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Topical Questions

Volume 701: debated on Tuesday 19 October 2021

If I may, I would like to take this opportunity to remember my friend and colleague James Brokenshire, who shall be sorely missed, and I would like to dedicate this statement to my colleague Sir David Amess.

Sir David was a friend, and I had the privilege of knowing his kindness, his compassion and his selflessness at first hand. For those who did not, Sir David’s record tells them everything they need to know. His first concern was never his own rank or status, but the cause of the underdog, the vulnerable, the marginalised and the forgotten. As well as on fuel poverty and in standing up for animal welfare, Sir David left his mark on my own brief in campaigning to tackle obesity, chairing the Conservative Back-Bench health committee and launching the all-party parliamentary group on endometriosis. That disease would never affect him personally, but it was raised by one of his constituents in his surgery—exactly like the one he was taking when he was killed. His legacy is the many lives that he touched, and I know that, like me, Members across the House will miss him terribly.

Of course I agree with every word of that very fine tribute to our two lost colleagues.

I represent an area of high housing growth so general practice provision needs to increase as the houses go up, but my clinical commissioning group tells me that NHS capital often appears at incredibly short notice and then disappears just as quickly. Can we try to get the provision of new general practices on a planned basis as the new houses go up?

My hon. Friend is right to raise this. Capital is allocated by two CCGs on a regional basis that is weighted by population, and, as he says, if that population changes, the weighting also changes. Additional funding can sometimes be allocated from section 106 or community infrastructure levy funding as well, but I am more than happy, if my hon. Friend would like, to meet him to discuss this further.

If I may, Mr Speaker, I will, with your indulgence, take a moment to express my deep sadness at the loss of James and David and my utter shock at what we saw this weekend, but also to remember David as someone who was always smiling, who always encouraged me, particularly as a rookie MP when my office was just down the corridor from his, who always asked after my children and who always gave me tips. I sometimes get in a bit of trouble for being friends with Tories, but I will hugely miss David and James and send my condolences and sympathies to their friends and families.

I also welcome the new Ministers to the Treasury Bench. In recent weeks we have seen a patient at Preston wait over 40 hours for a bed, we have seen a child with mental health problems wait nearly 48 hours for a bed at Ipswich A&E, we have seen ambulances backed up outside hospitals—in Norfolk a patient died of a heart attack waiting in the back of an ambulance—and we have seen ever more patients, who cannot bear the wait for surgery, paying for operations. This is an NHS not just under pressure, but under water. What is the Secretary of State personally going to do to avert a winter crisis of misery for patients?

I agree with every word the right hon. Gentleman said about our friends and colleagues, James and David, but I hope his friendship with me will not get him into trouble—I hope I have not given that away. He is right to ask about the huge pressure the NHS is facing, and all our constituents are seeing that wherever they live. It is picking up over the winter. Winters can usually be tough for the NHS but this winter will be particularly tough and the Government have set out the reasons why: the pandemic is still ongoing; and this flu season will, I think, be particularly tough, which is why we are having the largest flu vaccination programme alongside the covid programme this year. We are doing a lot alongside the vaccination programmes, especially in terms of resources. We have put an extra £34 billion into the NHS and care for this year, including much more funding for diagnostics such as the community diagnostics hubs that I announced a couple of weeks ago, in which we invested 350 million. We will very shortly set out with the NHS a detailed programme for the winter and how we can better deal with the pressures.

The Secretary of State mentioned the pandemic, but he must surely be concerned that yesterday we recorded close to 50,000 infections, and on every single day of the last three weeks 10,000 children have been diagnosed with covid. The booster programme is stalling with charities describing it as a “chaotic failure”, and only about 13% of children have been vaccinated. His wall of defence is falling down at just the point that vaccination is waning, so may I suggest that he ditches the complacency and fixes the vaccination programme now?

Our vaccination programme has been one of the most successful in the world, and the right hon. Gentleman may know that it has prevented 24 million infections, has prevented some 230,000 people from being hospitalised and saved 130,000 lives. I do not call that a failure; I call it a success.

T2. Last week, a whistleblower told the American Congress that Facebook had repeatedly misled the public about the impact of its platform on children’s health. Does my right hon. Friend agree that it is time for Facebook to be transparent about the impact of its platform, and to share with the public what it knows about the impact on children’s health? (903672)

I absolutely agree with my hon. Friend, and I thank her for raising this issue. I share those concerns. Over the past year, the number of young people being urgently referred for eating disorders has doubled. In the light of that, I was astonished to learn that one of Facebook’s own internal studies, which was brought to light by Ms Haugen, found that 17% of teen girls said that their eating disorders got worse after using Instagram. Facebook did not think it was appropriate to inform parents, healthcare professionals and legislators. I do think it is time for Facebook to do the right thing and publish what it knows.

T3. As a former Chancellor, the Health Secretary will know that air pollution kills 64,000 people a year at a cost of £20 billion a year, according to the Royal College of Physicians, and twice that according to the World Health Organisation. Will he urge the Government to ensure that there are legally binding WHO limits in the Environment Bill, which we will consider tomorrow, to save tens of thousands of lives and tens of billions of pounds, and to send a message to the world on combating the 8.7 million deaths a year from air pollution? (903673)

The Government have a proud record on combating air pollution. The hon. Gentleman is right to raise the ongoing challenges of that, and I know that the Government, including the current Chancellor and the Environment Secretary, take it very seriously.

T4. Will the Secretary of State please confirm whether the additional £250 million investment in primary care will be spent on additional capacity to be delivered by NHS doctors, providing a distinct break from the bureaucracy of the last Labour Government and the legacy of Tony Blair? (903674)

First, let me say that our GPs have done a phenomenal job during the pandemic. The nation really cannot thank them enough for what they did during the pandemic and what they continue to do. The GP access programme that I announced last week is about providing extra support for GPs to do what they love doing best, which is seeing their patients. The extra £250 million over the next five months will be ringfenced—it will be protected—and it will be there to expand general practice.

T5. I thank the Secretary of State for his earlier response about my former constituent, Anne, but I did not detect that he mentioned the shortage of oncologists and radiologists in the health service. There is a 33% shortage of radiologists, and a 17% shortage—and growing—of oncologists. What is the commitment, not simply for this year but on an ongoing basis, to make sure that we train, train, train and have the staff who can deliver the cancer detection that is so fundamental? (903675)

The hon. Gentleman is right to raise this issue. Whether it is for treatment for cancer or other illnesses, we do need more clinicians in the NHS. On meeting the ongoing demand, I was pleased to see that this year we had the highest number of students ever entering medical schools for general practice, for example, and across the board. He may be interested to know that, for the year to date, to June 2021, the NHS has 2,700 more doctors and 8,900 more nurses. There is more to do, and I am pleased that he raised this issue.

T7. [R] My right hon. Friend will be aware of the potential emerging treatment of the most difficult mental health conditions, including depression, trauma and addiction, if psychotherapy were reinforced by pharmacology with appropriate use of the psychedelic class of drugs, including psilocybin. That could benefit millions of our fellow citizens, including more than 2,000 of our veterans wrestling with untreated trauma from their service in Iraq and Afghanistan. Today, it is very difficult to conduct research in the UK due to the scheduling of those drugs in the most restrictive category of all, with absolutely no evidence of risk to support that immense burden placed on science and medical research. Every day we delay this science, scores of our fellow citizens will die unnecessarily, and millions will suffer unnecessarily. Will my right hon. Friend urgently examine this issue so that British people receive British scientific research and British pharmaceutical— (903678)

Order. Come on, Secretary of State or Minister—whoever is answering. We have to get through these questions or it is unfair to others.

My hon. Friend is right to raise the importance of mental health and suicide. This is important, and I listened carefully to what he said. He knows that pharmacology already plays an important role in helping people with their mental health challenges, but he raises an interesting potential emerging treatment. He will know that scheduling is an issue for the Home Office, but I will be happy to meet him myself to discuss it further.

T6. As the Secretary of State knows, the NHS is facing extreme pressure because of rising covid infection rates and hundreds of people still dying every week, and that is in the context of 5.6 million people on NHS waiting lists. Is it not time for the Health Secretary to revert to making mask wearing mandatory and to commit to suspending the reckless decision to charge for lateral flow tests in the coming months? (903677)

We have a plan for both the pandemic and other challenges over the winter, which we set out in detail. I remind the hon. Lady that we do not charge for lateral flow tests.

T8. My right hon. Friend will have seen last week’s Care Quality Commission report expressing continuing concern about maternity services in East Kent Hospitals University NHS Foundation Trust hospitals, including the William Harvey Hospital in my constituency. Can Ministers offer some reassurance to mothers-to-be in east Kent that giving birth in those hospitals will be safe? (903679)

I thank my right hon. Friend and I share his concerns completely. Just to reassure him, NHS England provided £1.6 million to East Kent Hospitals University NHS Foundation Trust to fund an additional 38 midwives, with 26 already in post. I would be happy to keep updated with him to see what the clinical experience is on the ground.

T9. A constituent of mine, David Brydon, suffered an horrendous accident at home, falling down the stairs and severing his spinal cord. His family were really encouraged to learn that a pioneering treatment—the ARC treatment, as it is known—is being trialled at Queen Elizabeth Hospital in Glasgow. However, they were severely disappointed to learn that because he lives in England, he does not have the opportunity to access the treatment. Will the Minister meet me to see if we can come to some sort of a resolution for Mr Brydon, please? (903680)

I am very grateful to the hon. Gentleman. This is what this House does best: raising and highlighting particular cases. I am very happy to meet him to discuss this very challenging case.

I would like to ask the Secretary of State about pressures in emergency care and comments that the new chief executive of NHS England made to the Health Committee this morning that we have shortages of 999 call handlers. Is he concerned about the time it is taking to answer some 999 calls? Do we have those shortages? What are his plans to address them if we do?

My right hon. Friend speaks with real experience, especially on tough winters for the NHS, and he highlights shortages across the NHS. He mentions 999 callers. There is a huge pressure at the moment on 111 calls as well, and emergency care generally, including ambulance services. A significant amount of support has been put in, especially over the past few months, with additional funding. We will set out a detailed plan with the NHS, coming shortly in the next couple of weeks, on exactly what more we will be doing.

Given the high covid infection rates and the risk of new variants of concern emerging that may be vaccine-resistant, what discussion has the Health Secretary had with the Chancellor on extending the contain outbreak management fund and on increasing public health budgets, which are 24% lower than they were in 2015?

The hon. Lady will know that in terms of the pandemic we are very focused on vaccinations, treatments and testing. She is right to raise the importance of testing and surveillance for possible new variants. That remains a priority for the Government and it is getting the support it needs from the Treasury.

With covid case rates across my area of Kirklees still above the national average, what extra support can be given to Kirklees to help to keep deaths and hospitalisations low and to boost the booster programme in Kirklees?

My hon. Friend is right to raise the extra pressures that Kirklees is seeing. Public health officials and local council members are doing everything they can. Extra support is available—something we keep under review—but he is right to raise the importance of the booster programme. The more people who get boosted and the sooner they do so when they are eligible, the better it will be for not just them but the whole community.

Across the continent of Europe, mask wearing, ventilation in buildings and the use of green passes for events are commonplace. They also have much lower infection rates, hospitalisations and deaths, so while the Secretary of State addresses the backlog in the roll-out of vaccinations for children and of boosters, will he consider implementing the very good practice that can be seen in other countries?

In terms of the challenges of the pandemic and the challenges more generally over winter, the Government have set out a detailed plan. It depends very much on vaccinations, treatments, testing and surveillance, but we keep it constantly under review and, should we need to do more, there are contingencies.

May I add weight to what my hon. Friend the Member for Newcastle-under-Lyme (Aaron Bell) said earlier? I have a similar situation in my constituency at the Chalk Pit in Epsom. It is really important that we strengthen the public heath duties of the Environment Agency. Will the Secretary of State make that a priority of his discussions with his ministerial colleague?

I do not know how to respond to that, Mr Speaker, but I will carry on. In declaring an interest, I welcome the Government’s decision to give a third jab to people with compromised immune systems. There has, however, been confusion in the NHS about the difference between a booster jab and a third jab. May I therefore ask the Secretary of State where is the responsibility in the NHS for advising people and arranging the third jab, and what will be the time gap between getting a third jab and a booster, as opposed to the second jab and a booster?

The hon. Gentleman will know that the gaps between vaccinations, especially for different people in different groups, is a decision that the Government would be advised on by the Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation, and as soon as we get that advice, we will always publish it and act on it. It is important that everyone comes forward who is invited for their third jab if they are immunocompromised or for their third jab as a booster jab. As he will know, not everyone who is immunocompromised can benefit from the vaccine, but he might be interested to know that we are working on procuring new treatments that will help significantly.

Thanks for the warning, Mr Speaker. I congratulate the Secretary of State and the new vaccines Minister—the Under-Secretary of State for Health and Social Care, my hon. Friend the Member for Erewash (Maggie Throup)—on the roll-out of booster jabs. Over 3 million have been administered so far. May I attempt to strengthen their hands by asking for some of the pop-up vaccination centres, such as the Brent mosque, to get going with these booster jabs so that we can make sure that people in all communities have access to these much needed boosters?

One of the reasons that our country has one of the most successful vaccination programmes in the world has been the efforts of my right hon. Friend, and I want to take this opportunity to thank him for that. He is right to point to the importance of access to vaccines, and making that more mobile is exactly what we are doing.

Teenage vaccination rates in this country are lagging behind other countries. The latest data shows that the equivalent of 8,000 classrooms were empty over the past two weeks due to pupil absence, and schools such as Hampton High in my constituency had 11 teachers missing yesterday yet have been advised against reintroducing masks and have been told to teach 700-plus pupils outdoors. Does the Secretary of State think that that is sensible advice and will he ramp up the vaccination of teenagers, particularly over half-term next week?

We are ramping it up. I can tell the hon. Lady that to make the most of half-term next week, we will be opening up the national booking service to all 12 and 15-year-olds to have their covid vaccinations in existing national vaccination centres, which will offer families more flexibility. It is important that anyone who is invited as they are eligible for a vaccination—including young people—comes forward and takes up that offer.