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Topical Questions

Volume 684: debated on Tuesday 17 November 2020

We are seeing major scientific advances that will help to get things back to normal. We are expanding mass testing with the two mega labs that will add another 600,000 to our daily testing capacity and, on vaccines, we have secured an initial agreement for 5 million doses of the very promising Moderna vaccine and begun clinical trials of the Janssen vaccine.

It is now 41 days since I asked the Secretary of State whether he would stop the clock so that no one seeking access to fertility treatment loses out because of delays due to the pandemic. When does he hope that his Department will get around to answering?

The provision of fertility services is happening in the normal way in as many places as possible across England, but it is not happening everywhere because of the huge pressures on the NHS from the second wave of covid. As my hon. Friend the Minister of State was saying a moment ago, there are pressures on the NHS. There are now 15,000 people in hospital with covid across the UK, but the NHS is doing far more normal services that it was not able to do in the first wave.

This morning, the Select Committee has been hearing about workforce burnout. Witness after witness said that the one thing that would make a big difference to NHS staff is knowing that we are training enough doctors and nurses for the future even if we do not have enough now. Nearly two years on from the NHS 10-year plan, we still do not have the workforce projections published—I know that the Secretary of State is keen to get them published. Can he assure the House that, when they are published, they will be the independent projections and not what the Treasury has negotiated with his Department as part of the spending review?

I am grateful to my right hon. Friend for that question. I can give him a couple of projections and a couple of facts. Over the past year, we have 13,500 more nurses in the NHS than we did a year ago, and thousands more doctors. Let me give him this projection, which I am sure that he and everybody on the Government Benches will buy into: we are going to have 50,000 more nurses in the NHS by the end of this Parliament.

Many of my constituents have taken part in the Liverpool mass testing pilots, but they need to know that the tests being used are accurate. Reports in The Times that suggest very high levels of both false positives and false negatives are deeply worrying, so can the Secretary of State tell us what steps he is taking to ensure that the tests being used in the mass testing are indeed accurate? (908926)

Yes; the lateral flow tests that are being used in Liverpool are accurate. They measure whether somebody is infectious and have a very high specificity. We publish all these statistics, having had them assessed at Porton Down in one of the best medical science units across the whole world, so I assure the hon. Gentleman—and, through him, his constituents —that the lateral flow tests have a quick turnaround and a high degree of accuracy regarding whether someone is infectious. I have not seen the reports to which he refers, but I assure him that the best thing that people can do if they are offered a test is to get one.

I was delighted when the Secretary of State came to visit the Yeatman Hospital in Sherborne at the end of last year, but my constituents in West Dorset are becoming increasingly concerned that the Yeatman Hospital’s minor injuries unit has been closed for too long. Will the Secretary of State confirm that the MIU will not be permanently closed, and that it will reopen at the first possible opportunity? (908925)

I am very happy to meet my hon. Friend and to discuss with him how we can strengthen the services that are available across Dorset, especially as the population is not as dense as in some other parts of the country. We need to ensure that we get services out into the community, rather than just in the big cities.

Our home care workers have gone above and beyond during the pandemic. Tragically, they are some of the lowest paid workers in the entire labour market. Does the Secretary of State agree that there is a role for local government, as the commissioners of home care services, in strengthening enforcement of national minimum wage legislation to ensure that no home care worker, anywhere, is not properly paid for travel time between visits? (908929)

As a proud supporter of the Conservative Government’s introduction of the national living wage, I am a big fan of the pay increases that we have seen for some of the lowest paid people in the country, such as some of those working in social care including the home care sector, about which the hon. Member speaks. National living wage legislation is not a “nice to have”; it is mandatory, and all employers must follow it.

I thank my right hon. Friend for his incredible hard work over recent months. I am delighted that Scunthorpe General Hospital has received significant funding, which will help with the short to medium-term pressures, but he knows that it is in need of a much more significant upgrade. When he is able to, will he meet me to discuss a way forward? (908927)

Yes; my hon. Friend has been a champion for Scunthorpe and for supporting Scunthorpe General Hospital. I am glad that we have been able to make an investment in that hospital, and I am happy to meet her to talk about what more we can do.

NHS Blood and Transplant has recently reported a dramatic reduction in some transplant operations. For example, living kidney donations are down three quarters on last year. What steps is the Department taking to ensure that patients who require an organ receive the life-saving operation that they so desperately need? (908930)

The hon. Gentleman and I share a passion for ensuring that organ donation is possible and is supported wherever it is needed. That is very close to my heart through personal experience—not mine, but that of a friend. The hon. Gentleman has raised this issue and driven a change in the law, and I am glad that the change in the law to an opt-out system has happened. However, during the first lockdown there was clearly a slowdown in the number of donations, and we do not want to see that. There are more services available in the second peak of this coronavirus crisis. I look forward to working with him and others to make sure that organ donation is as high as it possibly can be.

Royal Stoke University Hospital in my constituency has warned that the rising level of obesity is becoming an increasingly serious problem. With nearly one in seven adults considered obese in Stoke-on-Trent Central, does my right hon. Friend agree that tackling rising levels of obesity has never been more important for our public health and should remain a priority for our Government? (908928)

Yes, I do, and so does the Prime Minister. We feel very strongly about this. It is so important that we have the work across the country to tackle obesity; this has only been made more urgent because we know of the link between obesity and the risk of dying from covid. I look forward to working with my hon. Friend and others to make this happen.

York’s contact tracing work has proved to be incredibly effective, not just in its reach but in persuading people to isolate. However, it is not getting data through until around day five, when people are having a test, and it could be so much more effective if it had that data on day one. Will the Secretary of State look at York being a pilot for having immediate access to the data and the resources necessary to get on top of this virus and lock it down? (908934)

I am happy to work with the hon. Lady and the director of public health in York, and obviously with NHS Test and Trace, to make sure that the link-up is as effective as possible.

My right hon. Friend will be aware that nosocomial spread is high in the NHS and that transmission is sometimes via staff. In order to help the amazing teams at Royal Stoke University Hospital and the Hayward walk-in centre, will he give guidance that stops substantive staff working bank, agency and locum shifts in other hospitals, to help reduce transmissions? (908931)

I am very happy to look into that idea, while making sure, of course, that we also have the availability of staff, which is critical. We have just had two questions from Stoke-on-Trent. Let me say how much I appreciate the work of everybody at the Royal Stoke, who I know are doing so much. There are difficult circumstances there because of the second wave, which is quite significant in Stoke. I thank everybody at the Royal Stoke for all the work they are doing.

I was very pleased by the Secretary of State’s answer to me last week that the vaccine would be rolled out on a needs basis. As the House knows, I represent a vast and very remote constituency. What worries me is the thought of elderly and vulnerable constituents having to travel long distances to get the vaccine. Health is devolved in Scotland, of course, but what proposals does he have for England and Wales to take the vaccine to those people who are elderly and vulnerable, and will he share that methodology with the Scottish Government? (908940)

Yes, I would be happy to do that. We are proposing roving teams who can get out into rural communities across England. I know that there are ongoing discussions between those in the NHS in England and in Scotland who are responsible for the deployment of the vaccine. However, it is a critical principle that it should be deployed according to clinical need, not according to where people live across the United Kingdom.

Although covid has highlighted the value of our care workers, care remains generally low-paid, high-turnover employment. A route into nursing would give care workers more opportunity to progress and build a career. Would the Government consider fast-tracking a specialised training course for care workers seeking to go into nursing, which reflects the many transferable skills that they have? (908932)

I welcome the news that the Secretary of State has secured 5 million doses of the Moderna vaccine, totalling 355 million dosages for the UK. Does he agree that it is key to putting this virus back in its box, and that it is down to the willingness of the great British public to step forward and to voluntarily have this vaccine so that we can all move on? (908933)

Yes, that is right. A vaccine will be approved only if it is both effective and safe, so when your ticket comes up, if you are asked to take the vaccine, then I and the whole serious clinical establishment—all of those who understand the vaccines and the value of them —will be urging people right across the country to get it, because it is good for you, it protects your loved ones and it protects your community. It is the primary route, alongside other things like testing, by which we will get out of this and get life back more closely to normal.

I welcome the Government’s substantial investment in hospital services in my area. The Secretary of State knows that I remain disappointed that Epsom, was not the NHS’s choice of location— rather than Sutton—but will he assure me that as the NHS reviews the impact of the pandemic and looks at future capacity needs, he will keep an open mind if that decision needs to be changed, because in the end Epsom represents better value for the health service? (908935)

I appreciate my right hon. Friend’s tenacity and doggedness in making the case for Epsom. I am a big supporter of the decision that has been made, and I am afraid, from his point of view, that the final decision on the location of the new hospital—in Sutton—has now been made. However, I am always open-minded to what further health services can be deployed in Epsom itself, and I suggest that my right hon. Friend and I work together on that.

Rising infection rates in Dudley are extremely worrying. The launch of the third covid vaccine trial in the UK this week is excellent news and I pay tribute to the volunteers and researchers involved in the trials, but does my right hon. Friend agree that it is still early days, so it is vital that all of us continue to play our part in doing everything possible to bring down that infection rate, particularly in areas, like Dudley, where it continues to rise? (908936)

Yes. Vaccines could not be approved if there were not volunteers who were willing to take them and play their part. I want to end this session, if I may, with a tribute to my PPS, my hon. Friend the Member for St Austell and Newquay (Steve Double), who, along with some other Members of the House, is taking part in a vaccine trial, and therefore doing his bit to make vaccines available to help everybody across this country.

The Health Secretary will remember—his hon. Friend the Member for St Austell and Newquay (Steve Double) was there as well—that we had a really good meeting on 2 October about the link between covid and vitamin D. Since then the PM even said, two weeks ago, that good news is on the way. Will the Secretary of State update us on what is happening? The Government are meant to be getting rid of dither and delay. We could be like New Zealand; they have only had 16 deaths in care homes in the whole of this pandemic. What can he do?

Yes, we are making progress on that and working on the clinical protocols. I look forward to updating the hon. Lady with more information when a final decision has been made.

In order to aid the safe exit of hon. Members participating in this item of business and the safe arrival of those participating in the next, I suspend the House for three minutes.

Sitting suspended.