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Topical Questions

Volume 709: debated on Tuesday 1 March 2022

I share the horror and disgust of almost everyone in this House, this country and the whole world at the unprovoked, unjust and unjustifiable invasion of Ukraine by President Putin last week. That appalling act has created a humanitarian emergency and we are looking at every opportunity to give the people of Ukraine the support that they so urgently need.

On Sunday night we sent almost 50,000 items of medical supplies to Poland via air for onward transport to Ukraine. I can inform the House that another plane departed at 7 o’clock this morning with more supplies, including medical equipment and personal protective equipment. We have all been in awe of the bravery and heroism shown by the Ukrainian people. Rest assured, we all stand with them shoulder to shoulder in their hour of need.

On behalf of my constituents with blood cancer, will the Secretary of State please consider providing free asymptomatic testing for the close contacts of immunocompromised people?

We will keep under review the testing offer that we will provide over the coming weeks and months. We continue to consider whether any changes are necessary, but as we learn to live with covid we will target our free asymptomatic testing offer on vulnerable people. That includes, of course, those who are immunocompromised. Such individuals will also be eligible for antiviral treatments through a free priority PCR test service.

I associate myself and everyone on the Opposition Benches with the Secretary of State’s remarks and warmly welcome the support that the Government are providing to the people of Ukraine and the Ukrainian army. We all stand with the people of Ukraine in their fight for freedom and democracy.

Turning to matters closer to home, the Secretary of State asked the Chancellor for £5 billion to cover essential covid costs—ongoing covid costs—and he came away with nothing, so where will the cuts now fall in the NHS budget?

We must all learn to live with covid. The Government have been very clear about that, and we set out a very detailed plan. As infections fall, cases fall and rates of hospitalisation for covid fall, which means we can now have this type of plan. It is a properly funded plan that focuses on vaccines, treatments and targeted testing, and that builds in resilience should there be future variants of concern. It is right that this plan is funded by the Department because it is our No. 1 health priority.

Hang on a minute. So one minute the Secretary of State is asking for £5 billion from the Treasury, and the next minute he has found the money within the Department. Either he was trying to pull a fast one on the Treasury, because he had the money he needed, or he has not got the money he wanted and therefore the cuts are going to fall within existing budgets. Members do not need to take my word for it; it was reported in The Times that the Health Secretary threatened that, if he did not get the funding, it would mean delaying investment in social care, fewer elective surgeries and cuts to the hospital building programme. Having, I think, not tried to pull a fast one on the Chancellor, is he now pulling a fast one on patients, and is it not really the patients who are going to pay the price for his failed negotiations?

First, the hon. Gentleman should not believe everything he reads in the press. We would think he knew that by now. As I said, when it comes to funding our plan for living with covid, it is right that it continues to be the No. 1 priority of my Department to keep this virus at bay and that it is funded by the Department. When it comes to funding, this is the hon. Gentleman who, with all his colleagues, voted against extra funding when he was given the opportunity.

T5. I welcome the record funding that is going into our NHS and also the plans to catch up with appointments and treatments that were delayed because of the covid-19 pandemic. Can my right hon. Friend say a little bit more about how he will increase the number of face-to-face GP appointments available to my Crawley constituents and, indeed, people across the country? (905767)

My hon. Friend is absolutely right to raise this. NHS England has already given clear guidance to all GP practices that they must provide face-to-face appointments alongside remote consultations. Patients’ input into the type of consultation they want should be sought by all practices and their preferences should be respected.

The Scottish Government have now confirmed their initial aid for humanitarian support to Ukraine of £4 million, as well as medical supplies. They are keen to work with aid agencies and other UK nations to get support to where it is most needed as soon as possible. What discussions has the Secretary of State had with his Cabinet colleagues on boosting urgent medical equipment provision to Ukraine from the UK and on guaranteeing access for doctors to the country?

The hon. Gentleman raises a very important point, and he will be pleased to know that the UK was one of the first countries in the world to provide medical aid. As I mentioned a moment ago, one flight left on Sunday night and one left this morning, and there will be many more, I hope. I welcome the work of the Scottish Government and their offer, and we will certainly work together in making sure that aid reaches the people who need it.

T6. Devon’s community hospitals and minor injury units, such as the Tyrrell in Ilfracombe, have been unable to open fully for some time. Would my hon. Friend consider extra help where it is needed to enable them to reopen, because although adding extra capacity is welcome, using what we have effectively is surely essential? (905768)

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for her question. The minor injuries units at Ilfracombe and Bideford have been temporarily closed since March 2020 due to the pandemic, to allow skilled staff to be redeployed to the emergency department at North Devon District Hospital to meet clinical needs. The Northern Devon Healthcare NHS Trust continues to work with the local CCG to ensure planning for safe staffing levels for the temporary reconfiguration and for permanent solutions. Were anything to be made permanent, it would of course have to go through the local authority health overview and scrutiny committee. No such referral has been made, and this remains temporary.

T2. Happy St David’s day, Mr Speaker. Physician associates in my constituency, who play a vital role in the NHS, want to hear from the Government when long-awaited regulations that will allow them to take on more responsibility and play an even greater role in our NHS will come forward. Can the Secretary of State update the House and will he meet me and constituents to discuss this? (905763)

First, I wish a happy St David’s day to the hon. Member and all those celebrating. I would be happy to meet her on this issue. The Government greatly value the role of physician associates. She knows that they bring new talent to the NHS and act in an enabling role, where they can help healthcare teams with their workload. Physician associates will be regulated by the General Medical Council, and the Department has consulted on draft legislation on just how to do that.[Official Report, 3 March 2022, Vol. 709, c. 8MC.]

T7. I recently met Specsavers to discuss how patient choice should be promoted by making all routine community services patient self-referrals, especially when that can free up GPs’ time by not using them as administrative gatekeepers. Will the Secretary of State commit to meeting me to discuss how we can increase GP capacity using such measures? (905769)

I am very interested in hearing proposals on patient self-referral. I am happy to meet my hon. Friend. From a cancer perspective, we are also potentially looking at self-referrals for skin diagnosis for possible skin cancer and for breast lumps, because we want to reduce waiting times and increase GP capacity.

T3.   Dydd Gŵyl Dewi hapus to you, Mr Speaker, and the whole House. The Minister should be aware of my long-fought campaign to improve how IVF add-ons are marketed to people who are longing for a baby. These add-ons, such as embryo glue or assisted hatching, often have limited success rates and cost thousands of pounds on top of an already expensive procedure. The system simply needs more regulation, so will she commit to meeting me to discuss this important issue further? (905764)

I am happy to meet the hon. Lady. She raises a very important point that affects people who are desperate to try for children.

T8. I thank the Secretary of State for the extremely welcome news that he will introduce a licensing regime for non-surgical cosmetic interventions. This is a huge step forward for women’s health, and one that I have campaigned for over many years, along with many across the House. I am absolutely delighted. Can he inform us how the proposed licensing regime will keep pace with the rapidly changing landscape of these treatments? (905770)

First, I pay tribute to my hon. Friend and to my right hon. Friend the Member for Romsey and Southampton North (Caroline Nokes) for all the work they have done on this most important of issues. Over the past few months, we have all heard in this House some horrific examples of botched, non-cosmetic procedures scarring people for life. No longer will that be allowed. We will be introducing a licensing regime for such procedures. The details of the regime will be set out in regulations, meaning that it will be flexible, agile and change in response to changes in the cosmetics industry.

T4. The response from the hon. Member for Lewes (Maria Caulfield) to the question from my right hon. Friend the Member for Kingston upon Hull North (Dame Diana Johnson) on health inequalities gives me no confidence that the Government have a plan to address these inequalities at all. She says that we have had a pandemic—of course we have, but the point is that it has happened everywhere. What does it say about this Government’s priorities that waiting times are escalating to a far greater extent in more deprived communities than they are in the more affluent communities that the Tories are so happy to represent? (905766)

I can only reiterate that we have a laser focus on this issue, and that is why we will be bringing forward the health disparities White Paper. I also point the hon. Gentleman to the NHS’s approach of the Core20PLUS5, where it is targeting the most deprived 20% of the population in five clinical priority areas: maternity, severe mental illness, chronic respiratory disease, early cancer diagnosis and hypertension. We will deliver on resolving disparities issues.

Today is the first day of Brain Tumour Awareness Month. The Secretary of State kindly wrote to me in January when my mother died from a brain tumour, and Baroness Tessa Jowell, who was much loved on all sides of the House, also died from a brain tumour. Given that it is the biggest cause of cancer death for the under-40s, and we still do not really know what causes them, does he agree that this should be a priority for research, so that we understand as much about brain tumours as about other cancers?

I once again express my condolences to my right hon. Friend for his loss. He is absolutely right to raise this issue and the need for more research. That is one of the reasons why, back in 2018, we announced £40 million of extra research funding over the next five years. I can tell him that some £9 million of that has already been committed to 10 projects. In addition, the Tessa Jowell Brain Matrix is an exciting new trials platform that will give people with brain cancer access to trials of treatments that are best suited for their individual tumours.

T9. According to the Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists, less than 3% of medical research funding in the UK is focused on women-specific diseases such as endometriosis and polycystic ovary syndrome. They are serious conditions, but too little is known about them and we do not hear enough about them, especially polycystic ovary syndrome. The failure to increase research funding is holding back women’s outcomes and experiences. What are the UK Government doing to increase the priority given to research funding for both those conditions? (905771)

The hon. Lady raises an important point. She is right that women are under-represented in clinical research and are waiting far too long for diagnoses of conditions such as endometriosis. The women’s health strategy will be published very shortly and I think that she will be pleased with some of its recommendations to drive improvements forward.

I am grateful to the Minister for Health for giving his time over recent months to hear the case for an exciting and innovative new health centre for the village of Long Crendon in my constituency, as proposed by the parish council and action group. Will he update the House on where we are with finding funding to help the construction of the project?

My hon. Friend is, as ever, persistent and tenacious in his advocacy of Long Crendon’s surgery plans; not only at the Dispatch Box but whenever he runs into me around this place, it is often the first thing on his lips. I will continue to work with him on the surgery bid and I encourage him to continue to work with his local NHS systems.

Will the Secretary of State meet me as chair of the all-party parliamentary group on sexual and reproductive health in the UK? Can I bring along the Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists, the Royal College of Midwives, the Royal College of General Practitioners, the Royal Pharmaceutical Society and the Faculty of Sexual and Reproductive Healthcare to explain why the decision to remove telemedicine is wrong for women in this country?

A dental practice in Shepshed has informed me that its NHS contract has changed little since 2006. Can the contracts and value of units of dental activity for treatment be increased to focus on prevention, rather than treatment alone?

I absolutely agree; my hon. Friend hits the nail on the head of why we are seeing such problems in dentistry. We have started negotiations on the dental contract and are working with the British Dental Association. The UDA has to be reformed as part of that: it is a perverse disincentive that turns dentists away from providing NHS services. I will keep her updated on our progress.

I thank all the Ministers for their responses. What steps have been taken to work with the Education Secretary to provide a higher number of places for medical students containing a golden handshake that allows for no student loan repayment or fees on condition that they stay in the NHS for a set time?

It is an important question on the workforce. The hon. Gentleman will know that over the last two years we have removed the cap on medical places and we have the highest number of doctors and dentists in training ever. It is right to think about what more we can do, however, and we are having active discussions with the Secretary of State for Education to see what can be done.

On the issue of children’s mental health, does the Minister agree that children with ADHD and autism have found the last two years even more stressful than usual? A cross-departmental approach is long overdue to ensure that their needs are adequately met.

The hon. Lady is absolutely right, which is why we are working cross-departmentally to bring forward a mental health strategy. It is also why we have put in place mental health recovery funding specifically for the recovery from the pandemic, which has had a terrible effect on children’s mental health.

The Secretary of State is on record saying:

“Making medicinal cannabis available on prescription will benefit the lives of ill patients currently suffering in silence. There is nothing harder than seeing your loved ones in pain”.

Since he said that, there have been three prescriptions for medical cannabis on the NHS. They are important, because they set a legal and medical precedent that it can happen, and it can happen now. Currently, however, if I can afford it, I can buy it, but if I cannot, I cannot. When will he address that anomaly?

The hon. Gentleman will know that for medicines to be generally available on the NHS, they have to be deemed safe and effective by the independent medical regulator. That requires trials to take place and that is where the focus should be. Those who want those medicines to be more easily available should encourage the companies that produce them to have trials and the NHS will support them in doing so.

Chloe Rutherford and Liam Curry from South Shields were tragically murdered in the Manchester Arena terror attack. Their parents’ pain is unimaginable and constant. After sitting through hours of the inquiry, they have been told that, in just two days’ time, the registration of their precious children’s deaths will be done not by them, but by a stranger. Apparently that is standard practice for mass casualty events. These grieving parents are being denied this final act for their children. Please can the Secretary of State explain why, and urgently intervene?

Of course I would be very happy to meet the hon. Lady. It is a very important issue that she has raised. I also send my condolences to the parents of Chloe and Liam.

The right decision was taken by this Government last week in confirming that the temporary telemedicine at-home abortion pill should cease. I commend the Government for that decision. Given that more than 10,000 women have ended up in hospital in the year 2020 after taking a first abortion pill, can my hon. Friend confirm that the Government will follow through on that decision?

As we clearly stated, the decision has been made to end the temporary approval, which means that face-to-face consultations and taking the first pill in a healthcare setting returns to England from 30 August 2022. As I said earlier, all healthcare services are kept under review as evidence and information emerge.

Since the NHS was created, it has been governed by the principle that services are free at the point of use, and, of course, the Secretary of State has a duty to protect that. Many of my constituents want to know whether the Government’s decision to start charging for covid tests marks a departure from that founding principle.

Clearly, that is one of the most important principles of the NHS and it will not change. It is right, though, that when we look at living with covid, we target testing on those who are most vulnerable or who are in vulnerable settings. That is the right, proportionate and balanced approach.