I beg to move,
That this House has considered covid-19.
Last Wednesday, this House came together to vote in favour of a new time-limited set of national restrictions across England—our strategy to suppress the virus, support the economy, education and our NHS until a vaccine can be deployed, and in doing so, to ensure that the NHS was not overwhelmed. It is clear that, in tackling this virus, there are no easy or simple choices for anyone. While Members may differ in the perspective they take on what is the right balance to strike, as we would expect in our open and vibrant democracy, it is important to say that it is clear that all Members of this House share a common objective, which is to beat this disease and see our country flourish once again. As Members will know, I entirely respect and recognise the sincerity and strength of feeling of all Members on this most difficult issue, irrespective of the stance they take on it.
Difficult though they are, entailing further sacrifices, the steps that this Government and this House took last week were the right ones, because the alternative of not acting would have been far worse. Throughout the pandemic, we have always sought to base our decisions on evidence, data and scientific advice, but we must also recognise that this is a disease about which we have learnt more every day and about which we knew nothing a year or so ago. Throughout, we have always been willing, and we must remain willing, to reflect on and adapt to changing scientific evidence and scientific debate, and to move with that debate.
The evidence we faced last week before the Prime Minister’s announcement was stark and changing rapidly: an R rate above 1 in every region and more than 100 cases per 100,000 of the population. The data indicated that the number of people in acute hospital beds in England was due to exceed NHS surge capacity in the forthcoming weeks and, in some hospitals, the number of patients was already higher than at the peak of the first wave. To me, one thing was abundantly clear: our NHS was at risk of seeing demand exceed capacity if nothing was done.
There was a sharp acceleration in infections in September and October, as was the case across Europe, and, as we know, many of those infections lead to hospitalisation further down the line, with a roughly two-week lag. As Sir Simon Stevens, the chief executive of the NHS, recently set out, at the start of September there were around 500 people hospitalised with covid. By the start of October there were around 2,000 people hospitalised with covid, and by the start of November, that figure had sharply increased to around 11,000.
We were already at the point where hospitals were becoming very busy, and that was before the normal winter and flu-related demand. It appears that, with the new treatments that are being developed, more people are likely to walk out of hospital after treatment than sadly was the case during the first wave, and I am thankful for that, as I am sure the entire House is, but the fact remains that those people still need hospital treatment. Each day the R rate remains above 1 is another day on which cases rise, with more hospital admissions, more patients deprived of other types of care and, tragically, more deaths.
My hon. Friend is making a very important point about the impact on hospitals. Does he agree that the knock-on impact on elective surgeries and care and treatment in our hospitals means that unless we keep the coronavirus rate under control, we could see other people with non-covid illnesses being adversely impacted in this wave of the pandemic as they were in the first wave? Indeed, in my constituency we saw a 26% increase in deaths from non-covid illnesses in the first nine months of this year.
My right hon. Friend is absolutely right. In taking the action we are taking to protect the NHS, we are of course also seeking to suppress the number of people who need hospitalisations to maintain the availability of those hospital beds for other people in dire need, exactly as she alludes to. I have to say to those who question the impact of this disease or its seriousness when someone gets it that I am reminded—as I suspect other Members will be—of the extraordinary dignity and suffering of the Lewis family in the Rhondda, who were on “Channel 4 News” and various other news outlets last week. Mr Lewis had lost his wife and his two sons in under a week to this disease. It was a truly dreadful story, and I have never seen a more dignified man than Mr Lewis when he was talking about it.
The latest R rate is between 1.1 and 1.3, so it was essential to take action to protect our NHS and to enable us, as my right hon. Friend said, to maintain the vital services for those without covid that sadly had to be paused in the first wave. From the Dispatch Box, I would like to take the opportunity once again—every time we are here it is right we do it—to thank all our staff in the NHS and care sectors for the incredible work they have done and continue to do in the face of these unprecedented challenges.
As I have set out, the virus remains a serious threat. We recorded more than 20,000 positive cases yesterday. Average daily hospital admissions currently stand at 1,366 and, sadly, yesterday we recorded more than 500 deaths—the highest death toll since mid-May. It is a painful reminder that the real battles are fought not here in this Chamber, but in our hospitals up and down the country and by those who are suffering from and fighting this dreadful disease. But in this Chamber, there are steps we can take that I believe will help them in that battle, and I believe that we were therefore right to act as we did.
Despite the seriousness of our current situation, these measures are time-limited. They legally expire 28 days after they were passed by the House—on 2 December. At that point, we will look to return to the tiered system, using local and regional data and trends to determine our response and adapt to local needs.
The measures in place are also quite different from last time. Schools and universities rightly remain open to avoid further disruption to education. People can establish childcare bubbles, take unlimited exercise and meet one person from a different household outside. More than that, however difficult it has been, I believe that we as a nation have made huge strides to better overcome the challenges that these measures bring. However, I am acutely aware that for many people in our country any restrictions are still incredibly difficult, especially this second time around. They are difficult for our NHS and care home staff, who have shown such resilience but still face a difficult winter ahead; for the families who have not been able to see their loved ones and once again cannot meet them in the ways they would wish to; and for individuals who live alone and are still, despite support bubbles, having to cope with the challenges posed by these restrictions.
It has also, of course, been an especially tough time for the businesses that have had to close their doors just as they were coming back, and that is why we are providing an unprecedented package of economic measures, with more than £200 billion of financial support since March to protect lives and livelihoods in every region and nation of the United Kingdom. The package was recently described by the International Monetary Fund as
“one of the best examples of coordinated action globally”.
Of course I feel deeply for those businesses and individuals, and I appreciate the position they find themselves in, especially when they have done all they can to do the right thing. That was why it was important to extend the furlough scheme and to provide further support in extending the scheme for the self-employed.
Of course it is right that the furlough scheme and the support for the self-employed should be reinstated at the levels they were at in March, but the Minister will know—everyone will know—that there are a great many people in our country who did not qualify for the furlough scheme or the self-employed scheme, or whose businesses did not qualify for grants at the start and still do not. May I take this opportunity to remind him that a great many people are still without financial support and will find it increasingly difficult to make it through the coming weeks and months? Will he take that message back to his colleagues across the Government?
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for the way in which he made his points, which made, as ever, measured and reasonable. As I have said, I entirely understand—as anyone in this House will, from looking at their own casework and their constituents’ letters—the situations that some people still find themselves in, despite the unprecedented package of support that has been put in place. I know that he would not expect me to speak for the Chancellor of the Exchequer, but I know that my right hon. Friend will have heard the point that he has made. Indeed, other Members of this House have made it on other occasions on behalf of their constituents.
This tough emotional and economic toll is why we are determined to make every day count in our battle against the virus. Our NHS has been preparing for this second wave for months, and as we move into winter, it is better prepared than before, with 30,000 ventilators and billions of items of PPE, mostly made here at home. In that context, I would like to take this opportunity to pay tribute to the Under-Secretary of State for Health and Social Care, my hon. Friend the Member for Bury St Edmunds (Jo Churchill), who has done so much, as the Minister with responsibility for this area, to ensure that we have the PPE that we need at this time. There are also over 13,000 more nurses and almost 8,000 more doctors, and £450 million is being spent as we speak to further upgrade accident and emergency departments. There is increased capacity in our hospitals, and the Nightingales are standing ready as an insurance policy.
What is more, we know more about the virus than before. We know how we can better stop it and how we can better treat it. We have therefore strengthened infection control procedures and, as a result, we are driving down hospital-acquired infections. We have also improved clinical techniques, and I pay tribute to the clinicians and scientists who have driven these developments. As a result, the number of people surviving covid in hospital is up, as I said earlier. But of course, an increase in survival rates means that the pressure on NHS beds remains high. Equally concerning to the House will be the toll this disease takes not just on immediate physical health but on mental health. Our medical community is also working hard to understand the impact of so-called long covid and the potential for long-term chronic conditions resulting from the illness, even when people may have felt they were unaffected when they had it.
In social care, too, we have rightly taken important steps to protect people in care and those who care for them. Our social care winter plan, led by my hon. Friend the Minister for Care, strengthens protections in social care, including the provision of PPE, regular testing and updated systems for safe discharge. Those will be crucial in the months to come. She recently set out the latest guidance for care home visits, which sought to strike the incredibly difficult balance of providing vital protections for the health and wellbeing of our most vulnerable people, while protecting the people who work there and seeking to allow those vital family visits.
We have also built the largest testing capacity of any country in Europe. From an almost standing start in the spring, we have conducted some 34 million tests so far, and yesterday our polymerase chain reaction testing capacity stood at 504,491. More than 10 million people in the UK have been tested at least once through NHS Test and Trace, and our NHS covid-19 contact tracing app is approaching 20 million downloads. In Stoke-on-Trent and Liverpool, we are piloting cutting-edge lateral flow tests, which can deliver a result on infection in just 15 minutes. Starting yesterday, we are rolling out twice-weekly testing for all NHS staff, using a range of testing technologies so that we can better seek to keep both staff and patients safe. On Monday, the Secretary of State wrote to 67 directors of public health who had an expressed an interest to him to make 10,000 tests immediately available to other areas across the country and to make lateral flow tests available for local officials and devolved Administrations according to local needs, at a rate of 10% of their population per week.
Those bold new steps are a key weapon in our battle against the virus, but of course I know that the hopes of the nation are, understandably, pinned on the possibility of a safe and effective vaccine. That felt another step closer on Monday, as we all welcomed the announcement from Pfizer and BioNTech of a vaccine that they state is more than 90% effective. As an early mover, the UK has already secured 40 million doses of that vaccine. It is important to note that it is just one of many vaccines in development, and we have placed orders for 300 million further doses from five other vaccine candidates that are yet to report phase 3 results. I always seek to sound a note of caution at this Dispatch Box and in the media, and it is important that I echo the words of caution from the Secretary of State yesterday: the full safety data for the Pfizer and BioNTech vaccine is not yet available, and our regulator the Medicines and Healthcare products Regulatory Agency and the Secretary of State will not approve any vaccine until it is proven clinically safe. This is a promising step forward, but we must remain cautious. So until we can roll out a proven vaccine, we must continue to follow the existing rules of “hands, face, space” because this remains a deadly virus.
In closing, let me say that in recent months this country has faced some tough and challenging times. We continue to face tough and challenging times, and many up and down our country have made huge sacrifices and continue to do so, be they individuals, families or businesses. I pay tribute to them all. There are no easy solutions, but we have risen to and beaten such challenges in the past, although different ones, and we can do so again, through a unity of spirit, by coming together as a country and by our shared determination to do the right thing. The recent announcement of a potential vaccine offers hope for the future, and while we pursue that prospect at speed, our greatest strength lies in the common sense, determination and resilience of the people of our great country. I am convinced that, with those and together, we will beat this dreadful disease.
Before I call Justin Madders, and to help Members plan a little better, let me say that the time limit will come in after Sir Desmond Swayne, who sits fifth on the call list. So Members who are between five and 10 on the list will have five minutes, and those after 10 will have four minutes. The time limit may be reduced later on, depending on what Dame Rosie Winterton wishes to do.
It is now 293 days since the Secretary of State first came to this House and spoke about the emerging threat of covid-19. Since then, thousands of lives have been lost, both directly and indirectly, and billions of pounds have been spent. There has been great personal sacrifice, and we have all heard so many stories of individual courage and dedication that have been an inspiration, but there is no doubt that people are now weary. Not one corner of this isle or one aspect of our lives has been immune to the impact of this virus, so the news this week that there may be a way out of this nightmare has given people hope, and we all need hope at this difficult time.
However, that hope should not obscure the truth that we are in the midst of a second wave, so we must be sure to maintain vigilance. As we heard from the Minister, as of yesterday there were 20,000 new infections; more than 13,000 people are in hospital in England, with more patients in hospital in the north of England than there were at the peak of the first wave; and sadly, there were another 532 deaths yesterday, the highest number in one day for approximately six months. That is another 532 families who have lost a loved one, and among the huge numbers we talk about, we should never lose sight of the fact that each one of those numbers is a person. With the news today that we have now passed 50,000 deaths since the start of the pandemic, we know that the scale of human loss has been immense.
Those figures remind us that we still have a long way to go. Hope for the future is important, but it is not guaranteed, and neither is the end likely to be reached before we enter the difficult winter months, during which it is sadly likely that more people will catch the virus and more will die. It is right that plans are now being made for the roll-out of the vaccine, but that should not mean we take our eye off the ball when it comes to the immediate and pressing challenges that this virus presents. I know that time is at a premium today, so I will not detain the House for too long, but I want to say a few words about some of those immediate challenges.
Every challenge in the NHS is faced, first and foremost, by its workforce, so I will start by paying tribute—as the Minister did—to everyone in the NHS: the doctors, the nurses, the many allied health professionals, the porters, and everyone who has gone above and beyond over these past nine months to keep the NHS going. We know that working in the NHS is never easy, but the pressure, the workload and the trauma this year are of a scale and intensity we have never seen before. Not only must we show our gratitude to those who have given their all; we must demonstrate that we are listening to them by addressing their well-documented and legitimate concerns. That has to be more than a clap or a badge: there has to be tangible recognition that there are only so many times people can go to the well before they become physically and mentally exhausted. It is clear that burn-out is a real risk, as 14 health unions and royal colleges warned in their letter to the Prime Minister earlier this week. They say that asking staff to carry on at this level of intensity is “increasingly unrealistic”. We have to listen to that warning.
Addressing workforce fatigue is not just the right thing to do: it is the only thing to do if we want the NHS to continue to be the jewel in this nation’s crown. I hope that the rumours of another two-year pay freeze for NHS staff are just that—rumours—because if that were true, it would send the most appalling message about the value this Government place on the NHS workforce. When the Minister winds up the debate, I will be delighted if she can put that particular rumour to bed.
Of course, NHS staff should be properly rewarded for the work they do, but they also need to be properly supported when doing the job. We cannot have a repeat of the obscenity of doctors and nurses bringing in home-made PPE while UK manufacturers are selling it overseas. I know that general practice is particularly concerned about the availability of PPE this coming winter, and while many of these debates have rightly focused on the hospital-based issues that covid presents, we should not underestimate the demand there has been on GPs this year. We know it is always the case that, when general practice struggles, the impact is felt elsewhere in the NHS. It is not yet clear what role GPs will play in the roll-out of any vaccine, but any additional demands placed on them in that respect must be matched by additional support.
We welcome the news that at last, many months after we first suggested it, there will be routine testing of frontline NHS staff. The Healthcare Safety Investigation Branch report on the transmission of covid in hospital settings, which came out last month, stressed the importance of increasing pillar 1 testing capacity, and it is a matter of deep regret that we are only just starting to see that now. Let us hope that that pledge does not face the same problems with availability that we had in the social care sector.
I had hoped to speak in this debate but, unfortunately, there are limited flights to Belfast. Does the hon. Member agree that there needs to be additional testing in the care home sector, particularly for family members who could be designated as care workers? I know that the Minister brought forward a pilot scheme. Does the shadow Minister agree that that should be rolled out right across the United Kingdom and that loved ones should get access to their family members in the care home setting?
I thank the hon. Member for her intervention. The recent developments in rapid testing give us the ideal opportunity to allow relatives of those in care homes to go in and see them and give them the support that they have been so sadly lacking in recent months. None of us could fail to be moved by the many representations we have had from family members who have been unable to see their loved ones for many months.
On the health and social care workforce, we know, sadly, that over 600 staff have lost their lives so far to covid-19. They have paid the ultimate price just for doing their job. It is important that lessons are learnt about how we stop transmission, and it is right that the Government opened up their life assurance scheme to all health and social care staff, but over half of all families who have lost someone to the virus have still not received their payment, so we need the Government to be much more proactive in making sure that everyone who is entitled to that payment receives it.
Let us support the staff, but let us not forget the impact on patients as well. We know that the NHS could cope with the first wave only because so many planned operations were cancelled. We know that the need to operate in a covid-secure environment presents additional challenges to the NHS in reaching previous levels of activity. We know that before the pandemic started, waiting lists were already climbing to record levels. Covid-19 has accelerated that increase so that by August this year, over 100,000 patients were waiting over a year just to start treatment. Cancer Research UK estimates that around 3 million people are waiting for breast, bowel or cervical screening, and there were over 1.2 million patients waiting for a key diagnostic test at the end of August. We need to hear what the plans will be to address these spiralling waiting lists, and we need a cast-iron guarantee that no patient will be discharged from hospital into a care home if they have tested positive for covid-19.
I turn to what awaits us in a few weeks’ time, because we all hope that the current lockdown will end on 2 December as planned, and as promised, I believe, by the Prime Minister. If it does end on that date, it seems likely that we will still have some system of tiered restrictions. That is another area where we need to see improvements, because the Government’s approach to restrictions to date has at times been contradictory, muddled and rushed. I accept that the Government have had on occasions to move quickly, sometimes because of a rapidly changing picture—but sometimes, regrettably, because of leaks to the press too. Of course, we would not expect things in this kind of situation to be perfect, but they can be better than they have been.
The time that this lockdown buys us should be used not just to fix test and trace, to prepare for a roll-out of the vaccine and to fine-tune the mass testing pilots, but to set out a clear and consistent framework for determining and implementing future restrictions. The Minister and his colleagues have spent many Monday afternoons in Committee Rooms with me and others going through increasingly convoluted and amended statutory instruments dealing with each new restriction, often published only hours before they became law and always debated weeks after they came into force. We cannot go back to that style of governing. Public trust is eroded when decisions are not made in a transparent and timely manner, so when the Government decide what their exit strategy for the lockdown will be, they also need to consider what the process will be for making and communicating those decisions. It is critical that individuals and businesses get sufficient advance warning in future to enable them to prepare properly for whatever comes next. This point is as much about process as it is about substance, but the process matters, because restrictions need to be tested in this place; if they do not stand up to scrutiny here, we cannot expect them to stand up to scrutiny out there.
I want to say a few words about test, trace and isolate. The Serco side of the system is underperforming badly, and the decision to place responsibility for mass testing into the hands of local directors of public health is a welcome one. It recognises, perhaps belatedly, where the real expertise lies. The latest figures for the national test and trace system are frankly shocking, with 26% of test results received within 24 hours. We should not forget that the Prime Minister said we would have all results turned around in that timescale by the end of June, yet the figures have been getting worse in recent weeks, not better. We know how important it is for results to be turned around quickly if we are ever to get test and trace playing the part it was meant to play in controlling the spread of the virus. Ministers can boast about record capacity, but capacity is meaningless if the results are not coming back quickly enough to be effective.
Let me turn to the contact tracing system itself. In the most recent weeks for which figures are available, 40% of close contacts were not reached and asked to self-isolate, amounting to over 130,000 people in one week. That is a failure. When every one of us in here has those difficult and distressing conversations with our constituents about the restrictions that we currently face, we need to reflect on that failure, and question not only why these unproven private providers have been given the task in the first place, but why they continue to be responsible for a system that they are clearly not delivering on. Every scientific adviser said that relaxing lockdown measures would work only if we had an effective test and trace system in place, yet on just about every measure the system is going backwards. How much longer will Ministers tolerate this failure? However, whoever is doing the contact tracing, that is only half the story. Without people adhering to the rules of self-isolation thereafter, the success of the entire system is in doubt.
Yesterday when Baroness Harding gave evidence to the joint inquiry of the Science and Technology Committee, and Health and Social Care Committee, made the important point that the reason people were not self-isolating was that they could not afford the loss of income, rather than a refusal to comply. She also made the rather remarkable claim that the surge in cases that we have seen in the last couple of months was not anticipated, which I thought was an incredible admission.
The Committees also heard from Professor Sir John Bell, who said that the self-isolation system was “massively ineffective” and spoke about using the increased testing capacity perhaps to cut short the self-isolation period for negative cases. No doubt the Government are actively considering that, but we are still left with the need to do more to encourage people who test positive to self-isolate.
In September a report for the Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies concluded that self-isolation rates would be improved if additional financial support were available, ensuring that those required to self-isolate—let us not forget that these are people who are doing the right thing—are not penalised and do not experience financial hardship when doing so. This survey found that only 18% of people with symptoms self-isolated, and that figure went down to just 11% of those told to self-isolate by Test and Trace after coming into contact with a confirmed case. I know that these are preliminary figures and that other studies have suggested slightly higher levels of compliance, but no study that I have seen has shown levels anywhere near close enough to where they need to be for us to have an effective system.
The entitlement to a self-isolation payment is tied to being in receipt of certain benefits, which means that a significant number of people do not qualify, although those not in receipt of those benefits and those who do not receive contractual sick pay can also receive statutory sick pay or employment and support allowance. But that is frankly not good enough. SSP is far below the rate set for a self-isolation payment. The Secretary of State famously said that he could not live on such an amount, so we should not be surprised when we see low rates of compliance, because asking those who are not eligible for a self-isolation payment to accept a significant drop in their pay for a fortnight inevitably causes hardship and discourages compliance. I urge the Government seriously to consider doing more to encourage people to self-isolate.
It is a massive oversight that those notified through the app are not entitled to the payment. I understand that the Government are actively looking at this, but given that it is over six months since we started hearing talk about the world-beating app, it is staggering that we are only now looking at how properly to tie it in with support for self-isolation. Action on that issue cannot come soon enough.
There has been newspaper speculation that the actual period of self-isolation might be cut, with a suggestion that it could end at 10 days following a negative test. A report in The Guardian on Monday says that a compromise was “cooked up” to placate Dominic Cummings. Frankly, he ought to be the last person in government to be determining the self-isolation rules, given that he has found it impossible to follow them himself. Any change to this period should be based on medical advice, so I do hope that we get clarity from the Government during the wind-ups that any decisions on shortening the self-isolation period will be based on advice from the chief medical officer, rather than any Dom, Dick or Harry who happens to be in the Prime Minister’s office.
I hope that those on the Government Benches have been listening today and considered the issues and the suggestions that I have made, as none of us wants to be back here in another month or two debating another lockdown because the time this lockdown has bought was wasted. We do not want to be here talking about how the second wave saw us with one of the highest death rates in the world again, and we do not want to be here in a few months’ time seeing cases rising again because demand was not anticipated. We all want to hear that cases are falling, that hospital admissions are reducing, and that other NHS patients are getting their treatments quicker. Human endeavour has given us the opportunity to get to that place. While reaching that destination is not entirely within the Government’s gift, it would be inexcusable if we failed to get there because of incompetence or neglect on the Government’s part. The people would never forgive that, and nor should they.
I pay tribute to all those in my own constituency who have helped our community through the pandemic—the medical and emergency staff, other key workers, our volunteers, and the neighbours who have made all the difference.
I want to say a few words about how we can ensure that public confidence in our policy remains high, but first I will make a few comments on the current lockdown. I reinforce my hon. Friend the Minister’s point that when we leave the national lockdown on 2 December, we are not going into a national free-for-all in the run-up to Christmas. Ministers must make it very clear that we are transitioning back to a regional tiered system, because over-optimism, just as if people believe that a vaccine coming means they do not have to obey the rules, would be very dangerous to public health.
But if we are going to move successfully back to the tiered system, we have to deal with some of the illogical rules that still exist despite the best efforts of Ministers. This is not frivolous—it is important in getting people to conform to the restrictions that are in place. For example, we want people to play sport, so do we really believe that a spaced round of golf is more dangerous to public health than people going to a supermarket? When it comes to religious observation, is it credible that people who go to church for private worship and are properly spaced are a greater danger than the same number with the same spacing who take part in a service? These issues are important to a lot of people out there. The Government need to deal with some of these illogicalities if we are to deal with conformity.
There is something that Ministers can do immediately, and that is about free testing for families of key workers. I have a constituent who is a key worker and has been sent home because her son has also been sent home from school to isolate. She cannot go back to work until her son has a negative test, but he does not qualify for free testing. In other words, she must pay to get her son tested before she can go back to a key occupation. That cannot be the right way to treat our key workers. I urge the Minister to look as quickly as possible at how we deal with these key members of our society.
May I ask the Minister to look again, through the Treasury, at those who were remunerated through dividends? Many of those people are hard-working and decent, not tax dodgers. They were able to get by for a short time, but as the lockdown goes on, it is becoming impossible for them and they are facing absolute undue hardship.
My main comments relate to our great maxim in medicine—do no harm. That means that the patient must not be worse off from the cure than they were from the original disease. This is a dilemma facing all Governments. How do we protect public health while ensuring the economic viability by which the funding for public services is generated? So far, the public remain very supportive of the Government’s position, but that cannot be guaranteed. Recent controversies over the use of data have made it more difficult for the Government simply to say that they are following the science. Sadly, there is growing resistance to the concept of lockdowns, which is inevitable as economic concerns rise to the fore. It is utterly irrational to say that one is against all lockdowns, because that needs to be a decision taken on the basis of the evidence at the time. However, we need to understand the anxieties and the frustrations if the Government want to keep their options open and retain credibility with the public.
So how can Parliament play its part in that process? Covid-19 is not just a health issue; it is also an economic issue, affecting welfare and employment and our personal and social wellbeing. And of course there is no such thing, actually, as “the science”; rather, there is a range of scientific views, and we need to understand what that range is and the weight given to the respective parts of it if we are to have faith in the outcome of the judgments that have been made.
Our current Select Committees are very good at looking at departmental functions and policy, but they are very vertical and do not look across the whole of Government. In 2012, after the banking scandal, David Cameron set up the Parliamentary Commission on Banking Standards; it was a full parliamentary Committee of inquiry involving both Houses. I believe we need the same now: senior but temporary, cross-party and with both Houses. Of course, the reaction from the Front Bench is likely to be “no more scrutiny”—I have been there and done that; I have been on the Front Bench and know what all those arguments are—but I think it would be a mistake and something the Government would come to regret, because such a Commission would help show that across the whole of Government, advice and data had been properly scrutinised. It is an opportunity to reinforce public confidence as we face the covid pandemic into 2021.
Finally, there is another reason why we should have such a set-up. This will not be the last pandemic we face. In the era of globalisation, when in normal times, for example, we have 700,000 people in the air at any one time, we will face further pandemics, and although this has been a tragedy for every single case, it has not been a particularly lethal pandemic by historical standards. We must set up the structures that we will need to deal with future pandemics, and we need internationally to work out the protocols we will put in place when we have the emergence of new viruses and the metrics we will use to measure that, because we cannot have the disorganised and shambolic international response that we have had to this particular pandemic. Meanwhile, at home we need transparency, with all the evidence scrutinised, if we are to maintain public confidence and see off the political opportunists and the conspiracy theorists, and, with that transparency, we need that scrutiny in this House and we need it urgently.
Despite its dreadful impact, the coronavirus pandemic has brought out the very best in people, from Captain Sir Tom Moore’s inspiring fundraising efforts to volunteers in communities across my Kirkcaldy and Cowdenbeath constituency who have mobilised to ensure that the vulnerable among them receive food and medicine as they shield from this deadly virus. I would like to pay tribute to some of them today: Fife Voluntary Action, Benarty emergency response team and the many “Scotland Loves Local” high street heroes award winners, to name but a few. But of course I also add my thanks to all the key workers who kept us all going throughout lockdown.
The pandemic has also, however, laid bare the opportunism of some: a profiteering cronyism that runs through the heart of this Westminster Government—what Canadian author and social activist Naomi Klein calls “disaster capitalism”. In her award-winning book “The Shock Doctrine”, Klein presents a convincing narrative of a political strategy that exploits large-scale crises, such as this pandemic, to push through neo-liberal policy that systematically deepens inequality while simultaneously enriching the already wealthy with connections to those in power.
In the crisis we face today, ordinary people are focused on the daily challenge of survival, yet in parallel we have repeatedly witnessed new private companies springing up to profit directly, greatly assisted in those efforts by a political class prepared to make strenuous efforts to line the pockets of many with close links to the party of government. As my hon. Friend the Member for Gordon (Richard Thomson) incisively said of this phenomenon, people across these islands are in the grip of a cronyvirus at the heart of this Government that may be every bit as deadly as the coronavirus.
I do not dispute the role of private companies in meeting the challenge of the coronavirus. I will go on to discuss the transparency and the appropriateness of the way in which contracts have been awarded by this Government during the pandemic.
We have only to look at the PPE fiasco to see how this has been brazenly put into action, with large contracts awarded to small firms with little to no experience in the relevant field but with numerous links to the Conservative party. How on earth did the Government find them? In what amounts to a covid bonanza for these tiny companies, Government contracts worth more than £10 billion have been awarded in this way since March. Under cover of the pandemic, the standard rules have been put aside, enabling contracts to be issued in extreme urgency with little to no oversight; I refer here to the comments made by the right hon. Member for North Somerset (Dr Fox) about scrutiny.
With the emergence of promising vaccine candidates, we collectively hope that there is light at the end of the tunnel. However, the darkness of our journey through this pandemic must not be allowed to obscure our important public duty to act in good faith and with financial probity. We simply cannot emerge from this experience with the dismissive “at any cost” excuse deployed from the top of this Government down. We must ensure that the burden is shared equally.
Enormous amounts of public money have been dished out in the absence of any tendering process, value for money assessment or assessment of whether any of these companies have relevant experience. We have all heard stories of UK businesses with expertise whose offers of help went unanswered by this Government. Why? On PPE, £108 million went to a tiny pest control company with net assets of £18,000. Another £108 million went to a modestly sized confectioner in Northern Ireland, while a third contract worth £252 million was awarded to an opaque private fund owned through a tax haven. The more that Members and external interested parties scratch the surface of this Government’s contract profligacy, the more serious are the questions that arise.
It is not just PPE. Under the fast-track rules, private firms have been handed a total of 843 direct contracts, including those that administer covid-19 tests and provide food parcels and medical supplies. Then, of course, there is the disastrous £12 billion test and trace failure, led by Conservative peer Baroness Harding. In yesterday’s joint Select Committee hearing, a possible reason for that was revealed. In July, the CMO claimed in a Select Committee that the ability to ramp up testing was “significantly strained”. Yesterday, Professor Sir Chris Ham gave evidence that increasing capacity over the crucial summer months was too slow, yet Baroness Harding claimed that testing capacity was increasing throughout the summer. What is the truth of the matter? Unfortunately, that was not the only incongruity, as Baroness Harding did not show a clear command of her brief, failing to answer or, in some cases, understand what was being asked.
The global pandemic is an absolute disaster for so many, with an unimaginable loss of life, yet the brightest and best of humanity have been working tirelessly on effective treatments and a vaccine. Rightly or wrongly, the appointment of Kate Bingham has proved controversial. There are no doubt questions to be asked about the absence of any clear recruitment process, but when she appeared before the Health and Social Care Committee recently, she was impressive. She was clearly on top of and in command of her brief.
However, that does not vacate the responsibility of this Government and any appointees to act ethically and in good faith and, most important, to account transparently for their actions. There are concerns about Kate Bingham’s astronomical public relations bill and claims that she shared sensitive information with investors. Further concerns emerged in The Guardian yesterday—in simple terms, how can a job be considered unpaid when the postholder has a position of influence or control in the process of awarding a £49 million investment to a company in which they remain a managing partner and from which they will surely benefit? Whatever the Prime Minister’s bluster, these matters must be fully scrutinised.
Sad as the pandemic is, what saddens the most is that these conditions are seen by some as an opportunity for Governments and corporate interests to implement political agendas that would otherwise be met with great resistance and opposition. The Government are on notice that, despite the disorientation of the public health crisis we are living through, these matters are being pursued.
This chain of events is not unique to the current crisis; it is a blueprint that neo-liberal politicians and Governments have been following for decades. Many thought that the meltdown of the global financial system in 2008 would prompt a comprehensive rethink of the principles underlying global capitalism, but in reality it was exploited to implement austerity and defund public services and social welfare provision on a grand scale. Covid illustrated that no more keenly than in respect of social care.
The 2018 report on social care from the other place pointed to a gap in service for 1.4 million people. This year, the Independent Care Group suggested that 1.5 million people are already living without the care that they need. The number keeps growing. One and a half million vulnerable and elderly people throughout England—husbands, wives, parents, grandparents, brothers and sisters; each and every one deserves much better from their Government. The Government are presiding over a social care system that is close to collapse.
Sir Simon Stevens, chief executive of the national health service, told the BBC that the covid-19 crisis had shone “a very harsh spotlight” on the “resilience” of the care system. The truth is that it comes down to priorities and political choices. To reform social care to pre-austerity levels will now cost more than £14 billion. That is a large sum, but it is £9 billion less than the bank bail-outs of 2007-08, which cost the public purse £23 billion overall. The annual operating costs of Trident nuclear weapons come in at £2 billion—far short of the £14 billion we need to repair the economic vandalism of austerity but, according to the costs worked out by Skills for Care, enough to recruit and train almost 550,000 new social careworkers every single year.
According to Age UK, 167,000 older people and their families throughout England now have to fund their own care because of the means test for free or subsidised support. Older people who are obliged to buy their own care have spent more than £7 billion in the 12 months since the Prime Minister took office and promised to fix social care. Every single day in England, 14 people exhaust their assets paying for care.
The reality is that the social care system that entered the pandemic was underfunded, understaffed, undervalued and at risk of collapse. Any response to covid-19, however fast or comprehensive, would have needed to contend with this legacy of political neglect. Government policies to support social care have faced major and widespread problems, not least the PPE crisis, which has led to a lack of protection for some people using and providing adult social care. Local authorities report that additional Government funding has been insufficient to cover the additional costs.
As has become all too clear throughout the recent crisis in England, protecting social care has been given far too low a priority. When the Minister for Care appeared before the Health and Social Care Committee last month, despite admitting that
“the social care system needs fixing”
and making a commitment to do so, she was unwilling to give any date for when the disinvestment of austerity would be rectified. If not now, when?
The UK Government do not even need to look far for inspiration: although challenges remain, they could learn much from Scotland’s approach. The story north and south of the border is very different, as is evident in our approaches to social care post covid. The Scottish Government have established an independent review to look at the creation of a national care service for all. As the Nuffield Trust points out, Scotland’s reforms are
“the most advanced of the countries…having set out an ambitious and comprehensive vision for a social care service.”
Because free personal care has been in place in Scotland since 2002, two thirds of those receiving social care support in Scotland do so in their own homes.
A further lesson from Scotland is the introduction of Frank’s law in April 2019. Under this legislation, free personal care was extended to all adults. Despite all these significant advances being made in Scotland, the system continues to struggle because we are part of the UK. Let us take funding, for example. The simple truth is that, without independence, we are limited in our funding options. Hoping for Barnett consequentials any time soon seems unlikely, given the UK Government’s timidity towards social care reform in England. Then there is Brexit. While the Government celebrate the end of freedom of movement, the loss of its opportunities is lamented in Scotland. The Migration Advisory Committee is entirely right that this poses a stark risk for social care, given that the services are dependent on EU nationals. UK policy delivers to Scotland a triple threat: a lack of reform to tackle the many pre-existing issues; the Government’s irrational and ideological approach to the EU; and an immigration policy that refuses to acknowledge, never mind accommodate, the specific needs of Scotland.
I had a fleeting hope in March that covid would raise this Government’s eyes to injustice and the value of those in healthcare. I felt sure that honouring all the heroes in our NHS and care sector would naturally follow, but no. With the weekly clapping now a distant memory, many do not feel valued or do not feel that their efforts are properly recognised. Campaigners are calling on Ministers to boost nurses’ pay without delay. The Scottish Government are currently delivering the highest pay award in the UK for NHS Agenda for Change staff of at least 9% over the three years from 2019. They also gave an immediate 3.3% pay rise to social care workers and have just announced £50 million for the social care staff support fund for those who contract covid-19.
This Government sprang into action to approve countless contracts for their wealthy friends at the start of the pandemic, but that sense of urgency is sadly lacking when it comes to taking action on nurses’ pay or addressing the poverty of carers. The Prime Minister demonstrated yet again today that his ears are made of cloth. He ignores repeated calls for the £20 uplift to universal credit to be made permanent and extended to legacy benefits, which is backed by the Joseph Rowntree Foundation and Save the Children, and he defended his Government’s refusal to feed children in poverty during the summer holidays, yet brags about Marcus Rashford’s campaign this winter. It was support grudgingly given through shame.
We are seeing a return to the lack of compassion of the 1980s, but what we are witnessing now casts minds back further still, not just to the Thatcher years but to Dickensian Britain where great wealth and extreme poverty existed cheek by jowl, conjuring images of barefoot children with empty bowls and a population without access to medical or social care. This is the stark reality of Tory Britain: poverty, a pay-to-access suboptimal social care system, an assault on employment and working conditions, and the exclusion of the self-employed. Coronavirus must not be allowed to cover for the cronyvirus at the heart of this Government. Some say that Scotland gets too generous a settlement, but that is a false narrative. These policies exist in Scotland because—
On a point of order, Mr Deputy Speaker. This debate is about covid-19, the pandemic in our constituencies right now, but the hon. Member for Kirkcaldy and Cowdenbeath (Neale Hanvey) is taking us back to the 1980s. Is that as it should be?
I am not responsible for the hon. Gentleman’s speech, but I know that he will be conscious of the number of people who wish to contribute to this debate. I know him to be a fair man and we are coming now to exactly the same timings of the other Front-Bench contributions, so if he could come to a conclusion, that would be really useful.
It may not be the perception of the hon. Member for Gloucester (Richard Graham) that this is important to covid, but it is in Scotland, and I am speaking to the people in Scotland.
The policies that exist to support us exist in Scotland because people vote for parties that campaign for these political choices. Prior to the 2014 referendum, Business for Scotland analysis revealed that, in each of the 30 previous years, Scotland generated more tax revenue per head for the UK Treasury than the rest of the UK. The subsidy myth was well and truly busted. The Prime Minister or Conservative Members talk of the generous handout from this Government, but it is not a handout; it is our money. It is our money that they are giving back to us. Scotland’s economy, when benchmarked against similar-sized independent nations that, quite frankly, would love to have Scotland’s economic advantages and natural resources, illustrates vividly the dreadful impact of Westminster’s continued economic mismanagement.
In closing—[Hon. Members: “Hurrah!”] Conservative Members might not like it. Vice-President-elect Kamala Harris recently referred to the following quote:
“Democracy is not a state. It is an act”.
To those aspiring for statehood in Scotland, I say this: it is time for democracy and it is time to act like a state.
We have made the case against the regulations in this House and we have lost all the votes, and that is democracy. However, liberal western democracy is more than rule by the majority. It certainly includes freedom of association, freedom of expression and freedom to worship. One of the most worrying aspects of our response to the coronavirus has been the way people have simply shrugged as these freedoms have been dispensed with. The Government have armed themselves with all the coercive powers of the state to tell us whom we may meet, when we may meet them, where we may meet them and what we must wear. Freedom of protest has been dispensed with, as has freedom of worship.
Is it not interesting, the way that subsidiaries of the totalitarian state, in their eagerness, seek to exceed even what has been proscribed and prescribed? I have received representations from clinicians who have been threatened that their jobs will be taken from them because they have publicly expressed their doubts about the wisdom of the policy or, indeed, their doubts about the misuse or the concealment of data. We had the extraordinary scene of a nurse being charged with assault for seeking to liberate her mother from a care home. Could this have happened in our country? Then we saw those students seeking to effect a great escape from the Stalag Luft III that their university had imposed on them.
As these enormities occurred, instead of the expected rising chorus of protest, on the contrary we are told by the pollsters that actually the British people thirst for even greater restraints on their liberty. I am appalled—absolutely appalled. These liberties, as we heard in the debate earlier this afternoon, were bought at an extraordinarily high price. Now, as we move into the vaccinated sunny uplands of release and freedom, there is a danger that the state has learned a powerful lesson over the last few months—namely, that the British people do not worry too much about their liberties and that they can be dispensed with conveniently when need arises. I hope that this House will wake up to that danger and seek a remedy.
In April, the Government asked businesses across our country to step up to help in the pandemic. I want to tell a story of two businesses that tried to help in the pandemic. It is a contrast between two PPE companies: Florence Roby, owned by constituents of mine in Formby, and PPE Medro, which was founded on 12 May this year. Seven weeks later, this company was given a contract for £122 million to provide medical robes. The contract was not advertised anywhere else, and presumably it was delivered, but we have no way of knowing because we have not had the outcomes yet.
How was Florence Roby doing by 12 May, having first approached the Government in March, before the big call for help came? It has been going for more than 50 years, and it is a specialist in the manufacture of uniforms. Working with local NHS providers, it designed medical robes that could be reused up to 100 times. It took two months for Florence Roby to get an answer, which took it past the 12 May date. Meanwhile, it developed the product and applied for the CE marks. In June, it was told that its product was not required. The Government’s email said that they had all the PPE they could possibly ever need. Florence Roby and dozens of other companies across the country were told the same thing: their services were no longer required.
Florence Roby had put weeks of effort and thousands of pounds of investment into developing a product, which, remember, was 100 times reusable; meanwhile, we were getting planeloads of plastic medical robes from Turkey that could not be used because the quality was not good enough. That is the reality of what my constituents faced. They still have not had a contract or a satisfactory answer from the Government. They were just given the runaround.
PPE Medpro is not the only company to have profited, having been started from scratch or having had very little footprint and no previous experience. We saw that, as the hon. Member for Kirkcaldy and Cowdenbeath (Neale Hanvey) mentioned, with PestFix and its £108 million contract. PPE Medpro had one advantage: it was assisted by its relationship with a Conservative Member of the House of Lords. Randox, similarly connected to Members of the ruling party, got a £347 million contract for covid tests that could not be used because of safety concerns. Ayanda Capital, which supplied unusable facemasks, is based in Mauritius, and we heard at Prime Minister’s questions from the Leader of the Opposition about £130 million for external PR. All the while, a £7,000 day rate is being paid to consultants more widely. Florence Roby employs local people and a contract would have added jobs in its factory; instead, it had to lay people off, while PPE Medpro shipped from overseas. That is the contrast.
Let us remember that we were told all the way through that there are unique circumstances about procurement during a crisis, and I do not deny that. On 11 April, there was a call to arms from the Health Secretary to any UK textile company that could assist. On 15 April, the Government’s website was calling for PPE manufacturers and home-grown industries. On 4 May, the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster spoke of support for
“companies capable of contributing supplies.”—[Official Report, 4 May 2020; Vol. 675, c. 411.]
All those requests were made and answered by Florence Roby and a list of other companies, including EcoLogix in my constituency, Imperial Polythene Products in Slough, and Staeger Clear Packaging, which makes aprons and other PPE, but they were turned down despite offering to help. It was a chance for British companies to contribute to the crisis, and it was a chance for taxpayers’ money to support businesses through the pandemic to help with jobs and the economy, but they were turned down. That is why the National Audit Office investigation and report are so important.
Amid all the damage caused by the coronavirus pandemic to public health, to the economy and to social wellbeing, arguably the biggest impact has been on residents of care homes and their families. Care home residents, among the most vulnerable members of our community, have been disproportionately impacted by covid-19. According to the Office for National Statistics, up to 30 October about 28% of covid-related deaths recorded in England and Wales were in care homes. It is therefore fully understandable that care home providers should be cautious about visits to their homes by family members. However, it should also be remembered that many care home residents are living with dementia. Being deprived of visits causes disorientation and distress to them and, equally, to their families.
My constituent Mrs Kathy Barham of Ruthin has described to me the impact that visiting restrictions are having on her family. Her mother, Mrs Mavis Addison, lives in a care home in Wallasey. She is a widow and has lived all her life in Wallasey. Until 2016, she lived independently, but she was then diagnosed with dementia and moved into a residential care home. That did not mean that she stopped enjoying life. Every weekend, Mrs Barham would travel from Ruthin to visit her, take her out for afternoon tea and meet friends and family. Mrs Addison’s life was good. She was happy, and she was living well with dementia.
Visits from family members are extremely important to those living with dementia. In fact, the Government’s own guidance acknowledges that. However, since the lockdown was imposed some eight months ago, Mrs Addison has not seen her daughter or any other member of her family. Distressingly, Mrs Barham now says that her mother is simply giving up because of the enforced lack of contact with her closest relatives, and that is surely the case for many thousands of other people who are living with dementia around our country. It is a sad, distressing and, I suggest, inhumane state of affairs.
The campaign group Rights for Residents, of which Mrs Barham is a member, is calling for an end to the current restrictions on visits to care home residents. Hospitals are managing to provide safe visits, and the Government could, frankly, do more to facilitate equally safe visits to care homes. But the sad truth is that, frequently, the families of care home residents are allowed to visit their loved ones only if they have become so ill that they are receiving end of life care. Indeed, after the easing of restrictions in early summer, care home residents became the only group in our society who continued to endure prolonged enforced separation from their families.
Rights for Residents is calling on the Government to pursue a more humane and nuanced approach to the treatment of care home residents. It asks the Government to produce guidelines that encourage care providers to find safe ways to visit, rather than ones that in many cases are interpreted so as to impose blanket bans on contact with families. It suggests that key worker status should be granted to relatives, as was suggested by the hon. Member for Upper Bann (Carla Lockhart), with access to the same testing regime as care home staff to facilitate the resumption of regular indoor visits. It also asks the Government to consider ways of developing an indemnity regime for care providers against legal action should the virus be brought into a care home—it is frequently the fear of litigation that inhibits visits to elderly people in care homes—and to develop updated comprehensive guidance that focuses on protecting vulnerable people against the appalling prospect of simply dying of loneliness.
Covid-19 is a dreadful disease, and it has inflicted illness and death on large numbers of our fellow citizens. It has, however, also brought mental anguish and distress to thousands of the most vulnerable and their families. With winter fast approaching, it is time for the Government to put in place a new visiting regime that gives proper consideration to the needs of care home residents and their families, and they could do worse than listen to the recommendations of Rights for Residents.
I want to start with a quote from the incomparable C. S. Lewis, who said:
“The duty of planning tomorrow’s work is today’s duty”.
That is what I want to talk about—our duty to get several steps ahead of this virus so that we are on the front foot in the future. There is no doubt that this pandemic has tested every aspect of government. All around the world, leaders have had to react fast to the extreme challenges that have faced them.
I know how annoying it is when former Cabinet Ministers poke at Front-Bench colleagues, so I make my remarks today with full appreciation of how hard this is; it is much easier to give advice than to actually make it happen. I simply want to ask my hon. Friend the Minister to give the House an update on whether the Government are now fighting fit, whether we are now outpacing the virus, and whether we can now get several steps ahead and think about the future beyond the pandemic.
First, with the fantastic news of the possibility of a vaccine, can my hon. Friend tell us how the Government have combined the efforts of public and private sectors to make sure that every aspect of the vaccine programme is scalable from day one across the UK? Secondly, the evidence of the testing programme in Liverpool shows yet again how fantastic our armed forces are at dealing with complex logistics, so can my hon. Friend confirm that their expertise will be used in every part of the country? Thirdly, can my hon. Friend confirm that all preparations are in place to distribute the first wave of vaccines, and to determine precisely who will receive them and in what order of priority?
All those steps are vital in giving us an advantage on the path to a post-covid future. Only then can we really set our sights on our ambition for economic success as an independent, sovereign United Kingdom. With that in mind, first, can my hon. Friend provide reassurance that the Government are looking ahead at the potential for the UK to lead the world in tackling global climate change? That is not only the right thing to do but, for this generation, it provides massive potential for new jobs and growth, and will help us to build our global free-trade relationships as we seek to lead the world in decarbonisation.
Secondly, can my hon. Friend tell me how the Government are using the experience of lockdown to better understand how embracing flexible work as standard in all employment could enable the workforce of the future to enjoy a far better work-life balance and improve the quality of life for many people? Thirdly, can she confirm that the Government are looking at what more can be done for small and medium-sized enterprises, which are the lifeblood of our economy and the future job builders? Many business owners have seen their livelihoods destroyed by this unforgiving pandemic, and they will struggle to get back on their feet. We need a strategy to give entrepreneurs help and support, as well as confidence, to restart.
The pandemic has forced us to focus anew on those in society who need our help, including people who have suffered greatly. First, how do we ensure that never again will schoolchildren have to face teacher-assessed grades, with all the potential professional implications that that has for their lives? How will we make sure that younger children catch up so that we do not have a cohort who always struggle with literacy and numeracy? Secondly, how do the Government plan to help school leavers and university students who feel hopeless about their future job prospects? The Chancellor’s kickstart scheme is a great short-term fix, but it does not offer training or a long-term future path that many young people crave. Thirdly, what more can Government do for the most vulnerable in our society who have suffered serious harm and loneliness this year, including those who suffer from conditions such as Alzheimer’s or those with new babies who have been left isolated, with potential long-term harm for their families?
I believe that we have a bright future post the pandemic, but we must use the time that we have now to get ahead with our planning for the future. I began with a quote from C. S. Lewis, and I will close with another one:
“There are far, far better things ahead than any we leave behind.”
Let us make that true.
I would like to begin by thanking the many frontline workers in in my constituency in Nottingham—my friends, my neighbours and my constituents—for the hard work that they are doing to get us through this virus.
Like everyone here today, I was excited and hopeful to hear the news of Pfizer’s promising new vaccine. After months of painful sacrifices, there may finally be a way out of this crisis. It is early days, and we have to be cautious in our optimism, but we must do all that we can in the House to make sure that once a vaccine gets the go-ahead, we make its roll-out a success, and keep people safe in the meantime. That is why I am concerned about the rise of conspiracy theories. People across the country have had leaflets dropped through their doors warning against wearing masks. They have seen stickers saying that covid was a plot by a shadowy elite, or come across websites making false and disproven claims about vaccinations. Anti-lockdown protests have also been happening across the country, often featuring placards with known antisemitic tropes, or promoting the far-right conspiracy theory QAnon.
When I hear from people who become interested in these ideas, I get it. I do get it. I understand why people are scared and frustrated, and why they are looking for answers. It is hard being separated from your loved ones for months on end, worrying about how you are going to pay the rent and make ends meet and, in the meantime, watching the Government make a complete mess of the handling of the crisis. It is painful to know that, while we have had to sacrifice our friendships, passions and mental health, those in power have failed us over and again: from ignoring their own scientific advice, which made this lockdown longer and harder, to failing to protect jobs and livelihoods, failing to plan and leaving our frontline workers without PPE, and reportedly spending £12 billion on a privatised test and trace system that proved to be a shambles. It is hard to blame people for becoming suspicious when they see the Government awarding multi-million pound contracts to their friends and donors, often without even a competitive tendering process, or when they see the Prime Minister’s closest adviser flout lockdown rules without any consequences.
When we spend time home alone isolated, it is easy to fall down dangerous rabbit holes and to start believing that it is all a lie, that the virus is a conspiracy or that lockdowns are unnecessary and merely a tool to control people. But we know that that is not the answer. I think all of us, in our heart of hearts, know that, even the right hon. Member for New Forest West (Sir Desmond Swayne), who has vacated his seat. It is our responsibility, as Members of this House, every single one of us, to fight this pandemic of misinformation, which is spreading like a virus and is sabotaging people’s efforts to save lives.
I am also concerned that some people are exploiting people’s pain to spread their hateful agendas, like the British National party, which, for the first time in my living memory, has been sending letters to small businesses in my constituency, or those ready to sacrifice human lives in order to stay relevant and boost their careers. I am referring here of course to, among many others, Nigel Farage, who in March was criticising the Government’s herd immunity approach and is now rebranding himself as the leader of the anti-lockdown movement.
My constituents have made it clear to me that they are not having any of it and that our city is not having any of it. I hope that everyone in this House can join me in condemning the cynical and ridiculous way that people, and the far right in particular, are exploiting people’s suffering to spread lies.
I was glad to hear the Minister, in his opening remarks, refer to the need to focus on data because I am going to use my limited time today to argue for more data analysis specifically on the effectiveness of lockdown restrictions, and to support the move towards an approach that Professor Sir John Bell calls enablement, which essentially means using testing to allow us to continue as normal a life as possible.
As with many across the House, I had hoped that we could continue the management of coronavirus through a system of regional alert levels. Sadly, it became clear that that was not the case. Although it controlled the virus, the virus was spreading faster than we could accommodate in the NHS. The key question we now need to ask ourselves is, why was that the case? Why did the regional approach not slow the spread of the virus fast enough? We need to establish why, so we can fix it and resume the regional system with renewed confidence that it will contain the virus without the need for further national lockdown.
One aspect that needs more analysis in particular, is compliance. It is possible, indeed probable, that a lack of compliance played a role in the regional tier approach insufficiently controlling the virus, but we do not have the data at the moment to fully establish that. Baroness Harding, the head of NHS’ Test and Trace, appeared before a joint evidence session of the Health and Social Care and Science and Technology Committees yesterday. She gave preliminary data showing that 54% of people quarantine when asked, but also cautioned that the remaining 46% will include many people who have gone outside very briefly to get some fresh air or maybe to get some food that was completely necessary. It is clear that we need firmer data on this because, as we focus on driving up the number of contacts reached, it will ultimately not be effective if those people are not staying at home when they are asked to do so. We need a clear-eyed understanding of whether people are complying and a strategy for addressing it—whether we need to change the monetary incentives or the information we are giving people, or simply change the rules.
Professor Sir John Bell raised the point that we need buy-in for people to want to have a test and quarantine. He believes that many people are being put off having a test for fear of condemning their contacts to two weeks of quarantine without hope or reprieve. He suggested a system whereby the contacts of those infected are tested and released from quarantine if they test negative, and then rechecked every few days. I am pleased that the Department has confirmed that it is pursuing that approach and trialling it in limited areas, and I hope it is something we can go forward with, because the data-led approach that accepts a level of risk in order to drive up compliance, with the aim of allowing people to return to normal as far as possible, is something that we should applaud.
I wholeheartedly echo the remarks of my right hon. Friend the Member for Clwyd West (Mr Jones) about testing in care homes and making sure that we get the relatives and friends of people in care homes tested so that they can visit, because it has been a devastating time for so many.
On the topic of evidence, please can we have the evidence base for not exempting golf, tennis and children’s sports from lockdown rules? If people can take a walk outside, they might as well be able to do it with some golf clubs.
Back on the theme of data, may we have a data-driven decision on whether we still need the curfew if we go back into a regional approach? While I completely understand why we introduced it, it had a devastating effect on hospitality across the country. If it works, we can understand why it is imposed, but if it does not work, we will all be better off without it.
I want to start in the only way possible, which is by thanking all those voluntary groups and individuals in my constituency for their immense work over the course of many months this year. Those thanks of course extend to key workers and, indeed, to all NHS staff in Aberdeen. I want to pay particular thanks to those staff in Woodend Hospital in Aberdeen, who just eight weeks ago delivered me a new hip, despite all the restrictions that are in place. I am incredibly thankful to them for their diligence, good humour and skill. Hopefully in the weeks to come I will be able to get rid of my crutch and run around here a bit more freely.
I want to turn to the wider situation in Aberdeen at this time, because I believe the House needs to be firmly aware of quite how drastically difficult the situation is. We are all facing challenging circumstances, but Aberdeen is unique in many respects, given the fact that not only have we had the pandemic, but we have had the perfect storm caused by the complete collapse in the oil price. We have seen from data in recent weeks that in the six months following March, the number of universal credit claimants in the city has more than doubled from just under 8,000 to almost 17,000. Oil & Gas UK has indicated that nearly 35,000 jobs may be on the line in that industry. In recent weeks, it has emerged into the public domain that there has been a 75% reduction in job vacancies in the city that I represent. Those figures are terrifying.
We are a robust city—we are used to difficult times given the fluctuation in the oil price—but I am concerned about what the future holds. Ultimately the levers of power that can elicit positive change rest in this place, and because they rest in this place, it is incumbent on this UK Government to step up to the plate and deliver for my constituency.
In terms of universal credit, it is straightforward. The first thing that could be done is to extend the £20 universal credit uplift beyond the spring and to backdate it to legacy benefits. The second thing that must be delivered is an oil and gas sector deal, not just to protect industry now but to protect jobs in the future as we move towards a renewable transition—a just transition that protects all our futures and livelihoods within the city that I represent. The third, and perhaps the most important thing that the Government could do at this moment, is to provide the Scottish Parliament with the borrowing powers it has repeatedly asked for. It has repeatedly asked the UK Government for borrowing powers to provide the additional support that businesses and workers in Scotland need. That has fallen on deaf ears up to now, and that is a damned disgrace.
I will conclude, as I am conscious of time. We have been shown contempt in Scotland in relation to the lack of borrowing powers and by the fact that we still have absolutely no idea what the totality of the Scottish budget will be next year, and that contempt will be seen at the polls. After 12 consecutive polls showing support for Scottish independence well in excess of 50%, this Government should be on watch, because the people of Scotland will decide a different path. We will take our future into our own hands.
First, I thank my right hon. and gallant Friend the Member for New Forest West (Sir Desmond Swayne), who is not in his place at this moment, for providing the House with what I can only describe as an energising tonic—perhaps an antidote—after what I can only describe as the soporific dirge that immediately preceded him.
The news that the first effective coronavirus vaccine could prevent 90% of people from catching covid-19 is incredibly reassuring. That success may well indicate the first steps towards returning to normal life and an end to the damage caused by lockdowns, a renewed focus on economic recovery and people regaining the freedoms and liberties curtailed during this crisis. Crucially, the efforts of BioNTech and Pfizer demonstrate the power of the private sector and of capitalism to benefit everyone.
In March this year, Pfizer and BioNTech announced details of their collaboration to develop a covid-19 vaccine, in which there has been limited state involvement. Pfizer accepted advance purchases from a number of Governments, but did not accept conditional research and development funds, including funds from Operation Warp Speed in the United States. The millions spent and the resources diverted towards an uncertain innovation by these two firms have been at their own risk, with no guarantee of success.
Without the bureaucracy that state-run projects are burdened with, Pfizer and BioNTech have been able to focus solely on the scientific challenge that confronted them, whether that be research and development, the logistics of manufacturing or the operations of distribution. Dr Albert Bourla, the CEO of Pfizer, rightly stated that he
“wanted to liberate our scientists from any bureaucracy.”
This extraordinary effort demonstrates that profit incentives and altruism are not diametrically opposed or in any way contradictory. The efforts of Pfizer and BioNTech will save countless lives and help forge a path of recovery, while both firms stand to make a profit. Her Majesty’s Government made the right decision to pre-purchase 10% of Pfizer’s global supply. Once again, it shows the vote of confidence we should all give to the private sector in tackling great challenges. When we emerge from this crisis—and we shall—we should unleash the full power of our private sector and unburden it from excessive regulations and high taxes. Only through doing so can we ensure a sustainable recovery.
Finally, I want to thank the constituents of Wakefield and the wider Wakefield district, who in the first lockdown adhered to the rules, did exactly what they said, saved lives and protected the NHS. When we came out of that lockdown they, with a gusto only known by Yorkshiremen, took the Chancellor’s offer of a bargain, with more than 130,000 people utilising eat out to help out. We had the biggest bounce back of anyone in the region, with a 27% increase in footfall in Wakefield. When we were put on the warning list for covid, people adhered to the rules, our rate came down and we were no longer on it; we had a lower covid rate than almost anyone else. Again, we have been put into these particular strictures, but there is light at the end of the tunnel and I have every confidence that yet again the people of Wakefield will do the right thing, and protect the NHS and each other.
The Minister may be aware that Hull has the highest rate of covid infections in the country; we have 161 patients in Hull Royal Infirmary, 16 of whom are in intensive care, and 265 have died since the pandemic began. The situation in Hull and the East Riding is a public health emergency, so where are these Nightingale hospitals to help? I have been told that they have been mothballed and will not be reopened. Our rate is double that of the average in England, and I am incredibly worried about the situation in schools. Despite the headlines saying that they remain open, year groups are being sent home, not to self-isolate, but because teachers are not available to teach in them. Where is the testing for staff, to keep these schools open? Where is this additional support? Why has Hull not had the support from the armed forces that Liverpool had when its rates became so high? We have been promised 10,000 tests, but that will not be enough. This is not a league table I want my city to top; we need that additional help from the Government if we are going to move down it.
Losing someone hurts. On Monday, I lost my nan to covid-19. She did not die in Hull; she died somewhere else. I hope that if my mum is watching, she knows that I am sending her all my love from this place and that as soon as possible I will be round there to give her a hug and we can remember all the wonderful things my nan did. It was only last year that I stood up in this Chamber and told everyone what a remarkable woman she was. I urge people to take this situation seriously.
The northern powerhouse study shows that because we started from an uneven point in the north, covid has had a disproportional impact on the cities we represent. The report today says that we have had an extra 12.4 deaths per 100,000 in the northern powerhouse that in the rest of England put together, and an extra 57.7 deaths per 100,000 due to all causes during this pandemic. Things are not equal; this pandemic has not impacted all of us equally, and it has an economic cost. To all those who make the false divide between health and the economy, I say: think again. All those additional people deaths in the areas in the northern powerhouse have had an economic impact—it is not just the heartbreak of people who have lost loved ones. Some £6.86 billion has been lost in economic growth. There is no divide between health and economy; we must sort out the problem with health and then deal with the problem with the economy. They are not mutually exclusive.
Compliance is falling in my area, and there is mistrust of the Government. We need transparency, honesty and openness. We need a Government who admit it when they get things wrong. We need to explain why the rules are different for golf and for walking, for private worship and for visiting the supermarket, because people will then understand. The Government’s in information, clarity and transparency gap is being filled with misinformation, lies and dangerous fake news on social media telling people that this is not real. Well, it is real when you lose people. Some 50,000 lives have already been lost in this pandemic. That is 50,000 families who have been impacted. I do not want a Government who are focused on PR, bluster and incoherent metaphors. What I want is a Government who just give people honest and straightforward advice, so that together we can try to deal with this virus.
May I offer my heartfelt condolences to the hon. Member for Kingston upon Hull West and Hessle (Emma Hardy)? There is nothing worse than losing a member of your family that you love, and the reason I am here today is to speak on behalf of a mother in my constituency who also lost someone very dear to her—her 21-year-old son, Jamie. Jamie represents a cohort that often falls through the cracks in care, not just during a pandemic but in everyday existence. It is the cohort of working-age disabled adults in long-term residential care.
Jamie’s mother battled for him from the day of his birth to ensure that he had the care and provision that he needed to succeed. She was a teacher, and she is a local community champion. During lockdown, she was denied access to her son. She was unable to visit him and watched in horror as his health and situation deteriorated day by day. He became catatonic, refused to eat, and developed open wounds and bed sores. It was not until lockdown ended that she was able to have access to her son, her only son, but by that point it was too late. Jamie had passed away the week before.
I had been unaware of the situation that Jamie was in, and I am speaking today to raise awareness so that other family members may have access and special visitation rights to a child who is in adult social care and who is struggling during the pandemic. I hope that my speaking about Jamie will help them to get that access and that we will remember to have humanity and compassion for those who are vulnerable and suffering during the pandemic. As a mother myself, I cannot imagine not being able to see my child. I know that many Members in this House have older children, and perhaps they will testify that parenting does not stop at 18 or at 21. You are a parent to your child forever, and to be unable to help and advocate for a child with complex disabilities who cannot speak for themselves is a tragedy. I am here to speak on Jamie’s behalf so that others will have a voice.
I am so grateful for the Government’s announcement that a vaccine is coming and that a mass roll-out of testing is being organised. That will go a long way to help the most vulnerable, but I want this very small cohort to be remembered. I want safeguarding measures to be put in place. As we go into the winter months, we must remember that this patient cohort needs additional support, care and patient advocacy, and that the parents need visitation rights so that they can speak on behalf of those who have no voice.
I would like to pay special tribute to the Minister for Care, my hon. Friend the Member for Faversham and Mid Kent (Helen Whately), for her work behind the scenes on this issue. She has spent a great deal of time helping and assisting, and she does not get the credit she deserves for trying to advocate for this patient cohort and raising the need for additional support. I thank her, and I thank the Minister here today for answering our questions during this debate. I would also ask that perhaps in future Ministers from other Departments could come to the House to respond to the covid-19 general debates, so that we can ask specific questions and tailor our debate perhaps towards education or the Treasury—
Our thoughts are with everyone who has lost a family member or friend to this dreadful virus, and we thank people for speaking up on their behalf. I want to take this opportunity to thank and pay tribute to all the emergency workers, NHS workers, teachers, school staff, local authority workers, volunteers and local charities who have done an amazing job of work over the past nine months across the country and particularly in my constituency. They face more months of having to deal with the reality of this virus. Mass testing and a vaccine provide notes of optimism, but they will not stop the spread of the infection here and now.
It is particularly difficult for us to debate this issue in the Chamber, because the rates of infection are so very different in different areas of the country. Indeed, I have been contacted by my own constituents, asking why the regional approach was set aside in favour of a lockdown: well, I am afraid that in my area, we are starting to see the reason why. Although the infection rates are now at 135 cases per 100,000—rates that are infinitesimally lower than those in some areas in Hull, as I know from speaking to colleagues—and we have just 23 people in our local hospital, we are starting to see those rates go up. Unless we follow with great fastidiousness the restrictions that are in place, I fear that we will see the sorts of rates that have been generated in other parts of the country—all the way across the country, indeed, down to the south-east.
I know that many people are concerned about the decision to reintroduce lockdown across the country, and the implications for businesses, individuals and families, but we cannot underestimate this virus or the exponential way in which it increases. The one thing that we did learn from the first wave was the importance of the NHS being able to continue to treat everybody who needs urgent care, not just those with coronavirus, which is a point I made to the Minister during his opening statement. It is tragic that so many people died in the first nine months of the year—far more than would normally have been the case. As I mentioned to the Minister, in my constituency we saw a death rate increase of 26% compared with the same period in the previous year. We have to make sure that people who are ill for other reasons continue to seek treatment, but they will not be able to do so if there is such a rapid rate of increase in the number of people who require hospitalisation or more intensive treatments. That is why we need to make sure that this lockdown works, and that is why the Government and the Minister are taking these very difficult decisions. I urge people who have contacted me and other Members about this issue to understand that that is why the lockdown is so crucial now.
My thoughts are with those who have lost members of their family, but also with those who face a huge job of work during the winter months in keeping our schools and hospitals open for the future. Now is the time that we can take action, and we need to do so.
The incredibly moving contributions from my colleagues, my hon. Friend the Member for Kingston upon Hull West and Hessle (Emma Hardy) and the hon. Member for Beaconsfield (Joy Morrissey), remind us that every death is a family member and a friend; this reaches every one of us. Today, we hear that the death toll from covid has hit 50,000, the fifth highest in the world, but the UK is only the 21st country by size of population: world-beating, but for all the wrong reasons.
Throughout the past few months, we have seen amazing acts of kindness in my constituency to keep everyone safe, to support those who are vulnerable and to protect those in need. Community groups staffed mainly by volunteers have stepped forward to supply food, from the hot meals being provided by the Open Kitchen, the gurdwara and the mosques, to the food parcels from the Hounslow Community FoodBox in Brentford and the Bridgelink food bank in Isleworth, and of course many individuals have stepped forward to help their neighbours —I thank them all. Hounslow council has also stepped up in response to the new needs by providing services for local residents, such as delivering 8,000 further food packages and making 20,000 calls to those who are shielding, while working to tackle long-term problems around unemployment and job reskilling—issues that are so important, as so many of my constituents work at Heathrow airport.
That is why the incompetent approach of our national Government to key issues has been beyond frustrating. Until the Government start delivering on the covid response, infection and death rates will stay high, which means that lockdowns will have to be extended, repeated, or both. We all know that this is a challenging time for the Government and for Governments across the world, but key issues have been known about for months, yet little or nothing from the UK Government seems to change.
It is a simple truth that to control disease and infection in a population, the more testing and contact tracing that can be done, the better. We saw the fiasco at the start of September when my constituents were being sent to Cardiff, Southampton and further to get tested. We have consistently faced delayed and lost tests. I submitted written questions to Ministers asking how many test results were not returned. Shockingly, I was told that that information was not collected. If the data is not being collected, the success of the contract cannot be measured, and if it cannot be measured, there are no penalties for non-delivery. What a waste of public money.
Furthermore, a high contact tracing rate is essential to control the spread of infection, yet week after week we have seen track and trace in England—a multimillion-pound private sector operation—perform appallingly compared with public sector-run programmes in places such as Wales, which is reaching 90% of close contacts, whereas in England the figure has plunged to below 60%. Is that another missed target, or was a target contact tracing rate not included in the test and trace contract?
Before entering this place, I served as a Hounslow councillor and an office holder at the Local Government Association. If we had seen the level of cronyism, gross incompetence, spending of millions of pounds—not even billions—and targets missed in a local authority in the way that the Government are behaving, Ministers at the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government would have called in the inspectors. PPE contracts have gone to companies with no ability to deliver, while competent UK companies have been ignored. When entrusted with taxpayers’ money, the Government should first ask whether the public sector can do the job—GPs for testing, and public health directors for track and trace. If the public sector cannot do it, proper contracting—playing by the rules—should be essential.
I endorse the pleas of my right hon. Friend the Member for Clwyd West (Mr Jones) and my hon. Friend the Member for Beaconsfield (Joy Morrissey). It has been nearly 10 months since the word “covid-19” became part of our everyday vocabulary. Since then, we have seen the infection spread and businesses required to close, with small independent shops in particular suffering in my beautiful constituency of Hastings and Rye. We have seen unemployment rise across our one nation and, sadly, many families stricken with grief at the loss of a loved one or not being able to visit them in their hour of need.
It has been a truly traumatic and harrowing year, but there have been rays of light and hope. We have seen communities rally round to support the vulnerable and individuals such as Captain Sir Tom Moore inspire us to pull together. The Government have shown true leadership by building Nightingale hospitals in record time, expanding our testing capacity to levels considered unimaginable and providing unprecedented financial support to businesses. We now see signs of a vaccine within our grasp.
I want to focus my remarks on a generation of young people who risk missing out on getting the best possible start in their careers—those who are just leaving college, have graduated this year or have completed an apprenticeship only to find that employers are not hiring, whole sectors are at risk of collapse, their futures are in limbo and their dreams of starting careers are becoming nightmares. Last week, I was contacted by a constituent in his mid-20s. He has recently trained as a pilot, having spent years studying, and is ready to embark on a fantastic career in the aviation sector. Only 10 months ago, all seemed fine, and he and his coursemates were on track to become the next generation of commercial airline pilots. Covid-19 has put a stop to that.
That constituent is not alone. My inbox has been filled with cases of youngsters starting out on their careers who are now having to move home to their parents, reskill and look for work elsewhere. Most have not yet found work at all. The kickstart scheme for 16 to 24-year-olds is very welcome, and it will go some way to helping this generation of young people, but we must think long term and prepare for life after covid-19. I urge the Government to focus on the economic recovery for sectors across the UK that have been severely hit— such as aviation, tourism and hospitality, to name but a few.
We have a generation of highly skilled young professionals—from pilots to brewers, accountants to lawyers, engineers to musicians and IT developers—all of whom are trained and ready to work, but find themselves in this period of limbo as we continue to battle the virus. We have a vaccine in sight that could begin to end this nightmare. Now must be the time to set out the long-term plan to support these industries and get them back on their feet, so that this generation of highly skilled youngsters, who are desperate and eager to get on with their lives, are not wasted and are able to find work in the sectors that they have dreamed of joining.
I thank all those on the frontline at Warwick Hospital, University Hospital Coventry and Warwickshire and our care homes, as well as the police, our local council and those in our schools who have worked throughout this period. I thank all the volunteers for the extraordinary work that they have done in such extraordinary times. There has been such little respite for all of them; I commend and thank them all.
Regrettably, it is going to be impossible to address all the problems that we face in four minutes, but perhaps I could say that it would have helped greatly if the Government had been able to lead by example and been more consistent in some of their policies. For example—I have mentioned this previously—how was it that, for some reason, we could allow people to travel on an aeroplane for three and a half hours, sitting cheek by jowl, but we could not allow those same people to sit in a cinema or a theatre, on a train or a bus or elsewhere? How was it that garden centres were allowed to open, but car showrooms were not? Eventually that was agreed to, and I press again for it to be allowed now.
I will focus my comments on the impact of covid-19 on our social care sector. If I have time, I will also mention the self-employed and furlough. The public were forgiving at the outset for many months, but they are rapidly tiring, and the Government’s actions are having a profound impact on their tolerance of and compliance with the guidance. That guidance is not clear; it is inconsistent, and people are struggling to follow it. We have tiers for this and tiers for that—tiers for universities and tiers for different parts of the country. But it is as we enter winter with the prospect of not being able to visit loved ones in care homes that my constituents are desperate to see family members and demand urgent action.
In the first lockdown up to 12 June, almost 20,000 residents of care homes in England died with covid-19. In fact, 28,000 excess deaths were recorded in care homes in England during the same period. In Warwickshire, we saw more than 400 excess deaths, which is why I called for—and continue to call for—an inquiry. As Amnesty International concluded in its report in early October,
“a number of decisions and policies adopted by authorities at the national and local level in England increased care home residents’ risk of exposure to the virus…notably…Mass discharges from hospital into care homes of patients infected or possibly infected with Covid-19 and advice that ‘[n]egative tests are not required prior to transfers/admissions into the care home’.”
If Amnesty has time, I would very much welcome its representatives to Warwickshire secure this inquiry, which is essential and should have been done through the summer to prepare us for this second wave.
The ongoing restrictions have meant that people continue to be unable to visit their loved ones. It is a fact that over half of care home residents die within 15 months of moving into a care home. Many residents have now spent more than eight months without any visits from family or friends, with huge consequences for their wellbeing. Many care homes in Warwick and Leamington have stopped all visits due to the second wave, so it is critical that the Government act urgently to enable family members to visit their loved ones.
A simple action would be to amend visitor status. Organisations such as the Alzheimer’s Society are urging for an acceleration of the pilot key worker status scheme to enable family members and carers with access to regular testing and PPE to visit safely and provide the care that people with dementia so desperately need. After all, SAGE states that infection rates from visitors to care homes are very low, and if visitors had access to PPE, weekly testing and infection control training, the risk would be significantly lower still. We also need to be clear about discharges from hospitals into care homes—a process that led to a significant proportion of care home deaths in the first wave. If there is one thing that the Government could do, it would be to change the visitor status of family members so that they could see their loved ones over the coming months and allow them the dignity that they should be afforded.
As we all know, on Friday 30 October, several Members of the Cabinet held a meeting to lock down the country for a second time—a decision that all participants knew would have huge consequences for the country, for the economy, for public health and for the nation’s morale. No one should be in any doubt about how difficult such a decision would have been to make. Since the beginning of this pandemic, the Government have come under criticism from many different sides. I believe that much of this has been unfair given these extraordinary circumstances. While Members have made valid points about what could have been done better, it is too easy for people to snipe from the sidelines after events have long since passed. It is far more challenging to lead.
The Government have also been accused of U-turns, but listening to MPs and the public to recognise where there have been policy mistakes and to act accordingly is an example of being a pragmatic Government. No doubt lessons have been learned, and I hope the Government are therefore developing ways in which they can deal with any future pandemic. By learning from our experience and from our partners across the world, we should be producing a “What to do in a pandemic” manual as we speak. That is what should be happening, and I do hope that it is.
I thank all who work in the NHS and social care sector, and all the key workers who have helped and continue to help us get through this period, but I also want to thank the Government. I thank them for protecting my constituents by providing the furlough scheme, the self-employment income support scheme, business grants, the uplift in universal credit, and the base floor rise. I thank the Health Secretary for all the work he has done to ensure that our hospitals remain open and covid patients receive the best possible care. Among the media flurry and the constant sniping, it is hard to remember the progress we have made since March, with the half a million tests that are being carried out daily, the thousands of ventilators that are now in operation, and the track and trace app, which has been downloaded by 20 million people. Meanwhile, while all this has been going on, Ministers have always taken the time to speak to me and to Members across the House about our concerns and those of our constituents.
I truly believe that it was courageous of the Prime Minister to inform me and fellow Conservative MPs of his regrets about the necessity to go into a second lockdown. He did this knowing that he would upset many on his own side and be harangued by some Members on the Opposition Benches. Yet he apologised and went through with what he thought was right. That is a true sign of leadership—going forward boldly for the good of the country, regardless of any potential political consequences.
I thank all those who are working at present to keep us safe and comfortable, offer my condolences to all who have lost loved ones, and echo everything that my hon. Friend the Member for Aberdeen South (Stephen Flynn) said about the looming economic threat that is facing the north-east of Scotland.
Over of the past few weeks, I have met a number of representatives of businesses in my constituency and further afield, particularly in the hospitality sector. Their frustration at the need for continued restrictions is entirely understandable and understood. Walking through the streets of London this week, I have been struck by the number of closed bars, restaurants and shops, serving as a stark warning of what we face when the response to rising infections from this virus is inadequate to the circumstances.
In many debates over the course of the past few months, I have highlighted the shortcomings of the UK’s fiscal framework with regard to the devolved Administrations—the lack of borrowing powers and the wait for Barnett figures to trickle through. Last week we also saw the fiasco of whether or not the furlough scheme would apply, with Ministers seeming to disagree with one another on that. The last-minute furlough extension by the Chancellor, while welcome, also created huge uncertainty and has led to many people losing their jobs who did not need to if only he had been more open about his intentions and not been left to be bounced into it at the last minute.
In terms of the response, particularly for the hospitality sector, we need the reduced VAT rate for tourism to continue, and non-domestic rates to continue at their current zero level. Through Barnett, we need to see that commitment in England so that it can be followed through elsewhere in the UK.
That still leaves 3 million excluded, but in the final seconds that I have, I will focus not on those who are excluded, but on those who are conspicuously included—those appointed to positions without open recruitment processes, and those who are awarded contracts without following open procurement processes. We are entitled to have assurances that the best people are shaping our responses—absolutely we do—but surely we are also entitled to the assurance that the decisions taken are justified for their impact, effectiveness and public health benefits to the many and not just for the financial benefit to the few. Throughout this crisis, under the cover of urgency, too many contracts have been awarded at too high a price that have run into too many problems and benefited too many people who are too close to the centre of power. That cannot and must not continue.
My constituents are dutifully doing everything they can to halt this deadly disease during the second lockdown. As we commemorate today those who have made the ultimate sacrifice in previous wars, we are fighting a war ourselves against an invisible enemy, so it is a timely reminder that we should also think about all our key workers and constituents, some of whom are making significant sacrifices and some of whom have paid the ultimate sacrifice in fighting this terrible war. We have seen businesses battered, religious services banned, and we have criminalised families meeting. We have seen some unprecedented restrictions imposed on our daily lives. I fully appreciate and respect the fact that restrictions are vital in keeping the R rate low to protect our vulnerable constituents and to prevent our NHS from being overwhelmed, but we owe it to everybody to explain with robust and clear scientific evidence why we must intrude into people’s lives when we do so with such significance.
For the avoidance of doubt, I fully back the health team, the Prime Minister’s decisions and the Chancellor’s generosity. However, here comes the dreaded “but”: with Government relying on scientific advice to inform policy, as someone who is an engineer and who understands the statistical variability of forecasting, I have found it very difficult to accept how Government advisers can display a chart that shows a flat worst-case prediction curve with other curves modelling daily death rates between five and 10 times worse at their peak compared with the one they had originally modelled. I must question how we could reach such wildly different outcomes. Public compliance is key, especially while a vaccine is not yet available, but compliance will also be a function of the consistency and credibility of the information that we use to back up our decisions.
I am taking a slightly more optimistic approach in this debate—some may say I am a rational optimist by nature—and I am going to use the limited time I have to focus on our local jobcentres, which have played a crucial role in our response to coronavirus, working in the trenches on the economic frontline.
Universal credit is standing up to the challenge of covid-19. The Department for Work and Pensions has injected £9.3 billion into the welfare safety net, so this is an opportunity for me to highlight the work of those at the Stourbridge jobcentre, led magnificently by their regional team. All have gone above and beyond. They have risen to the challenge, working around the clock to protect livelihoods. I have thanked the team privately, but it is fitting to say thank you publicly to those who are working on the economic frontline to get people back into work.
There is no doubt that the economic impact of covid-19 will see a pool of labour seeking new opportunities, but we will also have thousands of businesses requiring the skills to enable a new business agenda. Even before the pandemic, this was a time of changing technologies because of automation, artificial intelligence and in digitalisation. The focus therefore must be on reskilling and upskilling to deliver new business models in a post- pandemic era. The world has been transformed more in the last eight months than for decades, and, with it, so has the skillset required to deliver our regional and national economic agendas.
The pandemic has accelerated the pace of change, impacting on the world of work to a degree not seen before other than in the second world war, when 5 million women entered the workforce. The gap created by departing soldiers meant opportunities for women; it led to millions of women reskilling to take jobs, making the bombs and aeroplanes, fuelling the war effort, and we can do it again. Our best vaccine against the economic impacts of covid-19 is reskilling and retraining. We must change, adapt and be innovative. We all have our own motivation to retain our fiscal wellbeing. There is also the wider fiscal motivation to rebuild our country’s economic wellbeing. We need a skills revolution, with the unemployed retrained in new technologies, creating opportunities. Sector-based work academies will have a valuable role to play.
With the Government set to roll out mass testing, not forgetting the much welcomed prospect of a vaccine, we now have some certainty that we can start to rebuild our workplaces with the confidence of making them covid-secure. How we come out of the pandemic will be a defining moment, and I am thankful that this crucial moment will come under this Government. We will come through this if we are united as one nation.
Covid has taken much from us, but it cannot take away our Remembrance. That leads me to conclude that we should not forget those who gave their today for our tomorrows, and we should also not forget those lives that have been tragically lost to the silent and ruthless killer that we know to be covid-19.
I agree with many other contributors today that we have to use mass testing and effective self-isolation to contain the pandemic to make our local tiered approach work, so our message in Gloucester and Gloucestershire can be, “Stick with the rules now so that we can get back to almost normal on 2 December.”
Today, however, I want to focus not so much on successful containment as on the eventual exit strategy. Let me start, therefore, by paying tribute to the chief scientific adviser, Sir Patrick Vallance, for creating the vaccine taskforce led by Kate Bingham. First, I must make a declaration of no interest: I have never spoken to or met Kate Bingham, she has no idea who I am, and I have never been and am not an investor in any fund that she may have been responsible for. But I do know that the taskforce she leads has backed the BioNTech-Pfizer and AstraZeneca Oxford university vaccines and four others out of the 150 vaccines in development that it considered.
We now know that the Pfizer vaccine leads the scientific race and AstraZeneca may be close behind. Surely the fact that Kate Bingham secured for the UK 40 million doses of the Pfizer vaccine in June and 100 million doses of the AstraZeneca vaccine is immensely reassuring, and we should recognise that this quality of research, analysis and procurement could not possibly have been done from the civil service, which is why the Government and Sir Patrick, with all his previous experience of vaccine research and development and manufacturing, chose the best person for the job and did so without paying her a penny.
If we want third party evidence for what has been achieved, Professor John Bell of Oxford university said:
“It’s not a given that the UK…would have ended up where it is now without her.”
So it is disappointing that The Sunday Times, the Leader of the Opposition and others criticised the appointment of Kate Bingham and those of her comms team who helped the Government recruit 305,000 volunteers to give the evidence that AstraZeneca and others need to produce a well-tested vaccine. For we need both the vaccine to be approved and the anti-vaxxers to be routed for our exit strategy to work and avoid the damage done, for example, by Dr Wakefield’s anti-MMR lies 20 years ago.
Let me make three quick observations. First, the private sector, academia and the Government must work together for a successful exit strategy. Secondly, Sir Patrick said in evidence to the Joint Committee on the National Security Strategy, in answer to a question that I put to him, that such a vaccine would normally take 15 years to create. Let us all pay tribute to those who have come so far so fast; and those who take a political stance against our great multinational pharmaceuticals need to reconsider their prejudices. These vaccines have been procured by the UK for the peoples of all four parts of the UK and if—it is not guaranteed yet—it turns out that the work of the vaccine taskforce can provide all of us with protection in our greatest hour of need, wherever is our home, we are indeed better together with one NHS, one vaccine taskforce and one United Kingdom.
I am grateful for the opportunity to speak today.
It is incredible how quickly things change. The last time that I properly spoke in this Chamber about coronavirus was in September when virus rates were lower, restrictions were looser and hospitals were emptier. Covid continues to dominate us in a way that we never wanted it to do and our lives remain shaped by the battle against it. Throughout it all, however, there has been one constant: the continuing resolve of everyone to get through this.
I want to say thank you to everyone in North East Derbyshire. We know how difficult this is. We know that our ability to work, to love, to live, and to offer support is being affected every single day, and we are grateful for their forbearance at this difficult time. In the past few days, the reason for that endurance is becoming clearer. Our job of suppressing the virus was never for nothing. All along, we have been building a bridge to a time when we have other weapons to fight this problem, and the announcements of this week may be showing that we are actually starting to get there. Light is on the horizon, yet we know that we will not get there immediately. Even if solutions are coming, we still face soul-searching questions.
The first big question remaining will be one of evidence. Every day, massive decisions are being made on our behalf and we are grappling with the foundations on which these are made. In searching for evidence, we face a blizzard of data and hypotheses. Right now, within a few clicks, the web will tell us both that the case fatality rate is negligible and that it is substantial; that tests work and that they do not; that masks are life-savers and that they can be life-takers. Should we wish, we can literally choose our facts, even though only one set of those premises is actually true. It is no wonder that constituents are confused.
That leads me to the second challenge that bedevils us: uncertainty. Our natural instinct is to recoil from ambiguity, yet this virus forces us to deal with it. There is uncertainty about how it works and how it will act in the winter. The virus forces us to make decisions now on the basis of what might happen in 40 days’ time. It is a challenging mix, which, quite understandably, has worn people down. Yet our job is to deal with the world as it is, not as we wish it to be. To those residents who are frustrated or anxious, I say that I am, too. But if there were a quick answer, it would have been found already. If there were a single solution, it would have been used. We are here because, for now, we think that what we are doing is proportionate and the least worst option while we wait for the alternatives, and those alternatives are coming. This cannot, must not, will not last forever, but, for the first time in our history, we may actually be able to turn back a pandemic in mid-flow. If that happens, it will be the most remarkable test of our ingenuity, our resolve and our willingness to get there. I say: hold on, we will get there.
Broadly speaking, I recognise the hard truth that lockdown 2 was necessary to keep our NHS and emergency services from being overrun. Although I would have wanted to see the tier system endure a bit longer, I recognise that it took strong leadership from the Government to make the strong calls that they have made, and I commend them for that. It is also hugely welcome to hear the news of the vaccine developments, and I recognise the huge human cost that has been spoken about a great deal this evening.
I want to focus on the economy. We are now past the point of no return with regard to that. If we choose to go back to the tiered system, it cannot come soon enough, given the lives and livelihoods put at risk by the restrictions. We need to see the UK open for business. Yes, we must take the virus seriously, but we cannot let it prevent us from living our lives. Therefore, if a new normal is necessary, we need to learn to live alongside the virus, not to hide from it.
There are certain areas that the Government would wish us to focus on right now, and it is really important that we do that. Aviation is a particular concern to me. It concerns 330,000 jobs worth more than £28 billion. This is a desperate position for aviation.
The leisure industry has also been hit harder than most. Despite reports of very low infection rates at fitness centres and outdoor sports providers, not to mention the ever-growing body of evidence of mental health benefits, they are yet to be recognised as part of the solution rather than part of the problem. We have 600,000 signatures on a petition against gym closures, and I urge the Government please to look very closely at that.
As for entertainment, although it is great to see elite sport back on TV, we cannot forget those grassroots sports providers—league 1 and league 2 clubs for example—and also the Football Association redundancies, plus the whole raft of sports all across the UK. Exhibitions employ 600,000 people, and the UK currently exports £2 billion-worth of exhibition services every year. We are a top 10 global exporter, so we must put that right as soon as we can.
Lastly, I have a few words to say about my constituency of Bracknell, if I may. These points have come directly from my constituents via correspondence over the last couple of weeks. First, the infringement of civil liberties needs to be balanced against the need to restrict the spread of the virus, so I urge the Government please to look at that balance more carefully. Some 100,000 people currently make up the cancer backlog, and we must do some work there as well. On flu jabs, I believe there is a shortage. People are asking locally about getting them at local pharmacies and surgeries, and I again urge the Government to look at that. Finally, I would like to see a permanent Test and Trace site in Berkshire.
I will be as brief as I can. I want to start by paying tribute to the people of South Cambridgeshire who have helped us all to get through this pandemic—the care workers, the volunteers, the medical staff, the nurses and doctors, who have been working heroically, but also people in the private sector. I have found it very dismaying that the Opposition parties have spent so long attacking the private sector. In my constituency, those people have been developing the ventilators and doing genome decoding of coronavirus. They have developed the tests—a whole range of different tests—and they are producing them and delivering for the Government. Most of the tests are done in the private sector, not the public sector. They have developed rapid mass testing, but also the vaccine. We have heard a lot about this vaccine from Pfizer—and the whole country is hoping—but there is another from AstraZeneca, and its global headquarters are in South Cambridgeshire. We are all expecting results from that in a few weeks’ time, which will hopefully be as good as the Pfizer results. Again, that is a vaccine of which the Government in their wisdom, under Kate Bingham’s leadership, have bought a large stock.
In South Cambridgeshire, the balance that we have heard about from various Members—between lives and livelihoods, between lives and liberties—has required a particularly difficult decision. We have one of the lowest infection rates in the country, and we have had only one death from coronavirus in the last five months. A lot of companies have complained quite vociferously, and understandably, about the imposition of a national lockdown, but I have come to agree with the Government that it is needed, because cases have been taking off. We have been seeing that in South Cambridgeshire in recent days, and cases are now at a record level.
I want to make a few very quick suggestions of what I think the Government could do or should think about doing to help reassure the public that they have got the right balance. They could produce a cost-benefit analysis, with the quality-adjusted life years that they use in other areas; on the Treasury Committee, we have been looking at that. They could use the World Health Organisation definition of deaths, which is people who die from coronavirus, rather than with coronavirus, or if they have had it in the last 28 days. That is the standard international definition, and it is lower. They could provide an official estimate of the case fatality rate, which is the proportion of people who have the infection and die. That, by quite a few estimates, has dropped really quite sharply—by about two thirds—since the start. On 2 December, when the national lockdown ends, they could move to a more aggressive regional approach with a tier 4, which I know the Government are thinking about. With those, I think the Government will provide a lot more reassurance that they are getting the balance right, and measures that will help us get through this.
I promise I will keep this brief. As is often the case in these debates, we come in having written one speech and end up giving another. We have heard some great contributions today. I want to start by paying tribute to the voluntary and community groups in my communities in Wednesbury, Oldbury and Tipton, who have absolutely risen to the challenge during these unprecedented times to support some of the most vulnerable in our community. Whether it has been delivering food, being on the end of the phone or just galvanising people together, they have been absolutely amazing. Let us face it: this is completely unprecedented. Many of us, if you had told us 12 months ago that this was going to happen, would have looked at you with amazement. To be honest, if you had told me 12 months ago that I was going to be here, I would have looked at you with amazement, but that is another story altogether.
The fact is that this is a difficult one. Last week was probably the first time in this House that I have been really torn, because we are having to find that balance with people’s liberties. Yes, the public health crisis is absolutely there; we can see it in the news and we can see it in the data. Every single person impacted by covid-19 is an individual and it is a tragedy when we see those deaths happen, but it is getting to a point where constituents come to me and say, “I haven’t seen my relatives in months”, “There is a choice as to whether I can go to my loved one’s funeral”, “I cannot go because the capacity is not there,” and “I cannot see my loved ones get married.” It is difficult. We have seen a technological renaissance through things like Zoom and Teams and people have been able to connect, but that does not replace physical human interaction at all.
The fact is that the Government’s economic response has been great, and that is what my constituents say to me. The Government have stepped up and given support to some of our most vulnerable communities through their economic response. I do not envy my colleagues on the Front Bench at all given the task ahead of them.
I am conscious of the need to keep my comments brief so that other colleagues can speak, so I shall just say this. Ultimately, as my hon. Friend the Member for Bracknell (James Sunderland) said, we are going to have to get to a point at which we live through a new normal, because when it comes to life, we can exist or we can live. The fact is that at the moment many of my constituents feel that they are just existing, and they want to start living again.
I wish to spend the short time that I have focusing on where restrictions on social contact have been the most damaging, which is for residents in care homes.
Last month, I was contacted by a constituent who since March has been unable to visit her 96-year-old aunt, who unfortunately suffers from dementia and Parkinson’s disease. Last week, a report from the medical journal The Lancet suggested that an estimated 70% of residents in UK care homes are living with dementia and memory problems. Replacing visits from recognisable loved ones with staff wearing unfamiliar and often frightening protective equipment can understandably leave residents extremely distressed. For care home residents with dementia, regular contact with friends and family is vital. The fear of many families is that when finally they are reunited with their loved ones, they will simply not remember them. That is a devastating thought.
This has been a great week for science—as the Prime Minister said, the “scientific cavalry” is on its way to help us through this pandemic—but we need to look at a more compassionate solution to protect vulnerable residents in care homes. The news that we are one step closer to an effective vaccine is fantastic and gives us cautious hope for a more normal 2021.
On testing, the scientific progress has been extraordinary, but we need to see a clearer ramping up of testing in care homes. I urge those Ministers to look into the testing of visitors who go to care homes. We should give them the ability to take a quick test and get the results coming in, even if it involves waiting for an hour, so that they can at least try to get that access and see their loved ones. I am sure that that would go a long way towards improving matters as we go forward to next year.
I warmly welcome the encouraging developments on the vaccine front, and I am glad that my local authority, Kensington and Chelsea, will be a beneficiary of the rapid testing scheme.
I am also glad that case rates in my local authority are tailing off—in fact, in the past week they were down 28% and are now almost back down to 100 cases per 100,000, standing at 111 yesterday. Indeed, the data for London for the past week, released yesterday, shows that cases were down in 26 of the 33 boroughs and hospital admissions were also down on the week.
I strongly encourage those on the Front Bench to ensure that, when 2 December comes, we leave lockdown and review the tier that London comes out into. A case is beginning to develop that London—which is the powerhouse of our economy, accounting for 25% of our total tax revenue—should come out into tier 1. We still have a few weeks to go and I encourage Londoners to do everything that they can to get the R down and the number of cases per 100,000 down. I ask my hon. Friend the Minister to give a proper focus to the tier into which London will go after lockdown.
I am conscious of time, so despite wanting to present arguments on greater flexibility for worshippers, outdoor exercise, support for pubs—I could go on—I will not cover those things, as there have been excellent contributions on them already.
Today is a really important day of remembrance. As I have reflected on this debate, I have often considered the analogy that we are in an invisible war against the coronavirus—and it has been an invisible war. It is not a fight where we can see footage of battles won on beaches, air-raid sirens do not alert us to run for cover when the enemy is nearby, and this is not a battle where we can look our enemies in the eyes.
Nor, though, can we see the successes of our actions. We will never know the grandparent whose life we saved simply by wearing a mask. We will never know the father who avoided the devastating symptoms of long covid simply because we washed our hands. We will never know the mother who could go to work today simply because we chose to socially distance in a shop. And, because we followed the Government guidance, we will never know the nurse who God forbid, would have held our hand as we fought the virus from a hospital bed.
Our actions have consequences. Covid-19 has no conscience; it does not care who it infects or whose life it devastates. Coronavirus has a singular goal, and that is to multiply—to spread to us all—so it is up to us all to stop it. No doubt in some laboratory there is a modern version of Alan Turing beating the code of covid, but until then it is up to every single person in this nation to fight this virus. I want to say thank you to my constituents in Watford and to people across the country for following the Government guidance—for washing their hands, wearing a mask and socially distancing. Together we can win this war, and it is through that that we will succeed.
I will keep my comments as brief as I can. First, I welcome the excellent news this week on the vaccine. I know that we are not there yet and that “hands, face, space” is still really important, and I echo that to my constituents today. I also thank the Government for the rapid testing in County Durham.
Others have made this argument already, but the three g’s—gyms, God and golf—have filled my inbox, so if there is anything that can be done about those for 2 December or before, I would appreciate it. My constituents are really looking forward to 2 December, so I hope we do not have to see anything further beyond that.
I had a call last week with care homes in my constituency, and I will rattle through some of the issues that they raised. First, there has been some difficulty accessing flu vaccines for staff in care homes. Obviously, that is a bit of an issue with respect to transmission when they are dealing with older people. Those working in domiciliary care and going out into the community have had trouble getting testing for covid in some cases, so if there is any way that we can, perhaps, move towards weekly testing for those people, that would be brilliant.
The portal is seen as good and improving, but although the quantities have increased over recent weeks, some care homes are still having trouble getting the total quantities that they need, so anything that could be done on that would be really helpful. Finally, if there is any way that the infection control fund could be made more flexible, particularly if it could be allowed to help some care homes create facilities for better visiting, that would be great.
It is a pleasure to follow my hon. Friend the Member for North West Durham (Mr Holden). He said so many of the things that I wanted to say, that I can cut my speech right down.
I start by paying tribute to those in Warrington South who are playing such a critical part in our battle against covid. Earlier this week, I was really pleased to hear from the Health Secretary that Warrington will receive 10,000 antigen lateral flow devices this week to start the process of mass testing. That allows the director of public health in Warrington to focus her team’s efforts and to start testing priority groups. It means we can start to tackle the challenges of children being sent home from school, and help students, teachers and parents to live their lives in a bit more of a normal fashion.
Having grown that capacity, we can also do regular tests in the NHS to try to tackle some of the transmission in hospitals. It is really important to keep people safe when they go there for regular testing. Over the last two weeks, Warrington Hospital has been piloting testing for all patient-facing staff. It has tested around 3,900 in total. It really surprised me that there were only 50 positive asymptomatic cases—less than 2%. That is a really worthwhile exercise.
The news that Pfizer’s vaccine has achieved a 90% success rate in more than six countries, with 43,500 volunteers, is very welcome, but I want to praise in particular and support the vaccine taskforce and its chair, Kate Bingham. We seem to have a bit of a problem that, when someone in the private sector gives up their time—unpaid—to work for the national interest, Opposition Members and parts of the media seem to go out of their way to bring them down. I was particularly interested in the comment by Sir John Bell, the professor of medicine at Oxford University, who was clear in saying that, if it were not for her, the 30 million doses of the Pfizer vaccine would not be arriving in this country. This lady deserve our grateful appreciation, not smears and division.
It is a pleasure to follow my hon. Friend the Member for Warrington South (Andy Carter). I agree that the work of the vaccine taskforce has been superb. It is one of the reasons why we are first in a lot of queues; we are ahead of EU states, for example. I thank all the careworkers and NHS staff on the Isle of Wight for the wonderful work they do. In the short time I have, I will make two brief points: on data and on strategy.
First, we all agree that, in a free state, rather than a police state, Government need to be respected and trusted and part of that trust surely rests on the use of data. We all remember how Labour was destroyed over what it said on the Gulf war and the dodgy dossiers. We cannot go down that route again with data. So does the Minister share my concern that so many people, including reputable scientists, have raised significant issues about how we are using data and the transparency of data? For me, the answer to that question is for the Government to become fully transparent with all the science and, in the spirit of the great national endeavour we are in, allow and encourage examination of that data by independent scientists, preferably prior to decision making, not commenting afterwards and finding significant flaws in the data. That data should include the full cost of lockdowns: medical, social and economic, and short and medium term.
Secondly, may we please have a strategic approach to this problem? It would be wonderful if a vaccine works perfectly, but that is unlikely and waiting for a magic bullet is not a strategy but the absence of one. If we have a clear strategy and clear use of data, it will much easier for the Government to turn to Conservative Members and ask us for the support they will need in the weeks and months ahead.
On this day of remembrance, I pay tribute to all those who made the ultimate sacrifice so that we can stand here today with the freedoms we hold dear. Let me also formally put on the record my congratulations to President-elect Joe Biden and Vice-President-elect Kamala Harris. We look forward to working together to tackle this global pandemic.
We have heard today that the UK has tragically become the first country in Europe to pass 50,000 covid-19 deaths. That speaks to why we are all here today to discuss the greatest challenge of our time. We have heard some superb speeches in the debate. I pay special tribute to Mary Hutchins, the nan of my hon. Friend the Member for Kingston upon Hull West and Hessle (Emma Hardy), who does her community proud. I also pay tribute to the hon. Member for Beaconsfield (Joy Morrissey), who was incredibly powerful in speaking up for Jamie and his family.
My hon. Friends the Members for Sefton Central (Bill Esterson), for Nottingham East (Nadia Whittome) and for Brentford and Isleworth (Ruth Cadbury) all rightly raised the murky world of procurement and the complete lack of transparency. My hon. Friend the Member for Warwick and Leamington (Matt Western) spoke movingly about the need to do better for those in care homes.
There is a clear sense of hope about the prospect of a vaccine. It has come at the end of a particularly bleak year that has left none untouched by the effects of the virus, but we need to ensure that this is not false hope. There must be a clear plan for manufacture and distribution. With little time to get that right, can the Minister please outline how the Government will ensure that those deemed a priority to receive the initial dose will be able to access it?
On the topic of priority groups, in June, the Health and Social Care Secretary said that the Government would consider black, Asian and minority ethnic groups as a priority for a vaccine, but that does not seem to be the case now. Why? I have seen at first hand patients in intensive care fighting for their lives because of this virus. I was overwhelmed by how many of them were from our BAME communities. Is it not possible for the Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation to consider multiple risk factors when rolling out the vaccine? What about all those adults who have been shielding for months? Throughout the summer they urged the Government not to forget them. What is the Government’s message for them today?
Finally on a potential vaccine, I sincerely hope that we are successful, but if there are setbacks that mean that the vaccine is not rolled out until later in 2021 the Government must have a plan in place that is communicated effectively to the public and outlines what restrictions may look like. I hope to see the Government planning for that scenario, so that as a nation we are not caught off guard again by the virus.
Sadly, people feel left behind. They need to feel that they have a Government on their side. The feeling of isolation and loneliness needs urgent attention from the Government this winter. The Minister for Patient Safety, Mental Health and Suicide Prevention tweeted only a couple of days ago that mental health services have never closed, and have continued throughout, but for many, especially those who rely on group therapies, that has not been the reality.
It is important that we do not forget those who need to access mental health services for the first time and simply do not know where to turn. Our wedding industry, talented people involved in the arts, musicians, photographers and small family-run businesses feel as if no one is listening to them. The Government did them a great disservice by describing their careers as unviable—that cut to the core of who they are, the talents that they have and the way in which they give back to our economy. I have heard from people in the industries that I have mentioned who felt that the Government were questioning their viability not just in the workplace but as husbands, wives and parents. That has affected their mental health greatly. When Ministers come to the House, they must take responsibility for the language that they use and understand the detrimental knock-on effects that it can have on people’s mental health. Artists, creatives and entrepreneurs need a Government who are on their side, showing them that they care not only about their livelihood but about their mental health. How will they be supported through the winter?
As the days become shorter at a time when people are missing their families and way of life, what provisions are in place for anyone who needs help with their mental ill health? What support will be offered to organisations and communities across the country that are lifelines to people who rely on them for a bit of brightness in their day? Is there a plan for a comprehensive national real-time monitoring system for suspected suicides that will allow us to monitor and respond to new concerns among particular groups of people or in particular areas of the country? I am sure, whatever side of the House we are on, we agree that that is important. What is the Government’s suicide prevention strategy in the light of covid-19?
Many people with serious mental illnesses have been feeling left out of the Government’s strategy to tackle covid-19, with research finding that people with a pre-existing mental health diagnosis were 65% more likely to be diagnosed with covid-19 than those without such a diagnosis. Will the Minister outline any work that the Government are conducting to provide assistance for people with schizophrenia, psychosis or borderline personality disorder?
Members have raised many times in the Chamber the fact that expectant mothers are suffering immeasurably because they cannot bring a birthing partner with them into hospital, whether to accompany them to tests to check on their unborn baby, or when they are giving birth. What support has been offered to those suffering from post-natal depression? Some expectant mothers, and fathers, have had to endure the worst and find out that they are miscarrying. What support is available to mothers who have to be told that alone, and break down on the phone trying to tell their partner or a loved one? We have to do better for those people.
What support has been offered to mental health trusts for the winter? Are they able to access funding to support the safe discharge of patients from hospital in the light of the second spike? It is crucial that this is given the attention it deserves.
I welcome the announcement of routine testing for frontline NHS staff. We have been requesting that for months, and it is an important development not only for protecting staff but for infection control in healthcare settings. There have been other changes to testing, and I would like to take this opportunity to pick up on plans for the mass distribution of lateral flow tests. What resources are being allocated to the local councils that are getting access to 10,000 lateral flow tests, including in my borough of Wandsworth, to make this a success? For areas with a disproportionately high number of vulnerable groups, how will the Government address any strain on council resources?
After weeks of unnecessary delay, the Government have now addressed the need to get students home safely over Christmas, and tests will be made available. How do they plan to work with universities and local councils to ensure that rapid and accurate testing is available for all students who need it? How will the tests be administered, and are the Government prepared to comment on what students should do in January?
We must understand that our students have endured a particularly difficult time, with the exams fiasco, being told it was safe to go to university, arriving at university only to be made to feel responsible for the second spike of covid-19, and then being trapped in dormitories with strangers, unable to leave to do their shopping or see their families. We have to get this right for our students, who we are allowing to go home over the Christmas holidays.
We have a long road ahead, and we cannot lose hope. The Government need to get their response to this crisis right, and they do not have to spend taxpayers’ money on PR consultants to do so. For many months, brave people across the country have played their part in fighting this virus. We cannot let them down now.
I thank everybody who has contributed to the debate and to the tone of it. I add my personal thanks to all those who are working on the frontline and in public services. This has been an incredibly difficult year for those individuals, and there is arguably much work still to be done.
I would also like to add my thanks to the armed forces. We heard powerful speeches earlier this afternoon on everything that our armed forces have done, but they have also contributed enormously to our ability to tackle the pandemic so far through the distribution of PPE, rolling out mobile testing centres, building Nightingale hospitals and being involved in the important planning for the roll-out of a vaccine when one is fully approved.
I would like to thank all those who brought to this place today stories of personal loss—in particular, the hon. Member for Kingston upon Hull West and Hessle (Emma Hardy), who told us of the sad loss of her family member this week, and my hon. Friend the Member for Beaconsfield (Joy Morrissey), who told us so poignantly about Jamie.
From many of the contributions, it is clear that hopes for a vaccine are running high following the encouraging news of the phase 3 trial results from Pfizer and BioNTech on Monday, and I share that sense of optimism. Science, academia, life sciences and private and public institutions have worked together. As my hon. Friend the Member for Wakefield (Imran Ahmad Khan) said, we would not be here without such endeavours from the private sector working with us. It is a promising development, and the UK is ahead of the game in securing an order for 40 million doses.
I would like to thank the head of the vaccine taskforce. The hon. Member for Kirkcaldy and Cowdenbeath (Neale Hanvey) said that she was “impressive” and on top of her brief. I could not have put it better than my hon. Friends the Members for Gloucester (Richard Graham) and for Warrington South (Andy Carter). It is under her leadership that this is one of many vaccine candidates that we have secured. There are six in total, two at phase 3. We have placed orders for a further 300 million doses from the five other candidates, which are yet to report. That also includes the Oxford AstraZeneca vaccine; my hon. Friend the Member for South Cambridgeshire (Anthony Browne) highlighted the endeavours of AstraZeneca in Cambridge.
I share the sense of optimism, but I also want to associate myself with the words of caution that many Members have expressed, including my right hon. Friend the Member for North Somerset (Dr Fox). It is worth reiterating that the MRHA will not approve a vaccine unless it is clinically safe. There are still many unknowns. Until a vaccine is rolled out, we will not know how long its effects will last or its impact on reducing transmissions, and there are no guarantees.
The hon. Member for Nottingham East (Nadia Whittome) articulated the importance of making sure that people have accurate information to ensure that they take up vaccines. I assure her that the Government are working hard to ensure that people feel confident in the vaccine roll-out. We are working with the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport, cross-Government, and with technology companies to ensure that we limit misinformation and promote positive messages to get as much uptake of vaccination as we can. If this or any other vaccine is approved, we will be ready with a large-scale vaccination programme, which is being worked on at the moment.
I thank my hon. Friends the Members for Don Valley (Nick Fletcher), for Stourbridge (Suzanne Webb) and for North East Derbyshire (Lee Rowley) and my right hon. Friend the Member for South Northamptonshire (Andrea Leadsom) for their optimism in outlining the progress that we have made so far and how hard people have worked.
One point in particular that I would like to pick up on is about PPE. When the pandemic started, we produced 1% of our PPE needs in the UK. By December, we will be providing 70% of the amount that we expect to use at the rates anticipated in December for all items except gloves. That is enormous progress. It is an industry that has been built from scratch, and it has been replicated through testing and diagnostics across the country. I would like to thank everyone involved.
But it has been tough, and nowhere has it been tougher—we have heard about how difficult it is—than for those with members of their family in care homes. We heard about that from my hon. Friends the Members for Beaconsfield, for Hastings and Rye (Sally-Ann Hart) and for West Bromwich West (Shaun Bailey), and my right hon. Friend the Member for Clwyd West (Mr Jones). I pay tribute to the Minister for Care, my hon. Friend the Member for Faversham and Mid Kent (Helen Whately), who has to perform an incredibly difficult balancing act. It is a terribly hard time for families and residents, but also for care home staff. Their first duty is to keep their residents safe.
Last Thursday, guidance was published to enable care home providers, families and local professionals to find the right balance between the benefits of visiting and the risk of transmission. Care home visits will be allowed to develop further via trials to allow more visits supported by testing. Care homes, like GPs, can access free PPE via the portal until March, so if people are not signed up, I would encourage them to do so.
On testing, the House should also be encouraged by the pilots, and I thank those hon. Members who were grateful for the roll-out of testing. I also thank all those hospitals, such as Warrington, which have run pilots for us. We cannot learn without developing these systems. We have the pilots in Stoke-on-Trent and Liverpool in whole-town and city testing, and we are now in a position to roll out twice-weekly testing for all NHS staff, something that I am grateful the hon. Member for Tooting (Dr Allin-Khan) mentioned. It is essential for the safety of patients and staff alike.
I will move on to international restrictions, because, despite the positive developments, the national restrictions for England, which this House voted for last week, are as important as ever. Although I hear the calls of colleagues, we must remember that we are here to protect lives. However, I fully take on board that we are also here to protect livelihoods. I have heard the contributions on how the measures have impacted on businesses, and I recognise the strength of feeling on that.
I have only two minutes left. I would be happy to take the matter up with my hon. Friend afterwards.
I cannot speak for the Chancellor, but I know he will have heard the contributions of hon. and right hon. Friends, particularly my right hon. Friend the Member for North Somerset, to ask him to listen to those who pay themselves through dividends. However, we have had an unprecedented package of support, including some £200 billion since March and the furlough scheme, which has protected the jobs of some 9 million people. I am married to a small business owner. Some 99% of all businesses in this country are SMEs, and 95% of them are micros. This is hard, and nobody is denying that.
On data, I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Sevenoaks (Laura Trott), because that it is important. I note the comments of my hon. Friend the Member for Isle of Wight (Bob Seely), but the scientific picture last week was bleak and the consequences, as we have seen, come in the 10 days after, with rising numbers of admissions and, tragically, deaths. The R rate last week was above 1 in every single region of the country. The virus is growing more quickly in older populations, and the number of cases in the over-60s in England doubled between 14 October and 4 November. That is why it was imperative to take action. As we deliver the vaccination, it will be the JVCI that determines how we roll it out and the risk stratification on which we do it.
We must persevere. I understand the weariness of people, but I close by echoing the words of many—I am sure all of us—and paying tribute to the NHS and care staff, who I know are exhausted. They will be so important in helping us get through this winter and, we hope, in delivering a safe and effective vaccine. I pay special tribute not only to the general practice community pharmacies and community health teams, but all workers on the frontline. There are some unsung heroes of the pandemic, and I want them to know how much we value them. It is through such incredible contributions that we will see this through to a brighter day.
Question put and agreed to.
That this House has considered covid-19.