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Covid-19: Acquired Brain Injury

Volume 684: debated on Tuesday 24 November 2020

[Ms Angela Eagle in the Chair]

4.2 pm

I beg to move,

That this House has considered acquired brain injury and covid-19.

It is a great delight to serve under your chairmanship, Ms Eagle, as I have never done so before, as far as I can remember. Some have greatness thrust upon them and I have always waited for this moment.

As hon. Members will know, the issue of how brain injury is treated and dealt with in society has been close to my heart for some considerable time. My hon. Friend the Member for Blaydon (Liz Twist) and I have been running the all-party parliamentary group for acquired brain injury for the past few years. It is frustrating that we have not been able to hold as many meetings this year as we would like to, but I am determined that we are going to move forward on this.

Most hon. Members will have had moments when they have visited a Headway group, a local hospital, a local trauma centre, or perhaps one of the day care centres run by their local authority, and met individuals who have had traumatic brain injuries—perhaps people who have suffered carbon monoxide poisoning, or who have had a stroke, or any one of the many different ways in which the brain can be injured. They will know of the great joy that many families feel that somebody’s life has been saved, and of the great sadness that their quality of life is not what they would want it to be.

I praise the Government for setting up the major trauma centres, because in the last few years, despite lots of controversy locally in many parts of the country, those centres have undoubtedly saved many lives. Probably in the region of 800 to 900 lives are saved every year because of those centres. However, many of those people come out with brain injuries, and the pain for the individual and the family surrounding them can be phenomenal.

I want to say up front to the Minister the things that I want out of this, just to be absolutely clear. I want a national neurorehabilitation strategy, because there is not one at the moment—there are lots of bits and pieces of strategies, but no national neurorehabilitation strategy. I want a national neurorehabilitation lead—a single person who is in charge. I have heard rumours that somebody might have been put in charge, but I am not sure, so I hope the Minister will be able to respond to that.

I want a mandatory system, not a casually achieved system, for commissioning neurorehabilitation, particularly within the community. It is far too patchy up and down the country, and I am not even referring to the differences between England, Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland; even within England, it is far too patchy and insecure. I have a real fear that, after covid, we will not reinstate all the neurorehabilitation services that we had before covid came to these shores. I have a real fear of that, so I want a guarantee from the Government that all those services and more will be reinstated, and that all the posts that have been furloughed, suspended or not appointed throughout this year will be kept and will be restored.

Does my hon. Friend agree that our report, “Time for Change”, which was produced by the APPG with the help of the United Kingdom Acquired Brain Injury Forum, actually demonstrates the importance of neurorehabilitation, both in acute settings and in community-based cases?

My hon. Friend is absolutely right, and I pay tribute to her for the work that she has done on this issue in lots of different debates, particularly on the relationship between neurorehabilitation and education. It is about the individual in the acute setting, perhaps after a traumatic brain injury in a car crash or something like that, and then it is about that person being given enough neurorehabilitation so that they do not need an enormous care package when they go out into the community, but it is also making sure that there is enough ongoing neurorehabilitation in the community so that they do not fall back on requiring even more of a care package—not because I want to deny care packages, but because I want people to live independently and have the freedom that we would all want for every individual.

I will add two other things that I really want. I am sorry that I am sounding like a popular beat combo from a previous generation—my husband will be proud of me. Neurorehab should be one of the 12 specialities protected during covid. I have made a similar argument about cancer, and cancer has quite rightly had lots of coverage in the country. I hope that very soon we will see the cancer recovery plan, which we have been awaiting for some time, but we also need one for neurorehabilitation. I will come to some of the reasons for that.

The final thing that I really want is a coherent, consistent and tidy arrangement of community neurorehabilitation across the whole country, so that whether someone is in Wells, in Winchester or in the middle of Manchester, they and their family or loved ones have the same right to access ongoing community rehabilitation. Otherwise, it just seems terribly unfair. One of the things that so many families have said to me time and again is that they feel as if they are pushed from pillar to post. They hear a story of somebody getting rehabilitation sorted in one part of the country, and then they find that it is simply not available in their part.

I therefore reiterate that I really want a single coherent approach towards brain injury, and not just in neurorehabilitation—although, as I said earlier, we also need a national neurorehabilitation strategy. We also have to bring together all the different elements. I have spoken to the Minister for the Cabinet Office, the right hon. Member for Surrey Heath (Michael Gove), about the need to bring together all the different departmental Ministers into a single committee to look at the interaction between the work of the Department for Work and Pensions, the Ministry of Defence—it deals with many veterans who have had brain injuries during active service—the Departments for Education and for Health and Social Care, the Treasury, the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government, because it looks at the provision in local communities, and, for that matter, the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport. One of the most depressing and upsetting things this year has been hearing the family of Bobby Charlton say that they reckon that the dementia from which he suffers is a result of his experience playing football, and particularly heading the ball. I am not an England supporter, being a Welshman, but how depressing is it that so many of the players in the 1966 team have subsequently been found to have had dementia, depression and anxiety, which were almost certainly related to their playing of football? We put these people on a pedestal, but we are not prepared to protect them. I am still extremely critical of the way the Football Association has behaved around this.

The problem this year, in particular, is that during the first lockdown, a lot of people with brain injuries were discharged early. I understand why it happened, because hospitals had to make beds available for people with covid, but lots of units were closed in the east of England and in the midlands, which are the two areas that have done the most research into this. Between 50% and 100% of the beds that are normally allocated for neurorehabilitation were closed down and simply not available, and people were very swiftly discharged into their community.

The Chartered Society of Physiotherapy has found that 80% of NHS services in this field have not yet resumed—80%. The number of people acquiring brain injuries during this time, in all the different ways that I have mentioned, has not slowed down; if anything, it has sped up. We have always said in our all-party parliamentary group that brain injury is a hidden epidemic. The person standing in front of us in a queue may be slurring their words and we might think that they are doing so because they have been drinking, but it may be because they have a brain injury. Of course, it is not written on their forehead. Lots of the problems associated with brain injury are not visible, so it is all the more important that we dig down into these issues.

The waiting list for community neurorehabilitation is now four to six months. That is a phenomenal length of time for families to be providing care, particularly when covid means that they sometimes cannot even visit the person concerned. There are major comorbidity questions as well. Patients have been discharged into adult social care with no neurorehabilitation at all. We now know that covid itself is causing neurocognitive problems for many people—not just people with long covid, but those with other symptoms as well. I guess that as covid develops and we get more understanding of the disease—and, incidentally, as we are able to treat more people and keep them alive—it is likely that there will be more, not fewer, people who need neurorehabilitation.

Does my hon. Friend agree that we now need to make sure that those rehabilitation services come to the top of the pile, because this is causing a real problem for too many people in their everyday lives?

Absolutely. This is one of the difficulties in this field. We have worked with the United Kingdom Acquired Brain Injury Forum, and Chloe Hayward is wonderful. Headway is also a wonderful organisation, although like many charities in this field, it is having a really difficult time this year. Despite that, the truth is that because there are many different routes to a brain injury, it does not always acquire the same currency as cancer or other medical conditions, and yet it affects at least 1.4 million people in the United Kingdom. That is one of the things we need to tackle.

Specialist early supported discharge and community neurorehabilitation teams were redeployed in large numbers during the first lockdown earlier this year, and many were furloughed. In some cases, they have still not been brought back, and in lots of parts of the country there simply are no services available in this situation. What happens is that the person with the acute condition—the acute set of problems—is not treated but sent out of hospital, because the bed is needed in this second lockdown. That person is sent directly into adult social care, with a phenomenally expensive care package. I am not against the expensive care package—that is what we have to provide—but the point is that neurorehabilitation would be far more cost-effective; there would be far better outcomes for the individual patient; and it would be far more sensible for Government if we could get the system sorted out. In the second lockdown—who knows whether we are having a third lockdown, or a tier situation, or whatever it is?—the truth is that lots of neuro patients are being discharged early. That is just a fact, and I think that it will give us a long problem, not only for the individuals and their families but in lots of local authorities and community services.

What am I talking about here? What is the real issue? I will end in a moment, Ms Eagle. As I have said, brain injury comes in many forms. Young brains are often particularly affected. Kids under the age of five from poorer families are four times more likely to have a significant brain injury—as are teenage kids from poorer backgrounds—than those from wealthier backgrounds. There is a knock-on implication for the Ministry of Justice, and so on. Sometimes it is the executive function that is affected, so people may find it difficult to inhibit some of their immediate instincts. Sometimes it is memory that does not work, or it may be language or elements of personality. For some people, the issue is phenomenal fatigue—not just the kind of thing where someone had a big night out the night before and cannot really be bothered to come into a Westminster Hall debate, but a real fatigue that brings people to the point of absolute despair and an inability to feel like living. For many children in particular, sometimes nine or 12 months after the event, there is neurocognitive stall—basically, the brain seems to go on strike and refuse to work as anybody would want it to.

The thing is that neurorehabilitation works. I do not mean just any old rehabilitation; I mean neurorehabilitation, which uses specialist staff who deal with these issues all the time and know about how the brain and the mind work together and how people can be rehabilitated. That works when it is there from the beginning, when it is available consistently for a sustained period and when the connections between acute and community services are absolutely clear. When it works at its best, it is such a joy, because we see kids who were completely dependent on their parents, and on a whole team of people from social services, suddenly able to smile again and able to discover their own freedom and ability to get on with their lives independently of others. We see older people who are able to regain many of the physical and mental skills that they had before, and to regain some of their personality. That is such a beautiful and rewarding thing to behold, and it is why I hope that the Minister will be able to give me everything that I want.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Ms Eagle. I congratulate the hon. Member for Rhondda (Chris Bryant) and thank him for securing a debate on this important matter. I give him so much credit and pay tribute to his passion and his huge knowledge of this subject—I know that he has debated it at length with other Ministers—which he has brought to this debate and other debates on the matter. I also pay tribute to his commitment to this cause and the tireless work that he does. Of course, I know that he speaks on this subject from direct personal experience. I pay a huge tribute to him for all that he brings to these debates.

It is also good to have the hon. Member for Blaydon (Liz Twist) here. I thank her for the work she is doing with the APPG and the hon. Member for Rhondda to campaign for those with acquired brain injury.

I recognise the vital work of charitable organisations such as Headway, the United Kingdom Acquired Brain Injury Forum and the Disabilities Trust. Their work is invaluable not only in raising awareness but in providing hands-on help and support to patients, families and carers. I am aware that acquired brain injury affects not only an individual’s health but their family, work, relationships and education, in the case of children, so it has a huge impact on people’s lives.

I have met people with brain injuries. Shortly after I was elected, I visited Kent and Canterbury Hospital, which has a neurorehabilitation unit, and I spoke to staff and patients and saw the really impressive work that they were doing. I appreciate the points that the hon. Gentleman makes about the importance of effective neurorehabilitation.

As the hon. Gentleman set out, the pandemic has had a real impact on the care and treatment of people with acquired brain injuries. As he said, staff have been redeployed on to frontline covid work, and that has affected people’s care. For instance, some consultations have been moved online, and services are not what we would want them to be. Face-to-face neurology rehabilitation services are being restarted as quickly as possible. Guidance has gone out from NHS England and NHS Improvement and the Association of British Neurologists, and every effort is being made to catch up on delayed care. I will look into the point that the hon. Gentleman made about his concern that services are not yet up and running. I recognise that the pandemic has been a really difficult time for those affected by ABI across a range of areas, not simply access to healthcare services.

This debate and previous debates owe a debt to the all-party parliamentary group and the hon. Gentleman’s leadership. I want to flag the wide-ranging inquiry into the causes, impact and treatment of ABI, culminating in the report published in October 2018, which set out a host of things that we need to address across Government. As he knows, my Department worked with officials across Whitehall to give a response in February 2019. I welcome the fact that the APPG, along with UKABIF, continues to drive the “Time for Change” agenda, most recently in an online summit held on 16 November.

One of the key issues highlighted in the report, as the hon. Gentleman said, is the importance of better Government co-ordination. I absolutely take his point. He mentioned a conversation with the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster. I speak directly for Health, but I am very aware that brain injury cuts across almost all aspects of an individual’s life, from education to work and welfare, and sadly sometimes the justice system, so we need to work on this across Government. I will work with my officials to drive stronger co-ordination for ABI across Government.

On the services available to patients with ABI, the hon. Gentleman will know that since 2012 we have had 22 regional trauma networks across England, and those major trauma centres can provide the specialist care needed by patients with major trauma, including brain injury. Alongside that, timely and appropriate neurorehabilitation is a critical part of care. As the hon. Gentleman set out, that is absolutely crucial for improving the outcomes for people with brain injury. For patients with the most complex need, NHS England commissions specialised rehabilitation services nationally. Trauma unit teams then work to assess and develop a rehabilitation prescription for brain injured patients. RPs are rightly regarded as very important for rehabilitation, as they reflect an assessment of the needs of the patient in the round. That approach is showing results. As the hon. Gentleman knows, the latest data shows that 94% of patients accessing specialist rehabilitation have evidence of functional improvement.

The hon. Gentleman spoke about local commissioning and the differences across the country. The majority of rehabilitation is commissioned locally. To support that, NHS England has produced guidance setting out what good rehabilitation looks like and what services people should expect. Community services clearly play a crucial role.

I am grateful for the nice comments that the Minister has made, but one of the problems with the guidance is that it does not feel very enforceable, and until the money goes with the guidance, as it were, I think it is unlikely that people will invest in this. It feels sometimes—not to use a cliché—a bit too Cinderella-like. I just wonder whether there is a means of twisting it into enforceability.

I absolutely take the hon. Gentleman’s point, and I have heard the argument made about the service we are discussing and other services that are commissioned locally. There is the holy grail—people want a locally responsive health service to respond to what the community needs, but on the other hand they want consistency. Achieving both of those is hard and, arguably, not entirely possible, because the mere fact of having something locally responsive will involve some variation. However, I will also take away the hon. Gentleman’s point that there are ways to try to achieve a higher overall standard and more consistency without necessarily going all the way and saying that it must be done in exactly that way everywhere. Oversight is one way of doing that, so I shall see whether there is further we can go with regard to the point that he made.

I want to pick up on the list of questions—or the wish list, as we are approaching Christmas—

In that case, demands: I shall see which of them I can answer. One was about a national neurorehabilitation lead. During the period of covid-19 there is indeed a national lead. Suzanne Rastrick has been designated the national clinical director for rehabilitation, co-ordinating clinical advice and leadership in that area. That is for the period of covid. I appreciate that the hon. Gentleman’s demand is that it should go beyond the period of the covid pandemic.

As to whether all neurorehabilitation services will be restored after covid, I have no reason to believe that they will not, but I shall, again, take the matter away, and make sure that we see that happening. The hon. Gentleman asked whether neurorehabilitation is one of the 12 specialties that are protected during covid, and I can broadly answer yes. NHS England has made a specific provision for a subset of services, to ensure that they are protected, and complex rehabilitation services are included in that. I hope that answers the hon. Gentleman, at least on that issue. I shall look at his ask on a national neurorehabilitation strategy and consider whether it is something we can do. It is a clear request.

I was just about to conclude, and I believe that the hon. Gentleman has a couple of minutes at the end.

I am grateful. I fully get that one of the dangers of having a postcode lottery is that trying to overturn it can mean ending up with no freedom locally, and all the rest of it; but I just say again that the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster really needs to get everyone together. There are real benefits that we could deliver to people, as well as financial savings across the piece.

The hon. Gentleman makes a good point, and I shall, as I say, take that matter away, as the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster has done as well. In conclusion, I take the matter absolutely seriously. Clearly, covid has put huge pressure on the Department, Ministers and the whole health service, but the hon. Gentleman raises a really important point about how seriously we must take the care, treatment and rehabilitation of those with acquired brain injuries. I thank him again for all that he is doing to campaign on it, and for the impact that he has in doing so.

Question put and agreed to.

Sitting suspended.