime Minister’s job approval rating in Scotland is minus 58%, whereas the First Minister enjoys a job approval of plus 49%. That is a lead of 109 percentage points. I have been, quite sadly, avidly interested in politics for a very long time—since an unnaturally young age—and I have never seen anything quite as stark as that. Indeed, YouGov found that the First Minister was more popular than the Prime Minister in England. I suspect that this is why, in recent days and weeks, we have seen the hon. Member for Moray running as fast as he possibly can from the Prime Minister. But the real concern for the Government and many Members of this House is the clear increase in the level of support for Scottish independence. The poll had support at 58%. With this latest polling debacle that the Minister for the Union has presided over, I suspect that the first 60% poll is now within sight. The message is clear. If this Government continue to make decisions that ignore the wishes of those outside the M25, they do so at their precious Union’s peril.
If I may just respond to the hon. Member for Paisley and Renfrewshire North (Gavin Newlands), I do not feel that this House is ignoring Scotland; I feel that this House has voted for very large sums of extra money to be devoted to Scotland. But perhaps my Government need to be more mindful of the fact that these things can be so easily misconstrued in the heat of Scottish politics, and it is the responsibility of the Government to make sure that they are not so misconstrued.
This crisis was incredibly unexpected, even though it took months to arrive, and almost every western Government was extraordinarily ill-prepared for it. There have been unprecedented challenges, inevitable mistakes, much experimentation, much learning and much wasted, but much achieved. However, the politics of this country inevitably tends to revert to type, and we have seen a bit more of that in the House of Commons today with what we do best in here, which is to disagree with each other for the sake of disagreement. Somehow we have to try to rise above that in this crisis.
The opposition to these measures on the Government Benches reflects declining public confidence in the Government’s covid response, and it is public confidence that the Government should, above all else, strive to address. So what needs to be done to strengthen public confidence? We heard quite a lot about that in the speech by my right hon. Friend the Member for South West Surrey (Jeremy Hunt). A lot of it is about having a plan, explaining a plan, and giving people hope that there is a plan. The measures announced on Saturday are another reaction that has set the course for the next four weeks, but beyond that, the Government have not published any plan. I have been asking for some time for a plan called “Living with coronavirus”. There may be a single vaccine that gets us out in one go, but that is most unlikely to happen, so we will go on needing to manage the spread of the virus for many months and possibly even years. How are the Government going to do that? The Royal Society certainly does not expect an instant vaccine.
There are basically three choices facing this House. The first is to control the virus with more of these economically ruinous lockdowns. We all agree that that is not going to be acceptable, and we have heard frustration being expressed by some of my colleagues. The second is to expand the NHS to gargantuan proportions so that we can deal with as many people who get infected. We cannot afford to do that and we do not have the capacity to do it. The only solution is to try to manage the virus, perhaps with vaccines but certainly with Test and Trace. We have had six months to get Test and Trace to where it is. Let us celebrate the 500,000 tests a day and the huge organisation that has been established, but we should ask ourselves what needs to be done in order for us to have as effective testing and tracing as people have in Japan and in Korea. They had years practising in the aftermath of SARS—severe acute respiratory syndrome. We have had to achieve this very much more quickly, but that does not mean that we cannot adapt those experiences of very different societies to our own immediate future to make sure that we do a much better job.
We need to carry on improving the data. The fact that Test and Trace is divided among four different directorates in four different locations, and that the data directorate has had three directors general in the past five or six months, does not suggest that there is much continuity or co-ordination across Test and Trace.
We need to deliver a campaign to change behaviour on the street. This cannot be done from a spreadsheet in Whitehall. It cannot be done from remote call centres with unfamiliar telephone numbers. It can only be done with person-to-person human contact. Go and ask the Japanese how they are doing it. It is very analogue. It is very old-fashioned. There is an app— every country has an app—but an app is a tiny proportion of what people can achieve. People are not going to use an app if they think it just results in them being rung up by some stranger and told what to do. That is not working.
Above all, NHS Test and Trace needs a single command structure and a single plan. However localised the delivery is, and I am very much in favour of using local authorities—the local authority pilots that have been carried out already have proved very much more successful in contacting a much higher proportion of people—every local authority should be so funded. However, we need a central headquarters, preferably run by a military capability that can bring this together and win this together.
Order. In order to get everybody in, after the next speaker I will need to reduce the time limit to four minutes, which is what was in place in the debate before the recess. Perhaps colleagues might like to tell the hon. Member for Wycombe (Mr Baker) when he returns that it will be four minutes for his speech.
Dither, delay and disaster—that was the Prime Minister’s own word today—and, of course, it did not have to be this way. There has never been a starker contrast between the gross failings of the Prime Minister and the leadership shown by my right hon. Friend the Leader of the Opposition, my hon. Friends on the Labour Front Bench and our Welsh Labour First Minister, Mark Drakeford, in calling for action at the right time and taking action at the right time on a firebreak lockdown. Instead, we saw a Prime Minister who ridiculed the proposals, describing them as “the height of absurdity”. His office described the Leader of the Opposition as “an opportunist”. The Chancellor blocked those who wanted to act sooner, and now we are seeing the same mistakes repeated that we saw earlier in the year. Forty days have been wasted, with the consequence that England will now face a longer, harder lockdown and worse consequences.
What a contrast with Wales, where our First Minister set out a difficult but clear set of restrictions, with common-sense exemptions, when he announced our firebreak weeks ago. He has communicated throughout with, and engaged and listened to, our elected representatives, councils, businesses and trade unions—the hallmark of his approach throughout this crisis—bringing Wales together to tackle the tough reality that covid presents. Today, he has set out that on 9 November our firebreak will end, not in a free-for-all, but with a sensible, clear, national set of measures, where people will be encouraged to do the minimum, not the maximum, allowed and we will prioritise the safety of their families, their friends and our NHS as we continue to be led by the evidence and the threat of this virus.
The consequences of the wider approach taken by the Prime Minister could not be more serious for our collective health and the economy. As the Independent SAGE meeting last week suggested, over the next four weeks, we will now potentially see deaths locked in in their thousands in England if the trends continue, and the mental health and the economic impacts will be for longer and deeper. That is the cost of delay, and I have never known a more incompetent and reckless Prime Minister, Chancellor and Government.
Matt Chorley reported what Tory MPs tell him in private—they often tell us in private, too. There were comments such as:
“Shambolic. Rudderless ramblings. Constituents getting in touch furious or in tears”,
“Grim grim grim”
“I think it could be his Suez”.
At least they have the guts to be honest in private, but others, extraordinarily, would rather brazen it out in public. The Minister for Patient Safety, Mental Health and Suicide Prevention claimed that only a crystal ball could have predicted the need for a second lockdown—it is absolutely extraordinary. Has she even been reading her briefs? Anybody can see from the graphs, the trends or the historical examples—
Will the hon. Gentleman give way?
Yes, and of course the First Minister and the Health Minister, my colleague Vaughan Gething, saw the same evidence, took action and instituted a firebreak lockdown when it was needed.
Other Tory MPs have been simply patronising. The Minister for the Middle East and North Africa, the right hon. Member for Braintree (James Cleverly), said:
“If you want to see how a Labour government would be dealing with the current COVID-19 situation just look at how they’re doing in Wales.”
Well, yes, Minister—we would be feeding kids throughout the holidays and running a fully functioning test, trace and protect system throughout the UK. The figures speak for themselves: since June, 94% have been reached and 95% of their contacts have been reached. Instead of contracting it out to Serco and the other companies under the shambolic oversight of one of the Prime Minister’s pals, we would be acting decisively across the UK, in accordance with the scientific advice, when it mattered.
The Welsh Conservatives are all over the place today, describing our lockdown as “disproportionate and unnecessary” and refusing to back the Prime Minister’s plans for a lockdown in England. What an absolute shambles. A firebreak lockdown is right and has my support, but those affected need the right economic support from the UK Treasury. We have again seen the UK Government wait until the last minute to act to support people in Wales, meaning a huge amount of anxiety for people in my constituency and preventable job losses. That is not to mention the delays in the announcement of support for the self-employed and the failure to do the right thing on furlough and co-operate with Wales in time for our measures to come into place. That the Government instead played petty partisan politics is deeply disappointing and will undoubtedly have led to people losing jobs.
We now need clear answers to a number of questions. Will we see backdated support to address the Chancellor’s failure to act in relation to Wales until he decided to announce the England-wide measures? Will there be confirmation of what the Prime Minister said about the support available if we go into measures again after 2 December? I think he said it would be available “wherever it is needed”. What transparency will there be on the additional support for Wales as a result of the business grant support announced for England? What will happen in terms of universal credit and support for families who are deeply affected by losing jobs and income? We need to see an end to the game-playing.
Lastly, I wish to refer to the issue that I brought up earlier, as did my hon. Friend the Member for Leicester South (Jonathan Ashworth): vaccines. It is crucial that we have hope in these dark times. I thank our NHS, care workers and key workers, and all the brilliant scientists and medical professionals who are working to improve testing capability, drive new treatments and find a vaccine. There are, though, serious questions about the involvement of the chair of the vaccines taskforce in an online seminar costing $200 a head for American investors, and the sharing of official sensitive documents. It is absolutely right that the shadow Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster—my hon. Friend the Member for Leeds West (Rachel Reeves)—and my hon. Friend the Member for Leicester South have been asking questions about the conflicts of interest, why that information was shared with that group of people instead of with this House, and whether that was inappropriate. I hope we get some answers from the Cabinet Secretary on those questions, because they are very serious and we need hope and optimism on a vaccine and the information given to this House.
It is clear that we need support for our economy and all those affected, and we need clarity on a vaccine. People need hope in these dark times.
This morning, I chaired a meeting with the psychologist Emma Kenny. She spoke absolutely brilliantly so I shall shamelessly steal and abridge her speech from this morning. She said:
“Human beings are not meant to be isolated, in fact you are less likely to die if you smoke 15 cigarettes a day, than you are if you are lonely. Loneliness kills, which is why the Alzheimer’s society have been telling us for many, many months that care home restrictions are dangerous to their residents, the elderly literally wither and die…when they are kept from their close and loving bonds.
We are social creatures, and we need to physically experience the presence of others if we are to thrive. This is what makes us human, this is what keeps us healthy, and this is what kills us when we are denied.
And denied is what we have been, and what we continue to be. Research is telling us a terrifying story, and one that will be told for many, many years to come, one whose ending will be decided based on moments like today.”
Emma Kenny went on:
“I, and so many of my peers believe fiercely that children, more than any other demographic require safeguarding, legally and morally our democratic society should wish to protect children from harm. In fact, the Children’s act clearly, and rightly states that children’s welfare should be the paramount concern, and that physical, emotional, social and educational harm is unacceptable on any level where children are concerned…Yet, harm, abuse and neglect is exactly what the current restrictions are causing.
The last seven months has seen an exponential rise in reported levels of stress, anxiety and depression, with research finding that 80% of young people are experiencing a decline in their mental health. Suicidal thoughts in young people are also sharply rising, these are children, and they are so afraid, so traumatised, so concerned about their future, that they are deciding whether to experience a future at all. Indeed, the Government and the media have taught children to be afraid of living, of playing, of loving.
One of the biggest killers in the UK is poverty, in fact, poor people die on average ten years younger than their affluent peers, meaning they will not have the luxury of reaching the age of a Coronavirus death, and yet who are restrictions affecting most? The poor.
Children and young people are having their security ripped apart on every level. Their education, which for some children is the only consistent safety and care that they experience has been…desecrated, and thrown into chaos.
They are watching their parents lose jobs, they will soon watch them lose their homes, because restrictions are killing the economy, ruining businesses, and devasting the employment landscape, meaning that many adults will struggle to find work again... This silence”—
they are silenced because of lack of internet access—
“means that they cannot tell you their stories, and their story will unequivocally be to end restrictions so that they,”
“can feed their children, and remain in the jobs and homes that they deserve to keep.
The Data is now there for all to see, and it unequivocally evidences the continued”—
Emma Kenny says—
“overreaction of this leadership.
Even more concerning is that scientists and medics who modelled their predictions correctly are constantly shut down, excluded and positioned as loose cannons in the scientific and wider community, even though each has been willing to stand in their truth at a cost to them financially, reputationally and institutionally. Why? They have nothing to gain, and everything to lose, but their integrity, compassion, and scientific dedication, along with their care for the wellbeing and future of the human race means that they cannot remain silent, no matter how loudly they are shut down and attacked, no matter how greatly they lose.
Truth tellers are always willing to lose, because,”
as she says, as her father taught her,
“the right way, is rarely the easy way, but it remains the right way nonetheless.”
She finishes by saying that:
“Churchill said, ‘All the greatest things are simple, and many can be expressed in a single word: freedom; justice; honour; duty; mercy; hope.’”
She asks us to do our duty,
“to restore justice, to show the working classes mercy, and to return the very foundation that democracy is built upon. Freedom.”
Many of the decisions we make in this House pass over the heads of the general public, sometimes because they only affect a small group, and other times because they take a long time to show an effect. But as the hon. Member for Wycombe (Mr Baker) has starkly illustrated—I will not go through it all for the sake of time—the decisions that we are making today will have an immediate impact on people across the country and a detrimental impact on their businesses, wellbeing and health.
I will make three observations. First, many of the decisions that we have made and are making here are based on the views of experts which, unfortunately, we have accepted uncritically. Of course, it is human nature, when we are faced with situations that we do not understand and that have a bad impact on our lives, to turn to those who we believe have some knowledge and understanding.
In primitive societies, when famines, plagues or diseases struck, people turned to the medicine men, who came with a bag of bones that they threw on the ground. They then made their analysis and told people what sacrifices had to be made to satisfy the gods. I suspect that our sophisticated society is not much different. We call them chief medical officers and they bring their computers with their models. They tell us what the problem is and what the sacrifices have to be, regardless of the impact on society.
We are criticised for criticising experts, but given some of the predictions that we have heard, we have to ask whether they have shown that they understand it. We were told that there would be 500,000 deaths by now and, in the middle of September, that there would be 50,000 new cases a day by the middle of October. Neither has happened. We bought, or ordered, 90,000 ventilators because we were told that the national health service would be overrun; we used fewer than 4,000 of them. I could go on. We have to ask whether we uncritically accept the words of those who say that they are expert advisers.
Secondly, we must look at the entirety of the impact of the decisions we make. Unfortunately, we seem to have become obsessed with coronavirus and the impact on the health service, without looking at the impact on the economy and on people’s lives.
Thirdly, we must ask ourselves what the alternatives are. The evidence shows that this disease does not affect the whole of society. It has a disproportionate impact on a particular part of society—elderly people—yet we are using instruments that affect everybody. Very few deaths occur among people of working age, and many who are infected do not go on to have any real detrimental effects, yet we treat everyone the same. I do not have time to explore this, but the Great Barrington declaration advocates a targeted approach, and I believe that the Government should be looking at adopting that approach, rather than this blunt instrument of bashing the economy and bashing the populace in an unmerciful way.
The prospect of another lockdown is truly awful. Constituents are writing to me totally distraught at not being able to visit their families or facing the collapse of their business, and even those who are about to have a baby are wondering how on earth they are going to manage. If the Government have properly assessed the harm to all our citizens—to the nation’s mental and economic health—and still concluded that covid is a bigger threat than all the unemployment, all the lost dreams, all the health issues going undiagnosed, and all the loneliness and depression, then this time let us do it smarter and with compassion.
I want to make a few brief points. First, we learned in the first lockdown that general support for businesses is a good thing, but now we also know that some in certain key business sectors have been all but destroyed by the lockdown, such as hospitality businesses, weddings and events organisers, exhibitions, merchandising companies, and festival events organisers—in fact, anyone who depends on large gatherings. So while Whitehall Departments have distributed welcome support across the economy, we now need more targeted support for those businesses that can be saved in the longer term and, frankly, a tough conversation where they cannot.
Secondly, we need to support businesses to adapt to the new reality. We saw in the first lockdown the brilliance of some: a gin distiller turning its trade to manufacturing hand sanitisers; a dry cleaner becoming a face mask manufacturer; and many tradespeople developing perspex screens for tills. So what are the Government going to do to help businesses adapt and find a way through this?
Thirdly, we now know that some businesses that could carry on may be tempted, because Government support is so broad-ranging, to down tools, furlough staff and wait until better times emerge. The taxpayer should support businesses to get through this, but not those choosing to sit out the lockdown, leaving staff at home worrying when they could be out working. So, overall, my first plea to the Government is to target support for business during this new lockdown in a smart way.
My second plea to the Government is to implement the lockdown in a compassionate way. In the first lockdown we all took the science at face value; we were glued to the daily updates and followed the advice on what we could and could not do. I believe that this time around, however, there is likely to be a genuine issue with compliance. Many of our citizens are struggling financially, while some are struggling emotionally or worrying about their loved ones, and others are simply feeling, “I’m not likely to die of covid and I’m not willing to give up my freedom for the sake of a few who might die.” To be clear, I am not condoning non-compliance in any way; I am giving a snapshot of what I am seeing in my email inbox.
The conclusion I draw from the views of my constituents is that it is essential this time that the Government do not just tell people what to do, but explain to them why this is important. The new restrictions must make sense to an ordinary sensible adult and should be defensible and explicable, yes, by an ordinary sensible MP. Outdoor swimming pools, village football, tennis and golf—do they really present a danger of spreading covid? As my constituent pointed out to me at the weekend, “When I play golf, I spend the whole time on my own in the bushes, looking for my ball.” If those outdoor pursuits, which provide such a lifeline, must stop, those whose liberties are being denied need to understand precisely why.
If we had had a short circuit break at the beginning of autumn, fewer people would have been sick and fewer people would have died. The reality now is that we face a long, harsh lockdown at the very time people need support. I am worried about the loneliness those long dark nights will bring and the impact on people’s mental health. It is damaging not only for people, but for our economy.
I want to suggest two things that could make a difference over the lockdown period we will have to endure. They could make the difference that turns the tide and ultimately saves lives. The first suggestion is local contact tracing. I present it to the Minister with evidence for why we need localised test analysis and contact tracing. On testing, the delay in getting results is far too long. The local resilience forum in North Yorkshire said that after 24 hours, only 16% of tests are returned; after 48 hours, 60% are returned, and after 72 hours, 96% are returned. That is too long to wait to lock down the virus. If we could process those tests locally—test locally and process locally—we could have the results overnight. The University of York Aptima, a local laboratory, has the capability to do that in York. We need some seed funding from the Government, then we can process more than 6,000 tests a day in our city alone.
The evidence on contact tracing is clear. We have heard this evening that Serco turns round only 48% of contact tracing. City of York is already at 83% and had they had more effective data, which they could if they ran the system, they believe they could get to 100%. Indeed, last Wednesday, they did. The difference is stark. A quick response is key to getting on top of the virus—testing quickly, contact tracing quickly and isolating the virus quickly, as opposed to isolating people and the economy. The evidence is clear and I hope that the Government will respond to the suggestion of a localised system of public health.
Just over a week ago, the case rate in York was 307.2 per 100,000 cases. Since we have been doing our own contact tracing, it has fallen to 189.4 per 100,000 cases. That is the evidence the Government need to hold on to to recognise that local contact tracing is effective. It delivers, it saves lives and it will ultimately see off this virus with some of the other measures mentioned.
Secondly, as we unlock the economy, I want to suggest a new approach. When we deal with public health in workplaces, we give workplaces the all clear and certify that they are safe. If a work or community environment is covid secure and certified to be so, it should remain open. As we just heard with the golf example, they do not carry the risk of the virus. If those places are not secure, improvement notices should be issued and venues should remain closed. That is a simple, public health approach, which will make a difference without harming the economy further.
Those are two simple suggestions that can turn the ship around and make the ultimate difference. We need to do that because we cannot risk the NHS, we cannot risk our economy further and ultimately, we cannot risk lives. I trust that the Minister will respond positively this evening.
There are several points that I want to cover. First, I will just reiterate to the Minister what I said to the Leader of the House. I really do not think that a 90-minute debate on Wednesday is adequate for the decision the House is being asked to take, which will potentially cost 10% of our gross domestic product. It seems to me that that warrants a slightly longer debate to allow Members from both sides of the House to set out the concerns and questions that they might have and to properly represent their constituents. I would ask Ministers to reflect on whether they think a 90-minute debate is actually adequate.
I know Ministers have referred to the debates we have already had, but of course we have not seen the regulations yet. We are not planning on seeing them till tomorrow. I anticipate that they will be quite lengthy and that there will be many questions about them. I suspect Members who are lucky enough to participate in the debate will have just one or two minutes to make their points, and I really do not think that is adequate. Even at this stage, it is not too late for the Government to think again and give us a full day’s debate on Wednesday, perhaps even with the House sitting later to enable that to be taken into account.
With apologies to the House, I just want to ask my right hon. Friend if he agrees with me that there has been rarely enough time for this subject—in particular, this evening—and whether the Government might consider putting on longer debates routinely.
I take that point. I do have sympathy with the Government—I was a business manager—but it seems to me that the decision the House is being asked to make on Wednesday is an incredibly significant one that will impact on every single person who lives in England and, because of cross-border traffic, a very significant number of people who live in Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland as well. It seems to me that a longer debate would be more sensible.
The second issue I want to turn to is also one that I raised earlier with the Leader of the House, referring back to what the Prime Minister said in the statement. He said, in answer to the question from the right hon. Member for North Durham (Mr Jones), that the Government would publish and make available to Members all scientific information that underpinned the decisions the House is being asked to take. The House will know that one of the key pieces of information presented at the press conference on Saturday and referred to by the Prime Minister is the graph that sets out the scenarios for the number of deaths that may take place, and there is also the modelling that the NHS has done on the need for beds. As far as I am aware, none of that information has been published. The reasonable worst-case scenario, which the Minister, the hon. Member for Mid Bedfordshire (Ms Dorries), referred to in her exchange with the hon. Member for Cardiff South and Penarth (Stephen Doughty), has also not been published. The only thing that has been seen is a leaked version that went to The Spectator.
Again, it seems to me that, if we are going to make this decision, we need to see that evidence quickly so that we can make such a decision. The reason why I want to see it—I have an open mind as to what I am going to do on Wednesday, but this is the reason why I have a problem—is that in my area the prevalence of the virus is fairly low and the rate of prevalence among members of my community who are over 60 is low and flat or falling, so it seems to me that there is very little evidence that there is going to be a significant problem in our local hospitals, and that was reinforced by conversations we have had with those NHS professionals.
I am willing to accept that there may be evidence to say otherwise, but because what Ministers are saying is at variance with what I am being told locally, I do need to see some evidence. I am afraid that just seeing a graph, without seeing any of the assumptions or the data that underpin the models, particularly when they give such significantly different results, is not good enough. Let me give the Minister an example. Carl Heneghan, the professor of evidence-based medicine at Oxford, and Daniel Howdon, a senior research fellow, looked at the graph that was presented, and have pointed out that the worst of these scenarios suggested that on 1 November there would be 1,000 daily deaths, which is about four times the level of the actual number of deaths taking place. That does at least cast some doubt on the accuracy of that scenario, which is why I want to see all of the data.
At the conclusion of the debate I ask the Minister to confirm that that information, as the Prime Minister committed to earlier today, will all be published tomorrow at the latest, so that we have a proper chance to scrutinise it before we are asked to take a very significant decision on Wednesday. I hope she is able to give that assurance, which I think will reassure not just Members on both sides of the House, but the millions of constituents we represent, who will expect us to take that decision with great care.
There are millions of people up and down the country asking a very simple question: what on earth is the plan? The lockdown in March was unprecedented, and we had just two to three weeks’ notice of what was happening in other countries, but we squandered that knowledge. There are no excuses for squandering the last eight months. I am pleased that the Government have now held a four nations summit to agree guidance for Christmas, but we need to know when we will see that comprehensive, uniform guidance for family gatherings, so that families can start to plan and look forward to Christmas. When will we have guidance on transport, student return and asymptomatic testing?
Many Members on both sides of the House have repeatedly raised the issue of delays in non-covid cases. I would like to ask the Minister to look in particular at those suffering with either Crohn’s or colitis. Those two diseases are incredibly debilitating for a number of people. In many cases, they are as severe and sometimes as fatal as cancer, but they are often overlooked. Surgery for many Crohn’s and colitis patients has been pushed back by months, worsening their health outcomes. Will the Minister meet me and Crohn’s and Colitis UK to discuss its concerns?
Then we have test, trace and isolate. Again, the concerns have been well rehearsed by Members on both sides of the House. We need to see a plan to fix the test, trace and isolate system. We know that it is a three-legged stool—all three pillars of it need to be working. The Government proudly boast about how many tests are happening, but those tests have a limited value if they are not turned around in 24 hours, if contacts are not traced and if people are not self-isolating. The Government have also talked in the last 24 hours about lateral flow tests suddenly being available. That is good news, but when will public health directors hear back from the Department of Health and Social Care about when those will be provided? They have said that they would like to get some of those tests, but they have not heard back from Government about when they will receive them.
Another issue that has been raised time and again with the Government and with me as the MP for St Albans is care home visits. Relatives are having to watch their loved ones die of loneliness and a lack of contact in care homes. Thirty-minute visits and Zoom calls are just not sufficient for those people, who need the care, love and human touch of their relatives.
Finally, when will there be a plan for schools that provides safety and certainty for students, parents and teachers? Without knowing whether or how exams will take place next May, teachers are at their wits’ end, not knowing what they should be teaching right now. They are being asked to keep their schools open without any assurances about when they will get their test results turned around in 24 hours. How will we keep students, parents and teachers safe if we are going to keep schools and colleges open? Up and down the country, people have lots and lots of questions. They want a Government who will plan ahead and stop lurching week to week from crisis to crisis. When will the Government come up with a plan?
I understand that I am quickly building a reputation in this House for being somewhat grumpy and contrarian—[Hon. Members: “Building?”] Or indeed cementing the pinnacle of it. I can understand why those on the Front Bench may regard me as one of the characters from “The Muppet Show”; perhaps Statler and Waldorf—some cantankerous muppet perched high up in the gallery.
My brief remarks this evening, believe it or not, are meant to act as an encouragement to the Government in the work that they are doing, but I must begin by quoting the phrase, “We’re all in this together.” I have never found that phrase particularly convincing, not least because it is often expressed by those who tend to be all right regardless of the circumstances. During this pandemic, I fear that it is ringing hollow, despite the many valiant efforts of intervention made by the Government. I am afraid there is a great divide in the country—I say this with the best humour possible—between well-paid white-collar public sector workers such as us, who make the decisions and on whom there will be no economic effect, and those of our constituents who are suffering great financial hardship. There is considerable and understandable resentment from those who have, as a result of whatever technicality, been left behind.
Regrettably, the Government’s invidious policy choice in tackling this covid pandemic will inevitably impoverish society for a generation. The only means we have of limiting that impoverishment is finding a way out of a cycle of lockdowns. I think of those who are worse off than ourselves—those who are poorly housed; those who are insecurely employed; those who are victims of abuse; those with long-term mental health conditions; and indeed a younger generation entering a job market where they have little prospect of finding a job worthy of their qualifications and abilities.
There is understandable talk about and need for the Government to be positive and to boost morale—that is not something that one of my speeches could ever be accused of; I have never sought to boost morale particularly—but I gently suggest that “adequate” is a level of expectation that the country could understand and appreciate. My greatest concern of all is that there is a level of over-promising, and the greatest over-promise risks being the promise of a vaccine. We need to inculcate personal responsibility again in the population. It is an interesting observation that the more measures, rules and laws we pass, the less the sense of compliance, as things appear to be done to rather than with others.
There is much talk of this four-week semi-lockdown, if I can call it that. It is a four-week period that must be used wisely; as has been said, it is a time to sort out test and trace, but frankly I think it is also a time for the Government to reboot themselves—both their policy and their operation—and I dare say for us all to take that attitude too.
The situation we are facing is farcical, quite frankly. Before recess, the Prime Minister stood at the Dispatch Box and mocked the Leader of the Opposition for calling for a two-week circuit-break lockdown over half term, yet, because of the Prime Minister’s usual dither and delay, we now face a lockdown that will last at least a month. It is not good enough. Although every community must do their bit, the blame for this lockdown must lie squarely at the feet of the Government.
I want to raise a number of crucial points that my constituents have contacted me about. The first is the way the Government have approached this pandemic geographically. When the tier system was introduced to try to slow the spread of the virus, the north was hit the hardest. In Durham and the wider north-east, communities responded to the threat of greater restrictions by working together and following the rules, which resulted in a steady drop in cases, yet now that the infection rate is rising in the south, the Prime Minister has announced a national lockdown. It betrays the Government’s attitude to those in the north that a regionalised approach was taken only when it did not impact the south.
On top of that, when large parts of the north were placed in tier 3, we were told that furloughed workers deserved only 67% of their wage, yet now that the south is in lockdown, that has risen to 80%. Although, obviously, I support that rise, it certainly reveals a lot about this Government’s attitude to the north: out of sight, out of mind.
Secondly, given the concerns of education unions, it would be wrong if I did not touch on the issue of schools. Today, a constituent contacted me to say that her child is 16 and lives with heart failure. If she were an adult, she would be able to work from home, as someone who is extremely vulnerable. Instead, she must go to school, where coronavirus infections are common. Countless pupils and educational staff will be in similar positions. Every teacher, child and parent wants schools to remain open if possible, yet the National Education Union and the University and College Union tell us that schools and colleges are not fully safe right now. The Government must urgently make the necessary changes to fix that. Schools need to stay open, but only if they are safe. No one should have to go into a workplace that is not safe.
Finally, I feel it necessary to mention the impact of gym closures, especially for women. Gyms act as relatively safe spaces for women to exercise, and many simply cannot do so outdoors in the dark with the same confidence or security. As we all know, exercise plays a vital role in people’s mental and physical wellbeing. While people will accept the closure of gyms, sports facilities and grassroots sport in the short term, the Government must urgently detail how such environments can be covid-secure, and must support them in their efforts to operate safely and stay open.
It frustrates me to have to give this speech today. This Government have had seven months to respond to the pandemic. They have failed on testing, failed on track and trace, and failed to support workers and businesses properly. Because of the Government’s incompetence, we are virtually back to where we were in March. No one has demanded perfection, and I understand the complications, but it is not unrealistic to call for competence and to expect the Government to learn from their mistakes. I urge the Government to use this month to get a grip on the virus. It is time to stop handing out jobs and contracts to their pals, and focus instead on their actual duty—protecting public health and reviving the economy—because the public and this House are fast losing patience.
It has been a rather sombre debate this evening, and the subject matter is very serious, but I hope the House does not mind if I inject a bit of positivity for the next four minutes. I will start by highlighting the enormous financial package that has supported businesses, organisations, charities, arts and culture—a package that has sustained services run by our local councils, and has helped our health providers continue to care for us. In my constituency, over £92.5 million of bounce back and business interruption loans have been taken up so far. The ability to furlough staff and take advantage of the self-employed grants has been lauded by everyone I have spoken to, and I am pleased that the Chancellor has extended furlough and announced the doubling of the self-employed income support scheme today, as we look to implement national restrictions to help support our NHS and save lives.
The Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government has been generous in its support for my two local councils, with funding so far of over £1.8 million for Guildford Borough Council and over £1.5 million for Waverley Borough Council. These figures sit within the generous support there has been at county level to deliver councils’ statutory services. Rough sleeping is an issue that I have been focused on locally, and the several tranches of funding to address it, including the recent £770,000 for long-term accommodation as the days get colder, are hugely welcome. The Royal Surrey County Hospital has received £500,000 to prepare for winter, and well prepared they are under the excellent direction of chief executive Louise Stead, with a new 20-bed ward specifically for a second wave of the virus and medical professionals who have learned much during the first wave that will benefit patients in this autumn wave of cases.
I could go on and on, because the support has gone on and on, but it is important to recognise the fact that we in Guildford, Cranleigh and our villages were already well prepared for the impact of lockdown earlier this year, because we had in place a thriving voluntary network. These volunteers, including Voluntary Action South West Surrey and Cranleigh’s Street Champions—put together by Liz Townsend, the chairman of Cranleigh Parish Council, with support from many who continually volunteer in Cranleigh—must be recognised. The response to my Unsung Hero campaign was heart-warming: Debbie Foster in Fairlands received over 25 nominations for mobilising volunteers, and Adrian Whitehead delivered 100 medical prescriptions a week in Fairlands from his mobility scooter.
Special recognition must be given to Nick Wyschna and his wife Charlotte, who run the Guildford Fringe, for their drive to pull together excellent online comedy shows and live performances to bring the community together in fundraising efforts for the Royal Surrey County Hospital Charity and the Wysch Foundation, which works to make arts accessible to everyone. These Facebook live events were very successful and well supported, and I see that the Guildford Fringe has already adapted quickly and moved a performance online for the end of this week. Siobhan Fox and Scott Kerr, both pilots anxiously waiting to hear what would become of their jobs, put their own worries aside to serve refreshments as volunteers at the Royal Surrey County Hospital.
During lockdown, there was fantastic and incredibly helpful cross-party engagement. We work well when we work together, and that was my experience; it is the best way to deliver quickly for residents. Hope is so important right now. There is fatigue and anxiety, and we are concerned for those we know and love, for their jobs and their mental health. We cannot ignore any of these issues and we do not. This Government and all of us in our communities are defined not by the easy times, but by the times when we have to dig into those extra pockets of reserves that we never knew we had, to keep going, and to keep fighting and not giving up. I pay tribute to the incredible energy and courage of everyone involved in tackling this pandemic, including my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Health, all the Health Ministers, our chief medical officer, his deputies, the chief scientific advisers and those working at all levels of our NHS for the work that they have done and continue to do for us all. It truly is a national health service, which is why it is right—right now—to introduce national restrictions to ensure that all health needs can be cared for.
It is a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Guildford (Angela Richardson); I thank her for her speech.
I, as much as anyone here, know at first hand that there is no way of understanding this virus—how it takes one and leaves another, or how it spreads in one room in 15 minutes, yet in other rooms people sit for hours with no transmission. I recognise, as others do, the incomprehensible aspect of this disease, so I also recognise that it is difficult to strategise. Looking forward, what should our next steps be? We have the benefit in this second wave of not being as unsure as we were. Our NHS has equipment and more medical knowledge. There are plasma trials, which appear to make a difference. We know which interventions are the better ones. I am pleased that we have the Nightingale hospitals.
I was also pleased to hear the Prime Minister and the NHS reiterating the need for people to attend appointments if they need screenings and tests, because my abiding concern has been and will be whether we are saving people from covid at the expense of allowing people to die from cancer—a point that other Members have mentioned. One of my constituents said to me, “Is my husband’s death meaningless because it was cancer and not covid that took him?” It is imperative that we protect the NHS by doing the right thing, and the NHS has to be open for day-to-day business; it is so important to ensure that that happens.
If hon. Members look at my head, they will know that I do not go to a barber very often. I just use a shammy; I do not even use a comb. But that is by the by. I say that in jest, but I do want to make a plea for barbers and hairdressers, who have got the R rate to 0.02. I ask myself, why on earth are they subject to rules and regulations when their R rate is the one that the whole nation wants to get to? We want to get it to 1; they have got it to 0.02. Those people could end up having had six months of reduced wages. Just how can we let them down? Those people have bought houses and have been buying gifts on the high street—it just so happens that Newtownards High Street in my constituency is the Northern Ireland high street of the year. How do we let those retailers down?
Simon Hamilton, the chief executive officer of Belfast Chamber of Trade and Commerce, has said:
“COVID-19 has created an interlinked health and economic emergency. This pandemic has cost lives and already has driven numerous businesses to closure causing a huge number of job losses which are reflected in the latest labour market statistics which show the second highest number of redundancies ever during a period when the furlough scheme was meant to protect jobs… Businesses have invested millions of pounds in making their stores, their restaurants, their pubs, their hotels and their factories safe for staff and safe for customers.”
Without the willing co-operation of those businesses, where would we be? He continued:
“It has been an unprecedented period of uncertainty and challenge. After finding the fortitude to keep going after months of lockdown, restrictions and closure earlier this year, many believed that they were starting to see light at the end of the tunnel only for that to now be extinguished.”
That is what really worries me about where we are. It is about finding a balance for health and for business.
The Minister is not here, but there is a good understudy—the Lord Commissioner of Her Majesty’s Treasury, the hon. Member for Castle Point (Rebecca Harris)—in her place taking notes. I ask the Government to reconsider the closure of churches. My email inbox has been full of requests on their behalf. Our lockdown in Northern Ireland has been successful and we have been able to give people a place to go once a week to meet in unity and pray for the future of this nation—to seek God for strength, peace, comfort, hope, wisdom, forgiveness and even joy at this difficult time.
I am sure that the hon. Gentleman is as pleased as I am that Leicester are winning 2-0 against Leeds.
On the hon. Gentleman’s point about places of worship, a lot of my own constituents have got in touch about our gurdwaras, temples, mosques and churches, and are deeply concerned about this. I hope that before the vote on Wednesday—we will be supporting the lockdown regulations—Ministers can come to the Dispatch Box and give us some reassurances around places of worship. It is a very important issue and I am pleased that the hon. Gentleman has raised it.
I thank the hon. Gentleman for that. I already knew the score because my hon. Friend the Member for North Antrim (Ian Paisley) had told me. I said, “I am pleased we are winning 2-0, but there’s still 70 minutes to go.” I really want Leicester to win, as my wife supports Leeds United and it is really important we win tonight.
I tabled an early-day motion asking for a National Day of Prayer. It states:
“That this House notes the unprecedented position that the covid-19 pandemic has brought the nation to; further notes that in this time of economic and societal uncertainty the country should follow the lead of Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II and recognise the importance of prayer when Her Majesty said in her 2013 address that prayer helps us to renew ourselves; and calls on the Prime Minister to initiate a National Day of Prayer to enable those for whom this is important to seek God”.
We need wisdom, and the call for a National Day of Prayer is for those of Christian faith and others to unite together and pray for the help we so desperately need. We need support for the NHS, businesses and the vulnerable, but we also need to humble ourselves and ask God to make the path straight as we work together to come through this covid winter ahead of us. We must trust God and we must pray for the help we need. I think every one of us here should adhere to that.
We will all salute the efforts made by so many people in facing up to challenges they could never have expected a year ago. They have performed outstanding feats and endured great personal sacrifice, and the human cost will not be known or even properly guessed at for years to come. They have been let down by this incompetent Tory Government, who put dogma above pragmatism and their cronies above the people.
The Coronavirus Act 2020, written as a flu pandemic measure, was crafted in the aftermath of Exercise Cygnus some years ago, so I imagine that the options were presented to Ministers, who then chose which ones to use. There was nothing in there about taking over private healthcare facilities though, and I wonder why Ministers chose not to do so. To be clear, we are talking about not only private hospitals, but private clinics, whose staff, with clinical training, may have been very useful in the middle of a pandemic when the NHS was stretched. I am aware of allied health professionals who were unable to work because their clinics, or the clinics that employ them, were closed. These were health professionals who wanted to help out where they could but could not even volunteer for the NHS because the conditions of the business support finance or job retention finance prevented it, or were unclear whether that was allowed. Those highly trained and experienced clinicians would be unlikely to be used in a covid ward, but they could have contributed to taking some of the strain somewhere else in the NHS, instead of sitting at home.
Likewise, the means of production of any possible vaccine and protective equipment was left out of the equation. I find it hard to believe that the drafters did not offer those options, and an examination of the measures that Ministers refused must form part of the inquiry into the Government’s handling of the pandemic. Another vital part of it must be the contracts that were handed out without tendering. There is not a single half-sensible person in this Chamber who will think that the Government should have conducted full tendering for the provision of PPE and other supplies during this time, but some due diligence should be expected.
I have been asking parliamentary questions about the contracts and been told by the Department of Health and Social Care that it had no previous relationship with a load of the companies that had been contracted to supply goods and services. Take, for example, Medpro, a company that was only incorporated on 12 May, but which took a £122 million contract for supplying PPE to the Department on 25 June. That was not a bad first six weeks in business for the company, but how did the Government make sure that it could fulfil the contract? What about Clandeboye Agencies, with a £14 million contract to supply PPE gowns awarded without competition in April and one for £93 million in May? As fine a company as it might be, it is a confectionary wholesaler. Why did Ministers think it was appropriate to offer it a contract to provide PPE for frontline staff?
Santander’s website currently carries a boast that it got more than 40 businesses into the business of supplying PPE to the NHS—businesses fast-tracked on to the system on the word of a banker. We have barely scratched the surface of the contracts, but it is already clear that there was no control over the awarding of these contracts. The opportunity was there for the Government to take control of the means of supply by writing it into the Coronavirus Act 2020, but they chose not to do so. Ministers chose instead to fling billions of pounds at anyone who would promise to hand over anything approximating protective equipment. Lives may have been put at risk—the lives of healthcare workers—and that needs to be examined properly and independently of Government.
It is quite clear that the Prime Minister has really agonised over this decision. Ultimately, that decision falls to him and it is an enormous burden. I am glad we have a Prime Minister who is alive to the real need to balance protecting lives with protecting livelihoods and our liberties. He has tried his very best to do that. I do think the Government should look at religious services. I have already been contacted by a number of constituents and, for them, particularly during this very difficult time, the nourishment they get from attending religious service is incredibly important. So I support the comments that the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) made on that.
We are very fortunate in Ipswich to have a great football team in Ipswich Town football club, who are on the way to being promoted back to the championship this year. I make no apology for meeting with the managing director of Ipswich Town last month when covid rates were only 18 out of 100,000 and for supporting the club’s call to try to get a very small number of fans safely back to the ground. Clearly, that is no longer going to be possible in the short term, so I would like the Government—I met the English Football League with other colleagues on Friday—to support the kind of package of support that may be necessary, but it is absolutely important that we are all aware of the pivotal role that many football clubs play within our communities. Ipswich Town football club is woven into the DNA of the people of Ipswich. Every other door has an Ipswich Town crest. The thought of anything serious happening to our club does not even bear thinking about, and that is not to mention the fantastic work that Ipswich Town football club does in the community through its community foundation. Once those services are lost, it is hard to build them up again.
Quickly on test and trace, I sympathise with the comments made by my right hon. Friend the Member for South West Surrey (Jeremy Hunt) earlier with regard to compliance being only around 20%. As somebody who recently had to self-isolate—I was contacted by Test and Trace and self-isolated for 11 days—it is an incredibly tough ask for some people, not just financially, but mentally. If someone is in accommodation or a property without a garden or a balcony, it is a huge ask of that individual. If it is the case that compliance is very low, perhaps that is an area where we could be pragmatic and look at reducing the requirement to seven days. Better to get high compliance for seven days than low for 14 days.
It is difficult for some of my constituents to understand and comprehend a second national lockdown. We still have rates that are significantly below the national average, though going up. Currently we have no one in intensive care in Ipswich Hospital, although I appreciate that is likely to change. It is important we think about protecting the lives of constituents, but I am reassured by the Prime Minister’s determination and promise that this will end on 2 December. It cannot happen again. This must be the last one because I also think about the 18-year-old I spoke to a few months ago, who is working every hour God sends in a bar to provide for his three-month-old girl. He said, “I don’t want to be on benefits. I want to work and I am terrified of a second lockdown.” Yes, I think about protecting the lives of my constituents, but I also think about that young man, who I have not spoken to since. We need to think about protecting lives, livelihoods and liberties, and they are not disconnected. They are profoundly connected, so I will be continuing over the next couple of days to look at the data and reflect upon all the information that has been put in front of us.
Today, my mother celebrated her 89th birthday. [Hon. Members: “Hear, hear.”] Thank you. She is well supported, like many octogenarians in Northern Ireland, in a social bubble where my sister looks after her extremely well, she has frequent visits from people who are socially distanced from her, great interaction with her grandchildren and her great-grandchildren and she enjoys the fullness of life. But her experience is very unlike that of millions of old-age pensioners across the whole of the United Kingdom. Tonight, 2.5 million pensioners are living in complete isolation and loneliness across many of our constituencies, and they have no one to turn to. Those pensioners are frightened to their wits’ end about some of the messaging that they see on their television screens. They probably believe the words of that elderly singer and songwriter from Belfast, Van Morrison, who has said that for some people:
“Optics are more important than ‘science’”.
Many of those elderly people who have a strong faith are now being told that they cannot go to their places of worship here in Great Britain. I agree with my hon. Friend the Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) that there should be a national day of prayer on which the community comes together and our great church buildings sound out praises and prayers to our Almighty God in a way that puts Him first in our nation for the first time in a long time.
Many people in our care homes do not know whether they will be entitled to a visit. I understand that the health service was looking at a pilot scheme to open up care homes to more visits, but many care home practitioners quite correctly tell me that it is because they have closed themselves to visits that the people living in those care homes have been saved from the ravages of coronavirus. We have to get a balance that also works for the practitioners in our care homes. In Northern Ireland, 80% of those who have succumbed to coronavirus deaths are octogenarians, so it is little wonder that those people live in fear. We have to start to address their concerns adequately and properly.
I said in an earlier intervention that we applaud our health workers. We have seen a lot of people out there clapping them, but many nurses tell me—I have to declare an interest: my daughter is a nurse—that they feel they are being slapped in the face, not clapped on the back, when we look at their pay cheque at the end of the month for the work that they have to do. Student nurses regularly ask me whether they will be paid through this period of crisis. We have to ensure that we really start to see some progress with regards to nurses’ pay.
Let us look at what is going to happen today. By the time the curtain comes down this evening, 600 people across the United Kingdom will have died of cancer, more than 500 will have died of heart disease and 20 people have taken their own life through the misery of suicide. They are practically forgotten in the panic of the coronavirus. The figures tell us something very different from what we are being told by some of the leading practitioners. Respiratory diseases killed 3.9 million people worldwide in 2017. In 2020, 1 million people have succumbed to coronavirus. We must start to address this issue properly and adequately.
Like most other people, I was absolutely horrified when a lockdown was called at the weekend. There I was at mass on Sunday, and with no warning at all the priest called me to the altar to present me with a giant poppy that had been made by the children. He then asked me to give the congregation a message of hope, and I did my best. The country needs hope, and the world needs hope. I would describe the announcement on Saturday as absolutely shambolic. We cannot keep the nation waiting for such an important announcement, and, whatever the circumstances, that must never ever happen again.
I was here when we gave power to the devolved nations, and to see the four parts of the United Kingdom pulling in different directions without one message is shameful and childish. That should not happen again. Of course I understand that we are following the advice of the scientists, but it is the politicians who decide. I want much more clarity on the overall objective and strategy. As many others have mentioned, care homes seemed to be sacrificed the last time we were in lockdown. Their residents are on very limited time, and we must ensure that full visiting rights are given to their relatives.
I am very glad that the schools are not now locking down, and I do hope that we will do our best to protect vulnerable children. With hope, our churches most certainly should stay open. The Catholic archbishops have called for the publication of the evidence behind the ban; I urge the Government to publish it.
Many of our local businesses have been suffering during these tough times and want more help. They have already had the summer wiped out, and now they will have Christmas wiped out. MPs need a hotline so that we can get answers quickly. For instance, the Palace theatre in Southend is suffering and I want it to have more help. Those businesses that operate from home or that visit homes, such as beauty therapists, hairdressers and cleaners, have got everything sorted and will now have to suspend their work again.
So many hon. Members have mentioned sport. We have had very nice emails from the golfing community, gyms and others; I do think we should do more to keep sporting activities going.
During a Westminster Hall debate last month, I and others highlighted the fact that covid-19 has had a disproportionate impact on people with physical and learning difficulties. We need to make sure that they are properly supported during this second lockdown. As the chairman of the all-party parliamentary group on maternity, I believe that it is essential that women are given the right support during and after the birth.
Retail outlets have been working tirelessly since June to reopen in a covid-secure way, and we are now asking that they close their doors once again. There has been some confusion about what is classed as non-essential retail, so I urge the Government to produce a full and comprehensive list of shops and businesses that can remain open.
Not surprisingly, we are being inundated with emails from constituents telling us that we should not vote for another lockdown. The British public have been extremely patient and forbearing, and most people have accepted the guidelines until now. There needs to be a coherent strategy for a return to normality—not the new normal, but the normality of pre-lockdown Britain. The country, and particularly the economy, cannot exist in a state of suspended animation for much longer without long-term real damage.
The coronavirus pandemic has left millions of people up and down the country with an uncertain future, struggling to make ends meet. This health crisis has robbed us of people we love, destroyed livelihoods and shaken the foundations of our communities to their core. More than ever, the pandemic has laid bare the deep inequalities in our society and shown the huge gaps in our healthcare and social welfare system after a decade of Conservative austerity. We need to protect our public services and support our communities and our economy through this crisis.
The Government have completely mishandled this crisis. The UK now ranks as the nation in Europe worst hit by fatalities, with a death toll passing 60,000. Over the summer, after the initial wave, the Government had time to get their act together, get a grip on testing and tracing, and get a grip on the virus. Instead, we have seen incompetence and failure at every turn. Their incompetence knows no bounds. We have had PPE shortages for our NHS and social care workers; delays in testing, with more lives thereby put at risk; and chaos for pupils and students in the exams and universities fiasco in September and October. To top it all off, the Government’s own eat out to help out scheme is likely to have spurred a spike in covid cases, according to the Prime Minister himself.
The Government’s dithering and delay over this second lockdown has wasted valuable time. They were too late to bring in the first lockdown, which cost lives and livelihoods, and this delay has once again cost lives and livelihoods. They failed to listen to the Opposition about a circuit breaker, which means that this lockdown will now be even longer, with even more detrimental effects on people’s lives, more deaths, worse economic outcomes and more damage to our economy.
The warnings were there. The information was there from the scientific advisers. Ministers and the Prime Minister kept saying, “We are guided by the science.” Far from it. The evidence is very clear now.
My hon. Friend is generous in giving way and is making such important points. Does she agree that the immediacy —the urgency—that has been lacking in this country was evidenced in countries such as Australia and New Zealand? They got on top of it really quickly and acted hard and fast, which is why Australia had zero cases over the weekend.
I could not agree more with my hon. Friend. Our Government could have learned from many other countries and got a grip on contact tracing and testing. Instead, what we have seen is chaos—false promises, over-promising and under-delivering. That has damaged public confidence. The public confidence that we all worked to build, across party, at the beginning of the crisis during the first wave, has been squandered by the failures of this Government.
There are now four times as many people catching covid than anticipated. The delay in introducing restrictions has already cost lives in constituencies such as mine, and we are already seeing a high prevalence of death rates among those from black and minority ethnic communities and those from poorer backgrounds—the patterns are very similar to what happened before. This time the Government know where the problems are, and their failure is completely unacceptable and inexcusable.
Given the scientific advisers’ own projections in the graphs that they showed the country last week, we are expecting even greater human cost and even more lives being lost because of the delay and the failures to act. That is why it is an absolute scandal that the Government have spent £12 billion on a private contractor, Serco. They call it “the NHS app”, but they did not use the public sector. They should have formed a proper alliance between the public and private sectors—nobody is saying that it should be one or the other. We should be pragmatic, but we should get value for money.
It seems that organisations and companies that have shown complete incompetence are being rewarded with contracts. It seems as if there is a contracts programme for Conservative party donors. I raised the issue of the PPE contracts with the Prime Minister, and he has still failed to answer—it has been weeks now. There have been £1 billion of contracts without proper due diligence.
The rate of death among certain communities was very high, and it continues to be in this crisis. The Government also need to act now to provide support to the 3 million who were excluded during the first crisis and continue to get very little support as we head towards to the lockdown. They are being left out. When children go hungry in our constituencies and public money is being wasted on some contracts on which contractors are failing to deliver, the Government need to act to ensure that we get value for taxpayers’ money.
Finally, local authorities and local public services desperately need help if they are to provide support to get the contract tracing done and get a grip on the virus. I call on the Government to work with them, support them and provide the funding that they need to protect us all.
I would like to talk briefly in the time I have about the need for strategy, the need to use science transparently and the balance of risk. Sadly, this lockdown is by definition a failure of policy because back in the first lockdown we were promised “never again”, but here we are.
We have draconian measures now while we wait for the cavalry in the form of a vaccine. But this is not a strategy, but the absence of one. May I now suggest that we need a strategy for living with the virus and giving people a sense of optimism grounded in a common-sense approach and a sense of proportion so that, rather than drifting in and out of lockdown and of restrictions, we give people a medium and long-term sense of what the future is likely to hold? A vaccine may not be a silver bullet. I would suggest “Keep calm and carry on” as a fairly commonsensical approach.
I am not quite sure about what the aims are. Are they to save life regardless? At the moment, we are sacrificing the lives of the young. Are the aims to save quality-adjusted life years? The Government’s own report from July said that the health impacts of the two-month lockdown were greater than those of direct covid deaths. Alternatively, are the aims to prioritise overall health outcomes, as Dr Raghib Ali suggests?
I would like very much for the Government to do more to present data in a balanced way and give significantly greater context than has otherwise been given. We need fatality rates and not just infection rates. Estimates of fatality started at 0.9% and have gone down since then. The latest evidence that we have from Stanford University, in the Bulletin of the World Health Organization, based on 61 studies from around the world, showed a fatality rate of 0.27%—about three or four times worse than an average winter flu year. So as Professor Robert Dingwall says, despite all the hysteria, this is not a modern plague.
We also need to understand the balance of risk of covid with many other risks, including the loss of education for children, which is an appalling long-term consequence; the profound damage to mental health; the effect on our ability to live socially and to be human; the loss of liberty; the loss of freedom; the collapse in employment; the surge in unemployment; the increase in poverty, and the potential deaths that we know that will cause in future; and the collapse of Government finances. I know that everyone making these decisions that will devastate the lives of others is in pretty much secure jobs. Not one of us here is facing the same stress as the freelancers, the business people, the artists, the musicians, and the pub and restaurant owners. I have many of those folks in the Isle of Wight, whose lives are now on hold and whose ability to earn a living has been shattered despite the tiny risks to many of them.
I have to say that the poster of the ballerina being told to retrain as a cyber-expert was one of the most offensive things I have seen in years from Government. Someone strives for years, they have a goal and a passion, but some bureaucrat on a fat pension is going to shut down their life. I think it is right that so many people were angry about that, and I do feel that Government are obsessing about the risks of covid but ignoring many of the other risks that we have to balance with that. Professor Sikora has said:
“The full consequences of lockdowns haven’t been properly considered by those who claim to have the answers. If a wider range of voices had been considered from the start, perhaps we wouldn’t be in the utter mess we’re in.”
I am sorry to have to quote that, but I do think it is a valuable quote to have.
Order. I thank the hon. Lady for mentioning it, and I apologise on behalf of the House to the hon. Gentleman who has just spoken. There seemed to be a little bit of disruption and I could not work out what it was, because I could hear something wrong, but other people could not. There is something wrong in the sound system, and I simply apologise to the hon. Gentleman, and we hope that it will be fixed.
Thank you, Madam Deputy Speaker.
I want first to tell the story of what has happened in Oxfordshire over the past couple of weeks. I want to put on record my thanks to the Minister for spending time with me and the hon. Member for Oxford East (Anneliese Dodds) earlier this week, but we were in a strange situation where, as a county, we were raring to go into tier 2. We had been looking at the data and, particularly, listening to the director of public health, but not just to him. All the councils were on board, as were the Oxfordshire Association of Care Providers, the police, both universities and, critically, the local enterprise partnership—all pulling in the same direction, all saying, “We are deeply concerned about the way that the virus is now being transmitted in wider communities. It is now leaking into the 60-plus bracket, and we are worried about overwhelming our local NHS.” So we asked gold command to give us a tier 2 status. Two weeks ago, we were saddened that that was not allowed, and then last week we found out that only Oxford city was going to go into tier 2 and the rest of the county was not, against what was very much a cross-party view, except for those Conservative Members in this House who did not want that to happen.
I have yet to get to the bottom of exactly why that happened. The Minister said that she would go away and look at it: I appreciate that events have overtaken us since then, but at some point we will get through this phase. I have heard the Secretary of State say many times that he believes in the tier system. If he does, it has failed us. We are in the situation we are in now because it has failed us and because test, trace and isolate—particularly the “isolate” bit—is not working.
I believe that people will adhere to this lockdown. They are annoyed and upset—I am sure that many Members’ inboxes are full of people expressing their concern—but they will do it. However, I do not believe they will do it again. This is two strikes, and on a third strike the Government will have a real problem on their hands in terms of the public adhering to a lockdown again. That brings us to where I think we need to be focusing next, which is on an exit strategy. There are many of us across the House who are concerned by this, because an exit strategy is not just a need to decrease R below 1. Yes, we know that that is the start, but what is concerning is that we have done that once before and it has not worked. The tier system has not worked. We have not got on top of this.
What I want to propose in an elevator pitch today is what I, others across this House and Members from the other place have come up with as an exit strategy, which involves three stages. The first has the advantage of being exactly where the Government are now, which is that we bring R below 1. The second stage is critical and it does not involve tiers. It is a national approach that involves, first of all, getting those cases low enough so that TTI works properly, and quantifying what that is. The other part of it is new. It is making use of something that we have that other countries in Europe do not have, which is our unique geography. We start to fight this virus at our borders by testing and quarantining people who are coming in and out. The countries that are beating the virus are doing exactly that—places such as Taiwan and New Zealand. We have to change the approach—if we do not do so then we will keep doing the same thing over and again—and wait to the point of elimination when, hopefully, therapeutics and a vaccine will come to save us. Until we get to that point, I urge the Government to think through their approach again.
I do not envy my Government colleagues who have had to make such difficult decisions over the past few months. Although the first lockdown was drastic, it was justified by our lack of knowledge of the disease, how it spreads and whom it affects. I commend the Government for making rapid, bold decisions, and we must not forget just how much was achieved in such a short space of time: expansion of testing capacity, the building of the Nightingale hospitals, the logistical achievement of delivering PPE to thousands of new locations and, of course, huge packages of financial support. Those are significant successes, and I take issue with those who fill the airwaves with a constant stream of negativity and criticism. No new challenge is met without bumps in the road and to overcome them, we must observe, reflect, change, adapt and persevere. That is what this Government have done. None the less, there is no doubt that, although the first lockdown slowed the spread of the virus, it caused huge damage to society. That is why I so deeply regret that we must face such measures again, although from the data presented by my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister, I do see that we must act.
I want to make three requests of my colleagues in Government for whom, as I have said, I do have the greatest of respect and admiration. First, I ask that we keep schools open in all circumstances. Unlike in March, we now know that covid presents almost no danger to children, but missing out on education is dangerous. Not only have children fallen behind alarmingly, but the social and developmental costs to our children are huge.
Secondly, I urge the Government to use this second lockdown to make plans and preparations to avoid subsequent lockdowns, whether that is further expansion of the NHS, additional plans for shielding, or further testing. We must make sure that we never have to take this action again.
Lastly, I ask that we begin a national conversation about our future response to the pandemic that is based not just on data, evidence or science, important though those things are, but on morality and values. We have to face the fact that this virus may be circulating for years to come, that we may never find an effective vaccine and that testing may never control the spread. In those circumstances, how will we respond? This disease primarily affects older people, yet young people will bear the economic cost, perhaps for their whole working lives. Right now, we must protect the NHS and save lives, but, in the context of existing generational inequality, we must ask: is this morally acceptable in the long-term? More than half a million people die each and every year in the UK. The majority of people who have died this year have not died from covid, but they have spent their final year separated from friends and family, unable to do what they love, and watching their loved ones lose jobs, businesses and opportunities. In the short term, that has been necessary, but for how much longer is it morally justifiable?
Since the beginning of human history, gathering together has been essential for our wellbeing. In every religion and culture, festivals, meetings and family relationships are central to tradition, because our relationships define us and outside of relationships we cannot flourish. It is not good for man to be alone. Loneliness kills, yet right now, many of us are alone. For how long is that morally acceptable? If this lockdown and our endeavours do not reduce the spread of the virus enough to permanently lift these restrictions, we must seek a moral consensus on the way forward, not just a scientific one. As I have said, I do not envy those with such a heavy responsibility at this time and the nation owes them a huge debt of gratitude, but let us use this time to keep schools open, prepare ourselves further and find a moral consensus for the way ahead.
This debate serves as a good place to set the scene for 48 hours’ time. I agree with my right hon. Friend the Member for Forest of Dean (Mr Harper) that a large number of people will want to speak in that debate and consideration should be given to increasing its length.
In 48 hours’ time, we will be looking at measures to protect the NHS—to stop it being overburdened, to protect the workforce, to protect the most vulnerable, and to try to help get through non-covid and covid problems. In 48 hours’ time, we will be voting on the economic impact, trying to mitigate the measures we are putting in place, trying to maintain businesses and to support jobs, trying to create covid-secure measures, and discussing the impact on the finances of this country for our children and our children’s children. In 48 hours’ time, there will be a vote, and every Member will have to consider the impact of what that means.
I want to spend the few minutes I have talking about the pragmatic side before we get to the debate on Wednesday, which I hope to speak in. I think it was Lincoln who said, “Give me six hours to chop down a tree and I will spend the first four hours sharpening the axe.” That is what I want the Government to do in the next 48 hours. The one benefit we have is that we have learned from last time’s lockdown. We know what it looked like. People know what it looked like. This House knows what it looked like. Therefore, we can use these 48 hours to pull the guidance together to deal with the concerns, iron out the anomalies—for example, on garden centres—and explain the differences: that schools are now open, that we now have bubbles, and that people now understand that they should get a test. This is something we have control over as the Government—the communication of how we put that message out. We have 48 hours to get that right.
The concerns from Bosworth in my email inbox today are many and varied, from non-covid work, health work and mental health, to golf and fishing, to the ability to take away beer or go to the gym and faith meetings. The Minister and the Secretary of State were kind enough to be at my meeting on Sunday to hear these questions from many MPs. Indeed, we have heard them raised yet again tonight. The civil service is looking at how to put this all in place. I urge the Government to hear those messages, to learn from what we have seen before, and, even better, to put it all together in a document that compares what we had before with what we are having in future so that everyone, from MPs in this House to the general public, can see what has changed and what stays the same. We have 48 hours to sharpen the guidance ready for Wednesday. I hope that on Wednesday, in doing that, we can cut down covid.
Like a lot of Members, I am delivering a speech tonight that is not quite what I would have imagined last week. I know that many people in Stoke-on-Trent South will be apprehensive about further lockdowns. People have already been through so much and it has had such an impact on mental health.
The choices we face are almost impossible to contemplate—either to put our economy, jobs and livelihoods on hold or to risk overwhelming our NHS and costing potentially thousands of lives. The tier 2 restrictions that Stoke-on-Trent was already under are now going to be tighter still. The daily case numbers in Stoke-on-Trent are in three figures, and Royal Stoke University Hospital is almost entirely full. The number of covid patients is higher now than at the first peak. We have seen locally just how fast this virus can spread, more than doubling in a week. Thankfully, these figures have started to improve, and I hope that this slowing of the rate continues, thanks to people’s efforts locally.
I thank all our health professionals who have done and continue to do so much to care for those who have fallen victim to covid. All our NHS and care staff—our key worker heroes—have our enduring gratitude. We all need to support them now by following these measures, continuing to use our health services when we need them, and making sure that we access the right services at the right time.
Those in education—teachers, lecturers and classroom assistants—also deserve huge thanks for all their work. I visited Ormiston Meridian Academy in Meir recently, and when speaking to young people there, I was struck by the fact that they urged me to do everything possible to keep schools fully open. Nothing can replace our children being in school.
We must all look to the future in hope and confidence that we can defeat this virus. We have already seen remarkable progress in treatments and the development of a vaccine. Equally, getting the testing infrastructure right is absolutely key. We have heard from a number of colleagues about the contact tracing system and how that needs to improve further. I have also had issues raised by constituents in my area about accessing the £500, because of problems with the app system releasing an ID. It is important that those problems are addressed.
I want to commend the work of the Secretary of State and the Department on testing. Having the highest testing capacity in the whole of Europe is an absolutely massive feat. The additional national testing facilities opened recently at Fenton Manor in my constituency are very welcome. This is a very promising development, and more rapid testing in particular is a game changer, if we can get it right. This can be the basis for reducing restrictions on our everyday lives.
I know many people across Stoke-on-Trent South and Stoke on Trent as a whole will be particularly concerned about the impact on their businesses, jobs and livelihoods. The proposed continuation of the furlough scheme is certainly welcome and necessary, as is the direction to work from home if people can, while being very clear that manufacturing and construction industries—there are many such industries in Stoke-on-Trent—can continue to open.
I also welcome the doubling of support for the self-employed, and the grants that will be available to those industries most affected. I would ask that consideration is given to those manufacturing industries that depend on hospitality and retail, such as ceramics. Drawing the line in the right place is not going to be easy for any Government, but I hope that the Government will continue to engage to ensure that support is focused on the sectors most impacted.
It is the everyday level that will continue to control the spread while we wait for the extraordinary developments of science to enable us to ease the restrictions. For our market traders, cafés, restaurant workers and retailers not dealing in goods covered by the list of essential items, I cannot emphasise enough the urgency of returning to the tiers as soon as it is safe to do so.
I absolutely agree with my hon. Friend the Member for Bosworth (Dr Evans) that we need to see the differences between the previous lockdown and this one. That needs to be on a graph with which we can all explain why this is happening.
After spending most of this weekend in briefings about the data and seeing the prevalence of this virus, I understand that the decision taken by the Prime Minister and the Government will not have been an easy one. This is a constant struggle to protect lives and livelihoods. I agree with the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) about the need for our NHS to be functioning for normal business. That is a key point. The prospect of our NHS becoming overwhelmed due to this virus and reaching a point where it is no longer there for everybody who needs it will have been very worrying for many.
I have spoken to my local authorities and public health officials, and it is worrying to see the effect that this is having on our local trusts. They are doing everything they can at the moment to continue with elective surgeries, cancer screening, heart surgeries and other life-saving treatments, while also treating those with covid. The fact that these procedures are at risk without our taking action and getting the virus under control is the stark reality we face.
Hyndburn and Haslingden has faced restrictions for such a long time now, and our local economy has suffered. Businesses are struggling, people are suffering with their mental health, tensions are very high and people are missing their loved ones. I know that my community will continue to pull together, but it is important that we have both financial support and emotional support in place for people. I very much welcome the announcement for the self-employed by the Chancellor, and I know it will come as a relief to many.
I want to take this opportunity to make a few points that have been raised with me. I did manage to ask the Prime Minister about some other issues this afternoon, such as gyms and places of worship, but may I press the point that, as we move back to the regional approach, priority should be given to finding a safe approach to how people may see their loved ones in care homes? In constituencies such as mine, some have not been able to do so since March.
Will serious consideration be given to how those areas, such as my constituency, that have faced restrictions for longer than most will not just be put straight back into tier 3, and will we look at ploughing support into these areas so they do not face the prospect of very strong restrictions?
Another issue that has been raised is those having to self-isolate due to childcare who have not been contacted by Test and Trace, as my hon. Friend the Member for Stoke-on-Trent South (Jack Brereton) highlighted. Can the Government look at how such people can be supported, perhaps through the discretionary part of the funding?
Another point was raised in conversation with my constituent, Jamie McNally, earlier today. He is the owner of Hoyle Bottom Spirits and maker of our very own Tinker Brook gin. Local craft beer bar Tap Select is concerned that it is unable to sell takeaway beers. That was done in March, so why can it not be done now?
All the options are extremely difficult, as will be the decision on further restrictions. I know that everybody making those decisions is under extreme pressure.
It is an absolute pleasure to follow my hon. Friend the Member for Hyndburn (Sara Britcliffe), who made an excellent speech. I have risen before to express my support for the Government and the incredibly difficult decisions they are taking to protect the NHS and save lives. They do so balancing all the risks and effects on our country, the economy and people’s livelihoods, but with the best of intentions—that we will bounce back quicker if we take steps now to ensure that the NHS is able to function.
I will focus mainly on the economic support that the Government have been providing to businesses. Nobody could scoff at the economic support that the UK Government have provided to support businesses in Scotland—well, perhaps the hon. Member for Paisley and Renfrewshire North (Gavin Newlands) could, but nobody in their right mind. The Conservative Government are spending an estimated £16 billion to support Scotland through this epidemic, including £7 billion extra directly for the Scottish Government to spend on top of the usual Barnett funding. Some 779,500 jobs were protected by the job retention scheme and 79,000 businesses benefited from UK Government loans worth up to £2.9 billion. The VAT cut is supporting 150,000 businesses and 2.4 million jobs in Scotland, and benefiting consumers everywhere. Eat Out to Help Out discounted more than 6 million meals in Scotland, which supported restaurateurs and other hospitality businesses.
That is all good stuff, but I want to make a special plea to the Governments here and in Edinburgh for part of the hospitality sector that feels that it has been left behind. My constituency, as hon. Members can imagine, is the most beautiful constituency in the country. It is home to the castle trail, Royal Deeside, Strathdon, the Cairngorm mountains and the Howe of the Mearns. Of course, it is also home to the global subsea industry on the edge of the energy capital of Europe in Aberdeen.
Weddings, events and conferences are big business. The wedding industry alone in my constituency makes about £15 million a year. Venues have to be maintained whether anyone is there or not. Many started with a full year this year, but all events have been written off. The companies that organise such events are really suffering. When we speak of an events company suffering or a wedding being postponed, it is not just the wedding organiser or the conference organiser—the headline company—that suffers, but a long list of suppliers and contractors who work for and with them, such as lighting specialists, sound engineers, musicians, caterers, photographers, flower arrangers and private vehicle hire to mention but a few.
I met representatives of the wedding and events industry in my constituency last week, and apparently it takes up to about 15 to 20 contractors to pull the average wedding together, which is 15 to 20 cottage industries affected when we go into lockdown. They are viable businesses. Although I appreciate the Government’s help so far, and indeed, on behalf of all my constituents and businesses that have received it, thank them for it, I ask the Governments here and in Edinburgh to remember the forgotten people of the hospitality sector as we move through winter. For them, it will be the third winter this year.
The Government are taking the correct steps to protect the NHS and save lives. As I said, it is a difficult situation, but as we sit here in November, there is no certainty for the wedding and events sector about when it will be able to return to work and when people will be able to gather in numbers for events and conferences again. I ask the Government and the Treasury, when they are designing packages of support for the hospitality and events sector, as they did so well for those involved in frontline hospitality and catering, such as restaurateurs, hoteliers and publicans, to remember this sector, which is vital for parts of the country, as we move forward. I ask them to remember and provide for it.
It goes against every bone in the body to impose restrictions on livelihoods, constrain our freedoms, order businesses to close and tell people to stay at home and that they cannot see their loved ones. Of course, the effects can be hugely damaging for our local economies and have a detrimental impact on people’s mental health and wellbeing.
Having spent the whole of last weekend engaging with many of my constituents from across Keighley and Ilkley, I learned that many share my views. Today, the Bradford district was due to move to tier 3, but in the light of the new national restrictions to be imposed from Thursday those changes have been cancelled. There is no doubt that this has been extremely confusing for many across Keighley and Ilkley. Businesses that were told to stay open on Friday through tier 3 are now being told to close, and I have to say that I simply do not understand the logic for some of the guidance, and perhaps the Minister will be kind enough to address those in her closing remarks.
Gyms—such as High Energy and NRGym in Keighley, which I visited recently—are some of the safest places for individuals to go, yet they are now being asked to close. Gyms are not only good for exercise; they are great for mental health and wellbeing. We are also telling pubs that they have to close, but that they can provide food takeaways yet not sell beers as takeaways, while supermarkets are still permitted to do so. This will impact not only the likes of Timothy Taylor’s and Ilkley Brewery in my constituency, but our local pubs like the Craven Heifer in Addingham, whose landlord, Gavin Patterson, I spoke with this morning. It is also very frustrating for the hair and beauty sector, which I know has gone above and beyond, at cost, to implement safe measures, and many businesses from this sector, including Equilibrium based in Silsden and the Doll House beauty boutique based in Keighley, have contacted me on this.
I totally appreciate that we have to face the fact that cases of coronavirus have been growing rapidly and that scientific modelling suggests that unless further action is taken now to bring down the R rate we could see covid deaths in even greater numbers than in spring, and that horrifies me. Directly protecting lives and livelihoods is, of course, key, but the impact on our hospital capacity must be at the forefront of our minds. As of last weekend, in-patient beds in my hospital, the Airedale, are now at capacity. That is a very serious situation. The hospital has therefore taken the decision to postpone elective surgery that needs overnight stay for at least two weeks. For now, urgent and emergency cases and cancer surgery will continue at least. The blunt truth is that our hospitals becoming overwhelmed is a horrifying thought. More patients could die not just from covid but from other illnesses as well.
These are not restrictions that I want to support, but there are no other good options, so I will, very reluctantly, be supporting the Government. In lockdown in spring this year, our communities from across Keighley and Ilkley came together to help others in our hour of need, including the Keighley hub, the Silsden emergency planning group, the Hainworth Wood community centre, the Ilkley coronavirus response group and many more. I know that these national restrictions are going to be tough, and in implementing them, we must continue to support our businesses, particularly small and medium- sized businesses.
It is a pleasure to follow my hon. Friend the Member for Keighley (Robbie Moore); indeed, many of my hon. Friends have made fine speeches.
Like my constituency neighbour, my hon. Friend the Member for Stoke-on-Trent South (Jack Brereton), I had a different speech in mind today. Newcastle-under-Lyme was put into tier 2 on Saturday, but that is not going to be for very long; we are facing a much darker future from Thursday. Like my hon. Friend the Member for Penistone and Stocksbridge (Miriam Cates), I do not envy the Secretary of State, the Prime Minister or anyone who is making these decisions; they are very serious decisions indeed, and they must weigh very heavily on people’s shoulders.
The Government have set out the case for a national lockdown, and in that, NHS capacity is key. I obviously completely agree that this should be the overriding objective of our policies and, as I said in my intervention on the Secretary of State earlier, this now needs to become the focus of our daily data, rather than cases and tests—although I am very pleased we have now got capacity for over half a million tests. We need to explain to people what is going on in our hospitals—what is happening day by day, what pressure they are coming under.
I am keen to interrogate the data and the models. In particular, I have concerns about some of the data we have been shown, including what we saw on our television screens on Saturday. The Cambridge/PHE model—the scariest line on the graph presented—implied that there would be more than 1,000 deaths a day by yesterday, which is bizarre, because there were not. The reasonable worst-case scenario, which has been leaked, apparently has an “odd plateau” in October—not my words, but those of David Spiegelhalter, who has done such a good job of communicating scientific uncertainty and statistical uncertainty. Why is there a plateau? On 21 September, SAGE suggested that there would be 3,000 hospital admissions a day by the end of October. The figure reported on 28 October was 1,442, and yet we are supposed to be above the reasonable worst-case scenario. Either somebody does not understand what “reasonable” means, or they do not understand what “worst-case” means.
In the light of all that, I am extraordinarily grateful that Sir Patrick Vallance and Professor Chris Whitty have agreed to come to the Science and Technology Committee tomorrow at very short notice. They are both incredibly fine public servants. They have been very keen to present to all the Select Committees throughout this time, and I pay tribute to them.
No Conservative wants to restrict free enterprise. No Conservative wants to curtail individual liberties, and no Conservative would ever want to put people at greater risk from other illnesses, such as cancer, heart disease or mental health concerns. It goes against all my instincts to do so, but if the case is made that that is the right thing to do, I will, with a heavy heart, have to vote for it.
I think it is unlikely that we will be in the position we hope to be in on 2 December, and I say that about not only the UK but all the countries of western Europe. Germany, France, Belgium and Italy are all entering lockdown. It seems unlikely that we will get the R and the overall rate down to such a level that it is reasonable to start taking the brakes off in what will be a colder, darker and traditionally more convivial month. I have grave concerns about that. If it is the right strategy now, it may regrettably be the right strategy then, and we have to take that very seriously, so I will listen carefully to Vallance and Whitty tomorrow.
I share the disquiet of my right hon. Friend the Member for Forest of Dean (Mr Harper) that we will have only 90 minutes to discuss the legislation on Wednesday, and it will be unamendable. There are reasonable amendments that the House might wish to make—for example, on golf. I understand the closure of clubhouses, but I find it bizarre that two people cannot walk around a golf course and take their exercise in that way. I also do not know why takeaway and delivery from pubs, and rural pubs in particular, was banned this time but not the first time. Ultimately, it is for the Government to propose and not for Parliament to micro-manage.
Finally, I pay tribute to everyone in Newcastle-under-Lyme, especially those on the frontline in the NHS, care homes and social care. We will get through this winter, however tough it is, and we will do that by looking after each other in every sense.
Like my hon. Friend the Member for Newcastle-under-Lyme (Aaron Bell), I started to write my speech last week, and given the announcements over the weekend, I thought I might need to redraft it. But having listened to this debate and to the statement from the Prime Minister, I have actually made very few changes.
As the final Back-Bench contributor to the debate, I want to talk about my local hospital. I know that the Minister for Patient Safety, Mental Health and Suicide Prevention has personal experience of Warrington Hospital—she started her career there as a trainee nurse, so she knows those wards better than any of us here. Warrington, alongside Liverpool, is at the forefront in dealing with the autumn surge. It is one of the busiest hospitals in the country with covid admissions. I want my colleagues in this House to know about the pressures that clinicians are facing today, tonight and tomorrow.
The medical staff and support staff in Warrington are straining every sinew to cope with the increase in covid-19 cases that they have seen in the last few weeks. In April, during the height of the first wave, the hospital had a peak of 121 covid patients. Today it has 149, and there are a further 23 patients awaiting test results in hospital. It is forecast to exceed 300 patients over the next three weeks. Given that hospitalisation often follows two weeks after infection, the changes being made from Thursday will probably have little impact on shifting the course of those numbers.
One of the senior clinicians at Warrington Hospital described to me earlier today the current situation. He said that it was a “winter crisis on steroids,” and we have not even got into winter yet. Critical care beds have already been escalated to 18, and there is an ability to extend further to 30, but doing that will have an impact on the hospital’s other work. It surprised me a little when he talked about the hospital’s other work. There are currently 183 other patients receiving care for urgent conditions such as cancer. The work of Warrington’s NHS remains at around 80% of normal workload.
The prevalence of the virus in Warrington is still increasing, and as the virus spreads through the community it also spreads into the healthcare workforce. Having sufficient nurses and doctors to treat not only someone suffering from covid-19, but somebody who has trauma from a car crash, or who has the frightening diagnosis of a tumour or who has just suffered a stroke is just as important. The benefit of having a national health service is that across a region where one hospital is busy, another can take up the strain and help out, but sadly, we are seeing pressures right across the region. There is little bed space in any of the hospitals in the north-west and there is a real challenge for doctors and nurses to staff those wards.
The next four weeks are an opportunity to address contact tracing across the UK before the surge we are seeing in Warrington extends further, and I welcome the support that has been given to local councils to drive efforts around local tracing. I can also understand why people working in contact tracing find it really difficult. I have been through the process of isolation. I have had the calls and I know how difficult it is to understand when you are talking to somebody in one town and you are in another.
Finally, I reiterate the point I made to the Prime Minister earlier today. The economic consequences of the lockdown will be very difficult, coming at such a crucial time ahead of Christmas when businesses make the revenue that they use to see them through the early part of next year. Protecting lives and livelihoods have to go hand in hand and I regret deeply that we are seeing another lockdown, but reluctantly, I feel that we do need this.
We have heard some superb speeches in this debate and a great deal of heartfelt contribution from all around the House. I always say that I believe that every single one of us came to this place to be a force for good. We all have unique challenges in our constituencies, but we strive to do the best that we can. Sadly, there are some clear patterns of failure that I need to address tonight—patterns of failure by this Government: a refusal to act, an inability to empathise and, crucially, the failure to learn.
The Government failed to get on top of this virus in the spring. They failed to act in time and by failing to learn from their earlier mistakes, they have again failed to get on top of the virus ahead of winter. In fact, on Saturday, the Minister claimed that only “a crystal ball” could have predicted the need for a second lockdown. Luckily, the Government do not need a crystal ball because they have experts, who, six weeks ago, highlighted the need for a short, sharp two-week circuit breaker—so yes, it was predicted. A crystal ball was not needed. However, this Government did not have the political will to act six weeks ago and refused to work with Opposition colleagues, instead deciding to use the health of the nation as a political football.
During the last Prime Minister’s questions, the Prime Minister stated that he did not believe a national circuit breaker was the right policy for the country. A couple of days prior to that, the Health Secretary stated that a more targeted approach would get a grip on the virus and that a national circuit breaker was
“not the policy of the Government”.—[Official Report, 19 October 2020; Vol. 682, c. 784.]
It was clear at the time that this was the wrong approach and was at odds with the scientific expert advice on offer.
The Prime Minister has now warned of deaths twice as high over winter as they were in spring—sobering indeed—yet six weeks ago, the chief scientific officer was warning of the worrying forecast of daily cases. Why, then, did the Government choose to rule out so steadfastly measures that would save lives? Can they not see the damage and miscommunication that this causes? People were laid off last week as businesses anticipated the end of the furlough scheme, only for it to be extended on Saturday night. What is the Government’s message to all those people who have just lost their jobs?
Without a functioning test, trace and isolate system in place, there can be no way out of this crisis. The Government have had seven months to get on top of testing, yet the covid app does not work for the hundreds of thousands of people in England and Wales whose phones are set to unsupported languages. For those people, the app simply shows a blank screen. That does not promote confidence among the British people that the Government can get on top of tracing, and Serco is still failing miserably at tracing contacts adequately. The Government have had seven months to correct the situation. Understandably, this epidemic is unprecedented and, understandably, there are things that could not have been foreseen, but the Government have had seven months to rectify the situation and should and could have done better.
The Government’s continued flip-flopping on scientific advice breeds uncertainty. We have heard in the Chamber tonight Members from all parties talk of community uncertainty and of businesses that do not know whether they will ever be able to survive again. People from the wedding sector, people who run small gyms and people who work on golf courses want answers. They are just good people, trying to earn a living and wanting some certainty.
I do not know whether the hon. Lady has noticed, but scientific experts, even in the same field of epidemiology, quite often disagree profoundly. I wonder whether Labour has noticed that and what it plans to do about it. If the hon. Lady is looking for any ideas, I have tweeted out a summary of a book on the subject.
I thank the hon. Gentleman for his contribution and I congratulate him on his ability to tweet. I have a master’s in public health and am perfectly capable of understanding that the very eminent scientists who work as advisers to the Government are doing an incredible job. They were selected to work for the Government so that the Government could take their advice, and they have advised the Government that a two-week circuit breaker would have been beneficial, both to the economy and in respect of saving lives, had it been implemented weeks ago. I am pleased that the hon. Gentleman has the ability to tweet out information about a book; I will continue to read my books on epidemiology with great joy. [Interruption.] If he would like to intervene again, I shall take another intervention.
I have engaged with such serious subjects when undertaking all four of my science degrees.
Speculation that self-isolation could be reduced from 14 to seven days does nothing to clarify how people can keep their families safe. [Interruption.] I am enjoying hearing the chuntering; I would welcome anybody who wished to intervene on me because I am well up for it, as they say in Tooting. I do enjoy debates—in fact, I would welcome debate, because what always happens is that I make my comments from the Dispatch Box, sit down and listen to the Minister, for whom I have a great deal of respect, but then I have no ability to intervene, so bring it on.
The resilience that British people have shown over the past seven months has been remarkable. In the face of uncertainty and fear, our communities have come together to support one another time and again. Like everyone in the Chamber, I am so proud of all those who helped to deliver food and medicines to our most vulnerable at the height of the crisis, and I have been incredibly moved by all those businesses, struggling themselves, that provided free school meals locally when the Government failed to act. It touches me to witness the hope and humanity of our communities and of individuals such as Marcus Rashford, but it is shameful that that has been necessary as a result of this Government’s actions.
It breaks my heart that more children than ever will know the taste of hunger in 2020 and that they will feel the cold that comes from their parents being unable to pay the bills. The last Labour Government lifted more than 1 million children out of poverty. We need more action like that, not Conservative Members blaming chaotic parents for child hunger, alleging that free school meal vouchers go direct to crack dens and brothels, or spinning the narrative that it is the sole responsibility of local communities to ensure that no child goes hungry. Where is the compassion and humanity from the Government? I hope we do not have to continue asking ourselves that question throughout winter.
Certainly, across our communities, compassion and humanity are in no short supply among our frontline health and care staff—on that we can all agree. Those frontline staff have been placed in an impossible situation throughout the year. Will the Government commit to ensuring that those staff have adequate levels of PPE across the winter, and will they commit to frequent testing of our frontline staff, who put their lives on the line day in, day out? The impact of the neglect of our NHS staff is that almost 2 million days were lost to mental ill health during the first wave of the pandemic. I fear the effects of the second spike this winter. We can stand on our doorsteps and clap, but why can we not give them the support they truly deserve?
Will the Minister agree to meet to discuss our care for carers proposal to address the mental health needs of our 3 million health and care staff? Will the Minister agree to meet me to discuss the care for carers plan? Will the Minister agree to work cross-party together to support our frontline NHS and care workers?
It is a package of mental healthcare for our frontline NHS and care workers, which I am sorry the Minister seems to have forgotten. I have raised it a number of times. Is she agreeing to meet me to discuss the care for carers mental health package for our frontline NHS and care staff?
I am very familiar with the detail, which the Minister uses every single time we have a debate, but I will take that as a hard no and continue with my speech.
For the mental health of people across the country—[Interruption.] The policy is very clear. The Minister is chuntering from a sedentary position; would she like to intervene?
Thank you. As I said, I take that as a hard no.
For the mental health of people across the country, the Government have to address questions that they were slow to answer in spring. For those who rely on sport for positive mental health, will the Minister outline the options open over the coming month? For those with loved ones in care homes, will a new testing and visitation policy be implemented? Where staff are redeployed, will the Minister outline what support will be offered? For those who have lost loved ones to covid-19, what specific mental health support will be offered? Students across the range of education need support, especially those in university. What extra support will be in place for them? I look forward to the Minister’s replies to those questions in her closing remarks.
We are only in November and we face a cruel, long winter. The public want to support the Government’s measures and see the back of the virus, but people also want reassurance that our nation’s mental health will not be put at risk. The years of underfunding of mental health leave us without much faith. We called for a national wellbeing guarantee last month. The Government should have addressed that weeks ago. Now, it is crucial and I plead with the Minister to meet the sector properly and get a plan in place urgently.
It may feel impossible to hope on the edge of a precipice, as we are, but the kindness on display across the UK should bring hope to us all. We continue to extend the offer to work together through the crisis for all our communities. We just need the political will from the Government.
One of the joys of being a Minister in Government is that we won an election and that gives us the right and the ability to decide policy. If the hon. Member for Tooting (Dr Allin-Khan) wishes to decide policy, the Labour party should try harder at the next election.
As we heard from so many hon. Members during the debate, the virus is a deadly adversary. The debate has been wide-ranging, and many points were raised. It is impossible to mention everybody who spoke, but there were several themes and I would like to group them. Obviously, because of my portfolio, I will start with mental health, which almost everybody mentioned.
We recognise that it is a difficult time for people and the immense strain that the pandemic and measures to contain it place on everyone’s lives. Recently, the president of the Royal College of Psychiatrists said that there were significant mental health consequences for people who contract covid and for the families of those who are affected or sadly lose their lives. He went on to say that mental health concerns as a result of lockdown were
“being weaponised by those with other political agendas”.
He added that there is increasing evidence that the virus directly attacks the central nervous system, which can affect mental wellbeing and mental health, let alone the post-traumatic stress that those who contract the virus and may end up on medical ventilation can experience.
The result is that there are two mental health stories to the pandemic. We know that people will suffer exacerbated mental health problems as a result of the pandemic and that people with existing mental health conditions and frontline workers are particularly susceptible. However, there is another side to the story, which is long covid: young people who contract covid and consequently suffer mental illness. In the words of Dr Adrian James, the president of the Royal College of Psychiatrists:
“We need… to wake up to the very serious mental health consequences for people who get coronavirus and for the families of those who are disabled or killed by the disease.”
We are absolutely committed to continuing our investment in expanding and transforming mental health services in England. That will amount to an additional £2.3 billion of funding a year in mental health services by 2023-24. We are doing our utmost to ensure that our mental health services are there for everyone who needs them during the pandemic—for patients and our NHS colleagues. Thanks to the ingenuity of so many, we worked hard to keep all mental health services fully functioning during the first peak, using technology when required. All mental health trusts have established 24/7 crisis phone lines where people who experience a mental health crisis can access urgent support and advice. We have invested more than £10 million in supporting national and local mental health charities to continue their vital work in supporting people across the country.
It is a priority to keep services and support working and to provide full services throughout the winter months. I would encourage anyone who needs support to reach out for it so that the NHS can help them, just as we are together doing so much to protect the NHS. I would encourage everyone’s constituents to make use of the resources that are there and have been provided: for example, Every Mind Matters for frontline workers; online psychological first aid training has had 90,000 frontline worker users to date.
It is okay not to feel okay during this difficult time, and we will support everyone in getting the help they need. I am pleased to announce that the NHS will launch a major campaign to encourage people who may be struggling with common mental health illnesses to come forward for help. Talking therapy services will continue to be made available remotely, so that people can access help safely from home. While we know anecdotally that some people’s experiences of digital mental health services have been very positive, we also know that they do not work for everyone, particularly people with more serious mental health illnesses. The NHS will work to ensure that the option of face-to-face support is provided to people with serious mental health illnesses across all ages where it is clinically safe to do so, and people with serious mental health illnesses will continue to receive help from NHS volunteer responders to access essentials such as food and medication throughout the winter.
Overall, our response to the mental health impacts of the pandemic must be driven by the best possible evidence to help us access the data on the number of suicides. Public Health England is currently piloting a national surveillance system to monitor suspected suicide and self-harm by collecting data from local systems in near realtime. This will allow us to identify patterns of risk and inform national and local responses. I can also announce that we are developing a winter plan for wellbeing and mental health, and I hope to return to the House with more information on this shortly.
A number of Members have mentioned hospitals. It was lovely to hear my hon. Friend the Member for Warrington South (Andy Carter) talk about Warrington hospital, where I did indeed train as a nurse; I was there from 1975 until 1988, all those years ago. He spoke about the real pressures that hospitals are feeling at the moment, and while we have been having this debate the North West Ambulance Service has declared a major incident, owing to demand on ambulances tonight in the north-west of England due to covid. The pressures in Warrington hospital that my hon. Friend spoke about are being felt across the country.
We all stood and clapped for carers on a Thursday night during the first lockdown, and many of the comments tonight have talked about our frontline workers while, in the same speech, arguing against a second lockdown. What we are doing in arguing against a lockdown, or against the measures we are taking, is subjecting those frontline workers to the almost unimaginable and impossible stresses that they would have to experience, as they are in the north-west of England tonight. As someone said to me before this debate, the eerie sound of ambulances and sirens is noticeably more common across London tonight than it has been over the past week. It is our frontline workers who are dealing with those blue lights as they go into the accident and emergency departments in our hospitals across the UK. It seems impossible that we can clap for workers during one lockdown, then argue against protecting them through a second lockdown, because that is what the principle is: to protect our NHS, and to protect our hospital workers.
The pathway through a pandemic is never straightforward, and we have learned so much about this virus during these past few months, not least—as I said a few moments ago—the fact that it leaves young people with long covid and attacks the central nervous system, which in itself creates mental health problems. I reiterate that there are two sides to the mental health coin when it comes to coronavirus, and we need to protect families and those who have loved ones in hospital or who may end up in hospital and lose their lives. Bereavement brings with it its own mental health issues. All of us are required to make difficult decisions and tough sacrifices to bring this virus under control. We must persevere as we work so hard on the long-term solutions that will see us through and allow us to come together once again, so that we can look after the people and communities that we love.
Question put and agreed to,
That this House has considered covid-19.