I beg to move,
That this House has considered covid-19.
Yesterday, there was an increase of 19,609 cases of coronavirus in the UK, and sadly we recorded 529 deaths. I am sure I speak for everyone when I say that our sympathies and prayers are with each and every family. It is a stark reminder, if we needed one, that we still have a long way to go in beating this disease and seeing our country thrive again.
I know that Members across the House will join me in wishing those who are currently unwell a speedy recovery and thanking all the staff across health and social care and key workers for all they do, but I would also like to mention one or two who do not always get a mention: those working in community health, including our health visitors and our pharmacists, and many of the volunteers who keep many of the shows on the road.
As the Office for National Statistics report on loneliness earlier today showed, these changes are taking a toll on our lives. They are taking a toll on individuals, families and businesses, so the news this week of further successful vaccine trials with Moderna and today’s update from Pfizer have given rise to the very real prospect of an effective vaccine in the near future. While I share that sense of hope with many, we still have some way to go, and we must never lose sight of the challenges that we face at the moment. A vaccine still has to go through a regulatory process, but it is right that the planning of the huge logistical exercise of a vaccine roll-out led by the NHS is now very much under way. Throughout this pandemic we have had to learn, and each week brings further understanding.
As more information continues to emerge on the risks of long covid, for example, we are reminded how this virus can remain a threat. I am sure hon. and right hon. Members will be pleased to hear that the NHS will have a network of 40 long covid clinics in place before the end of this month, bringing together doctors, nurses, therapists and other NHS staff to help those patients suffering from the lasting effects of this virus. That is an example of how our response to the virus has to continue to evolve and strengthen to protect staff, patients and the public, moving with the science as we learn more.
It is hard to overstate how little was known about the virus at the start of the year. We have done many things for the first time, and the learning curve has definitely been a steep one, but looking back, we have come a long way through this difficult year. We have always sought to base decisions on evidence, data and scientific advice, and we have been willing to reflect and adapt as we go. From repatriating individuals from Wuhan in the early days of the pandemic, we have constantly faced and met enormous challenges. In the words of General Sir Nick Carter back in April, distributing personal protective equipment, for example, was
“the single greatest logistical challenge”
in his 40 years of service. However, with others helping, such as the Army, we built those supply chains and responded to demand. In some areas, demand went up by 17,000% for eye protection, for example, and by approximately 4,700% for masks. So far, we have distributed more than 4.9 billion items of personal protective equipment to the frontline, and today we have a four-month stockpile in hand across all nine key lines, with a further 32 billion items of PPE on order. We have regularly delivered to more than 58,000 health and care organisations. I would like to pay tribute to Lord Deighton and his team for their extraordinary efforts in building resilience into the supply chain, to enable us to be as confident as we are today.
I am clear that none of this would have been possible without the incredible collaboration we have seen between industry, social care providers, our NHS, the armed forces and others. Industry and individual businesses stepped up to meet the challenge. At the start of the pandemic, only 1% of PPE was manufactured here in the United Kingdom. By the end of the year, we will be manufacturing 70% of the amount of PPE we expect to use from December to March in all key areas bar gloves. This enormous national effort has put our country on a strong footing today and for years to come. Following the launch of the PPE strategy in September, we are looking at sustainability and initiating a UK production site for gloves.
I accept that it was an extraordinary time and that extraordinary measures needed to be taken, but as we have heard from the National Audit Office today, tried and tested processes and procedures were not used. Will the Minister say something about that report and why that was the case, why we had 11 ministerial directions by May and whether those lessons have been learnt by her Department and others that fell foul of the procurement procedures?
The NAO report to which the hon. Member refers highlights that we were acting with “extreme urgency” in a global market where demand exceeded supply. The report states that the situation in responding to the covid-19 pandemic was unprecedented, but that we
“secured unprecedented volumes of essential supplies necessary to protect front-line workers.”
If the hon. Member will bear with me, I will continue.
The NAO report examined potential conflicts of interests involving Ministers and the awarding of contracts and found none. It states:
“we found that the ministers had properly declared their interests, and we found no evidence of their involvement in procurement decisions or contract management.”
The report recognises that there are robust processes in place for spending public money, to ensure that critical equipment got to where it needed to go as rapidly as possible while ensuring value for money. I welcome the report, because we can all learn.
I want to make a very different point, which is about how well prepared we were for this year and how prepared we would be if all this were to happen again. The truth is that we tend to run the NHS at 90% to 95% capacity, and it takes the requirement of only a tiny smidgen of increased capacity for the whole thing to fall over. I am particularly conscious of that in relation to intensive care. We have had to cancel elective surgery just to keep intensive care going. If we had the same number of beds per head of population as France or Germany, we would not have had to do that. Another affected area is neuro-rehabilitation after brain injuries, which was already struggling and will even more so because covid clearly leads to some neuro-degenerative conditions.
The hon. Member is an incredible campaigner in the area of neural injuries. When elective procedures are stood down, those are clinical decisions. We have ensured that many can keep going in the second wave, but this must be done on a local level. There is surge capacity in the Nightingale hospitals, with an additional 2,000 beds, and we have the ventilator capacity that was built up during the first wave of the pandemic. I recognise what he says, but I do feel that these decisions have to be made locally by the clinicians who are involved in delivering the care.
I am not having a go at the Minister; I am simply trying to ask a question for the country, in a way. For the future, we will have to have much more capacity in the NHS, won’t we? We will have to nearly double the amount of capacity we have in some areas, particularly in intensive care, in neuro-rehabilitation and, for that matter, in radiotherapy.
I will come on to the area of cancer, in particular. Strides have been made in different ways of treating virtually, so that fewer people go into the hospital setting, and so on. I take the hon. Gentleman’s point about capacity, but that is why the Government have committed to building 40 new hospitals—because there is a need to ensure that sufficient capacity is available across the country for people.
I am going to push on a little bit and then I will give way again.
This enormous national effort has put our country on a strong footing for today and years to come. We are using the best of British ingenuity to help us to deliver in this area. Progress has also been seen in other areas. As the pandemic unfolded, the UK could not call on a major diagnostic industry. From a standing start of about 2,000 tests a day in March, our capacity is now over half a million tests per day. This matters, because it has often been said in this place that in order to beat the virus we need to draw on different parts of our armoury to help to get us through. Testing works. It helps to deny the virus the connections it needs to spread. Mass testing therefore offers us a chance to achieve that on a much bigger scale. We are making progress in city-wide testing in Liverpool. I thank Joe Anderson for his leadership in helping to deliver not only in testing but in other areas too. We are also rolling out a further localised approach to other areas with the help of directors of public health, among others, who know their local areas. Some 83 local authorities have now signed up to receive regular batches of lateral flow tests, which allow for a result to be seen in 15 minutes.
Further, I know that hon. Members will celebrate Monday’s announcement of two mega-labs coming on stream early next year—very high-throughput laboratories, one in the midlands and one in Scotland, adding a further capacity of some 600,000 tests per day. These are massive gains that we are achieving by embracing cutting-edge technology such as automation and robotics and harnessing the best of British industry and academia, meaning that we will not only be able to process more tests but that they can be processed quicker and at a lower cost. The mega-labs will be another powerful weapon in our defence against this deadly virus in order to get back to a more normal way of life, but more than that, they will form a permanent part of the country’s new diagnostic industry. They can help us to respond in the future and build further resilience.
I am excited at the potential for a new diagnostic industry to help to care and deliver across other disease types, not least cancer. Hon. Members will know that, informed in large part by my own experience, I was an advocate of improved cancer outcomes long before I came to this place or took on this role. Early diagnosis is the key to beating the disease, and with bold steps forward in diagnostics, I would like it to make it my mission—I am sure with many others across the House—that we seize new opportunities in cancer services so that covid-19 is not a derailer but an opportunity for a new phase in smarter, faster diagnostics.
I very much appreciate the Minister’s work in this area. She will have seen that leading clinicians think it will take five years for us to catch up with the cancer backlog. Indeed, Cancer Research UK has recognised that there have been 35,000 avoidable deaths from cancer over this period. Only very recently, there was an awful figure in an article in The BMJ saying that there have been 60,000 lost life years as a consequence of cancer during this period. I absolutely acknowledge that progress is being made when it comes to diagnostics; I am less convinced that progress is being made when it comes to treatment. Will she confirm whether her Department is making an urgent bid for spending review funding for smart radiotherapy, for delivery at satellite sites and for digital technology, to ensure that we clear the backlog, save lives and catch up with cancer?
I thank the hon. Gentleman for his intervention. As he will know, the comprehensive spending review will deliver forth, and bids have been put in across the piece. I am sure he will understand that it is not my place to answer, as those decisions are still being made.
We know that some of these figures relate to specific challenges. For example, endoscopy is still a particular challenge because of the aerosol-generating procedure. That is why I was really pleased that Cally Palmer, Professor Peter Johnson and other stakeholders, including charities, have formed the cancer recovery taskforce. They will be laying out a national plan for how we beat this, and also how we optimise the use of new treatment paths. As the hon. Gentleman knows, we are using fewer radiotherapy treatments, or fractions, so that people do not have to attend so much. There is also oral chemotherapy and many other advances that need building in, to ensure that patients get timely and quick treatment.
As the first wave subsided, the NHS rose to the challenge of restoring cancer services: it kept focus and did some amazing reconfiguration work around cancer hubs and rapid diagnostic centres. I recognise that, as the hon. Gentleman says, there is a way to go, but I am aware of how much each day spent waiting for a diagnosis, for treatment or for an answer suspends time and feels like a year for the individual. We will continue to ensure that cancer services are prioritised and we thank those who work in the cancer workforce for everything they are doing.
In September, slightly over 86% saw a cancer specialist within two weeks of a referral from a GP, and 94.5% had treatment within 31 days of a decision to treat. I would really urge people who are worried about cancer or any other major issue, “Please, don’t leave it. Help us to help you.” It is always challenging, and many people have said to me that they do not want to overload the system, but doctors are keen to help.
A vaccine will perhaps be our most potent weapon, once we know that it is safe and effective. However, we do not yet have a vaccine. I must be very clear on that point. We are not quite there yet—we must ensure that we stick to hands, face, space and ventilate our environments by opening windows for short bursts—but progress on this front is encouraging. Last week, we heard about phase 3 trials from Pfizer and BioNTech, stating that their vaccine was more than 90% effective in preventing covid. Today, further data indicates that the vaccine is now thought to be around 94% efficacious for those who are 65-plus, with good data on many other groups. As I say, we are constantly learning. Earlier this week, preliminary trial data from Moderna suggested that its vaccine had an effectiveness of 94.5%. Additionally, we have had the start of Janssen’s phase 3 trials in the UK this week, and we will hopefully have more phase 3 trials reported in the next few weeks.
This is all very positive, but of course, our regulator will not approve any vaccine until it is proven to be clinically safe and effective, and the way to get there is via trials. On that note, I would like to give a shout-out to my hon. Friend the Member for St Austell and Newquay (Steve Double), who is taking part in the trial, and my hon. Friend the Member for Saffron Walden (Kemi Badenoch), who is also doing so. I know that my hon. Friend the Member for Vale of Clwyd (Dr Davies) and my hon. Friend the Member for Thirsk and Malton (Kevin Hollinrake) have registered, although I do not know whether they are part of it. I am sure several other Members across the House have also stepped up.
We have already struck commercial deals to secure access 355 million doses of seven vaccines, and the Department is working at pace with the NHS to ensure that we will be ready to roll out any that are proven safe and effective immediately. That will be a massive undertaking, and I thank everyone for their hard work thus far.
Mr Deputy Speaker, you were not in the Chair yesterday, but I somewhat embarrassed myself by perhaps displaying more of the parent in me than the Minister. This country’s journey in beating the pandemic, however, has been a little like watching one’s child grow: it is a huge undertaking, it comes without a manual, we are proud of the successes and, when things are trying, we attempt to learn and move on—but the work is never done. Over the past year, so many parts of our country have risen to meet an incredible set of challenges; challenges they are facing every day. Only by ensuring that we have those different lines of defence, and by pulling together in local, regional, national and international ways will we protect those on the frontline and allow family and business life to resume and get back to a different, albeit more normal way of life.
As Members will see from the call list, quite a number of people wish to participate in this debate. We will start all non-Front-Bench contributions at six minutes, although clearly that limit might be reduced later on depending on how many interventions there are.
I am grateful for the opportunity to open this debate for the Opposition. It is an important debate, though a solemn one: 589 deaths of our countrymen and countrywomen were reported yesterday, having perished from this virus. The total official number of deaths from covid is now more than 50,000, but the real figure is likely to be much higher. Those are big numbers, but behind each number is a person and a grieving family. All our thoughts are with them.
It is important and appreciated that the Government continue to give Government time in this place for the consideration of covid. Often—we understand this—the Government need to act swiftly to tackle the virus, but it is crucial that we get parliamentary opportunities to scrutinise their actions. I hope that we find the Government in listening mode, because we could do much to improve the current response.
In that spirit, I turn first to test and trace. Test and trace is important for two reasons: first, it is our best weapon to break the chain of transmission, and secondly, it is the part of the process that the Government have the greatest control over. Of course, the behaviour of the public is paramount, and it is critical that we guide them as best we can, but eventually it becomes a matter of personal responsibility. Test and trace, however, we have direct control of—we have control over the implementation and the commissioning.
Let us start with the good news. We recognise and welcome the overall volume of capacity developed by the Government, which the Minister talked about. That was done from scratch, and it is a very good thing indeed. However, that is as far as the good news goes, because the rest of the system is simply not delivering.
I was concerned that the Minister talked about testing but did not talk about tracing or isolation, because the system is failing, not on my terms or on political barriers put up by me or my colleagues, but on the Government’s own terms. The Prime Minister promised test results within 24 hours by the end of June. The current figure is 37.6%. That is a failure on the Government’s own terms. I hope that the Postmaster General will say when the 100% target will be reached.
On tracing, the Government say that of those with the virus, 80% of their close contacts must be reached for the system to be effective. Last week, it was 60%. It has never been at 80%; it has bumped along, frankly, in the 50s and 60s throughout. For last week, that represents 126,000 people who ought to have self-isolated but did not, simply because they did not know that they were supposed to. Each of them is walking around unaware, working as usual, living as allowed by regulations, and in close contact with goodness knows how many people. Again, that is a failure on the Government’s own terms. Tomorrow, we will get the latest weekly figures. Do we expect performance to have reached that 80%? I do not. I raise this issue every day, whether in the Chamber, online, in the media or, frankly, to anyone who will listen. That is because the failure of the system is the root of our loss of control of this virus.
If this debate follows the patterns of previous ones, we will hear contributions from Government Back Benchers critical of the symptoms of that loss of control—damage to the economy, delayed or cancelled healthcare, restricted civil liberties. Those are all exceptionally important symptoms, but I cannot understand why we do not hear greater concerned scrutiny of the cause of the problems, which is the failing system. I hope that those Members will join us in pressing the Government to do better, not because of the politics—on this occasion, I could not care less about that, frankly—but because this is a hole beneath the water line when it comes to tackling the virus. Nothing will truly get better until this gets better.
The final weak link in the chain is about isolation. Even if all elements of the system over which the Government have direct control work flawlessly, the enterprise will fail if the person at the end of the process does not isolate when supposed to. The Prime Minister has bemoaned that issue previously, which I suspect is part of his attempts to shift the blame on to other people—'twas ever thus. In reality, however, even before the pandemic, too many people were just getting by on low wages and insecure work. People were in work but in poverty, and forced, hour by hour, to earn that poverty. Now they are being told to forego even that income in favour of sick pay. That might be the right thing to do to beat covid-19, but people do not know how to isolate and feed their family at the same time.
The Health and Social Care Secretary himself said that he could not live off statutory sick pay, and it took seven months until the £500 stipend came in. The Prime Minister thought that the stipend was weekly—it is not, and it is still not enough. Until we change the situation so that those who have least in our country, and who often work in frontline jobs where they are more likely to contract the virus, do not have to choose between the national effort and financial reality for their family, we will not get people isolating in the numbers we need.
The hon. Gentleman is making a good point, and the 60-something-per cent. success rate of the national system is deeply regrettable. As in many other parts of the country, Cumbria public health has been far more successful, with a 97% success rate. However, because of a flaw in the system, if someone is contacted by Cumbria public health, they are not able to get the isolation grant. That is preventing many people from making the choices that they need to make to keep everybody safe, while also putting food on the table. Does he agree that the Government need to answer calls from the director of public health in Cumbria, and ensure that those who are contacted and asked to isolate by that body get that grant?
The hon. Gentleman gives a concerning example that shows how the system is struggling in general. I hope that the Minister will address that issue when she winds up the debate, and I will refer more directly to local authority public health shortly.
I do not want to carp on about what is not working without providing any solutions, so I come armed with three things that Ministers could do at a stroke of their collective pens that would radically improve test and trace in short order. First, we must better use NHS lab capacity to turn tests around. I very much welcome what the Minister said about megalabs, which we have eagerly anticipated for some months. However, there has been a large gap in which we have not had that lab capacity, and we will not have it for some time yet. In the meantime, let us put our NHS lab capacity to use in getting tests turned around.
Secondly, we should give control and resources to local authorities to run the tracing operation. They know our communities and already have a local presence. They are a trusted voice and, crucially, they do this routinely. They do this already. Admittedly, that is on a smaller scale—perhaps related to an outbreak of food poisoning linked to a takeaway—but they do it effectively. Let us support them to do it fully. Thirdly, we must develop a proper package of support for those who need to isolate—that is self-evident. Those three things could be done immediately, and we would all be better off if they were.
We have seen the consequence of failure and of a test and trace system that is struggling, and that is another lockdown. This time last year we were banging on doors in the cold and the rain, and none of us supported the lockdown because we want to keep family members away from each other, or to shut businesses in our community or anybody else’s. However, the failure to break the transmission rate of the virus leads us there.
There are two important things that I wish the Government would communicate more. This is not a choice between lockdown and the economy; it is not a choice between lockdown and non-covid healthcare treatment in the NHS. We must have the lockdown for those purposes, and the longer we delay putting restrictions in place, the worse are the long-term impacts on our economy. If we do not introduce regulations to reduce the transmission of the virus, the greater are the pressures on our hospitals, and the less likely they are to be able do other treatments. Those things are not in tension; they are very much complementary.
The failures of test and trace may have led us to a lockdown, but that lockdown buys us time to sort out problems in the system. We must see progress. Lockdowns alone will not tackle or eradicate the virus, but they buy us time to put in place the things that do. We have now had two weeks of lockdown, but we have not heard about what is improving in the test and trace system, or what will be better, including in the next two weeks. Ministers really need to say this today, so we can be sure and confident that the time is being used wisely. Otherwise, when we leave lockdown, this will all recur again, something that none of us wants.
We are all very wary of Christmas. Depending on which newspaper Members read, they may have woken up yet again to see that the Government’s plans, this time regarding yuletide festivities, had been briefed out to national newspapers. Putting aside the discourtesy to the Speaker and Deputy Speakers, to all of us and to this place in general, that is all well and good, but those plans are only going to be feasible if the right efforts are put in place now and this time is used wisely.
It also ought to be stated that this lockdown is longer and more painful than it needed to be because, once again, the Government acted too slowly. The scientists told them they needed to lock down, as did we, but for two weeks the Prime Minister disregarded reality, which meant that the situation worsened. That has meant that the lockdown will be longer and harder, and also meant that we lost the benefits of the school holidays. These are mistakes that cannot be repeated in the future.
As we exit lockdown, the Government need to be honest with the British people—not in off-the-record briefings to mates in the media, but to the British people—about what will come next, both at Christmas and in the return to a tiered system. I know from our experience in Nottingham that trying to negotiate restrictions was painful, even when we wanted them at the beginning of October as our infection rates increased precipitously. We could not get the initial restrictions we wanted, because the Government were moving to the tiered system and it did not fit their timeline. We then managed to get into the tiered system at tier 2; the next day, the Government said that they wanted us to move into tier 3 and were going to call us, which they did not for a further week. Eventually, we had the painful negotiations about what that actually meant for Nottingham: we brought those restrictions in on the Friday, and by the Saturday, the national lockdown had leaked out. The system has not worked for Nottingham, so we need to know that in any return to a tiered system, the Government are going to work much more quickly and in a more agile manner. Every day wasted is a day when the virus thrives, so we need to be better upon exit.
Turning to the vaccine, we strongly welcome the Government’s efforts in this area: they were right to pre-order doses across a wide portfolio, and they were also right to back British. With our excellent research and our proud record in this area, we should be in the vanguard of it, and patriotic about our efforts to tackle this global issue. Last week, I responded on behalf of the Opposition in an excellent Westminster Hall debate on the covid-19 vaccine, secured by the hon. Member for North Herefordshire (Bill Wiggin), the day after the news broke that the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine had achieved success in a phase 3 study. Since then, we have heard similarly positive news about the NIH-Moderna vaccine candidate, which is likely to be followed by other candidates, whether that of the University of Oxford and AstraZeneca, the candidate referenced by the Minister, or candidates developed elsewhere. I understand that overnight, there have been further promising developments for a Chinese candidate.
During that debate, colleagues and I raised the challenges and considerations that need to be addressed to make sure that this is handled and executed well. I will not repeat those contributions in the level of detail we went into then—they are on the record in Hansard for people to read. However, the theme was that we cannot repeat the slowness or logistical challenges that we saw early in the pandemic with regard to the procurement of personal protective equipment and testing: no Nottingham people being sent to Llandudno or Inverness for their healthcare this time, please, Minister.
As we have done throughout the pandemic, we on the Opposition Benches will work constructively with the Government to support viable vaccines being secured, ensure the right groups are being prioritised, develop an effective delivery programme, counter vaccine hesitancy—that is critical—and continue to support these efforts globally. A failure on any of those points will undermine the whole process, so it is absolutely crucial that we come together, and I am sure that Ministers will welcome that.
However, I want to briefly reference a point that my hon. Friend the Member for Bristol South (Karin Smyth) made regarding the NAO report. Again, we understand—as that report did—that the Government were having to do things that would normally take 18 months’ worth of planning in hours and days, and that comes with some efficiency trade-offs. However, we did not hear clearly enough in the Minister’s opening statement a sense that that has been reflected upon, and we did not hear what will be different in future to make sure those mistakes are not repeated.
I appreciate my hon. Friend having picked up on the point I made. The Minister very carefully read out a statement in reply to my question about the Government’s response to the NAO report. I am concerned that she was saying that the Government stand by what they did in that period, and do not think that the way in which those contracts and large procurement processes were handled was a problem. It may be that the Minister wants to correct the record, but if that is the case, does my hon. Friend agree that that is deeply worrying?
I heard the point that the test had been clear that nothing wrong had been done, which, frankly, is a very low bar. I do not think anybody would say that there was nothing that happened in the early procurement phases that we would not perhaps want to change or do better later. I hope that the Paymaster General in winding up might reflect on that.
Perhaps this is the best place to say that the announcement on long covid will be very much welcomed by a lot of people, including my good friend Jo Platt who has been campaigning on this for many months, as well as living with her long covid. This is a story for lots of people up and down the country, across all our constituencies, who are living with the after-effects of this horrible virus over and over again. The act of knowing that they are being heard, as well as the 40 clinics, will be a real tonic to a great number of people, so we very much welcome that.
I turn to inequalities. At the beginning of the pandemic, we talked about the virus being a great leveller, not distinguishing between us depending on our lives, our jobs and our postcodes, but nine months on we know that to be patently untrue. Sixty per cent. of those who died were living with disabilities. Those of Bangladeshi heritage are twice as likely to die as those who are white British. Those of Chinese, Indian, Pakistani and black Caribbean ethnicities are 10% to 15% more likely to die than I am. Mortality rates in the most deprived communities are more than twice those of the least deprived communities. This pandemic has shone a light on our inequalities, whether that means the inequality in work, in housing or in income, and these inequalities have had tragic consequences for some and, in the aggregate, are catastrophic for all of us.
When we beat this virus, which together we will, what comes out of it must be a fair settlement that recognises these inequalities as bad and tackles them head-on. That is why it is already concerning to see again—of course, leaked to national newspapers—that the overseas aid budget is the first on the chopping block. In 2010, the Government chose to target those who had the least to pay for a crisis that they did not cause, and these reports are a sign that maybe this is the plan again. We will not let them repeat this in 2020. It simply would be hugely unjust.
Before I finish, I would like to take this opportunity to thank our incredible NHS and social care staff for all they have done for us. They are truly the best of Britain. Similarly, the pandemic has revealed the key workers all over our communities and all over our economy, so this week, during Respect for Shopworkers Week, I would like to say a special thank you to those working in our shops, keeping us fed, but still facing rising violence and abuse every day. The Government should take better action to protect you—the Government could, of course, adopt my private Member’s Bill and I encourage them to do so—but whether it is that or through another mechanism, we will fight for you until they do.
In conclusion, now more than ever we must stand together as a country, as families and as communities, and show once again that at a moment of national crisis, the British people always rise to the challenge, support those who need it and pull together. That involves not only recognising successes, but assertively tackling the failures that have held us back during the pandemic. If we address these, we will beat this virus.
It strikes me that, as MPs, it is our duty to make difficult decisions. We must face head-on the life and death challenges that very few people would wish to face in their daily lives. We must make contested judgments, and this debate and the response to covid is a case in point. Whether it is going to war with Iraq, which was before my time in this House, military operations in Syria or the very painful issues surrounding Brexit, we have a duty to reflect carefully and responsibly when confronted with complex challenges. It seems to me that our response to covid demands a similar level of reflection to reach our best judgments.
There are a multitude of variables involved in this decision making. Given that thousands of lives are being lost to covid, thousands of lives are being lost with covid, and thousands of lives are being lost by our response to covid, it is no easy judgment. Businesses are being forced to close across my constituency and across the country—businesses that people have spent their lives building up. Jobs and livelihoods are being wiped out. Civil liberties are certainly under threat, freedom of speech is threatened, freedom of assembly has been all but washed away in the short term, and even Parliament—even with your efforts, Mr Deputy Speaker, and the efforts of Mr Speaker—is not necessarily functioning as it should during a crisis such as this.
Looking back, I suspect hon. Members will agree that the first lockdown was absolutely the right thing to do. In March this year we were confronted with an unknown enemy: a deadly virus determined to secure its own survival by infecting as many people as possible, with sometimes fatal consequences. With incomplete information from China at the time, we did not know the fatality rate. We did not know the vectors and means of transmission, or which age groups were worst affected, or about its ability to mutate or the type of mutation that may take place. We did not have a ready treatment available for the symptoms.
That was back in March, but today we know so much more. We know that healthy children are hardly affected by the virus, and that is a godsend, considering illnesses and diseases from the past. We know now that the overwhelming majority of adults are reasonably safe: perhaps 80% will not necessarily even notice any symptoms. We know that people over the age of 65 and those with pre-existing conditions are, sadly, most likely to suffer the serious effects of the virus. We know that the virus is transmitted by touch and by being in close proximity to others, and that washing hands and maintaining social distance largely prevent transmission.
We also have far more PPE than we had when we started, thanks to the efforts of the Government. Even if we have overdone it with PPE and end up at the end of this pandemic with millions, if not billions, of pounds’ worth of spare excess PPE, that will be a good sign: it will be a sign that we prepared effectively, and it may be of use to other nations in the future.
We also know that modern treatments can halve the death rate. We know that vaccines, particularly the two new ones, can stop the illness by generating antibodies. We know that our NHS, if fully staffed, can treat those affected, provided that the inflow of patients is moderated over time.
We can see from data that the tiered local approach is having an impact. Data that we have seen over the past week or two is to do not with the current lockdown but with the previous regional measures. That is a good thing, because we can see that we can control this virus to some degree.
Of course, there is still much more that we do not know. That is why we will be forced to make a judgment at the end of this month, but that judgment must be an informed judgment. I very much welcome the Government’s commitment to giving Parliament a say on future restrictions and regulations. I also welcome the Prime Minister’s desire to try to avoid restrictions in future, if it is considered safe to do so, and I very much welcome the Minister’s comments earlier about the progress we have made in tackling the disease so far and our prospects to do so in the not-too-distant future.
To move forward I believe we need to recognise the costs of the restrictions in addition to the benefits of future restrictions. I urge the Government to do three things. First, I ask them to prepare a clear cost-benefit analysis of any future proposed regulations, in terms of both the health and the economic costs and benefits in the short and the long term. Clearly, the two are intricately connected, but it is very important that MPs in this House—the decision makers—have clear sight of the overall costs and benefits.
Secondly, I ask the Government to ensure that the latest data is available from the NHS on hospitalisations, intensive care unit beds and their occupancy, and death rates from all causes, very carefully categorised, perhaps against a five-year baseline. This summer we have seen that the modelling can, let’s face it, get a bit out of control and, on occasion, be more like conjecture than reality. When we make the decision at the end of this month, it is important that we are in a better position to see the real data and perhaps to reflect on it ourselves.
Thirdly, I urge the Government—
This global pandemic has shaken the lives of so many. The pain from the loss of loved ones, friends and colleagues has been compounded by redundancy or business failure, as support for key sectors has failed to materialise or people have found themselves excluded from the UK Government schemes. As we now pin our collective hopes on the brightest and the best delivering promising vaccine candidates into clinical use, we must turn our minds to our recovery and how we choose to build a better, greener and fairer future for our communities.
I would like to take a moment to pay tribute to those who have contributed to the spirit of community across my Kirkcaldy and Cowdenbeath constituency. First, I pay tribute to Tricia Marwick, the chair of the NHS Fife board, and to its members, to Dr Chris McKenna, the medical director, and Helen Buchanan, the director of nursing, and to every single member of staff on the frontline, to whom we owe so much.
I would also like to pay tribute to the local media outlets—the Fife Free Press, the Central Fife Times, K107 community radio and Kingdom FM—all of which have helped my constituents stay informed and updated and have kept us all safe. I pay tribute to the many community lifeline groups, such as the Cottage Family Centre, which aims to ensure that no child or family goes hungry, cold or without presents this Christmas; Love Cowdenbeath, whose online presence has been supporting the local community and retailers; and Linton Lane Centre, which sadly, like other groups across my constituency, had to cancel its annual Christmas day meal for seniors, but will aim to distribute 100 hampers to those who would have attended.
There are so many other examples that I simply do not have time to mention, but the spirit of community that has emerged from this dreadful pandemic is built on hope and an aspiration to do better by our neighbours and, like much of my constituency, is bursting with vision, ambition and confidence that a better future is possible.
Such a future is possible, but it is imperilled by decisions made in this place, led by a Prime Minister who considers our considerable achievements in government and our shared aspirations a mistake and does not see a case for further consideration. I put it to the House that, in our recovery from covid-19, it is the independent countries that will do better. By following the path of regaining democratic control of our own country, our people will be richer, our influence for good greater and our future brighter.
However, the PM’s unguarded words have undermined even article 19 of the Acts of Union, which he purports to uphold. He poured scorn on Scots’ ability to make their own laws while, in his words,
“free-riding on English taxpayers”,
describing it as “simply unjust”. I would be interested to know if the Minister genuinely thinks that the people of Scotland believe that a Government with such an appalling track record—of austerity, welfare cuts, the two-child cap, the bedroom tax, benefit sanctions and the unfair manner in which the Women Against State Pension Inequality have been treated—are uniquely benevolent when it comes to Scotland. Of course she does not, and the facts expose the mendacity of that obtuse notion.
It is a matter of record that in each of the 30 years prior to the introduction of “Government Expenditure and Revenue Scotland”, Scotland generated more tax revenue per head for the UK Treasury than the rest of the UK. If the Minister believes that with 8.2% of the population Scotland creates between 50% and 60% of the UK deficit, will she please direct me to where that money was spent and by whom? Will she also tell me why the people of Scotland should have any confidence in this place to help Scotland build a better future post covid? I can provide the Minister with the answer: they do not.
According to the latest gold-standard Scottish social attitudes survey, 61% of people say they trust the Scottish Government to work in the national interest, but just 15% trust the UK Government to do likewise. The gulf is even wider when it comes to leadership. First Minister Nicola Sturgeon’s approval rating in Scotland is 100 points above that of the Prime Minister, with one commentator—a Unionist, as it happens—stating today that
“that is the good news”
for the Prime Minister, since he suspects that he has
“not yet reached rock bottom”.
That distrust will only grow as the cronyism at the heart of this Government continues to be exposed. Today the National Audit Office released its damning report on the UK Government’s procurement practices during the pandemic, which confirms what we have been saying for months about a Government failing to manage conflicts of interest, doling out public money to clearly unsuitable companies and improperly avoiding scrutiny.
I think the hon. Member will probably agree with me that what is galling for so many people is the £10.5 billion of contracts given out without proper tender processes and without transparency, if we contrast that with the 3 million people in this country—people who have been self-employed for a short time, company directors of small limited companies and many others—who have been completely excluded from support. A small fraction of that amount of money would have kept food on their tables and a roof over their head.
The hon. Gentleman makes the extremely important point that the avarice attached to these contracts undermines any sense that the Government are putting their arms around anyone, let alone the whole country. I would be interested if the Minister could indicate whether the Prime Minister will heed SNP calls—in fact, cross-party calls—for a full public inquiry into the cronyism at the heart of this Government. Convincing answers are urgently needed as to why so many Tory friends, relatives, donors and prominent lobbyists were awarded jobs and privileged access to UK Government meetings and decision making.
The National Audit Office has exposed and confirmed the existence of VIP lanes in which unsuitable companies were often placed by the private offices of Ministers, and they were more than 10 times as likely to win a contract as other suppliers. Recent weeks have seen reports that £1.5 billion of taxpayers’ money has gone to companies linked to the Conservative party. Concerns have also emerged over the weekend about privileged access for lobbyists with links to the Conservative party, without any public process or announcement.
With so much suffering across these islands, it is vital that there is full transparency and that the public have confidence in the manner in which the UK Government spend taxpayers’ money fighting coronavirus. As we heard last week from the hon. Member for Sefton Central (Bill Esterson), rather than support experienced and established UK-based PPE providers, the Government chose 12-week-old businesses with no experience or capacity to provide PPE. How can UK-based companies survive when their Government cut them off at the knees? If everything is above board, surely the Minister will have no issues indicating her support for an inquiry.
Yet that is not the only economic vandalism of this Government during the pandemic. Despite the promises to wrap their arms around everyone, support remains poorly targeted and offers no relief for people who have become self-employed more recently or to businesses in my Kirkcaldy and Cowdenbeath constituency such as RG Construction, which was denied £64,000 of furlough support on a technicality it could never have predicted or met. Will the Minister undertake to ask the Treasury to review these entry requirements to open up support to self-employed people and other businesses that have so far been excluded?
The Government sprang into action to provide countless contracts for their wealthy friends, but that sense of urgency is sadly lacking when it comes to taking action on social care reform, pay awards for frontline NHS staff or addressing the poverty of carers. This week on the Health and Social Care Committee, we heard evidence that healthcare assistants were not being provided with the same standard of PPE as more senior staff, leading to stress, anxiety and burnout. This risk of burnout is all the more concerning when it comes to how we recover the delays in cancer treatment precipitated by the pandemic. The King’s Fund has described an already existing problem of chronic excessive workload in the NHS. This week we heard expert evidence that that, in combination with the culture that demands ever more, can lead to serious mental health problems. What action is the Minister taking to address these pressures and challenge such an unhealthy culture in the NHS?
I would like to pay tribute to Macmillan lead cancer nurse Denise Crouch for her valuable evidence highlighting the pressure cancer nurses have been facing before and during covid-19. Macmillan has highlighted serious shortages in the cancer workforce, in which 2,500 specialist cancer nurses are needed to meet current demand, rising to 3,700 by 2030. I say with genuine sensitivity that this pandemic has thrown into even sharper focus the fragility of our NHS workforce and the need for fast-paced and substantial action. I would be interested in what action the Minister has taken to secure additional capacity in the NHS beyond March 2021 and to invest in the cancer workforce as part of next week’s comprehensive spending review.
Work-related stress is also being amplified elsewhere. Where is the urgency or action addressing the deeply immoral exploitative practice of firms firing workers only to rehire them on significantly reduced terms? This fire and rehire practice has sadly emerged in many sectors, most notably in aviation. Those are not the only threats to our ability to build back better after covid. To pile misery on misery, the Government are persisting with their plan—I use that word in the loosest of terms —with no regard to the consequences or the views of the people of Scotland.
What of the £20 uplift to universal credit? With so many now facing redundancy, this must be made permanent and extended to legacy benefits. These calls are backed by the Joseph Rowntree Foundation and Save the Children. Can the Minister not see the need for this support and the positive impact that such support could have on health and wellbeing? If the UK Government are as keen they claim to be on protecting people, why is it that their own workforce in the Department for Work and Pensions, already equipped to work from home as part of a pilot, are being forced to work in an office one day a week in the face of covid clusters occurring among their colleagues?
In Scotland, we see things through a different lens. As a small country, we ascribe more value to the view that intangible infrastructure such as education and healthcare form the backbone of a country. The Credit Suisse country strength indicator places six small countries in the top 10. Small countries make up more than half of the world’s top 30 countries, with Scotland showing higher scores on the UN human development index than the UK as a whole.
Scotland must build back better, and that is only possible with the full powers of an independent nation. A new YouGov poll across Britain revealed that 85% of respondents from Scotland think that the UK Government are doing badly at handling the UK’s exit from the European Union. An expert study from Warwick University earlier this year revealed that Scotland is already £3.9 billion worse off as a result of Brexit, losing £736 per head of population, with Aberdeen the worst hit at £9,000 per head. Separately, Scottish Government analysis revealed that Tory plans to end the transition period in 2020 could cut £3 billion from the Scottish economy in two years on top of the impact of coronavirus. It is no wonder then that 14 polls in a row now show a majority of support for independence in Scotland, with the most recent poll by Panelbase showing support at 56%. I know that my focus on Scotland and the interests and aspirations of my constituents tire some on the Government Benches, but there is a simple and obvious solution available to them.
In closing, the difference between the independence regularly celebrated on the Government Benches and the one that Scotland will choose soon is that Scotland wants independence to join the world whereas the real separatists sat on the Government Benches have sought separation to be an isolated and rudderless state. It is no wonder that support to abandon the UK separatists is growing, and growing in the majority of Scotland.
There are a couple of areas relating to how we continue to fight the virus that will benefit from some further consideration, and I urge those on the Front Bench to take another look at them and refine the current arrangements and regulations.
In my maiden speech some months ago, I highlighted the heroic efforts of our doctors, nurses, paramedics and NHS support staff in responding to the pandemic. As each day passes, my admiration for them grows even more—for their professionalism, dedication and resilience during these trying times.
At present, local NHS staff are battling with rising bed occupancy at Dewsbury Hospital and Huddersfield Royal Infirmary and with fluctuating staffing levels. Sickness, the requirement to self-isolate, burnout due to the very demanding nature of their work and poor staffing levels have seen wards badly hit. Having spoken to fellow Members, I also understand that this is a big issue affecting hospitals outside my constituency such as, for example, Pinderfields Hospital, Leeds General Infirmary and St James’s Hospital.
In my local Mid Yorkshire Hospitals NHS Trust, at times up to 20% of junior doctors in medical specialities have not been at work, through no fault of their own. That has the effect of increasing the pressure on those who remain on duty. It is not my intention to be alarmist, but having listened to NHS leaders and those on the frontline, it is clear to me that staffing levels are at risk of being stretched too thin, and the pressure is likely only to increase.
Meanwhile, there many third-year student nurses and fourth-year medical students in universities; they made a large difference in the first wave of the pandemic and could be called on again. A four-week placement of such students in hospitals could alleviate some of the pressures. After speaking to local NHS leaders, I know that they are keen to discuss that idea with the Government. I ask the Minister to consider seriously this temporary measure to help to release the pressure on our local hospitals and to support our amazing teams of doctors and nurses.
It is crucial to ensure that all our children get the education that they need at this time. The second thing that I ask those on the Front Bench to look at again is the guidance relating to school attendance of children with extremely clinically vulnerable parents—an issue that has come to light in my constituency. Although extremely clinically vulnerable children can, rightly, attend school remotely, the current guidance compels extremely clinically vulnerable parents—who may, for example, have a weak immune system—to send their children to school or potentially face a fine.
The parents are in a tough and worrying position, juggling concerns about their own physical and financial health while being required to send their child to school and risk bringing home an infection. The situation could easily be remedied by allowing such pupils to study remotely. In these rare circumstances, schools and colleges are seeking to be as compassionate as possible, but they feel restricted as to how lenient they can be. I hope the Government will consider taking another look at the guidance.
It is not all doom and gloom, though, and there is much to be optimistic about. Rumour has it that there may be several vaccines on the way. The introduction of rapid testing should also help to control the virus until we are in a position to fully roll out a vaccine in the new year, which I hope will mean that we can all get back to some kind of normality.
In summary, I ask that the Minister and the Secretary of State consider my request to release nursing students to help our local hospitals, and that the Department for Education looks at the issue I raised regarding clinically vulnerable parents having to send their children to school during the pandemic.
It is interesting to follow the hon. Member for Dewsbury (Mark Eastwood); we share the same hospital trust and I was struck by the fact that he appears to think the diminution of staffing there somehow just happened by accident, when in fact his Government have been in power for 10 years. Throughout those years, there were cuts in our area: in the trust covering West Yorkshire, which the hon. Gentleman shares with me, there are 2,000 fewer beds in the health and care sector than there were when Labour left office.
It is probably no surprise that the chief executive has told both of us what is happening in that hospital trust: there are now 240 cases of covid in the hospitals we share, whereas there were only 170 at the height of the pandemic. The chief executive also told both of us that the trusts are now closing operating theatres, putting off operations and not allowing relatives of patients to visit. Of course covid is a problem—of course it was unexpected —but the truth is that the cuts went too deep and the NHS was left without adequate resources even in a normal year, never mind in the face of a pandemic.
The point I want to make, however, is this. I represent some of the poorest communities in our country, as many Opposition Members do. As my hon. Friend the Member for Nottingham North (Alex Norris) said, we know that this disease affects different parts of the population in different ways. In the former mining villages that I represent, the number of people infected has increased almost threefold in the last three and a half weeks because covid attacks deprivation—that is what it does.
It is no use avoiding the central issue of the character of society that the Tories have built over the last 10 years —the cuts, the austerity, the hunger, the poverty, the polluted air that we breathe, the poor housing and so on. Here are some facts for the House to consider. The covid mortality rate among the most deprived communities is 128 per 100,000 people infected. In the least deprived communities, it is 58. This disease is attacking poverty—poverty that the Tories created, in a system subjected to the cuts that they imposed.
They cannot say that they were not aware of this. Sir Michael Marmot, a leading physiologist, wrote a report in February this year, before covid had begun to really affect us. In that report, he said to the Government that the more deprived an area, the shorter the life expectancy. What a scandal that that should be the case in Britain in 2020. He went on to say that the social gradient, which is the gradient of mortality related to poverty, “has become steeper” in the last decade—the Tory decade. He also said that there are “marked regional differences”. Of course there are, because poverty is not only stratified in socioeconomic terms; it is also geographically organised. The north, in particular, has huge areas of real deprivation.
The Government were aware—they knew what they were doing. They knew that poverty, ill health and early death were connected. Covid has revealed that in terrifying ways. The cuts, the austerity and the poverty that has been inflicted reduced not only human resilience in physiological terms; it also reduced the resilience of communities to fight this battle.
How can Conservative Members vote to deny children food during the school holidays? Is it not quite apparent that a hungry child is more likely to be susceptible to infection than a child who has been well fed? Is that not clear to everybody on both sides of the House? Yet, during the half-term, that is exactly what happened, except for one thing: communities came together in every village across this land—I saw it the most in the poorest village—and looked after each other because the Government had abandoned those children. What a disgrace! If our society has the ingenuity to find a solution to a vaccine in such a short period and a way of tracking this disease, and if our society can mobilise the resources to distribute PPE and source the ventilators we need, surely we have the capacity to tackle the underlying problems of our society that they, to their shame, have created.
In the light of the welcome news that a potential vaccine is forthcoming, I want to talk about the consequences for BME communities. As my hon. Friend the Member for Nottingham North (Alex Norris) said, covid-19 has hit BME communities hard. A recent study in The Lancet pointed out that black people are twice as likely to be impacted by covid-19 as white people, and someone of an Asian background is one and a half times as likely to be impacted by covid-19 as a white person.
It really worries me that, of the 270,000 people who have signed up to the NHS vaccine registry, only 1,200 are from black, Caribbean or African heritage. That is only 0.5% of the entire registry. For people of an Asian background, it is slightly better, but even then the figure is only 4% of the entire registry. What worries me is that this is a community that has been hit so disproportionately —as I have seen at first hand—and if we do not get more people from this community signing up for the trials, the research findings will not be representative.
I want to pose a few questions to the Minister. I do not expect her to answer me straightaway, but I hope that she will consider my questions because I am really concerned about the BME communities and I hope that the people in government will think about these issues. What have the Government actually done to take concrete steps in trying to persuade people from BME communities to take part in the vaccine trial and to get involved in research that is linked to the virus? Have the Government undertaken an assessment to find out why more people from BME communities have not been coming forward? Have they looked at the root causes of people not trusting the system? Have they tried to rectify these problems and bring people forward?
Are the Government undertaking initiatives that we simply do not know about, but should? I know that local MPs are undertaking activities with BME communities in their own constituencies, but I want to know whether the Minister thinks that the Government, have done enough with the national effort. I welcome the fact that the Minister for Equalities put out a statement saying that more people should come forward, but warm words will not cut it at this point—when it is about life and death. And, with all due respect, a Minister writing in The House magazine is not the medium through which we access hard-to-reach communities. We have to do better than that.
The low sign-up rates for the vaccine are not only a problem when it comes to representative research; they do not bode well for when the vaccine is actually rolled out across communities. In its independent report published in September this year, the Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation does not include ethnicity as one of the prioritisation factors for the roll-out of the vaccination programme. However, it does state:
“Any programme will need to ensure every effort is made to get good coverage in black, Asian and minority ethnic…groups”.
We need a better explanation of why ethnicity is not provisionally included as a priority factor for vaccination, given how vulnerable the BME communities are. I understand that it is complex, and of course we have to be careful not to allow anyone to believe that they are being targeted or forced to trial something that is unsafe—this subject has been a source of misinformation and mistrust so far—but we also need a clear plan from the Government to get good coverage with the vaccination.
The Social Science in Humanitarian Action Platform has said:
“Vaccine trials must engage with communities or risk failure… this means understanding contextual determinants of (mis)information …and identifying both formal authority structures and informal sources of information/influence”.
The Government would do well to heed this advice, and I would like them to consider funding and working with small charities and communities that the BME community trust and engage with. For example, have the Government thought about engaging in town hall meetings—even if they are virtual—with BME scientists, doctors and nurses in order to hold question and answer sessions on the concerns of BME communities, and to provide more information? Have they thought about using places of worship as a way of disseminating information to hard-to-reach communities?
I am not being facetious, but I honestly do not think that politicians are the best people to do this outreach. A survey last year showed that we are the least trusted profession in Britain; we actually ranked lower than estate agents! I am a politician as well, and I am saying to everyone in this Chamber that we need to think about how we can get information to the right people through the right medium. This is not about scoring political points. It is a matter of life and death. I am worried that, if the Government do not take this seriously, we are going to run out of time and we will not do what is right by the BME communities in this country.
The people of Darlington have followed the rules, but this invisible virus has continued to infect them. Sadly, the infection rate remains high, with 337 cases per 100,000 last week. The local hospital trust, which includes Darlington Memorial Hospital, has more covid-positive patients than at the peak earlier in the year, so we welcome the additional 10,000 tests that have been made available to us.
As we entered the national lockdown, negotiations were under way to move the borough of Darlington, along with the other four Tees valley local authorities, into tier 3. It is my sincere hope that the efforts and impact of the lockdown will be such that, as we emerge from the current restrictions, we can remain in tier 2. My right hon. Friend the Paymaster General is aware that I and other colleagues from the Tees valley were opposed to an early move from tier 1 to tier 2, not because we wanted the virus to continue to spread but because we were concerned about the impact on the mental health of our constituents and the economic wellbeing of our communities. Part of that concern was alleviated by my right hon. Friend the Chancellor’s additional support for those businesses able to remain open in tier 2 but adversely impacted. I welcome Darlington Borough Council’s efforts to distribute the grants as quickly as possible.
Darlington hospitality is legendary. We are proud to fly a purple flag, celebrating our town centre night-time economy. While hospitality businesses across Darlington are presently closed, I am confident that the support that has been forthcoming to Darlington will help us bounce back. We have had 9,000 jobs protected through furlough; 2,000 self-employed people supported, over £50 million of bounce back loans, millions in grants, rate exemptions and reductions. There is also the continued delivery of our levelling up agenda, with tangible investments, including £100 million in our expanded mainline train station and over £23 million through the towns fund, setting our plans on track for the development of the rail heritage quarter. Those investments will truly level up and help us bounce back.
I and many colleagues were elected not only to get Brexit done but to breathe new life into towns that stagnated under Labour control for decades. I am proud that, despite the wholly unprecedented challenge that this year has brought, we are continuing to deliver on those manifesto commitments. Recent figures reveal that in September the economy of the north-east bounced back at a faster rate than any other region of the country: a really positive sign.
We have the energy, drive and ambition of our Tees Valley Mayor, Ben Houchen, who has been at the forefront of much support through these times. With a saved airport, investment in hydrogen buses, trains and cars, carbon capture and storage and massive investment in offshore wind, new jobs in emerging technologies are putting the Tees valley at the heart of the green revolution. They make me confident that, certainly in the Tees valley and specifically in Darlington, levelling up is having a tangible and visible impact on the community I serve.
We all want to see the back of this virus. It has destroyed lives, changed everyone’s way of life and wreaked financial havoc on many businesses. I have been a champion for all the Government have done to support businesses, but on behalf of the people of Darlington, caught between the desire for liberty and their commitment to protecting the most vulnerable, I urge Ministers to continue their support for our local businesses and charities, and in particular—I declare my interest—to provide more support for our hospices not only in Darlington but across the country.
Finally, I pay tribute to the team at Darlington Memorial Hospital. They have adapted at pace, doubling their capacity in A&E and in ICU and working around the clock. They are doing all they can in the fight against this disease and delivering their other services too.
Madam Deputy Speaker, I cannot remember the last time I was able to take part in a general debate in the Chamber, so I am delighted to be back here. I want to take you back to 1966. In 1966, Harold Wilson was Prime Minister and England won the World cup. When people talked about the moonshot they were actually talking about people going to the moon. It is 54 years since those events. That time gap matters to today’s debate, because before this year, 1966 was the last time that my constituent, whom I will call Mrs Enfield, was apart from her husband. That is 54 years of a life together: cups of tea; walks in the park; the trials, tribulations and triumphs of a long marriage. Now, along with her family, Mrs Enfield finds herself apart from her husband once again, unable to visit him in hospital after a worsening of his Parkinson’s condition forced him to go there; unable to visit him in the nursing home, to which he was moved after two weeks; and unable to make sense of a system that is doubling the disadvantage experienced by the most vulnerable adults. The video calls that they have been permitted are next to no good, as her husband cannot understand what is happening. The feedback that the family receives is patchy, and they do not know whether their loved one is distressed and confused.
That is not an isolated case. I accept that it is not simple to resolve it, but this is not March. The Government have had eight months to address the most obvious and heartbreaking consequence of the covid-19 restrictions. Our care homes, their staff, the residents and the families who rely on them were let down in the tsunami of the first wave. It is unforgiveable that they have been let down once again, as there has been time to work up safe solutions for those families.
I am sure that, like me, every Member in the House can point to anguished sons and daughters in their constituencies who are victims of well meaning but confused restrictions and regulations. No one blames the care homes or their staff. Confusion reigns, and they are doing the best with the guidance that they have been given. The truth, however, is that those visiting restrictions have created and deepened trauma, with disastrous consequences for elderly and frail people and their families. They are trying to make themselves understood behind a mask; there are shouted conversations, 3 metres away, to mums and dads with dementia; people are trying to mouth and sign conversation through frosted glass in the November rain; and there is confusion and heartbreak as elderly relatives with Alzheimer’s think that they have been abandoned or have done something wrong.
We can make an immediate and safe leap forward by putting decency and common sense back into the heart of care homes by classing designated family members as key workers, offering them tests on the same basis as care-home staff. It can only be right, as Deirdre Barr has recently pointed out on behalf of Dementia UK, that if a hairdresser is permitted to touch her mother’s hair, so should she. The trauma that thousands of families across the country are experiencing could be partially alleviated if the Government acted on that one simple and fair change. Testing for designated visitors would be good for families, care homes and the country as a whole, as we try to reconnect with all our loved ones, no matter where they live.
A lack of fairness, however, has become all too apparent in the way in which the Government have awarded public money for covid contracts to VIP friends and donors. Many of my constituents have expressed anger at those dodgy dealings in recent months. It is neither right nor fair for the Government to bypass usual procurement procedures and gift their friends lucrative contracts, some of which result in the purchase of products that are unsuitable for use—for example, £150 million was spent on masks that could not be used. A transparent procurement process would not only have secured value for money but would have ensured that companies could reach a certain stage of the bidding process only if the product that they offered could do the job as intended. The Government have failed to do that.
My constituents in Enfield North and I want to see a return to fairness—a fair process to be conducted when spending taxpayers’ money to combat the virus and a fair approach to allowing relatives to visit loved ones in care and nursing homes. It has been eight months since the first lockdown. We can and should be better than this.
I start by paying tribute to the amazing work undertaken by healthcare workers, care workers, teachers and support staff in schools, and all the key workers, who have not only kept us supplied during the pandemic, but kept as safe.
We have spent more than three and a half months in heightened restrictions in the north-west, and we are now starting to see a change in the curve. We reached a peak last week of 586.9 cases per 100,000 in the borough of Bury, and we are now down to 473.8 cases per 100,000. We are seeing a fall, but our numbers are still high and still of concern. I hope that trajectory will continue.
“Hands, face, space” has been the motto for many weeks, if not months, but I still think we are not as safe as we could be. Far too many hand sanitisers are out there that do not meet the set criteria. Many face masks are used mainly as a fashion accessory without offering any real safety protection. I would like to ask the Paymaster General, my right hon. Friend the Member for Portsmouth North (Penny Mordaunt) what more work we can be doing to ensure that all products meet a set safety criteria and certain benchmarks to ensure we are as safe as we can be in public.
Following on from the hon. Member for Enfield North (Feryal Clark), care homes have been of huge concern to many Members and members of the public throughout these isles. There was a well-attended Westminster Hall debate last week where a lot of comments were made in particular about the loneliness and isolation of those who suffer from dementia and who have not had any real visits for months. There was a small period where window visits could continue, and to have those taken away in areas with a large number of cases was not only heartbreaking, but cruel. We are getting to a point where we are now talking about rapid testing for visitors moving forward from December.
I hope we can get to a point where not only visits can continue, but families can be reunited and the heartbreak that residents, family members and care workers—they are having to see this each and every day—can be fully addressed. I pay tribute to the great work that the Fed at Heathlands Village in Prestwich is doing in my constituency. It has spent an inordinate amount of money to make sure it is as covid-secure as possible for when visits can restart.
We have some potential good news on the horizon in regard to vaccines. It is great news. However, we need not only a plan for delivery that addresses all locations across the UK and all communities, but a plan B in case these vaccines do not come to fruition. At some point, we may need to start living with covid, and we need to consider that. Although it was great that there was great promotion of the flu vaccine, can my right hon. Friend say how many people truly took that up? Are we as safe as we can be from the troubles of flu?
I will start bringing my speech to a close by focusing on certain sectors that have raised their troubles with me—mainly the events and hospitality sector. Through no fault of their own, they are arguably the ones who are struggling the most. Moving into tier 2 and tier 3, when all of a sudden we prevent any socialising outside of people’s households, had a huge detrimental impact on those sectors. We had conference providers that were no longer able to provide conferences. However, because we did not order them to close, they were no longer able to access Government support. We had events operators that were unable to operate because there were no events, but because they had no bricks and mortar, they also received no support. While I am pleased that some support is now starting to be offered, it is very late in the day and we need to consider that there has to be a sector to go back to.
Places of worship have gone above and beyond. I have been speaking to communities and community leaders—rabbis, priests and imams—across the north-west, and they have gone above and beyond in making sure that their places of worship are not only covid-secure, but offer a place of solace, a place to appease mental health and a place of hope. I urge my right hon. Friend, the Prime Minister and all members of the Cabinet to do what they can to reopen places of worship for communal prayer and to give the hope that the nation needs.
I am delighted to start my contribution to this debate by paying tribute to the key workers on the frontline of this pandemic. Their commitment to public service and their selflessness in the face of the most severe of circumstances set an example to us all.
I am deeply concerned by the dangerous polarisation on public health measures that have been implemented to save lives, and that is what I want to focus on. I am sure that Members across this House have been inundated with correspondence from constituents sharing very legitimate concerns about restrictions that have been imposed in order to protect the NHS, keeping us agile enough to deal with covid, while thousands of elective care patients have had procedures and treatments delayed. This suffering is real. The diversity of the issues raised is phenomenal, spanning mental ill-health, business support, attendance at funerals, redundancies, access to universal credit, and care home closures. We also receive correspondence from constituents reasonably seeking to clarify the rules in respect of their own actions.
On the other side of the coin, we have all received correspondence from angry constituents—on occasion aggressive, even abusive—about the restrictions that this Parliament has collectively implemented, under great duress and with an increasingly heavy heart. Aggression and abuse are never acceptable, but the anger is justified, and it is not taken lightly; neither is it dismissed by anyone in this place, especially coming from those many constituents who have fallen on hard times.
However, I want to shine a spotlight on some of the more sinister and fringe drivers of that anger. A cause for growing apprehension is the misinformation, the fake news and the dismissal of science in the post-truth world that a small number of hardened minds occupy. Assertions are made, social media lies are repeated, and distrust in our institutions, our scientists and our elected representatives is sown in reference to their motives. That translates into real-world consequences. This ugly underbelly has seen a small number of aggressions against those in Liverpool waiting patiently in line to be tested. There have been megaphones outside school gates screaming at parents and pupils about testing, confrontation sometimes of those wearing masks, and the outright dismissal of the growing prospect of a vaccine—a prospect that is giving so much hope to a beleaguered population who yearn to return to some normality.
It is apparent that much responsibility for such behaviour lies with social media platforms: most people receive their information through that medium. People currently have many insecurities, both health and economic, and the misinformation plays into these deeply held fears and is easily shared at the click of a button. My colleagues on the Front Bench are right: the producers of such material should be denied a stage to peddle these lies and myths that have no basis in truth. Ahead of the delivery of a vaccine, we cannot let the naysayers spread further mistrust when so much is at stake for all our people.
It is a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Liverpool, Wavertree (Paula Barker), although I do not agree with her obsession with trying to restrict free speech and information for the general public. Surely it should be for the general public to discuss and determine these things themselves.
The Minister referred to evidence, data and scientific advice as being the watchwords of the Government. Those words ring rather hollow with my constituents, because they regard that as spin rather than substance. Earlier today, I suggested to the Prime Minister at Prime Minister’s questions that the million-plus people who had tested positive for covid-19 and had recovered should be exempt from the regulations because their T cells would give them immunity for at least six months. That is the evidence provided by and published in The BMJ, and yet the Prime Minister seemed to cast doubt on it, despite the fact that that evidence was produced in collaboration with Public Health England and has won plaudits from the Medical Research Council.
One of the advantages of providing such an exemption is that it would deal with the people who are suffering from long covid, to whom the Minister also referred. In Sweden, they apply such an exemption. I know that any references to Sweden are anathema to the Government. Last time I mentioned Sweden, the Minister tried to pour cold water on my statistics. She was wrong, and I questioned her and have not had an answer. Again, I make no apology for referring to the comparable statistics.
In the past week, ending 17 November, there have been 85 deaths from covid-19 in Sweden. In the similar period in the United Kingdom, there have been 2,975 deaths. Taking into account the population difference, there are six times as many deaths per capita in this country as in Sweden, and that takes no account of all the collateral damage that we are causing to our people who cannot get access to healthcare, including 5,000 excess deaths from heart disease alone.
The Minister was saying that we talk about evidence. In answer to parliamentary question 111413, asking about the public health justification for refusing to allow the giving and receiving of the sacrament in places of worship, this is the answer I received:
“Public Health England had not been requested to research and publish detailed specific data on the numbers of COVID-19 cases related to place of worship and allied settings on outbreak investigation. This is now being performed.”
That answer came in 10 days after it should have done, but why was that work not done before? Why are we refusing to allow people to receive the sacrament in places of worship without any evidence in justification? Similarly, I asked about the difference between two people playing golf on a public golf course and two people walking a dog on a public footpath. There was no satisfactory response from the Government.
On another issue, while the Government say that people are at great risk if they go to play golf together, the greatest risk, it seems, is to have the misfortune to go to hospital and then contract covid-19. In answer to a question yesterday, I have been told by the Minister that in October alone there were 3,934 cases of people who went to hospital without covid but got covid while they were there, as a result of hospital transmission of infection. In October, in Poole hospital, which serves many of my constituents, 120 people were in hospital, and some 73 of them contracted covid as a result of infection within the hospital.
The question I ask of the Minister, therefore, is: when we get the vaccination, will someone getting a vaccination automatically be exempt from the lockdown rules? If not, why not? Also, when we get into discussing criteria for moving out of the lockdown, what will we do about false positive tests? If there are 500,000 tests a day and 5% are false positives, we will have 25,000 false positives. That is number enough to justify a continuation of lockdown—based on false tests. Surely that cannot be sensible policy for the Government.
On 22 October, the Prime Minister said:
“We are wrapping our arms around the country to give people the support they need to get through this.”
I am rising today to ask the Prime Minister to make good on that promise.
At a time of an unfolding public health crisis for my constituents in Hull, with around three times the national average of covid-19 cases, Kingston upon Hull currently has the highest covid-19 infection rate in England and, indeed, in the United Kingdom. Our brilliant local NHS are planning for 450 beds for covid-19 patients and a back-up of 800 beds. We are geographically isolated. We do not have lots of hospitals on our patch, like other big cities, and our NHS could be overwhelmed. We are the fourth most deprived area in the country.
Last Thursday, I and my hon. Friends the Members for Kingston upon Hull West and Hessle (Emma Hardy) and for Kingston upon Hull East (Karl Turner) were so concerned about what was happening that we wrote to the Secretary of State for Health and Social Care, asking for action to combat the frightening increases in covid-19 in our constituencies. The leader of the council also wrote to the Prime Minister in similar terms, and both letters asked for a number of interventions from central Government that are fundamental to tackling this unfolding public health emergency. Sadly, to date we have had no response.
Let me take this opportunity, on the Floor of the House of Commons, to make these asks directly of the Government. First, we need logistical support and capacity to deliver Christmas tests for the University of Hull, as well as the welcome 10,000 lateral flow tests. Public health advice is that those tests are important and should be used in a targeted way, rather than mass testing. When Liverpool had an especially high rate of covid-19 infections, with 440 cases per 100,000 people, the Army was utilised for logistical support. As I speak, the covid-19 infection rate in Hull is more than 760 per 100,000. We need that help too, now.
Secondly, we require additional expert support from Public Health England and the Joint Biosecurity Centre, to work alongside Hull’s director of public health on the analysis and responses to the pandemic, and to pin down where the infection is spreading, and why. Thirdly, we seek additional local flexibility for Hull’s schools— 55 of the 97 schools are affected by bubble or year group closures. On Tuesday, attendance was just 65%. As a former schools Minister, I want to keep schools open if at all possible, but to do that we need national support that permits a flexing of the national covid-19 rules—something local headteachers have asked for—so as to keep only vulnerable children and the children of key workers at school in areas where infection rates are spiralling and staff absences are too high. When Nottingham had high covid rates it was granted extra local powers and flexibilities, so please can we have them in Hull? We know that children from disadvantaged communities are falling behind due to covid-19, so we also need extra help with laptops and internet access.
Fourthly, Hull has been hit hard by covid and its economic consequences, and with national lockdown due to end in a fortnight, we need to know and start to plan now for what will happen in Hull, and the wider Humber region, after 2 December. If we move to tier 3 —or even, as has been mooted, to tier 4—in December, Hull will need additional support for businesses, just like Liverpool and Greater Manchester received. With Hull being a low-wage economy, I am concerned that we must consider further flexibility to support working families when asked to isolate, and we would like flexibilities around the £500 payment.
Jobs, livelihoods, and the future of Hull depend on that vital economic support. In the lead-up to the festive period, Hull cannot once again be the forgotten city, as it has often felt, from the Blitz to the Brexit preparations. We want to start to plan for Christmas and the new year, and give hope to our people.
I have listened to the Government’s commitment to levelling up in the north, and I gently remind the Prime Minister that that means the whole north, including areas with Labour MPs. The Prime Minister tells us that we must unite cross-party—absolutely—but amid all the recent Downing Street shenanigans, I was disappointed that northern Conservative MPs were invited to Downing Street for photo calls, while MPs from the worst hit cities who were seeking help were ignored.
In conclusion, Hull’s covid infection rate is expected to be very high for days and weeks to come. This cannot wait. We need answers. In Hull we have often had to make our own luck in areas such as green energy. We are proud, resilient and resourceful, but we need help now.
Over recent months there has been robust and at times heated debate about the response to the covid-19 pandemic, from testing roll-out to PPE stocks, school closures and lockdown restrictions. We have stood in this House and debated fiercely with one another about the right course of action to take, and I have no doubt that in the months to come, that lively and necessary intensity of debate will continue.
We have seen great successes, and it is a testament to the ingenuity of British businesses that they have been able to adapt existing resources to manufacture vast amounts of PPE, and that small and medium-sized enterprises have had, and will have, greater opportunities to access public sector contracts. We have seen mass testing, reaching 500,000 capacity, due to the hard work and dedication of many individuals and organisations.
However, I think it will be universally agreed on both sides of the House and across the country that this pandemic has shone a light on acts of heroism, dedication, fortitude and inspiration by our wonderful frontline NHS staff and care workers. Amazing doctors and nurses, porters, cleaners, receptionists and pharmacists, our GPs, care assistants and the management across our NHS trusts and care homes have all worked, under extraordinary conditions, to protect us and to nurse those who suffer back to health as best they can. These are the real heroes and heroines of this pandemic.
Many of us will have read reports and articles, and received correspondence from those frontline health workers, showing that some are about to be hit with hospital car parking charges, including a 200% rise at one of the UK’s biggest trusts. That cannot be right. Back in March, the Government rightly introduced, for a temporary period, free hospital car parking for NHS staff. That was absolutely the right thing to do. With Christmas fast approaching, I ask the Government to provide our health and care workers with an early present. Let us extend the free hospital car parking again and make sure that our brave NHS workers continue to battle the virus. We should do all we can to support them in a limited period of time.
I am tempted to go further this Christmas and even suggest extending the free car parking beyond hospitals, and ask the Government and MPs to consider and encourage free car parking in local authority car parks, for this limited period of time, for our NHS and social care staff. NHS staff have been there for us throughout this pandemic, under extraordinary pressure. Let us give them a little perk this Christmas. Little perks matter. Let us make life a little easier for them.
Back in March, when our worst fears were confirmed and the first lockdown hit, I thought that some aspects of the UK Government’s response would be taken as read. I worked in public health and emergency planning before entering this place, and I know at first hand what a response should look like in the most basic terms and what it should feel like. I expected usual processes to function and best practice to kick in, and for muscle memory and accepted norms to initially, at least, shape our response. And I expected all that to happen underpinned by Government support.
I accept that the extraordinary nature of those months, as the Minister said in opening this debate, was unusual, However, as the National Audit Office report states, there were 11 ministerial directions. I do not accept that the virus was unexpected: the scenario planning was based on a threat of this type. I do not accept that the NHS was prepared: the Government were consistently warned that running at 95% capacity was not sustainable. And I do not accept that the way in which the response was led is beyond scrutiny.
What we heard from the Dispatch Box earlier was worrying, and I hope that the Paymaster General will clarify the situation when she winds up the debate. Essentially, the Under-Secretary of State for Health and Social Care, the hon. Member for Bury St Edmunds (Jo Churchill), said, “Nothing we have done was corrupt.” However, issuing a ministerial direction is serious. It is about regularity, propriety, value for money and feasibility —and these contracts do not stand that test. One of the contracts for free school meals, for example, was with Edenred, a French company. There was no formal tender process under the emergency regulations, despite existing processes and companies being able to provide those critical school meal vouchers back in early spring. That took so much time and energy from schools in my constituency. It affected vulnerable children and that is totally unacceptable.
We may not be able to scrutinise the Government as we should because we passed the Coronavirus Act 2020, but the Select Committee on Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs, of which I am a member, will continue to do its job. I hope the Government will consider a more open and transparent way of operating in the coming months and that they will look at our report—the Minister gave evidence to the inquiry—in order to learn some of the lessons of what we should have used from the Civil Contingencies 2004. I am afraid time precludes me from talking about that in more detail, but we should return to that in this place.
I said in July that I hoped that we had turned a corner and that there would be more local work and a more local response. I genuinely thought that we might, but we have not, have we? As my hon. Friend the Member for Nottingham North (Alex Norris) has outlined, we will continue to try to make positive suggestions, but it remains the case that people in Bristol South are being disproportionately hammered by covid compared with other parts of the country. For the young and the very old, those on low incomes or in insecure work, those living in houses in multiple occupation, those from black and minority ethnic communities, those from multi-generational households, the cooks, cleaners and retail and hospitality workers, and those who rely on the Government, their inequalities are being exacerbated. This is made worse by the fact that the Government have lost time and wasted valuable knowledge that they could have used locally to manage the system better.
On the Select Committee on Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs, our inquiry has shown that the disconnect between the local and the national has been deeply problematic. In early May, we heard evidence from Sir Ian Diamond of the Office for National Statistics about how we could have utilised much of the data that is available much better, but again the Government have been too slow, and we need them to try to be much better. I think lessons are being learned, but I do not think they are being learned by Ministers and the Cabinet; the political direction and leadership are desperately worrying. We want the Government to do much better, and it is not too late to reset—it really is not. Our lives and our families depend on it, but it is crucial that the Government build back trust and admit where they have got things wrong. People will understand that. We need to empower local capacity and knowledge to lead the work, shape local solutions to the challenge, and deliver on the ground so that we can all have our lives back.
I have made no secret of the fact that throughout this pandemic, I have been repeatedly impressed by the Government’s response to this monumental crisis. This is a good Government doing good things, yet be in no doubt, Madam Deputy Speaker, that what we are experiencing is the greatest challenge this country has faced since 1945. Since March of this year, little over two months after we had all first heard of covid-19, the Government responded at breakneck speed to ensure that we would both cope economically and save as many lives as possible. From the establishment of the furlough scheme and the Nightingale hospitals to the self-employed income support scheme and the rapid testing, this Government’s swift action has enabled us to weather the worst of the storm presented by this virus.
However, there is one issue that I believe urgently needs addressing by the Government as we manage this second lockdown and deal with the economic pain it is causing. That issue is that of sole directors of limited companies. Initially, I understood why it was difficult for the Government to offer such individuals support, as they had done for employees at the start of the pandemic. Having been in business myself, I am also far too aware that many directors of this kind pay themselves through dividends, and consequently have saved money by not making national insurance contributions. This, I initially reasoned, was one of the reasons why the Government could justify not offering the same level of support as they did for the self-employed back in March this year, yet now the situation is very different. We have entered the second lockdown, which has hurt many of the smallest businesses which are operated by self-employed directors.
This cannot only be looked at as unfortunate, because the other fact is that while these individuals have not been offered any support, supermarkets have been provided with up to £1.9 billion in support as a result of their business rate relief. On Monday, the Financial Times reported that £1 in every £6 of rate relief went to the big four supermarkets, which have reported nothing but strong sales throughout this pandemic as pubs, restaurants and cafes have been shut.
Madam Deputy Speaker, we are a nation that is known to keep calm and carry on during times of crisis. We have undoubtedly seen that fighting spirit throughout this terrible pandemic, yet we are also known to be a nation that has a strong sense of fairness. Put simply, it is not fair that while directors of limited companies have received little support from the state, huge companies such as Tesco and Asda are benefiting from rate relief despite having seen good sales. We need this money back. Of course, I understand that redistributing these funds to such individuals may be administratively difficult, so I believe the Government should evaluate how this can be done based on a company’s turnover. It is a blunt instrument, but it is one way of doing it. In my view as both a Member of Parliament and a businessman, directors of limited companies with a turnover of £1 million or less should be provided adequate support by the Government through the use of the money we will take back from the supermarkets. I firmly believe that the vast majority of the public would be happy with this arrangement, seeing it as just and fair.
Undoubtedly, as we look back in years to come, individuals will criticise the mistakes the Government have made in the chaos of this pandemic, yet if the Government follow through with this policy, no one can say they did not act in a fair way. If this cannot be done, we should also remember that we cannot tax these people heavily on their way out of the pandemic when they have received little support from the Government.
I appreciate this opportunity to pay tribute to some of my constituents who have had such a tough time during this pandemic and during the lockdowns and restrictions. The businesses in Richmond Park have had a really difficult time, but I have been so impressed by how they have responded to the challenge, made themselves covid-secure and continued to deliver for my local constituents in whatever sector they are in. I pay tribute to those who have gone above and beyond and made a difference to the community. I am thinking of my favourite pizza restaurant in north Kingston, Peppe, which has been providing pizzas to NHS staff every time someone has bought a pizza from it.
Our cultural organisations, which we value so highly in Richmond Park, have had a really tough time. They were all opening up again and having record demand for tickets during October. Then, of course, we had the current lockdown, and we are hoping against hope that they can still open in December. I am particularly looking forward to going to see “Rapunzel” at the OSO Arts Centre in Barnes in December. It is billing it as “The Original Isolation Story”, so I think that is something we are all looking forward to.
I want to take this opportunity to draw attention to people who have been without financial support during the lockdown. I welcome all the Government’s efforts on furlough, and there is absolutely no doubt that that has been critical to the survival of many businesses not just in my constituency but elsewhere. However, I want to highlight the lack of support for those on contracts and the self-employed, which we raised in the Public Accounts Committee hearing with Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs on Monday. That is a big issue in my constituency. We have lots of people who are employed by the live events sector, which of course has been really badly hit during the lockdown, and it struggled to come back before the second lockdown. I just do not understand why we cannot do more for this particular group of people who have been paying taxes for years. All the records are at HMRC, and there is absolutely no reason why more could not have been done for them.
The children in my constituency have suffered huge disruption throughout the summer. I am so pleased to see them all back in school. I was speaking to year 6 at the Vineyard School in Richmond just this morning, and it was wonderful to see them all there. I very much look forward to being able to visit them in person soon. I would also ask the Government for some clarity on what will happen with exams next summer. That is what headteachers are asking for, and they need a decision now. Are exams going to be cancelled, as they have been in Wales by the Lib Dem Minister for Education there, or will there be a different source of assessment? Something needs to be done, and teachers ideally need to know before Christmas, so that they have time to prepare.
I was speaking to the management team at my local hospital, Kingston Hospital, last week, and that reminded me why we are doing this lockdown. They have had a big increase in hospitalisations, which, at the end of the day, are what we need to be careful of. I want to reiterate what the Minister and my hon. Friend the Member for Westmorland and Lonsdale (Tim Farron) said earlier, and it is the message from my local hospital too: “Please, please, please continue to attend”. I have heard some distressing tales of cancer sufferers whose conditions have worsened through not being able to access health services during the first lockdown, and I really do not want to hear any more.
I pay tribute to all the voluntary organisations in Richmond Park. I was speaking to FiSH, which looks after the elderly residents of Barnes. Its particular issue has been isolation, and I am so pleased about all the work that it and all the other excellent neighbourhood charities in Richmond Park have done, with befriending calls and so on.
Finally, it is such welcome news about the vaccine. We are all very excited about that, but there is an urgent need for clarity about how we get from here to where we have all been vaccinated and can operate safely again. I urge the Government to bring forward announcements on that as soon as they possibly can.
It is a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Richmond Park (Sarah Olney).
I pay tribute to all the amazing key workers who have worked tirelessly this year in the care system, the NHS and local government, which I think is quite often forgotten, as well as the police and our teachers. However, I also pay tribute to the local people of my constituency of the Cities of London and Westminster. Many people think that central London is an unfriendly place, but I can tell them that it is a place that is full of community spirit. I have seen that at first hand in the City, on the Golden Lane estate, in the Barbican and on Mansell Street. I have seen it at the Square Mile food bank, which has done brilliant work. It is manned by volunteers, and I pay tribute to them. I have seen it in Westminster, among the residents of Pimlico, Marylebone, Covent Garden, Belgravia and Paddington, who are really working together to help the more vulnerable in our society. I saw it when Westminster City Council launched its Westminster Connects volunteer scheme, which I took part in myself, helping to prepare food for the rough sleepers we have brought in. Some 90% of rough sleepers were brought in under the Government’s Everyone In scheme, which was outstanding. So I pay tribute to everyone today.
I pay tribute to the Government. Let us not forget how far we have come in 10 months. Yes, there have been difficulties, but we now have amazing laboratories doing the testing, we have the PPE, and we have the NHS working so well. I pay tribute to the Government for doing that, and I look forward to the vaccine coming on board and to us being able, hopefully, to get back to some normality at some point next year. It is also important to pay tribute to the businesses. Central London is usually first out of the traps when it comes to facing up to an economic depression or recession. Sadly, this time, I think we will be one of the last to get back to normal. We used to see 1 million people come into my constituency to work every day, but they have disappeared and the retail and hospitality sectors have paid the price, as have other service industries such as beauty therapists, cobblers and dry cleaners. Those small businesses rely on workers and visitors coming in every day of the week, but they have disappeared. I also pay tribute to the brilliant financial schemes that the Government have brought in. I held a roundtable for representatives of the theatre industry in my constituency last week, and every single one of them paid tribute to the furlough system.
However, there are still things we could do. I would like to see an extension to the business rate holiday. I would also like to see an extension to the VAT cut, maybe to other industries such as the beauty industry and hairdressers, who have been hit particularly during the second lockdown. As we move towards the lifting of restrictions, hopefully in a couple of weeks’ time, we need to plan ahead. Businesses need to know what tier they will go into. We also need to look at the 10 pm curfew, which to me is counterintuitive. I would rather see the ability to stagger the times at which people leave restaurants and bars, because I think that would be safer. I would also like to thank the business organisations that I have been working with, such as UKHospitality, who have made their arguments. I have enjoyed working with those people, because they care about their sectors and about recovering the economy when it is safe to do so.
This is a crisis of a proportion that we could never have imagined, but it seems that cronyism has proliferated in a number of recent appointments by this Government. Of course, Dido Harding’s appointment is an example of that. She is someone who continues to sit on the Benches in the House of Lords as a Conservative peer. She asks and answers questions as a Conservative peer. She has been appointed to run part of a Government Department, not as a Minister and not via the standards in public appointments process—in fact, that was totally disregarded in her appointment under the guise of this crisis—but because she has some contacts and was in the telephone industry, which she apparently was not very good at anyway. She has been appointed, and of course her husband is the tsar in charge of anti-corruption and all that kind of stuff.
Of course, it might well be that the very best people are appointed in a pandemic. It might well be that honest, good decisions have been made, but one of the central points of anti-corruption is the idea of transparency and the idea that public appointments and public contracts are given through due process, even if that due process is extended or expedited, and even if, in the end, the appointments go to the same people. That is not what we have seen and we need urgent action on building trust back into some of those appointments.
We also need to build trust back into many sectors. Teachers need trust put back into many of the decisions around exams, for example. I have just come off a call with the general secretary of the National Education Union and his feeling is that teachers are totally confused about what is actually going to happen. Will there be exams or will there not? Will there not be exams in Wales and Scotland? None of this would have been a problem if we had not had the scrapping of coursework.
The problem would also not be exacerbated if we were able to properly scrutinise Ministers, not just in this place, but in correspondence and parliamentary questions. The reality is that the response time to parliamentary questions is woeful. My caseworkers pull their hair out every single day, and it is not fair. In good times, Government get it wrong and maltreat our constituents. They do it all the time, whatever the Government guise—under whatever party is in government —and one of our roles is to correct those wrongs when they are done. Correction is not always done through the courts. It is very often done by the MP.
If my caseworker has to wait a whole day on the phone for the advice line for immigration, only to be told, “I am terribly sorry; we haven’t followed that case up in three months, even though we promised you three months ago that we would follow it up”—that is routine, Minister—there is a real problem with the system. I have a single mum, for example, who claimed benefits. Someone else fraudulently claimed in her name. She has been chased down by debt collectors about universal credit. She has been treated appallingly. The Department for Work and Pensions agreed with me in the end that it was a fraudulent claim from someone else and that there should be no debt collectors, but it has not informed the debt collectors properly. Normally, we would phone the right people up and get through to the Minister, but that is not possible in this period. That needs to change.
It is a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Brighton, Kemptown (Lloyd Russell-Moyle). I have only three minutes and I have three somewhat disconnected points, so I will try to make them quickly.
I shall start with the situation in my constituency of Newcastle-under-Lyme. We have had a lot of good news on the national level recently in the medium to longer term. We have had good news on the amount of testing available, good news on PPE and the best news of all, obviously, is about the vaccines. Congratulations to the scientists on their breakthroughs and congratulations, too, to the Vaccine Taskforce on all the work that it has done to make sure that we are in the right place when those vaccines become available.
But locally and in the short term, I am afraid the news is not so good. The case rate in Newcastle-under-Lyme has risen to 464 per 100,000 and in neighbouring Stoke-on-Trent, it is up to 562 per 100,000, which I believe is the seventh worst in the country, there or thereabouts. This has put a huge amount of pressure on our local hospital, the Royal Stoke. I would like to praise all the staff there, including the doctors and nurses, under the leadership of Tracy Bullock, who is doing a phenomenal job and has been briefing all the local MPs on what is going on. They have 304 people in hospital with covid at the moment and 32 are in critical care. They expect a further 100 by the end of next week based on modelling. They also have a lot of staff absence related to covid, with people having to self-isolate—62% of the staff absence is related to that. In the time available, I would like to impress upon the people in north Staffordshire the seriousness of the situation we are facing and the importance of continuing to follow the Government guidance.
I turn briefly to what we are asking of people in isolation and the evidence we heard on the Science and Technology Committee’s joint inquiry. I believe that what we are asking of contacts of people without symptoms is not rooted in probability, is not realistic and is not rooted in human behaviour. We heard from Professor Sir John Bell on 10 November that the data on asking people who have no symptoms and are just a contact to isolate for 14 days shows that very few of them are actually infected. He said:
“In order to prevent a single transmission, you have to isolate 70 of those people for one day. It is massively ineffective. The trouble is that people out there know it is massively ineffective. That is why they hate it.”
I think we have to be realistic about how isolation works. What we need to do, using the new lateral flow testing, is to find a way, as Sir John Bell said in his evidence, to enable people who are merely contacts to essentially test their way out of isolation at an earlier stage. I believe that the same could also be applied to travel quarantine.
Finally, as I have only three minutes, I wish to turn to long covid. I bring high praise from my mother-in-law, who has suffered from long covid, to the Secretary of State for what he said at the press conference on Monday. I have seen for myself how debilitating long covid has been for her. It is debilitating for lots of people across the country. It is damaging to everybody, not just the older people who are suffering worse from covid—I should stress that my mother-in-law is not an older person. I very much welcome the 40 long covid clinics that the Secretary of State has set out. We have a lot still to learn about this disease and that will be of great benefit to the people who have suffered.
To conclude, there is some light at the end of the tunnel. Science has shown us the way and I pay tribute to the Department for Health and Social Care for everything that it has been doing.
Amid a deadly second wave and record-breaking numbers of covid-19 infections, it is important to act for change. The virus is continuing to rise. The measures put in place are not working. Time is running out. My constituency of Leicester East knows this only too well as our city has been under enhanced restrictions and/or lockdown longer than any other area in the UK, yet our numbers are continuing to rise.
People in Leicester East and across the country cannot afford to live below the minimum wage. Even before this crisis, more than half of the 40 million people in poverty in the UK were part of the working poor—suffering in-work poverty. Child poverty is off the scale due to a decade of austerity, extortionate rents and declining living standards. The Conservatives have overseen an unacceptable breakdown in our social contract in which a job no longer provides a route out of destitution. Yet now, during an unprecedented crisis, the Government are handing out poverty payslips and driving our residents into hardship. Will the Government today commit to ensure that no one receives less than a living wage throughout the remainder of this crisis? We are only as safe as the most vulnerable in our society, so, yes, local and regional authorities need funding to use their discretion to fully support undocumented workers and those on no recourse to public funds. Will this Government relax the barriers and grant status now to all undocumented workers, so that they can access much-needed social security benefit and not be destitute or desperate?
What makes this lack of support even more disgraceful is the billions that the Government have been willing to pay to private companies to oversee the disastrous test, track and trace system. The recent National Audit Office investigation into Government procurement has highlighted cronyism at the heart of Government. That has had a devastating impact on the spread of the virus in Leicester. In one week this month, the success rate of Leicester’s privatised contact system was just 55.5% and this has decreased by more than 5% on the previous month. That means that, in one week alone, nearly 700 Leicester residents who may have been exposed to the virus were not informed and therefore did not self-isolate. This is a Government who are frivolous when it comes to handing out public money to Tory donors or private companies, but penny-pinching when it comes to bailing out communities and the 3 million excluded, including the self-employed across the country.
As the representative of one of the most diverse areas of the UK, I am also especially concerned about the disproportionate impact of coronavirus on African, Asian and minority ethnic communities. Recently published research by the universities of Leicester and Nottingham found that black people were twice as likely, and Asian people 1.5 times more likely, to be infected with covid-19 compared with white—
The announcement of the preliminary results of the effectiveness of the Pfizer and Moderna covid vaccines is great news, a ray of hope at a time when we are tired, weary and going through a second lockdown. There are still many questions, but the direction of travel is a good one.
I will talk in a moment about the many challenges ahead, but before then I want to point out that this Government are unrivalled in their support of research and innovation. They have led the world in funding and promoting efforts to find treatments and vaccines, and it is this Government who are already laying down plans to deploy a vaccine. After further analysis and the results from the vaccine trials come good, it will still take some time until we are on the other side of this. Depending who you listen to, life can be back to normal by spring, by summer, by winter, by next year. We simply cannot yet know, and while now we have reason to be optimistic, none of this helps those struggling now.
Lockdowns are incredibly damaging and the lockdown itself will have a cost in lives in the future. We need to think where we will be after six months more of this. The Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies does not consider the economic impact of its recommendations, which is a substantial limitation. The economic impact will cost lives through diseases generated through poverty. Our public services are built on the back of a strong economy. Economic damage means less money to invest in medical care and treatment, in community services and in education, again with a cost in lives and quality of life.
Decisions are being made on epidemiological scientific information alone. Although we have been able to see interpreted data—I thank the Government for making experts available—we have been unable to interrogate SAGE and the modellers directly or to see economic impact assessments. The Government’s decision making is rightly based on the science. As any scientist knows, scientists disagree all the time. We need to be able to hold Ministers to account and to interrogate the scientists advising them.
I therefore support calls for a covid commission to take an overall view of all the features of the covid response, but again, that does not help those affected now. We will need to make more difficult decisions over the next few weeks. Lockdowns and restrictions, like all interventions, are a tool—one that has great side effects but, deployed cautiously when necessary, can prevent the NHS from being overwhelmed. Just like in any discussion about a potential treatment with a doctor, before someone consents, they need to know the risks and benefits. That is why we must see clearly the projected harms and benefits before we make any decision.
We are told that there is no alternative, but with potential vaccines around the corner, we will be living with covid and its impact for some time. We cannot simply ask those who are struggling to wait just a bit more, just a bit more, just a bit more, so we need to have now an enduring plan to live with the virus.
It is a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Runnymede and Weybridge (Dr Spencer). I appreciate that time is short, but let me start by offering my heartfelt thanks to NHS staff, care staff, key workers, volunteers and, indeed, our whole community. There has been the most terrific national effort at a time of great crisis that is, indeed, unprecedented in peacetime.
I would like to correct—or to set the record straight—what the hon. Gentleman said about the economy. It is quite clear from international evidence, including from the OECD and other economic sources, that we are not facing an either/or choice between a short lockdown and protecting the economy. A shorter lockdown—a quicker lockdown—protects the economy. Indeed, SAGE recommended that the Government should take action earlier this autumn, and it is such a tragedy that they did not. They are now, once again belatedly, following advice. I urge the Prime Minister to try to react much more quickly to these pressing matters.
I would like to make two key points based on casework from my constituency. I am sure that the Minister will want to consider them, but I urge her and her colleagues to take them on board. The first is about the expansion of testing, and it relates to the importance of testing home care staff—care staff who visit vulnerable people at home. I had a fascinating but worrying discussion with an elderly resident who pointed out to me that she is visited by her home carer, who has to see 14 other people each day yet has no testing.
Surely, the Government should be prioritising that form of testing—it is absolutely common sense—in the same way that they are now belatedly tackling the need to test care home staff on a much more regular basis. I am grateful to the Minister, and I appreciate that she is in a difficult position with the short supply of testing, but I urge her to consider these sorts of cases. It was a very difficult conversation that I had to have with that elderly woman, who is vulnerable, yet her carer is unable to get a test. I hope that the Government can address that soon.
My other point picks up on something that other Members have already spoken about eloquently. There are many groups of people who have been missed by the Government’s attempts to support the economically vulnerable, but following a conversation I had with a constituent, I want to draw the Minister’s attention to one particular group: people with small businesses who have had no support whatsoever. There is quite a large group of them—3 million people. In a country of 65 million, that is a really large proportion.
I wish that the Chancellor, for all his eloquent rhetoric in the House, would look at that practical problem. He has had six months to address it, and it has not been addressed. The case of my constituent is really telling. She set up a new small business in a thriving sector of the economy just before the pandemic started. She had no idea, but she was completely vulnerable to this terrible pandemic. Please will Ministers address the problem of these 3 million people? They are in desperate need.
One of the issues to emerge with covid is the apparent difference in rates and severity for different ethnic groups. To generalise, if someone is from a black, Asian and minority ethnic background, they are at greater risk when it comes to covid. This is accepted. But for some, it has been connected to an argument about discrimination—and this is actually coming from senior figures.
The chair of the British Medical Association appeared before the Health and Social Care Committee yesterday, so I took the chance to ask him about some of the views that he has expressed on this topic. Dr Nagpaul talked about “structural factors”, “differential attainment” and anecdotal evidence on PPE. I asked him several times whether he thought that the NHS was structurally racist. He would not repeat the term, but kept repeating that there were inequalities, and he said: “That’s what I am describing under that heading of racist”.
The NHS is probably the most diverse organisation in the country. It is doing heroic work to battle coronavirus. That effort has come from everyone within it, yet some regard the organisation as somehow racist. For me, this is personal, because both of my parents worked as nurses for our NHS in Peterborough.
Does the hon. Member not agree that the intensive care beds are filled today with covid-19 patients from African, Asian and minority ethnic backgrounds—back at levels seen during the first peak, despite earlier pledges from the Government to learn lessons and protect the vulnerable? What we need is change now.
I thank the hon. Member for Leicester East (Claudia Webbe) for her comments, but if she listens further to my speech, she might fully appreciate the points that I am trying to make.
The conclusion that the NHS is somehow structurally racist can come only from the new logic of our age. The standard form of this new logic is this: if 10% of people are characteristic x, then 10% of workers should be x, 10% of every company should be x, 10% of every role should be x and 10% of all chief execs should be x, and where that is not true, it is offered as evidence of discrimination—differences are inequalities, and the logic assumes that what is unequal must be wrong. We have seen this logic applied to sex, gender, education or geographical background, disabilities and race, and now it is being applied to a virus: if 10% of NHS staff get covid, 10% of NHS staff with characteristic x should get covid, and because that does not hold for BAME staff, it is viewed as evidence of racism. I am staggered by how many intelligent people seem to have bought into this argument.
Characteristics cannot be taken in isolation; we have to control for variables. Moreover, no free society will ever see equal distributions for anything, even if individuals started from the same place. And, Madam Deputy Speaker, we do not—we do not in character; we do not socially; we do not genetically; we do not economically; we do not in terms of upbringing, geographical opportunity or education; we do not in health and diet; we do not in career paths; and we do not in our preferences. These may be inequalities, but they are not evidence of discrimination. That does not change when characteristics are used to define groups. As any scientist should know, correlation is not causation. As scientists also know, getting particular diseases and viruses is not uniform, particularly across ethnic groups. No organisation could escape from this mad progressive logic: if it was not damned for one thing, it would be damned for another, no matter how woke its values—just look at The Guardian.
I want to be very clear: obviously there are incidents of racism within our NHS. There is still racism within our society. The NHS is far more diverse than most organisations, but it employs human beings, and it gets its fair share of bad ones. This needs to be detected and it needs firm action. Likewise, the NHS can be unwieldly and inefficient, so problems are not always dealt with as they should be. But this pandemic has shown our NHS at its best and its staff at their best. We ought to be proud of them. If—
I echo the sentiments of many Members in thanking our NHS workers for the work they have done throughout this crisis and will be expected to do through the winter ahead. I want to focus on an issue that affects them very keenly: the national scrubs crisis, which leaves NHS workers without the equipment they need to do their job in fighting covid on the frontline.
In answer to a written question I asked, the Government assured me in August that
“NHS Supply Chain, the main provider of consumables and equipment into the National Health Service, report that its suppliers have sufficient supplies of scrubs for NHS customers to order.”
That is not the case on the ground, as I am told by so many NHS staff and by those who are sewing scrubs on a voluntary basis across the country. The Government are lying, in denial or blissfully unaware of the reality on the ground. I would like the Minister to take the time following the debate to look into the scrubs crisis, to meet the leader of the Putney scrub hub, who is a very inspiring woman, and to find out what is going on at NHS Supply Chain in order to sort this out.
It is essential that our NHS workers have enough scrubs and the right scrubs in the right size. Scrubs must be lightweight enough to be worn under other PPE, and they must not take three months to order from abroad, as they currently do, if an order can even be got in. There has been a massive increase in the need for scrubs in hospitals, clinics, care homes, prisons and now vaccination clinics. The demand for scrubs will increase at a time when we cannot even provide enough scrubs to our NHS workers. Staff are being told to go home. There is one hospital that has 500 staff and 300 scrubs, so 200 staff are being sent home because they do not have the equipment they need. Newly qualified medical staff are being told to find their own scrubs, and they cannot get hold of them.
The Putney scrub hub in my constituency, which has a highly-skilled leader, is making 15,000 scrub sets, all from a squash court in Roehampton. Those volunteers are still making those scrubs, and they want to go home. That is why I implore the Minister to look into this. The most recent orders they have had are from a psychiatric unit in West Middlesex University Hospital, from King’s College Hospital, Central Middlesex Hospital, the West London Kidney Patients’ Association—I could go on, but this demonstrates that a lot of NHS providers do not have enough scrubs.
There seems to be no central co-ordination of scrubs procurement and no national plan to deal with obvious supply issues. In July, I said that the Government needed to put this at the top of their to-do list to sort out in the summer. It has still not been sorted out, but there is time. Can the Minister address this and enable Putney scrub hub volunteers to put down their scissors and get back to their normal lives?
Thank you, Madam Deputy Speaker; I will be incredibly quick.
This is an incredibly fast-moving situation, and it is too early to tell whether the second national lockdown has had the effect that the Government would have liked. Although it is hard to provide certainty, that is what a growing number of people in my constituency need. Retailers and the hospitality sector have lost November, which is one of their busiest months. They need to know as soon as possible what December will look like. Will they have the opportunity to make up some of the losses they have made so far, or will the restrictions be extended? Non-essential retailers in particular need that certainty, such as Coes on Norwich Road in my constituency, which provides essential school supplies. There is an argument that it should have been allowed to stay open, because there is a lack of a level playing field between that shop and essential retailers that sell non-essential items within them and were able to carry on selling those products. However, we do not want to see the scenes that we saw in Wales.
The school kids I met last Friday at Stoke High School have already lost a lot of learning, and they want certainty about what their education will look like in the year ahead. They want to know whether they will do exams and whether their mocks are a practice or will count towards the grade they end up getting. They deserve certainty as soon as possible as well.
I want to touch briefly on test and trace. I agree with the points made by my hon. Friend the Member for Newcastle-under-Lyme (Aaron Bell). Compliance is very low at the moment among contacts asked to self-isolate for 14 days. Some of that is to do with financial assistance, but some of it is also to do with the toll of going through that period. I have done it myself, and it is incredibly difficult for people who live in a small property with no fresh air.
Ipswich has low levels of covid compared with other parts of country. We need to remain vigilant, and we need certainty in key areas as soon as the Government are able to provide it. The education sector needs to know whether there will be exams and what they will look like, and the retail and hospitality sector needs to know whether it will be able to use December to make those gains. They need to plan soon, and every day matters, because hopefully they will be able to do that.
As I said in the Chamber two weeks ago, it goes against every bone in the body to impose restrictions on livelihoods and curtail people’s freedoms. I want to use my two minutes to talk about the next steps.
The whole Government have done a fantastic job supporting people and businesses throughout this unprecedented crisis, but grants and financial support can be no substitute for our businesses being open. From speaking to many businesses across Keighley and Ilkley, it is clear that a number of them relish the opportunity to stand on their own feet again. Therefore, as the country unlocks, it is vital that decisions are taken on the basis of risk and past evidence of risk, not on pre-conceived ideas.
I will focus on two types of businesses in particular. First, as a result of the enhanced local restrictions put in place in my constituency at the end of July, gyms and fitness and dance studios did not open at the start of September—indeed they were among the last to open in the UK. However, they have proved to be some of the safest places to visit. Therefore, beyond 2 December we must get our gyms and dance studios open across the country, because they are vital to improving people’s mental health as well as their fitness. That brings me to outdoor sports, which, from children playing football to a couple playing a round of golf, are absolutely beneficial to mental health and improving fitness. I urge the Minister to ensure that golf clubs can get back open.
Finally, I turn to non-essential retail and services such as the hair and beauty sector who have also been asked to close. My constituency is home to a wealth of independent shops, which are the backbone of the local economy. We must give those businesses the opportunity to open again, because they have spent so much money on becoming covid-secure. The answer is: yes, let us get those businesses back open to get our economy running.
Thank you for your flexibility in managing the timetable, Madam Deputy Speaker. I have two points that I will try to make in two minutes. The first is for those constituents who are bearing the lockdown with a great deal of patience and fortitude but who have concerns about the policy approach. I urge Ministers to share the data we have as widely as possible. I understand that the quality-adjusted life year measure that is standard for medical treatments in the NHS is not directly relevant to public health, but the more we can explain and demonstrate the value of this lockdown in preserving our economy and people’s wellbeing so that we come out of the period in good shape, the more confidence the lockdown will command. We should treat that as an urgent task, because people bear these measures with patience and fortitude—I think when history looks back on this time we will regard them as proportionate—but none the less we need to ensure that they feel willing to comply with them.
Secondly, I pay a big tribute to all those in the children’s sector who have ensured that nurseries, schools and childcare settings have remained open so that key workers and—vitally—working parents can keep doing their jobs. However, a challenge I am conscious of that affects businesses such as Jungle Monkeyz and Jurassic Perk in my constituency and many others around the country is the fate of soft play centres and other venues for children. They are closed at the moment, and recognise that the market will be there for them when they seek to reopen, but they are concerned about cash flow and any impact on the jobs of the people they employ. Therefore, when Ministers look at the financial support provided to all kinds of businesses, may I ask them to recognise how the wellbeing of working parents and children is supported by those businesses’ activities and that they seek to ensure that an appropriate degree of priority is given to them in the financial measures available in local areas?
As this dreadful pandemic continues week by week, we cannot allow ourselves for a moment to be desensitised by the numbers. In the last seven days alone, 2,909 people have died from covid-19 in the UK. Each one leaves behind grieving family and friends; my thoughts are with them. I pay tribute to everyone working in our NHS and social care, key workers in retail and distribution, postal workers, community organisations and many others working through the long, gruelling slog of coronavirus.
None of us debating coronavirus in this House is arguing to score points. The focus of this important debate, challenge and scrutiny is to save lives. That is important, because in the UK we are in the devastating situation of having both the worst coronavirus death rate in Europe and the deepest economic recession of any country in the G7. Scrutiny and accountability matter, and I am grateful to all hon. Members who have spoken in the debate. The hon. Member for Dewsbury (Mark Eastwood) highlighted the exhaustion and burn-out of NHS staff in his constituency, and the risk to NHS staffing levels. However, his neighbour, my hon. Friend the Member for Hemsworth (Jon Trickett), gave him a clue about the reasons for that, with the impact of NHS cuts on people’s resilience and capability to cope with coronavirus.
My hon. Friend the Member for Hampstead and Kilburn (Tulip Siddiq) raised the devastating impact of coronavirus on black, Asian and minority ethnic communities, and their lack of participation in vaccine trials, calling for urgent action to address that. My hon. Friend the Member for Enfield North (Feryal Clark) highlighted the devastating impact on families with loved ones in care homes who are unable to visit them at present. My hon. Friend the Member for Liverpool, Wavertree (Paula Barker) argued for the urgent need for action to tackle misinformation from fake news on social media. My hon. Friend the Member for Bristol South (Karin Smyth) spoke powerfully, from her own experience, of NHS emergency planning. The hon. Members for Don Valley (Nick Fletcher) and for Cities of London and Westminster (Nickie Aiken) both raised gaps in the Government’s provision of economic support in relation to coronavirus.
My hon. Friend the Member for Brighton, Kemptown (Lloyd Russell-Moyle) spoke about the woeful failure of Ministers to answer questions and inquiries from MPs, which is vital at this time. My hon. Friend the Member for Reading East (Matt Rodda) highlighted the urgent issue of access to testing for home care workers, and my hon. Friend the Member for Putney (Fleur Anderson) spoke passionately about the national scrubs crisis and, again, the urgent need for Government action.
Today is a day on which the step change that we need to see from the Government is clear. The National Audit Office has delivered its report on pandemic procurement, and it makes for uncomfortable reading. At best, the findings expose shambolic incompetence, with documents missing and no clear trail of accountability. At worst, there may be deliberate attempts by the Government to withhold information and cover their tracks while wasting public money and awarding lucrative contracts to friends and donors. The only conclusion that can be drawn is that the Government must seriously clean up their procurement act in response to the coronavirus pandemic.
This debate is about covid, the many difficult challenges that it poses and how we as a country might overcome them. It is clear that the Government’s crony-riddled, incompetent approach to outsourcing vital public services has significantly undermined the response. Nowhere is the impact of that illustrated more clearly or worryingly than in contact tracing. It is as clear as day that the Government’s national contact tracing system is not working. Labour has brought concerns about that to the House many times, as the system has consistently failed to meet the 80% target required for it to be effective, and the performance trend in recent weeks has got worse, not better.
When the Government announced the newest lockdown, the Opposition urged them to take the time to fix the contact tracing system, but that has still not happened. Last week’s figures showed that the system was failing, as 40% of close contacts were not reached—half the proportion needed effectively to break the chain of transmission. Labour, along, I am sure, with everyone in the House, is unequivocally delighted about the promising news on vaccines, but the roll-outs will take some time, and in the short term there is no silver bullet. We still need an effective, localised contact tracing system. We also need urgent action to alleviate the devastating isolation of care home residents. Today, I met several care home providers, who spoke about the huge undertaking that rolling out visitor testing would mean for them, and expressed scepticism about the resources that the Government were offering to enable that roll-out from just 20 care homes at present to all within only a few weeks.
Across the country, people are sacrificing so much to do their part in beating coronavirus. The least they can expect is that the Government are doing everything that they can to fix it. Instead, little has changed over the past few weeks. The Government have not made any attempt to review their outsourced Serco and Sitel-led national system. They have not offered any more support to local communities, and they have not taken the practical steps they could take to improve the system and help it reach more people effectively.
The Government do not need to look far for practical examples of how to deliver a better system. They could look at the Welsh Labour Government’s localised, insourced contact tracing programme, which has reached close to 90% of contacts. It could look to local councils across England, from Preston to Peterborough, which are working hard to pick up the pieces of the contacts missed by the national system, despite not being resourced to anything like the levels needed.
This failure on contact tracing is not just hampering our response to the pandemic; it is having heartbreaking consequences. Families have lost loved ones, as people who did not know that they were at risk of having contracted coronavirus continued to circulate in the community because they had not been contacted and told to self-isolate. The sheer chaos of the system has also had deeply distressing impacts. For example, one family who tragically lost a father from coronavirus were telephoned multiple times by the national track and trace system. Contacts being traced are not just names in a database. They are real people with real lives, and members of a community.
There is also a spatial dimension to contact tracing. It is not only about speaking to individuals in isolation, but about identifying patterns of infection that may lead to workplaces or particular types of accommodation. Public health teams who are embedded in their communities, as well as being experienced in infection control, are well placed to do this work. Labour would trust those at the heart of a community to lead contact tracing, and it is not too late to change this. No one will be happier than Labour Members if the Government curb their instinct to outsource their covid response by default, trust and resource public servants to deliver, and stop handing public money to Tory party friends and donors. We urge them to do so, because what comes next matters.
As increasing good news of a vaccine emerges, we must trust the values of community and public service over profit, and harness the talents of the British people. We should use those values and talents to build a national vaccine system. We want to work constructively with the Government in the national interest, but that requires a clear change of direction: rejection of cronyism and commitment to public service. I hope that the Minister will set out today how she plans to clean up the Government’s covid contracts calamity once and for all.
I thank all hon. Members who have contributed to the debate. It is a chance to remember those whom we have lost, and to share the hopes and fears of our constituents, who collectively have shown such resolve and sacrifice since the start of the pandemic and in the face of ongoing restrictions. It is also our opportunity to thank and pay tribute to the many individuals and organisations who are helping in the response. We have heard tributes to those providing PPE and scrubs, and even to pizza suppliers. The hon. Member for Nottingham North (Alex Norris) said that he hoped the Government were in listening mode. We are. I personally am in listening mode at 10 am every single weekday, when colleagues can find me and raise any issues, particularly cases that they are struggling to get sorted out with Departments.
I want to spend a bit of time talking about procurement, which, as the hon. Member for Putney (Fleur Anderson) pointed out, it is extremely important to get right. We have followed clear processes throughout the whole pandemic. We have also issued new public procurement notes—not just for central Government, but for partner bodies. At the heart of that is value for money, and we always remember that it is not our money that we are spending. Accusations have been made about the quality of the equipment provided. I want to get it on record that 0.5% of PPE supplied turned out not to be up to spec or was faulty. That is an incredible achievement by those 500 civil servants, who have done an amazing job in this pandemic.
There have been accusations of a high priority lane. There is no such thing. As all hon. Members will know, there is a triage service for Members of Parliament. Today I have heard the scheme criticised by certain Members who actually used it, including the hon. Member for Westmorland and Lonsdale (Tim Farron), who used it twice. Several MPs placed those contact points on their websites. No special treatment was given to those companies. The same due diligence was applied—all eight checks. What it did allow was gumption to be used. There were many great offers of help out there, and there were also some not so great offers of help. We wanted to avoid good bets being parked in a system and buried under thousands of not so useful inquiries. Those businesses and MPs were not on the take or the make. All of us were working together to meet huge demand, and to keep health workers, care workers and other key workers safe.
With regard to transparency, everything is in the public domain and is independently reviewed by the National Audit Office. The Under-Secretary of State for Health and Social Care, my hon. Friend the Member for Bury St Edmunds (Jo Churchill), quoted the NAO report, which showed that no evidence was found that Ministers had improperly hidden interests, or had been involved in procurement decisions or contract management. If any part of Government—for example, the intelligence agencies—cannot reveal issues with procurement, there are systems to ensure that that is properly scrutinised in this place.
The National Audit Office said that we were behind in our paperwork, and that is the case, but as one civil servant said to me, “I would rather be behind in my paperwork”—and they will be catching up on that—“than care workers not have gloves.”
The 11 ministerial directions included bounce back loans, local authority grants, the coronavirus business interruption loan scheme, small business grants, and the leisure and retail support funds. Concerns were raised with Ministers about them, but Ministers said, “No. Crack on: people need support.”
The hon. Member for Nottingham North rightly raised the issue of Test and Trace, as many others have done. I shall not go through all the statistics, but the latest published results, for the week of 29 October to 4 November, show that where communication details were given 78.3% of contacts were reached and told to self-isolate. He made very good points both on lab capacity and on support, which I shall raise with the Department, and, of course, on the importance of locally led contact tracing. We now have 80 local authorities involved in that. It is a central system, but they are doing the contact tracing locally.
Many Members, including Opposition Front Benchers, have spoken about the exit from this particular lockdown in England and the importance of getting the right balance. Hon. Members have also spoken about data. The Treasury provides regular data. We have key performance indicators in health.
My hon. Friend the Member for Christchurch (Sir Christopher Chope) mentioned the quality of answers he was getting. I am on this and have sent two of his questions back to Departments in order for them to do a better job.
I agree with the points raised by the hon. Member for Rhondda (Chris Bryant) with regard to risk management and what we can learn. The hon. Member for Kirkcaldy and Cowdenbeath (Neale Hanvey) made several points, but I say to him that, as well as the financial reasons that are often given for the Union of the United Kingdom, it is not just about head; it is also about heart. It is about our mutuality, and I think there is no greater example of that than the NHS—four devolved systems all learning from each other’s unique strengths, but working as one for the benefit of the whole United Kingdom.
Many Members spoke about the fact that covid has stamped on the fault lines of inequality in our country. The hon. Member for Hemsworth (Jon Trickett), who is no longer in his place, mentioned the Marmot curve, and he was right to do so. However, although we have had a lot of cross-party co-operation, it is quite wrong for people to revert to the default setting of claiming that the motives of Government Members are a result of their being either evil or stupid. Those are ridiculous stereotypes, but they still persist in our politics. The idea that people who were on free school meals as children or who grew up in deprivation or in the care system suddenly become a bunch of rotters when they get their Conservative party membership card is ridiculous.
The hon. Member for Hampstead and Kilburn (Tulip Siddiq) rightly raised important points about the BAME community and our Central Office of Information work. I shall write to her at length. The Central Office of Information does an incredible job in outreach and uses surrogate spokesmen, as she suggested.
My hon. Friend the Member for Dewsbury (Mark Eastwood) raised very important points about workforce resilience, and I will take them up. Many Members raised issues about additional support and paid tribute to their constituents. The hon. Member for Enfield North (Feryal Clark) and my hon. Friend the Member for Bury South (Christian Wakeford) raised issues about care home visits. Their points were well made. Pilots are taking place for fast testing and improving all that. My hon. Friend the Member for Hastings and Rye (Sally-Ann Hart) raised excellent points about parking, which I shall take up. I shall also ensure that we publish on the parliamentary website clarity around exams, because there have been statements made about that.
In the 10 seconds that I have left, I would like to thank all hon. Members for their contributions. When I spoke before, I mentioned that although we were in darkness, there were many points of light.
Question put and agreed to.
That this House has considered covid-19.
On a point of order, Madam Deputy Speaker. I was really disappointed that in the Minister’s winding-up speech there was no reference to Hull. I made a very clear ask for a response to the letters from the three Hull MPs and the leader of the council. I think the Minister might want to respond to that point.
I will happily respond. I am sorry that I did not have a lot of time at the Dispatch Box. However, during the course of the debate I arranged for the covid-19 taskforce—who, through the Cabinet Office and my office, will co-ordinate this—to have a meeting with the hon. Lady and any other people, whether colleagues in this place or the local resilience forum. The notes that she has given us today on further logistical support are incredibly important, and we will act on them. I will see her after this debate to confirm all that.