It is an honour to be here for my first oral questions as the Secretary of State for Health and Social Care, and I thank the Prime Minister for bringing me back from furlough. I accepted this role because I love my country and the NHS. I know that I join this Department at a pivotal time, and I have three pressing priorities for these critical few months. The first is getting us on the path out of this pandemic. The second is busting the backlog of non-covid services. The third is putting social care on a sustainable footing for the future. I want to draw on what I have learnt during this time of adversity and what we have all learnt together. I want to make this great nation a healthier and fairer place, and I am looking forward to working with all hon. Members in this House.
East Sussex Healthcare NHS Trust has the potential to get hundreds of millions in investment as part of the Government’s NHS estate infrastructure improvement plan. Will funding be allocated on a two to three-year basis, so that the NHS can better plan its funding and estates plans? Where funding has been indicated for a longer term, what plans are there to ensure that providers have sufficient resource in the shorter term to address immediate issues, or to support covid or recovery?
We have put more and more capital into the NHS. There are always representations from hon. Members, including you, Mr Speaker, for even more capital. My hon. Friend is right to raise the issue of the importance of local healthcare systems, which will need more capital funding as we progress. She will know that we set out our capital plans for this financial year, 2021-22, but she is right to say that multi-year funding will mean that trusts can plan better, and that is a priority; we want the spending review to have more sight and better planning for capital.
Let us consider these words about mental health services:
“prior to 2017, no government invested in or prioritised MH services.”
Those are not my words but the words of the Minister for Patient Safety, Suicide Prevention and Mental Health, the hon. Member for Mid Bedfordshire (Ms Dorries). Indeed, the new Secretary of State was the architect of these cuts, during his time as a Treasury Minister. The unparalleled devastation he left behind has been simply staggering, so does he agree with his Minister? Can he explain to us why 140,000 children were turned away from mental health services last year? Can he explain why a quarter of mental health beds have been cut since 2010? Is he ashamed of his track record?
The hon. Lady will know that the NHS long-term plan that has been set out by this Government is committed to a transformation in mental health services and mental health spending; some £2.3 billion extra is being invested by 2023-24. In addition, she will be aware of the mental healthcare White Paper and the mental health recovery action plan. I hope these are all initiatives she will support.
May I welcome the Secretary of State to his place? I am sure he will do an excellent job. As he thinks about a 24-hour A&E for Chorley, I hope he will also think about the urgent need for a cancer institute at the Royal Surrey County Hospital as only second on his list.
The Secretary of State will know that this morning the Health and Social Care Committee published a worrying report about the inhumane treatment given to 2,000 people with learning disabilities and autism in in-patient units, often because no community provision was available. When he brings forward his plans for social care, will he make sure that there is adequate funding for local authorities to give care to such people? Will he also make sure that care workers are always paid the minimum wage, including for the time taken to travel between appointments?
I welcome my right hon. Friend’s comments and the work that he and other Members do through the Select Committee to scrutinise the work of the Department. He just referred to some of that work, especially in his comments about learning disability and autism, which will remain a huge priority for the Government and certainly for my Department.
My right hon. Friend also rightly raised the issue of care workers and the minimum wage; it is worth pointing out that the Care Act 2014 requires local authorities, when they provide funding, not just to support the minimum wage but to take account of the costs that care workers might incur, such as travelling costs. I look forward to working with my right hon. Friend and the members of his Select Committee.
As the Government have said, we want to make sure that every person in this country has the dignity that they deserve in old age. We have recognised that the current system needs substantial reform. The process of reform has already begun in, for example, the Health and Care Bill that will have its Second Reading tomorrow, but we do need a new, sustainable way to fund care and we will come forward with the plans later this year.
I agree with my hon. Friend that it is good news that we can move away from restrictions and towards guidance. On the rationale for the decision he referred to, it is about vaccine effectiveness: we know that for those with both doses, vaccination is estimated to be 78% to 80% effective against symptomatic covid-19. The introduction on 16 August of the changes to which my hon. Friend referred will mean that more people will have been vaccinated and will help to reduce severe illness.
I want to reassure the hon. Lady—because this is such an important question for so many people across the country—that cancer remains a huge priority for this Government. She is right to refer to the work that Macmillan has done on this issue because, sadly, during the restrictions thousands of people have not come forward in the usual way and their cancer sadly remains undiagnosed. We urge anyone who feels that this is an issue for them: please, go to your GP—please come forward. That is one reason why we have launched the “Help Us, Help You” campaign. We have also provided additional funding for rapid diagnostic centres.
I think we would all agree in this House that GP practices have done a magnificent job in responding to the pandemic, and I want to take this opportunity to thank all GPs and their staff for the work that they have done and that they continue to do. My hon. Friend is right to raise the issue of face-to-face access. We can all understand why it changed during the pandemic, but as we open up, we can start to provide more of this, particularly for older people. Over the coming weeks and months, that will be a priority for my Department.
As I said in response to an earlier question, this is a huge priority for the Government and, again, I am pleased that the hon. Lady has raised the issue. It is an issue for her constituents and for constituents throughout the country. She referred to the research by Cancer Research UK. I am afraid that it is right: there are thousands of people who did not come forward. We can understand why, so let me say this again as it is so important: for anyone concerned, please do come forward. We have provided additional funding—more than £1 billion—for more diagnostics and we will continue to provide additional support.
I thank my hon. Friend for raising this question and the situation of her constituent. What I can say is that we expect clinical commissioning groups to commission fertility services in line with National Institute for Health and Care Excellence guidelines, so that there is equitable access across England. We are aware of some variations in access, and we are looking at how we can address that. Very specifically, CCGs should not be using criteria outside that NICE fertility guidance.
The hon. Lady is right to raise this issue. As she has rightly explained, there will be a number of people who, understandably, will be concerned about the move away from regulations to guidance. None the less, there must come a point when we start to remove the restrictions slowly, in a measured way, as we are doing—not least because we want to be able to start dealing much more with all the non-covid health problems that have been created as well. We have provided very clear guidance on masks and it was published yesterday. I hope that the hon. Lady can share that with people who are concerned.
Yes, I can confirm that. Removing restrictions is not without risk—I accept that—but keeping restrictions is not without cost. As my hon. Friend points out, the restrictions have led to increased domestic violence, child abuse, mental health issues and undiagnosed cancer, which we have heard about today, to name but a few. As we start lifting restrictions, that means that we can better deal with all these major non-covid health problems.
My hon. Friend rightly raises an issue that I know will be a concern for constituents of all Members of this House. The backlog of treatment—the waiting list—is over 5 million. However, we are making rapid progress with that, and so is the NHS. We are looking at a variety of ways to do that—not just providing the funding needed to do it, but through innovation, accelerator hubs and diagnostic hubs, all designed to get the waiting list down and to get people the treatment they need when they need it. I would be very happy to discuss the specifics of my hon. Friend’s local situation with him outside this place.
Throughout the pandemic, my predecessor and other Ministers have rightly been working with the devolved Administrations, and of course that work continues; it will remain a priority. I myself have already started weekly meetings with all my counterparts in the devolved Administrations. We discuss a number of issues and keep each other informed, but we also respect that in certain areas, in dealing with this pandemic, we may take a different course.
The hon. Lady understandably talks about the link between case numbers and hospitalisation. She will know that the last time we saw cases at 30,000 and above on a daily basis, we saw a lot more hospitalisations. The reason for the difference now is the vaccine wall of defence. Masks do have an important role to play, but we think that that role can be played by moving from regulation to guidance.