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Topical Questions

Volume 692: debated on Tuesday 13 April 2021

I am delighted to be able to tell the House that, across the UK, we have met our target to offer a vaccine to everyone in the top nine priority groups ahead of the deadline on 15 April. We have now delivered a first dose to more than 32 million people, and are on track to offer a vaccine to all adults by the end of July. This weekend, we also saw a record number of second doses. Overall, as of midnight last night, we have now delivered more than 40 million doses of vaccines right across the UK. It is a remarkable achievement.

Today, the Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation has published its final advice on an age-based prioritisation, which we accept in full. So I can announce formally that, from today, we have opened up invitations to get a vaccine to all aged over 45, and then we will proceed to everyone aged over 40, in line with supplies.

Finally, following a successful start last week in Wales, the Moderna vaccine will be rolled out in England from today. I am very grateful to everybody involved in this vaccination programme, which allows us to lift restrictions across the country, and already has saved over 10,000 lives, with more to come.

With your permission, Mr Speaker, may I wish all Sikhs, Hindus, Muslims and other communities celebrating their religious and cultural events in the coming days and weeks a happy, peaceful and prosperous time?

The Secretary of State is clear about the importance of vaccination, but how is his Department working to ensure that all adults without English language knowledge, with very low levels of health literacy and in pockets traditionally untouched by health campaigns, choose to be vaccinated, rather than being coerced—not just regarding covid-19 vaccines but other vaccines?

I wholeheartedly agree with the hon. Gentleman. I am very proud of how, across this House, people have united to support the vaccination effort and to get those messages out there as he says so clearly. It is very important that we have trusted confidants working in and with communities to explain the benefits of vaccination to those who may be hesitant. For instance, in Leicester we have ensured that within the Somali community, Somali clinicians are administering the vaccine. Having a vaccination centre that is staffed by the Somali community near where they live, even though there is another vaccination centre round the corner, has proved successful in driving up vaccination rates in that community. I pick on that as one excellent example of the national and local systems working together, listening to the data, and working with local communities. and I very much look forward to working with the hon. Gentleman to make that happen.

At the Liaison Committee three weeks ago, the Prime Minister confirmed that there would be a 10-year plan for the social care sector, like that of the NHS, to fix the crisis in social care. Will the Secretary of State tell the House what he thinks that 10-year plan needs to contain, and whether external organisations such as Age UK, the Alzheimer’s Society, Care England, and the Health and Social Care Committee, will be able to contribute to the Government’s thinking on that plan? Will they be able to do so before the plan is published later this year?

I warmly welcome my right hon. Friend’s enthusiasm and support for that project, which the Prime Minister set out at a high level to the Liaison Committee. We are working hard, including with stakeholders, and the Minister for Care has held a number of roundtables on the subject. We want this to be an open and broad programme, to ensure that we get the right answers to these long-standing questions.

Will the Secretary of State explain why, following a private drink he had with Lex Greensill and David Cameron, Greensill was handed an NHS payroll financing contract that sought to convert income from NHS staff pay packets into bonds to sell internationally, and effectively to make money on the back of NHS staff in a pandemic? Why was that contract given without tender? Why was that meeting not declared? What pressure did the Secretary of State put on officials to hand that contract to Greensill?

Ministers were not involved in the decision by NHS Shared Business Services to facilitate the provision of salary advances in pilot schemes. I attended a social meeting organised by the former Prime Minister, and given that departmental business came up, I reported to officials in the normal way.

This is part of a wider pattern of behaviour. We see PPE contracts going to Tory donors, and a pub landlord WhatsApping the Secretary of State and receiving a testing contract. We see a US insurance firm taking over GP contracts, and one of its bosses gets a job in Downing Street. It is cronyism and it stinks. If the Secretary of State thinks he has done nothing wrong and has nothing to hide, will he publish all the minutes, emails, correspondence and directions that he gave to civil servants, and all his text messages with David Cameron, so that we can see exactly what went on with the awarding of this contract?

Yesterday the Government announced a review into this matter, and I will of course participate in that in full. It is important that Governments engage with external stakeholders and businesses and, as was raised in the previous question, it is important that that happens, and happens in an appropriate way within the rules, which is what happened in this case.

The covid-19 vaccine roll-out has shown the value of comparable statistics not only in this country, but worldwide. However, directly comparable data are often lacking for healthcare performance and outcomes between England, Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland. Does my right hon. Friend agree that UK-wide data in the NHS, along with aligned inspection mechanisms and audit procedures, would increase transparency and ultimately improve service delivery? (914165)

Yes. I think that through the pandemic we have seen an improvement in our ability to see what is happening in the NHS right across the UK, and that helps us all work together better to deliver for patients. One example of that is the vaccine programme. That is a UK-wide programme with UK-wide metrics but it is delivered, of course, by the local NHS wherever people are in the UK. There are lessons we can learn from that.

I am hearing increasingly difficult stories from constituents across my constituency whose children are suffering severe mental health problems and are regularly having to wait up to a year for a first appointment. In that year, their condition gets progressively worse, so by the time their appointment comes around, they already need a much greater level of treatment than they would have needed had they been seen earlier. That also has a disruptive impact on their education, on top of the disruption that they have all experienced over the last year. The situation is getting worse; we are seeing more and more young people needing mental health care in my constituency. What is the Secretary of State doing to increase resources in this very important area of child and adolescent mental health? (914160)

We are putting record resources in. Of the increase in the NHS budget, the fastest increase in the long-term plan settlement is for mental health services, and within that, for children’s mental health services. We have also increased support through the pandemic. There is an awful lot that we continue to need to do, and there is a very significant plan, as part of the long-term plan, for improving access to these vital services.

Last week we had the fantastic news that the Moderna vaccine had arrived in the United Kingdom. Can the Secretary of State tell the House how many vaccine doses, across all three vaccines currently being rolled out, have been allocated to Scotland so far? (914168)

Scotland gets her fair share of vaccines allocated, and then we publish the amount of vaccines that are delivered. That is slightly lower in Scotland as a proportion of the population compared with the UK as a whole, but we are working very closely with the NHS across Scotland, with the armed services and, of course, with the Scottish Government to try to make sure that they can catch up.

Yesterday, many hospitality venues remained closed. Those that could open erected large marquees and were able to recover some of the losses that they have suffered. Others were completely dismayed that there is clearly no difference at all between some of those marquees and well ventilated, covid-secure indoor hospitality. Will the Secretary of State explain what he perceives the difference to be? (914161)

The definition of “outdoors” used in these regulations is the one set out by the Labour Government in the ban on indoor smoking.

The foul gases and odour coming from Walley’s Quarry landfill in my constituency are no longer just an environmental catastrophe; they are also a major public health concern. A local GP surgery in Silverdale reports exacerbation of asthma, hay fever-like symptoms, nausea, insomnia and depression. The Environment Agency figures that have been passed to Public Health England show that World Health Organisation guidelines for hydrogen sulphide have been exceeded on the 24-hour public health limits. What is going on is not fair on my constituents. What assessment has the Secretary of State made of the public health implications, both physical and mental, of the major environmental incident going on in my constituency, and will he meet me and the Environment Secretary to discuss the matter? (914169)

I am very happy to meet my hon. Friend. I am grateful to him for raising this vital question of local public health in the House, and I am absolutely determined that the authorities—both the local authority, with its responsibilities, and the national authorities, including Public Health England—play their role in tackling this problem.

Nottingham University Hospitals NHS Trust is giving all its staff an extra day’s leave this year to thank them for their sacrifices during the pandemic. I am sure that is a welcome gesture, but staff in Nottingham and across England deserve so much more. Real-terms pay in the NHS is already below 2010 levels, and we went into the pandemic facing serious staff shortages, with 40,000 nurse vacancies and 7,000 doctor vacancies. What will the Government’s proposed real-terms pay cut do to vacancy rates? (914162)

I am very glad to say that the numbers that the hon. Lady uses are out of date. We have seen a very significant increase in the number of nurses and other staff in the NHS. In fact, we have a record number of nurses in the NHS. For the very first time, we have more than 300,000 nurses in the NHS. We have seen over 10,000 more nurses over the last year alone. Of course, the mission to work caring for others and looking after the health of the nation in the NHS has never been more important, and I am delighted that so many people are rising to that, because we have record numbers of people in training too.

While the NHS acted heroically when the pandemic first hit, what lessons have been learned about translating the learnings of junior doctors and experienced nurses into policy more quickly? For example, junior doctors knew that loss of taste and smell was a symptom, and that proning helped patients, quite some time before those became policy. (914175)

There is a huge amount that we can learn from the early response to the pandemic, and it is very important that we adopt the scientific understanding and learnings as quickly as is rigorously possible. We need the time for the rigour, but we need to adopt the policies. We have seen in the vaccine roll-out a huge amount of these lessons adopted, and the speed at which the scientific advice takes into account what we are learning on the ground in the vaccine roll-out is impressive. So we should keep going down this route—always open-minded, always asking the scientific questions and always then asking how quickly we can rigorously put those understandings into practice.

I am now suspending the House for three minutes to enable the necessary arrangements for the next business to be made.

Sitting suspended.