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Topical Questions

Volume 707: debated on Tuesday 18 January 2022

Eight weeks ago, when this House last met for Health and Social Care questions, the world had not even heard of the omicron variant; but a third of the total number of UK covid-19 cases have been recorded since then. The action the Government have taken in response to omicron, and the collective efforts of the British people, have seen us become the most boosted and tested country in Europe, and the country with the most antivirals per head in Europe. That is why we are the most open country in Europe. I have always said that the restrictions should not stay in place a day longer than is absolutely necessary. Due to those pharmaceutical defences and the likelihood of our having already reached the peak of case numbers and hospitalisations, I am cautiously optimistic that we will be able to substantially reduce measures next week. The best thing we can all do to continue that progress is get boosted now.

May I put on record my gratitude to the Secretary of State for all the help he provided to my constituents before Christmas? He went beyond the call of duty, and I am very grateful to him.

The aftershock is often worse than the earthquake. My anxiety about covid is that it was the earthquake, but we still have the aftershock to come—that is, all the problems in cancer care, and the lack of doctors in emergency medicine, as well as in so many other disciplines. How will we make sure that the 6 million people on waiting lists get the care that they really need, and that the number does not grow over the next few months?

The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right to raise this issue, and I thank him for his comments at the start. We all know, as we have just heard from the Under-Secretary of State for Health and Social Care, my hon. Friend the Member for Lewes (Maria Caulfield), that the NHS in particular and social care have been under huge pressure; I think it has been the most challenging time in their history. Everyone has performed in a way that we can all be proud of. Despite that, we have seen a huge rise in electives, and I think that the number will go higher before it goes lower, because so many people stayed away when they were asked to. I want them to come forward. I want them to know that the NHS is open for them. We will support it with a bigger workforce and more investment, including the £36 billion of extra investment from the new NHS and social care levy.

T4. Delays in cancer diagnosis and treatment have had tragic consequences for some of my constituents. What is my right hon. Friend doing to improve cancer survival rates? (905068)

My hon. Friend raises an issue that is very close to my heart, and the hon. Member for Rhondda (Chris Bryant) rightly raised it a moment ago, too. The pandemic has exposed huge health disparities in this country. It is clear to me that we need to go much further on cancer, not only to catch up on cancer referrals, diagnosis and treatment and radical innovation, but to improve the persistently poor outcomes that patients in this country have long experienced compared to those in other countries. It is time we launched a war on cancer. I am working on a new vision to radically improve the outcome for cancer patients across the United Kingdom, and I will have more to say on that in due course.

Keeping the Secretary of State on the subject of cancer, half of all patients with suspected breast cancer are not seen within the recommended two weeks. In two months, the number of patients who were not able to see a specialist in the target period has gone from 5,000 to 23,000—a far steeper increase than for all other forms of cancer—so I ask the Secretary of State: has breast cancer care been deprioritised?

Of course it has not been deprioritised. No cancer has been deprioritised. As the House has heard again today, we have seen an impact on healthcare across the country because of this terrible pandemic, including, sadly, on cancer care. Whether we are talking about breast cancer or other forms of cancer, they all remain a priority, including during the omicron wave; the NHS has made it absolutely clear that cancer remains a priority. As I said—I hope the hon. Gentleman agrees—we need to do more on cancer. I know that he cares deeply about this; he is right to have raised it twice in the past hour, and I hope that he will work with the Government on it.

I am going to raise it a third time, because it is very clear that breast cancer care is worse than care for other forms of cancer. The Secretary of State needs to account for that and tell us what he will do about it. On cancer more broadly, it is not good enough to return to the situation pre-pandemic, because as much as he wants to blame covid pressures for delays in cancer treatment, we went into the pandemic with waiting lists at 4.5 million, and with staff shortages of 100,000 in the NHS and of 112,000 in social care, which impacted on broader NHS performance. Where is the plan to fix the workforce challenge in the NHS? That is the biggest single challenge that will impact on his mission—the mission we all share—to improve cancer outcomes for everyone in the country.

The hon. Gentleman will know that survival rates from cancer were increasing before the pandemic, but as I think the whole House understands, the pandemic has had an impact on all other types of healthcare, including cancer. This is a challenge throughout the United Kingdom. He talks about waits for breast cancer treatment; those are longer in Wales, so this is an issue throughout the UK. It is right that we continue to focus on the workforce. We have 44,000 more health workers than we did in October 2020, and we will continue to build on that.

T5. Vast numbers of children and adults right across Cornwall cannot get access to an NHS dentist. That is not about funding, covid or even a lack of dentists; it is just that the contract under which they work is no longer fit for purpose. Next year, the responsibility for dentistry comes to Cornwall. Could we perhaps have a statement from the Minister about how we can reform that contract, which no longer works and keeps dentistry away from people who need it? (905069)

My hon. Friend gets to the nub of the problem. The 2006 contract, which was introduced under the last Labour Government and is dependent on UDAs—units of dental activity—creates perverse disincentives for dentists to take on NHS work. We are already starting work on reforming that.

We will not globally defeat covid if large proportions of the global population do not have access to vaccinations. The UK is one of a small number of countries blocking the TRIPS— trade-related aspects of intellectual property rights—waiver. Will the UK Government stop blocking the vaccine intellectual property waiver, and allow nations to manufacture the vaccines themselves?

The hon. Gentleman is right about the importance of helping the whole world to acquire these life-saving vaccines. That is why the UK can be proud of the more than 30 million vaccines that it has delivered to developing countries already. We will meet our commitment to increase that to 100 million by June, but we do not agree with the suggestion about the TRIPS waiver, because it will make future access to life-saving vaccines much more difficult.

T6. I was delighted by the recent announcement of £50 million for motor neurone disease research, which my constituent Doddie Weir campaigned for tirelessly. Will the Secretary of State update the House on the steps being taken to allocate those funds, and to ensure that is done as quickly as possible, as time is of the essence for MND sufferers? (905070)

My hon. Friend is right to raise that point, and I commend him on the fantastic work that he has done in leading this campaign. We were delighted to announce £50 million of funding for MND research. That will support a new MND research unit, which has already started work to co-ordinate research applications, and a new MND partnership, which will be formed to pool expertise across the research community.

T2. Last week, the Royal College of Physicians reported that one in five doctors felt “overwhelmed almost every day”. One doctor in my constituency told me that every single member of staff at their surgery was either receiving counselling, on antidepressants or signed off work with stress, compounded by what they perceived as GP-bashing in the media. With that in mind, may I ask the Secretary of State what steps his Department is taking to protect the mental health of GPs and NHS workers? (905066)

The hon. Lady is right to raise that issue. Healthcare workers have been under significant pressure, especially over the past two years, and of course that applies to GPs. The support we have provided through the winter access fund—the £250 million—is there to help GPs’ surgeries across the country, including with their workforce.

T7. My hospital trust is looking to redesign ophthalmology and cardiology services across its two hospitals, Eastbourne District General Hospital and Conquest Hospital in Hastings. The trust puts forward an important clinical case for the change, but given the realities—the road, the distance and the public transport options, which mean that it can be a journey of two hours via two buses for the one in four households in Eastbourne that do not have a car—any change can present a real problem and create issues for local people. Ahead of his visit to Eastbourne, will my hon. Friend the Minister meet me here to discuss this vital question of access to hospital services? (905071)

I am grateful to my hon. Friend. Public consultation on the reconfiguration in East Sussex was launched on 6 December last year and will close on 11 March. She is right to highlight access and transport links as a key factor in such decisions, and I would of course be delighted to meet her.

T3. Only 9% of people in low-income countries have received one vaccine dose. The UK Government have delivered less than one third of their pledged contributions to COVAX. Given that no one is safe until everyone is safe, what assessment has the Secretary of State made of the risk to public health from emerging variants from the unvaccinated worldwide, and will he ensure that all doses pledged will be delivered to COVAX by the end of June? (905067)

From the start of the pandemic, the UK has worked to support equitable access to covid-19 vaccines. It helped to establish the international joint procurement initiative COVAX, which supports higher and lower-income countries in securing the vaccines they need. As my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State has indicated, we are committed to delivering 100 million doses by mid-June; we had delivered more than 30 million by the end of 2021. The UK leads the way on variants through the UK Health Security Agency, and we are willing to progress that technology throughout the world.

T8. Building the women’s and children’s hospital at the Royal Cornwall Hospital was a key promise of this Government, and the Secretary of State’s predecessor was very supportive of it. Will my hon. Friend reaffirm the Department’s commitment to the building and agree to meet me to ensure that everything is done to get this vital project delivered on time? (905072)

We remain fully committed to the delivery of the important new women’s and children’s hospital in Truro for the Royal Cornwall Hospitals NHS Trust as part of our new hospital programme. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State remains committed to it, and of course I would be delighted to meet my hon. Friend.

T10.   I hope you are watching “Geordie Hospital”, Mr Speaker—the Channel 4 series that follows the talented, highly skilled, dedicated and wonderfully witty staff of Newcastle upon Tyne Hospitals NHS Foundation Trust. As we enter our third pandemic year, after a decade of under-investment and low pay, and with staff shortages, absences and NHS waiting lists all rising, I hope that the Secretary of State recognises that what NHS staff need, as well as a great sense of humour, is a long-term workforce plan. Will he bring one forward? (905074)

First, I commend everyone working in the Newcastle hospitals trust and across the NHS for everything they are doing. The hon. Lady is right to talk about the importance of the workforce—that is why we have asked Health Education England to come up with a 15-year workforce framework—but she knows that the resources that the NHS has make a big difference, and it would have helped if she had supported the Government’s record investment of £36 billion over the next three years in the NHS and social care.

T9. Can my right hon. Friend tell the House how he is making it easier for transport workers, who are disproportionately under-vaccinated, to get their jabs and get this country moving? (905073)

We are intent on making vaccines as accessible as possible, so there are now more vaccination sites than at any point in the programme. They operate 12 hours a day, seven days a week where possible, including at hundreds of walk-in and pop-up sites. In every community, there should be slots available at least 16 hours a day; in some places, that is extended to 24 hours a day to support workers such as those in the transport sector, who often work unsociable hours.

The Secretary of State has introduced guidance for essential care givers so that family members can visit loved ones in care homes. Is he considering going further to guarantee the right to visit residents in care homes and patients in hospitals?

The hon. Member makes a very good point. It is important that people get the right to visit their loved ones in care homes. That is why we have introduced guidance that says that essential care givers should get access to care homes at all points, even during outbreaks. There is a process, which the Care Quality Commission manages, for reporting those that do not comply, but if there are specific examples, I am very happy for him to write to me with details and I will follow it up.

This morning, the Health Secretary is reported in The Times as saying that the NHS can learn from the way in which academy chains are regulated, but he will know that the education system has no national targets, while the NHS uses more national targets than any healthcare system anywhere in the world. Will he look at the role of targets and the risk that they focus managers on bureaucratic numbers, sometimes at the expense of quality of care for patients?

I very much agree with my right hon. Friend; as the whole House knows, he speaks with considerable experience. We need to do things differently, especially as a result of the pandemic and the challenges that it has created. That requires reform, and we will set out further reforms in due course. He is absolutely right about targets: they can play an important role, but they can also lead to poor outcomes for patients, and all targets need to be properly reviewed.

Sheffield’s Weston Park Cancer Centre is one of just four specialist cancer facilities in the country, but it desperately needs a £50 million upgrade, as the Secretary of State will know because I raised the matter with his predecessor and wrote to the Secretary of State in October and again just last week. Will he urgently respond to the proposal, which is vital for cancer outcomes in South Yorkshire?

We will endeavour to respond swiftly, but if the hon. Gentleman would like to meet me about capital funding for those sorts of projects, I am always happy to meet him.

Now then: the Health Secretary will be aware that King’s Mill Hospital in Ashfield was built under a disastrous private finance initiative deal under the last Labour Government. It now costs us about £1 million a week to service the debt—money that could be spent on social care in Ashfield. Will he meet me to discuss how we can rid my trust of this crippling debt of £1 million a week and spend it on social care?

My hon. Friend is absolutely right to highlight the impact of yet another of Labour’s disastrous PFIs on the funding available to our NHS, and indeed to social care. We continue to work hard to deliver our manifesto commitment to improve on those disastrous PFI schemes. I am very happy to meet him to discuss the matter.

Just last month, Luton lost an outstanding champion in the other place with the sad passing of Lord Bill McKenzie of Luton. Just 21 months previously, he had been diagnosed with pulmonary fibrosis.

Last week I met the chair of the Pulmonary Fibrosis Trust, one of my constituents in Luton South, who told me that there is no current cure for the disease and that for most people there is no known cause. Will the Secretary of State outline what steps his Department is taking to support research into a cure and to improve diagnosis, support and care for people living with pulmonary fibrosis?

I thank the hon. Lady for raising the matter in the House. Pulmonary fibrosis is a very serious condition. Far too many people suffer from it, and there needs to be more research globally—not just here in the UK, but working with our international partners. I will bring the matter to the attention of my officials and see what more we can do.

Sadly, the situation in Scarborough and Whitby for patients seeking a new NHS dentist is no better than that in St Ives, with thousands of UDAs going unused. Dentists tell me that it would help to have a date for the end of the UDA system so that they could start recruiting staff and, in some cases, building new premises to deliver NHS dentistry to local people.

My right hon. Friend is correct. As I said earlier, the disastrous contract of 2006 is causing disincentives for NHS dentists to take on NHS work. I assure my right hon. Friend, however, that dental services in Scarborough are currently being commissioned by NHS England following the handing back of dental regional accountability. Procurement processes are in place, and a new practice is set to be in place by the summer.