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Health and Social Care

Volume 687: debated on Tuesday 12 January 2021

The Secretary of State was asked—

Covid-19: Vaccine Roll-out

I am proud that the NHS began vaccinating patients against covid-19 on 8 December, at the start of the biggest immunisation programme in British history. I am delighted to tell the House that more than 2.3 million people in the UK have now received the first dose of their covid-19 vaccine. Over the coming weeks and months, the rate of vaccination will increase as more doses become available and the vaccination programme continues to expand.

Thousands of elderly and vulnerable people across Kirklees have already been vaccinated, but some of my constituents are rightly worried that they may have to travel to large vaccination centres in other parts of the country to get their jabs. Will the Secretary of State please confirm that all my constituents will be able to get their jabs locally? When will the new vaccination centre at Huddersfield’s John Smith’s stadium be opening?

Everybody will be able to get a jab locally. We are committed to ensuring that across England a local vaccination centre will be available within 10 miles of where everyone lives. For the vast majority of people—over 95%—this will be a fixed, permanent site. For some of the most rural parts—more rural than my hon. Friend’s constituency—there will be mobile units. If people get called to a mass vaccination centre and they feel it is too far for them to travel, they will be able to get a vaccine locally through one of the local GP services. I am delighted that the centre at the John Smith’s stadium in Huddersfield is going to be opening in the next couple of weeks.

I very much welcome the great work by my Government colleagues to secure the vaccine supplies for all parts of the United Kingdom and the amazing work of NHS staff to ensure that the vaccines are being delivered into people’s arms as quickly as possible. Will the Secretary of State tell the House how many vaccines have been delivered by the UK Government for use in Scotland?

We distribute the vaccine supplies that are available according to population, so it is based on the Barnett formula. In Scotland, of course, the Scottish NHS is delivering. A fair population share of vaccine is available to the Scottish NHS—that is available right now, so the stocks are there—and then it is for the NHS in Scotland to do the vital work of making sure that each and every one of those jabs gets into somebody’s arm and helps to protect lives.

The vaccination programme in York is making encouraging progress, with the first doses of the Oxford vaccine having arrived last week and Askham Bar and Haxby centres delivering injections in line with the priority list, which is fantastic news. However, can the Secretary of State reassure me that every care is being taken to ensure that smaller GP practices in rural areas are in no way disadvantaged in scheduling their patients for vaccination relative to the larger urban practices?

Yes, of course. Small or large, rural or urban, we need GPs to be vaccinating right across the country, and that is what is happening. We are organising it through what are called primary care networks, which are groups of GPs that cover between 30,000 and 50,000 patients. The reason we are doing that is so that each of a group of GP practices can contribute some staff to the vaccination team so that they can carry on with the other vital work that they are doing. The networks are of course larger in more sparsely populated parts of the country such as North Yorkshire, but nevertheless we have put in place the commitment to everybody having a vaccination centre within 10 miles of where they live, to make sure that we reach all parts.

There is welcome news that St James’ Hospital in my constituency is to become a vaccination centre, and constituents are eager to see it up and running. Will the Secretary of State confirm when the hard-working staff and volunteers on the ground will receive the doses and equipment that they need to open the centre?

I am really delighted to highlight that news and I am also glad that, as the hon. Gentleman has just demonstrated, this is a national effort that we can all play our part in. The cross-party support that we and the NHS have received for the vaccination effort is incredibly welcome, and I know that the NHS team on the ground will really appreciate the hon. Gentleman’s support. The kit will be delivered on time—over 98% of vaccines have been delivered on time. Of course, in a very large logistical exercise there is always the occasional hiccup, but I will get back to the hon. Gentleman and make sure that the Minister for covid vaccine deployment, my hon. Friend the Member for Stratford-on-Avon (Nadhim Zahawi), gets back to him with the precise details of when the kit will arrive at his local hospital.

It is fantastic news that 2.3 million people across the whole of the UK have already received the first dose of this vaccine. Businesses and venues across Milton Keynes are queuing up to offer their support for the vaccination programme, including the wonderful ECG Training, where I went for a covid test last week—I passed by the way, Mr Speaker. Can the Secretary of State tell us what the plan is for accepting these kind offers of help and support with the vaccination programme?

I am really delighted that ECG Training is involved in hosting some of the testing centres. We have had amazing offers of support in the form of places that are now being used as testing centres and as some of the 1,000-plus vaccination centres across the country. We have been working since the summer with some sites to ensure that they were ready to be vaccination centres. We are always open to further offers of support, but I would say that we have been working on this for some time. It is also important that, for infection control reasons, testing centres and vaccine sites that are put in the same place are kept separate, not least because we want to make sure that when an octogenarian goes for a vaccine, they are kept safe in the process of getting that vaccine. The thing to do is raise this specific offer of support with the Minister responsible for vaccine deployment, my hon. Friend the Member for Stratford-on-Avon.

I thank my right hon. Friend for his help in getting the vaccine into our Ironstone Centre, Scunthorpe Hospital, and, I am really pleased to say, some of our care homes, too. Can he tell us how the new Oxford vaccine will speed up access to the jab for those still waiting and what that means for towns and villages in my area, such as Hibaldstow, Scawby, Kirton in Lindsey, and Messingham? Will they see more local vaccination centres?

It is so important to get the vaccine to care homes. Over a quarter of care home residents have now received their first dose of the vaccine, and the Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccine is much easier to get to care homes. We will be doing that by taking the vaccine to the care home rather than opening new centres, but I want people in Hibaldstow, Scawby, Kirton in Lindsey, Messingham and throughout the Scunthorpe constituency to know that they will be within 10 miles of a vaccination centre, because we know how important it is that everybody can access this vaccine.

May I also thank the five GP vaccination centres serving my constituency in Brigg, Goole, Owston Ferry, Scunthorpe and Barton? They are doing a cracking job at getting this vaccine out. As we move from phase 1 into phase 2, the Joint Committee for Vaccination and Immunisation has advised that we can start looking at particular occupations. May I ask the Secretary of State to bear in mind shop workers who have had to work throughout this pandemic, including at the beginning, without any protection, and who deal with hundreds of people every day? Can we make sure that they are prioritised, as we move from phase 1 into phase 2?

Yes, I want to thank shop workers in essential shops who have to be there for all of us, even in these difficult times when the virus is widely spread. We will be looking very carefully at those professions that will need to be prioritised in phase 2 of the prioritisation programme. We will look at teachers, police and others, but we will also look at shop workers and will make those decisions based on the data.

I commend my right hon. Friend for what he is doing in terms of the vaccine roll-out. Across West Yorkshire, we have four large-scale vaccination centres planned, but that means that we have one in the Bradford district. May I put in a plea to have a large-scale vaccination centre in Keighley? Can we also consider as vaccination centres smaller-scale offerings that are coming forward from places such as Ilkley Rugby Club?

I will absolutely look at those two suggestions. I also remind my hon. Friend, all of his constituents and all those across the Bradford district that, yes, there are the large-scale vaccination centres, but there is also the primary care-based delivery, which is happening right across the country.

It has been reported that Pinnacle, the IT system being used to organise the vaccinations, is already struggling to cope with heavy usage. My local GP vaccination hub, which I visited on Friday, reported that it was being slow, and there have also been worrying reports about very elderly people having to queue for a long time outdoors while staff try to get the IT system working. Will the Secretary of State please confirm what action the Department is taking to ensure that the systems work more efficiently, and will be able to cope as the number of vaccination sites grows?

Clearly, the IT underpinnings of this project are critical. The Pinnacle system is working well, but we are constantly monitoring it to make sure that it supports the roll-out of the vaccine.

Our sense of encouragement at the roll-out of the vaccine is tempered by our deep alarm at the situation we are in. Over 80,000 people have died. On current trends, we are likely to see more deaths in this wave than we saw in the first. Millions still have to go to work and the virus is now more infectious. Those still going to work of course include NHS staff, and the British Medical Association says that 46,000 of them are off sick with covid. Can the Secretary of State go further and faster, and ensure that frontline NHS staff receive the vaccination in the next two weeks? Will he provide daily updates on the numbers of NHS staff who have been vaccinated?

We do now provide daily statistics on the roll-out of the vaccine, and we will provide more data as the system matures and the roll-out advances. The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right to raise the challenges that the NHS is facing today. Although the roll-out of the vaccine is proceeding well and we are on track to hit the targets that we have set, we must also stress to everybody the importance of following the rules that are in place to control this virus and reduce the pressures on the NHS, which are very considerable at this moment.

We all understand that, until vaccination is rolled out more generally, we will continue to see hospitalisations. The NHS is currently in a crisis: beds are filling up; intensive care unit surge capacity is being maxed out; ambulances are backed up outside hospitals; and there are warnings about oxygen supplies. Hospitals were not built for these demands on oxygen, so can the Secretary of State assure us that there are contingencies in place, and can he guarantee that no hospital will run out of oxygen in the coming weeks?

There are very significant pressures on the NHS. On the specific question about oxygen supplies, the limitation is not the supply of oxygen itself; it is the ability to get the oxygen through the physical oxygen supply systems in hospitals. That essentially becomes a constraint on an individual hospital’s ability to take more covid patients, because the supply of oxygen is obviously central to the treatment of people with covid in hospital. As we have a national health service, if a hospital cannot put more pressure on its oxygen system, we take people to a different hospital. I assure the hon. Gentleman that there is no constraint that we are anywhere near on the national availability of oxygen—oxygenated beds. As he knows and as we have seen reported, sometimes patients have to be moved to a different location—as local as possible, but occasionally across the country—to ensure that they get the treatment that they need.

Yesterday, the Secretary of State revealed that only a quarter of care home residents in England had been vaccinated against covid, despite being the No. 1 priority group. Can he explain why they were not the first cohort to receive the Pfizer vaccine in December, as was the case in Scotland?

That is not quite right. I am glad to report that care home residents have been receiving the Pfizer jab. That is harder—logistically more difficult. Looking at the total roll-out of the programme, I am delighted that, as the hon. Lady says, over a quarter of people who are residents in care homes are now able to get the jab, and that number is rising sharply.

We return to Dr Whitford. [Interruption.] Dr Whitford’s second question has disappeared, so we will move on.

Covid-19: Cancer Diagnosis and Treatment

What assessment he has made of the effect of the second wave of covid-19 on cancer (a) diagnosis and (b) treatment delayed during the covid-19 outbreak. (910580)

First, I am sure the whole House will want to join me in sending our best wishes to my right hon. Friend the Member for Old Bexley and Sidcup (James Brokenshire) and his family for his treatment. We look forward to seeing him back in this place in due course.

The NHS has been clear since the beginning of the pandemic that the continuation of urgent cancer treatment must be a priority. Latest data showed urgent cancer referrals continuing to increase, with nearly 88% of all patients seeing a specialist within two weeks of referral and nearly 96% of patients receiving treatment within 31 days of a decision to treat. However, I must caveat that by saying that the context for this data was before the recent rise in coronavirus cases. The NHS is open. It is hugely important that any person worried about any symptom comes forward and knows that care is there.

I would like to associate myself with the comments regarding the right hon. Member for Old Bexley and Sidcup (James Brokenshire) and I wish him a speedy recovery.

I also want to thank the hard-working colleagues in the NHS who are doing everything they can to ensure that cancer care and treatment can continue. However, unfortunately, due to the unprecedented demand on ICU capacity caused by the pandemic, an increasing number of urgent priority 2 cancer surgeries have been cancelled. Can the Minister assure me that everything is being done to work with the Treasury to increase capacity available to the NHS by continuing to commission the independent sector to ensure that urgent care and treatment can continue so that cancer does not become the forgotten “c” in this crisis?

I can unreservedly say yes to that. The NHS is under huge pressure and there have been some instances where, for totally understandable and unavoidable reasons such as staff ICU capacity or the safety of patients themselves, treatment has been rescheduled. Any such decisions are always made as a last resort. However, we have changed the way we operate, making sure that we have covid-secure cancer hubs, consolidated surgery and centralised triage to prioritise those patients whose need is most urgent. We have utilised the independent sector, and will continue to do so, to increase capacity. These measures, and, as the hon. Member said, the tremendous efforts of our NHS cancer workforce and their teams, are helping to ensure that those who need treatment can continue without delay.

Throughout the pandemic we have been calling for a cancer recovery plan, so we were glad to see one published in December, but disappointed that it ran only for a couple of months. Events have clearly overtaken us since that publication, and the unprecedented demand on our NHS risks further delays to treatment and to people entering the system for treatment. These plans must now go much, much further. Will the Minister make a commitment today to work with the sector and interested parliamentarians to develop the recovery plan into one that properly addresses the backlog and builds improved treatment pathways for the future?

The cancer services recovery plan was worked on by clinicians and stakeholders, including the charities, to make sure that we had a robust plan for addressing the challenges that have come about throughout the pandemic. The levels remain high for referral and treatment, despite other pressures on the NHS. I assure the hon. Gentleman that I regularly meet Cally Palmer and Professor Peter Johnson, who lead for the NHS in this area. We have made it absolutely clear, since the beginning of the pandemic, that the continuation of urgent cancer treatment is a priority, as is its restoration. We are doing what we can to ensure that swift treatment is there for everybody. I regularly meet all-party parliamentary groups—indeed, I am meeting one on Thursday of this week—so I can assure the hon. Gentleman on that front.

We are going back to Scotland for the second question from Dr Whitford, to be answered by the Secretary of State.

As the Secretary of State highlighted earlier, primary care networks will play a major role in rolling out the vaccine in England, but we have heard previously from MPs that not all areas are covered by such networks. How does he plan to avoid a postcode lottery and ensure equitable access, with outreach into vulnerable ethnic or deprived communities?

Some 99% of GP surgeries are members of primary care networks. The very small minority that are not are being dealt with to ensure that we have fair access to vaccines, and they will of course be covered by invitations to the large vaccination sites as well.

I agree strongly with the hon. Lady that it is vital that we reach into and support those communities who may be more distant and harder to reach both geographically and, in some cases, culturally. The NHS is very well placed to do that and is one of the most trusted public services in encouraging those from all backgrounds to take the jab. Pharmacists, too, will play a vital role in the outreach programme.

Covid-19: Community Testing

Community asymptomatic testing is an important tool in the fight against covid-19. We have delivered more than 5 million lateral flow tests to the 117 local authorities that have already gone live with testing their communities, and we are rapidly expanding the programme to all remaining local authorities in England, as well as working with devolved Administrations on their plans.

Ninety-four-year-old Tom Drury-Smith from Todwick was the first to receive the vaccine in Rother Valley at the Anston medical centre, thanks to the amazing work of the Rotherham CCG and the primary care network. Does my hon. Friend agree that the key to both community testing and vaccine uptake is to ensure that people do not have to travel far to access centres, especially those who are older and do not have access to cars? Can she assure me and others that vaccine centres and community testing centres will be sited as appropriately as possible, including in Rother valley areas such as Swallownest and Maltby?

It is great to hear about the work of the Rotherham CCG and my hon. Friend’s primary care network, which are clearly on the front foot in this vital work of vaccinating people who are at high risk in his community. As he may have heard from the Secretary of State earlier, we are making sure that everybody is able to access community testing as they need it and has a vaccination centre within reach.

Will the Minister join me in welcoming the opening of community testing centres around Swadlincote in recent weeks, paving the way for greater testing capability and coverage right across Derbyshire? Will she also confirm that the rapid lateral flow tests being used are accurate and reliable and are an important tool in tackling asymptomatic transmission of the covid virus?

I join my hon. Friend in welcoming the opening of community testing centres in Swadlincote. Asymptomatic testing enables us to pick up cases in high prevalence areas that otherwise would go undetected, which means that we can break chains of transmission. There has been extensive clinical evaluation from Public Health England and Oxford University, which shows that lateral flow tests are appropriate for that use. They identify over two thirds of all people who have covid-19 but often do not have symptoms and, importantly, they catch the vast majority with a high viral load.

What can be done to provide schoolteachers in Lincoln and across the country with readily available rapid lateral flow antigen tests, to enable them to carry on teaching, schools to stay open and maybe exams to be taken?

I can assure my hon. Friend that most secondary schools and colleges have already set up testing sites and have begun weekly testing, using lateral flow devices for staff currently in school. Staff could also participate in daily contact testing on site, and primary schools will shortly be receiving test kits for weekly staff testing and also for daily contact testing.

We can have all the testing in the world, but it will not be effective if people do not self-isolate after a positive result. We have repeatedly said that compliance with self-isolation rules is not good enough; with only one in eight people qualifying for the self-isolation payment, that is not surprising. Can the Minister ensure that everyone is properly supported to self-isolate from now on and explain why those who test positive after a lateral flow test cannot apply for a payment and do not even enter the national test and trace system?

We absolutely recognise not only the importance of self-isolation, which is critical in breaking the chains of transmission, but that it is not always easy for people to do. We recognise, for instance, the cost of self-isolation, and that is why we introduced a payment of £500 for those who are on low incomes and unable to work from home while isolating. We will continue to make sure that people have the support they need to self-isolate.

Covid-19: Innova Lateral Flow Tests

What the evidential basis is for the use of Innova lateral flow tests for covid-19 in the asymptomatic population. (910583)

The Innova lateral flow tests for covid-19 identify a substantial proportion of those who are shedding viral load due to their covid-19. We of course identify, analyse and publish the evidential basis for the use of these tests, as with the other tests that are used in the national testing programme.

I would like to thank the Secretary of State for that answer, and I thank him also for his helpful response to my questions in the Select Committee last week. In that spirit, he will know that I have been pursuing the use of lateral flow tests since early November, when concerns were first raised. Unfortunately, some of those concerns continue to persist—not least when they were underscored by a communication from his Department as recently as 11 December, which stated:

“We are not currently planning mass asymptomatic testing; swab testing people with no symptoms is not an accurate way of screening the general population, as there is a…risk of giving false reassurance. Widespread asymptomatic testing could undermine the value of testing, as there is a risk of giving misleading results.”

Given those ongoing concerns, I would be most grateful if the Secretary of State committed to a meeting to consider those concerns in a bit more detail—

Lateral flow tests are incredibly important to be able to find people who otherwise we would not be able to find. One in three people has this disease without knowing it, and finding those positive cases helps us to break the chains of transmission.

Covid-19 Contact Tracing: Effectiveness

What recent assessment he has made of the effectiveness of covid-19 contact tracing at (a) national and (b) local authority level. (910584)

I am pleased to report that the strong recent performance of the contact tracing service has been maintained, even with the significant growth in cases. The latest weekly data show that the service made contact with almost 700,000 people: 85% of positive cases were reached and provided details of their close contacts, and 92% of those close contacts—that is almost half a million people—were then reached and told to self-isolate.

I was asking the director of public health in Sheffield the other day about the figures for contact tracing. He says that in the NHS Test and Trace system—not the Public Health England one, but the NHS one—the current figures are 59%, and the 40% not contacted are passed on down to the local level, the city council’s contact tracing service, which is then contacting 75% of the people the national system could not contact. Why, then, do the Government not give more resources and more responsibility to the local council and the director of public health? In that way, we could contact more people at far less cost than the national system.

The hon. Member has described, in fact, what is a really important partnership working between the national NHS Test and Trace system and local partners such as local authorities, as indeed is happening in his own area of Sheffield, where it is that combined working that enables us to contact the maximum number of people and therefore to get more people to self-isolate and break these chains of transmission.

Terminally Ill People: End of Life Options

What plans he has to improve the evidence base for future debates on the options available for terminally ill people at the end of their life. (910587)

Care at the end of life is a crucial part of our health and care system, and we are committed to improving the quality of care for those at the end of life. Current practice is informed by a range of evidence, including guidelines issued by the National Institute for Health and Care Excellence. The Government are open to gathering data on the experiences of terminally ill people in order to inform the debate.

May I also express my gratitude to the NHS in all its many forms in the Royal Town of Sutton Coldfield for their hard work over Christmas and new year, including giving me a new knee?

I thank the Secretary of State for managing to take an interest in this important subject when he is so stretched on so many other fronts. Nearly 10% of suicides are by people who are terminally ill, and the all-party group that I have the privilege of co-chairing will hear from a mother this afternoon whose terminally ill son took his own life by throwing himself under an HGV on the north circular.

To add to knowledge, information and understanding, will the Secretary of State and his Department make a point of working with coroners and the Office for National Statistics from across the country, so that we can understand the true extent of these tragedies?

I am very happy to look at the suggestion that my right hon. Friend makes on this very sensitive subject. We want to see the highest possible standards of patient safety and, of course, to reduce the number of suicides, and it is important in pursuing that to have as much information and evidence as possible.

Feilding Palmer Hospital

If he will take steps to ensure that Feilding Palmer Community Hospital in Lutterworth is reopened as a covid-19 vaccination centre. (910589)

Across the United Kingdom we have more than 2,700 vaccination sites up and running, with seven vaccination centres opening this week and more to come next week and the week after. Regarding the question about Feilding Palmer hospital that my hon. Friend has raised, I can confirm that this site is now being actively considered as a vaccination hub.

I thank the Minister and his team for the help that they gave me and my team in cajoling, pushing and encouraging the clinical commissioning group to reopen the Feilding Palmer hospital in Lutterworth as a vaccination centre; that is excellent news for the people of Lutterworth and the surrounding villages.

Will the Minister also confirm that the remaining parts of south Leicestershire, from Broughton Astley to Braunstone, from Thorpe Astley to Arnesby, will also be able to access vaccination centres locally?

I am grateful to my hon. Friend not just for his characteristic support and encouragement, but for his championing of his constituents. I can confirm, as the Secretary of State has said, that all his constituents will be no more than 10 miles away from a vaccination centre, and I am pleased that the Sturdee Road health and wellbeing centre, which is a little over 10 miles away from Lutterworth, is administering vaccines now.

Covid-19: Scientific Evidence Base for Government Response

What recent assessment he has made of the adequacy of the scientific evidence base underpinning the Government’s response to the covid-19 outbreak. (910593)

The Government’s response to the pandemic has been informed by a considerable range of expert scientific and medical advice, and we have seen an increasing understanding of coronavirus globally. The UK has produced new scientific evidence throughout the pandemic. When we take decisions, they are based on and guided by the best possible science, but of course policy decisions are for Ministers.

Regarding the stats and science on the island, our vaccine hub at the Riverside centre is expected to be ready on 15 July. We may not receive sign-off and vaccines for that centre until 25 July or later. Given rising infections on the island, our demographic profile and our isolation, I am concerned we are not high enough on the vaccine supply list, despite the great work being done by the Isle of Wight-Hampshire team. I have written to the Secretary of State and the vaccine Minister, my hon. Friend the Member for Stratford-on-Avon (Nadhim Zahawi), about this. What can be done to improve the situation, and what reassurance can the Secretary of State give me about the focus on the Isle of Wight?

We will absolutely have vaccines being delivered on the Isle of Wight before 15 July—indeed, we will have them there before 15 February. We are committed to offering a vaccine to all those in the four highest priority cohorts, which includes all over-70s, and there are a lot of over-70s on the Isle of Wight. Furthermore, we will make sure that there are vaccination centres within 10 miles of where everyone lives. Vaccinations are happening on the Isle of Wight right now. My hon. Friend is a great champion of the Island, and we will make sure that that delivery continues apace.

Covid-19: Vaccine Roll-out and Relaxation of Restrictions

What progress his Department has made on establishing the extent of roll-out of the covid-19 vaccine required to enable relaxation of covid-19 restrictions; and if he will make a statement. [R] (910596)

The vaccines are without a doubt the biggest breakthrough since the pandemic began—a huge step forward in our fight against coronavirus—and, testament to the Secretary of State’s laser-like focus on vaccines, we are here today with 2.4 million doses administered and rising. However, the full impact of covid-19 vaccinations on infection rates will not be clear until a larger number of people have been vaccinated.

I am very pleased to welcome the announcement of a vaccination site at Adams Park in Wycombe, with further sites to be announced shortly. My hon. Friend has told us that when the top four JCVI groups have been vaccinated, that will account for 88% of potential fatalities, so can he not very soon give people a sure and not-too-distant hope that their freedoms will be returned as the vaccination programme rolls forward?

I am grateful for my hon. Friend’s continued support, not least in making sure that he examines the data very carefully, which I know he is passionate about. He is absolutely right that 88% of mortality effectively comes from the top four most vulnerable cohorts in the JCVI’s list of nine, and 99% comes from those top nine most vulnerable cohorts.

On that point in time—that point of inflection between community spread and vaccination—I will quote the deputy chief medical officer, Jonathan Van-Tam, who said, “Ask me in a few weeks’ or a few months’ time if it does obviously impact on spread.” The scientists are hopeful, as are we, and as is the Prime Minister—not least because he wants to see the back of these non-pharmaceutical interventions in the economy.

Covid-19: NHS Bed Capacity

What recent assessment he has made of the effect of the covid-19 outbreak on bed capacity throughout the NHS. (910597)

What recent assessment he has made of the effect of the covid-19 outbreak on bed capacity throughout the NHS. (910627)

Covid, and particularly the new strain of covid, has had a significant impact on NHS bed capacity. As of 10 January, 30,758 beds across the NHS were occupied by covid patients. In just the past day, that has risen to around 32,000, which is over a third of all available beds. The latest bed occupancy data shows that just shy of 80,000 of the NHS’s roughly 90,000 total general and acute beds were occupied.

It is great that the NHS, as I have heard locally, is working hard to stop intensive care beds from running out after a decade of no expansion, now that a major incident has been declared in London. However, can the Minister guarantee that this will not just be a bureaucratic exercise? Will we take a population-based approach, listen to clinicians in apportioning capacity and allow hospitals in high-need mixed ethnicity areas, such as Ealing Hospital, which is currently on a black alert, their fair share, rather than the powerful players—the central London teaching hospitals—always getting all the extra allocation?

I can reassure the hon. Lady that beds and increased capacity, where we put them in place, are allocated on the basis of where they are needed. She is right to highlight the pressure that her local hospital trust, London North West University Healthcare NHS Trust, is under. The team there, as across the NHS, are doing an amazing job, but the critical care bed occupancy rate in her trust was 98.7% on the latest figures I have. That is extremely significant pressure, but I can give her the reassurance that we look to ensure that all areas receive the resources they need.

London has declared a state of emergency and the stark reality is that at this rate we will run out of beds for patients in the next couple of weeks. At least two NHS hospitals in the capital have already postponed urgent cancer surgery and figures show that treatment levels are failing to keep pace with demand. Will the Minister therefore commit to fully opening the London Nightingale hospital, secure the use of London’s private hospitals for cancer treatment, and invest in the number of beds in our NHS for the long term?

The hon. Lady is absolutely right to highlight the pressure that the NHS and critical care are under in London and, indeed, more broadly. I pay tribute again to all those who are working in the NHS, including my shadow, who I suspect has been on the frontline in recent days—I pay tribute to her, too. The best way we can thank them is by following the advice to stay at home and to follow the rules. In respect of her specific point, yes, we are involving independent sector capacity, Nightingale capacity and increasing NHS capacity—all those, alongside other measures—to ensure our NHS continues to be able to treat those who need this care at this time.

Last night, I finished a shift in a busy east London hospital, sharing difficult news with hopeful families. The resilience of staff on the frontline can never be matched, but across the country morale is on a cliff edge. A decade of cuts to beds, services and staff, combined with pay freezes, has left NHS workers undermined and undervalued. Without our incredible staff, a hospital bed is just that —a bed. So does the Health Minister regret how the Government have made frontline workers feel and can he promise to change that?

I reiterate, as I did earlier, my thanks to the hon. Lady and all her colleagues in the NHS for everything they are doing. I reassure her, as I do and as my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State does at every opportunity, just how valued and supported our NHS is. We have put in place just over 1,000 additional critical care bed capacity at this time—the right thing to do. In addition, in respect of supporting staff, we are investing about £15 million—just one example—for mental health hubs and mental health support for staff. I saw, from the hospital that she works in, or has worked in, in her constituency, a number of staff—it was on the BBC recently—setting out just how flat out they are. The best way we can thank them, alongside what we are doing—I make no apologies for reiterating it, Mr Speaker—is by all following the rules to stay at home to help to ease the pressure on those phenomenally hard-working and valued staff in our NHS hospitals.

Topical Questions

Yesterday, we launched our UK vaccines delivery plan, which sets out how we will vaccinate hundreds of thousands of people every day, starting with the most vulnerable and staff in the NHS and social care. I am delighted that across the UK 2.3 million people have already been vaccinated. We are on track to deliver our commitment to offer a first dose to everyone in the most vulnerable groups by 15 February. At the same time, I add my voice to all those who are passing on their very best wishes to my right hon. Friend the Member for Old Bexley and Sidcup (James Brokenshire), who is undergoing further treatment on the NHS. I personally thank all those in the NHS who are looking after him and all the other patients in their care.

The NHS is overwhelmed, and critical clinical choices are having to be made due to the limitations of estate and staffing. So I ask the Secretary of State if he will do two things: first, bring all independent hospitals under the NHS to provide a response to the national crisis and, in particular, provide cancer care capacity; and secondly, call all former health professionals to return to practice and re-register even if they are beyond the three years out of practice limit, so they can work with an element of supervision and no one is denied the clinical need they have.

Of course, all these things are being looked at. The pressures on the NHS are very significant. I also want to say to people who have a healthcare condition that is not covid-related that they should come forward to the NHS. The promise of the NHS, of always treating people according to their clinical need and not ability to pay, is crucial. It is just as crucial in these pressured times as it is at any other time. If you find a lump or a bump, if you have a problem with your heart, or if there is a condition for which you need to come forward for urgent treatment, then the NHS is open and you must help us to help you. So, yes, we absolutely will do everything we possibly can to address the pressures, including looking at the measures the hon. Lady set out, but also let the message go out that, if you need the NHS for other conditions, please do come forward.

I congratulate my right hon. Friend on the speed of the vaccine roll-out and, in particular, his foresight in setting up the Vaccine Taskforce as far back as last April, which has made that possible. Personal thanks from my mum, who is getting her vaccine tomorrow at Epsom racecourse. Understandably, however, the public’s expectations about how quickly they will get their vaccine are now running well ahead of the system’s ability to deliver, causing floods of calls to GPs’ surgeries, which are already very busy. What can we do to set expectations among the public that getting to population-level immunity will be a marathon, not a sprint?

That is right. The Chair of the Health and Social Care Committee is wise to say that this will be a marathon, not a sprint. As of the early hours of this morning, we have vaccinated 39.9% of over-80-year-olds in England. We will reach all over-80-year-olds and ensure that they have the offer a vaccine in the coming weeks, and we will reach all of the top four priority groups by 15 February. We are on track and I am confident that we will deliver that. The other message that my right hon. Friend will perhaps help all of us to pass on to all his constituents, including his mum, is that the NHS will get in contact with them and offer them an appointment. That is the best and fairest way in which we can get the roll-out happening.

The Secretary of State will know that we cannot protect the NHS unless we also protect social care, yet there are worrying signs that the Government risk losing control of the virus there too. Infection rates in care homes have tripled in a month; homes are reporting staff absence of up to 40%; and the latest weekly care home deaths are the highest since May. So can the Secretary of State set out what immediate extra support he can provide so that the sector can cope, and will he commit to publishing daily vaccination rates for care home residents and staff, so that we know whether the Government are on track to completing all those vaccinations in less than three weeks’ time?

We have made that commitment and it is incredibly important that vaccinations are offered to everybody in care homes. The NHS is working hard to deliver on that with its colleagues in social care. Across the board, colleagues are working hard to deliver this life-saving vaccine. Of course, we are always open to further support for social care and it is something that we are working on right now to ensure that we can get the right support for testing, in particular to support the workforce, who are absolutely central to making this happen.

In Stoke-on-Trent North, Kidsgrove and Talke, we are excited to be the planned home of a mass vaccination centre. Stoke-on-Trent City Council is working around the clock, as it has done throughout the pandemic, to ensure that everything is ready from its end. Can my right hon. Friend give his assurances that the necessary equipment and staff will be ready to go on 25 January so that we can get more jabs into arms? (910550)

I am delighted that there is going to be a mass vaccination centre. I can give that assurance—we are working as hard as we possibly can to ensure that all the equipment is there. Everybody thinks about the vaccine—that is very important—but it is also about all the other things that are needed, such as the specialist syringes. The vaccine is so valuable that inside the syringe is a plunger that goes into the needle to squeeze the extra bit of liquid that would otherwise be left in the needle into someone’s arm to make sure that every last drop of vaccine is used. A whole series of other equipment is needed alongside the actual liquid of the vaccine. I will ensure that my hon. Friend the vaccine deployment Minister makes sure that the Stoke-on-Trent mass vaccination centre is up and running and ready for 25 January.

The covid-19 pandemic has further exposed and widened the tremendous health inequalities in Stockton, where healthy life expectancy is among the lowest in the country. It also has by far the highest number of covid cases on Teesside—now well in excess of 10,000. Secretary of State, when can we have a new hospital for Stockton to help to tackle those inequalities? (910552)

The importance of tackling health inequalities and levelling up parts of the country that have so much opportunity, such as Stockton, but need further support to unleash that opportunity is an incredibly important part of this agenda. On the hon. Gentleman’s precise question, we have discussed that issue before. As he knows, we have the largest hospital building programme in the modern history of this country. I look forward to continuing to discuss with him the extra infrastructure needed in Stockton.

First, I congratulate my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State and the whole ministerial team on the excellent start to the vaccination programme. However, my question is on schools. I know that the Government worked hard to keep schools open for as long as they possibly could, but unfortunately, under alert level 5, schools sadly had to close. Will he outline what costs schools are expected to cover—whether state schools or public schools—to roll out coronavirus testing in their schools once they reopen? (910551)

Extra funding is available through the NHS Test and Trace budget for state schools for the testing programme. We are working with independent schools to make sure that they can reopen as soon as safely possible to reopen schools across the country.

Will the Secretary of State set out what additional measures are being put in place to support areas with diverse communities, such as Luton, where English not being a person’s first language could be a barrier to ensuring the equitable roll-out of vaccinations across all our communities? (910553)

I answered a similar question from the hon. Member for Central Ayrshire (Dr Whitford). This is an incredibly important point, and we are working hard with councils, pharmacists, GPs and those who are trusted in the community to get out the message of the importance of vaccination to all communities across the country. This subject will be increasingly important, and I look forward to working with the hon. Member for Luton South (Rachel Hopkins), the Minister for the vaccine roll-out, my hon. Friend the Member for Stratford-on-Avon (Nadhim Zahawi), and with colleagues all across this House to get out the message of positivity around the vaccine.

The good news is that, over the last month, the proportion of people who are enthusiastic about taking the vaccine has risen significantly, and the proportion of people who are hesitant has fallen; I think people can see the enthusiasm that others have for taking the vaccine. However, we have to make sure that that message of hope reaches all parts of and all communities in the UK.

In Burnley and Padiham, a large number of people cannot work from home; they work in areas such as manufacturing and construction. The deployment of the Army in our largest employers to do mass testing has been really welcome, but we have to go further if we are to break that chain of transmission. Will my right hon. Friend set out what my constituents need to do if they have to keep going into work but need access to some of these tests? (910554)

I hope that by working through the Burnley and Lancashire councils, and by working with the national testing programme, we can get asymptomatic testing available for those who have to go to work. Key workers need to go to work, even through this most difficult of times. I will make sure that the testing Minister picks up with my hon. Friend straight after this, and that we work together to make sure that everybody across Burnley who has to go to work has access, if they want it, to a testing regime, to help ensure that they can be safe in work.

The Secretary of State will know the unprecedented physical and emotional strain our frontline nurses and medics are facing in the fight against covid-19. This is exacerbated by staff shortages, with increasing demand for care falling on our already worn-out staff. Would he agree that to encourage more people into nursing, and to retain our healthcare heroes in the NHS, we must look at increasing pay to a level that recognises the skills, responsibility and commitment that the nursing and healthcare professions require? (910555)

I am really pleased that over the past few years in the English health service that I am responsible for, we have increased the pay of nursing staff. I am also pleased that when the new Northern Ireland Administration were set up about a year ago, one of the first things they did was to resolve the challenges in terms of nurses’ pay. This is a very important subject. It is one that is devolved, but I look forward to working with my counterpart in Northern Ireland, Robin Swann, who is doing a brilliant job in supporting the Province through these very difficult times.

I have been contacted by a number of my constituents who have concerns about vaccine distribution. They are old and vulnerable, some are shielding, and some have no cars and have difficulty using public transport to get their vaccine. There is also a concern that some local GP surgeries are vaccinating only people over 80 with surnames from A to H. What is the Department’s plan to facilitate local distribution, especially in places that do not have good transport links, and to increase the roll-out to other groups? (910556)

Among the over-80s we have not put in place a more specific prioritisation, because we need to ensure that the programme can get to all the over-80s as fast and efficiently as possible. Access is incredibly important, hence the commitment to ensure that there is a vaccination centre within 10 miles. I think that that is true across the whole of Morley and Outwood, and 96% of the population of England is now is now within 10 miles of a vaccination centre, including, I think, the whole of my hon. Friend’s constituency. This has to be done fast but it also has to be done fairly, and she is quite right to raise that point.

As a proud Unison member, I ask the Secretary of State to join me in congratulating Christina McAnea on being elected the first female leader of the country’s biggest union. Many of Unison’s members effectively work for the Secretary of State, including care assistants, hospital porters, nurses and cleaners, and they are now under huge stress and facing mental and physical challenges that we, fortunately, cannot imagine. Does he agree with another recently elected leader, Joe Biden, who said to health workers:“It’s not enough to praise you. We have to protect you, we have to pay you.” (910557)

I want to add my congratulations to Christina McAnea. It is another sign of progress in this country to see the first female leader of Unison, and I look forward to talking to her very soon and to working with her, as she represents a significant number of people who work for the NHS and are valued members of the NHS and social care teams. The importance not only of valuing our NHS and social care workforce but of demonstrating that value is vital, and improving all the elements and conditions under which people work is important. Of course pay is one part of that, and the hon. Lady will know that the NHS was exempt from the pay freeze set out by the Chancellor, but it is also about ensuring that everybody’s contribution is valued and that everybody is encouraged to give their very best contribution. In a pandemic situation like this, when the pressures on the NHS and social care are very great, that is more important than ever, and it is important that we value all of our team all the time and that everybody plays a part in improving the health of the nation and improving and saving lives. I want to say a huge thank you to everybody who works in the NHS and in social care, and I want to work with them on improving working conditions and making sure that everybody feels that they can give their very best so that the whole is greater than the sum of its parts. I am very grateful to the hon. Lady for raising this question.

We have had a poor day of getting through questions. They have taken far too long and a lot of people have missed out. In order to allow the safe exit of hon. Members participating in this item of business and the safe arrival of those participating in the next I am suspending the House for three minutes.

Sitting suspended.