Skip to main content

Topical Questions

Volume 718: debated on Tuesday 19 July 2022

I am honoured to have taken on the role of Secretary of State for Health and Social Care, and to have responsibility for incredibly important services that touch all our lives. I pay tribute to my predecessor, my right hon. Friend the Member for Bromsgrove (Sajid Javid), for everything he achieved in this role, and for the dedication he showed. I also welcome my new ministerial team.

Since my appointment, I have been relentlessly focused on the urgent pressures facing health and care, including this week’s extreme weather. Yesterday I updated the House on the strong support we are giving, including extra ambulance capacity and more call handlers, and we will stay vigilant so that we can make sure our health and care system is there for those who need it.

Today marks one year since we lifted covid restrictions. While the virus has not gone away, we are able to enjoy our freedoms, thanks to the incredible vaccine roll-out. I have accepted the Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation’s advice for a covid and flu autumn and winter booster campaign, in which we will roll out that vaccine further.

I have been contacted by many constituents working in the NHS who are struggling to cope with financial pressures, exhaustion and stress. I recently spoke to a district nurse using our food pantry in West Derby, and it was a heartbreaking example of how the cost of living crisis is impacting people across our communities. That nurse was going to lose their home and was struggling to feed their children. How does the Secretary of State plan to address the dire situation that the very people he applauded as heroes during the pandemic now face? Maybe a start would be giving NHS workers an inflation-proof rise.

On NHS pay, I expect to announce a response to the integrated pay review bodies shortly. We are putting more funding into the NHS, as I signalled in my statement yesterday.

T2. Making a diagnosis of dementia is important to allow appropriate treatment, support and time to plan for the future. Pre-pandemic, the diagnosis rate for dementia in England was meeting the two thirds target, but today it is 61.9%. In Wales, data capture and quality is poor, but the equivalent rate is thought to be just 50%. Will my right hon. Friend outline what steps he is taking to improve the situation? (901174)

My hon. Friend will be aware that the matter is devolved to the Welsh NHS, but I can say that in the last financial year, the Government allocated £70 million to NHS England to specifically address dementia waiting lists and increase the number of diagnoses. To further support recovery of the dementia diagnosis rate and access to post-diagnostic support, NHS England is funding two trusts in each region to pilot the diagnosing advanced dementia mandate tool, which will improve access to diagnosis.

I welcome the Secretary of State to his first oral questions and, as this is likely to be his last oral questions, also wish him the best for the future. I associate myself with his remarks about his predecessor, who of course resigned from the Government on a point of principle as others chose to remain loyal; on that note, I also pay tribute to the former Minister, the hon. Member for Charnwood (Edward Argar), for the diligent approach he took to his work and the spirit in which he engaged with the Opposition. One of the contenders for the Conservative leadership says that public services are in a state of disrepair. Another describes the NHS backlog as frightening. A third called ambulance waiting times appalling, and of course the Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport said that the former Health Secretary’s preparation for a pandemic was “found wanting and inadequate”. They are right, aren’t they?

The Government are committed to putting increased funding into our NHS. I set out yesterday the position on the resource departmental expenditure limit. Just to remind the House of the capital departmental expenditure limit, capital investment in the spending review was £32.2 billion between this year and 2024-25. The Government are committed to putting record funding into our NHS. We are also committed to funding 40 new hospitals and have allocated £3.7 billion to that programme.

I cannot believe that the Government are still talking about 40 new hospitals with a straight face. Nobody believes that it is true. As for capital investment, we have the lowest in the OECD and we lag significantly behind.

We have the longest waiting lists in NHS history and record waits for ambulances. People are finding it impossible to book a GP appointment. There are 400,000 delayed discharges each month because the social care support is not there. The Government are finally acknowledging that covid is still a challenge, and that the hot weather is a challenge, but they do not want to talk about their record, which is, I am afraid, at the heart of the challenge. Does the Secretary of State really believe that it is reasonable to expect NHS employers to meet the pay rise for NHS staff from existing budgets?

We will respond shortly to the independent pay review body, which, as part of its recommendations, weighs up the pressures on the cost of living and the other factors within its remit. The Government are delivering more doctors, more nurses, more appointments and more treatments, investing in our estate and planning for the future. That includes investment in research and development, and in future technology through our life sciences. That not only delivered the vaccine that allowed us to lift the covid restrictions that the Opposition wanted to retain, but will unlock the technologies of the future.

May I recommend some scintillating summer reading to the Secretary of State: the study of 4.5 million patients that showed that people who see the same GP over a long period are 30% less likely to go to hospital and 25% less likely to die? Will he, after reading that, consider changing the GP contract to get rid of the micromanagement, and replace it with what doctors and patients want, which is the ability to have a long-term relationship?

I think my right hon. Friend knows me well enough to know that I will have a close interest in reading anything over the summer that is data driven. He highlights an extremely important issue. Just yesterday, I met with Andrea and Simon Brady, whose daughter tragically died of cancer at the age of 27. One of the key concerns that they raised with me was the lack of consistency when it came to the GP that Jessica went to see, and the fact that she kept seeing different people, and there was not continuity of care. Specific cases that I am looking into speak to this issue, and I am happy to look at the data that my right hon. Friend can share.

T3. As the chair of the all-party parliamentary group on sickle cell and thalassaemia, I and the chief executive officer of the Sickle Cell Society were due to meet the Secretary of State’s predecessor to discuss the experiences of and health failings for people living with sickle cell and, indeed, sickle cell patients. Will the Secretary of State meet me—if he is still in post in September—or urge his predecessor to meet me and the CEO of the Sickle Cell Society? (901175)

I am not sure that I will urge my predecessor to do so, but if indeed there is a successor, I will be happy to share that with them. The hon. Lady raises an important point, and I am happy to look into it.

We are becoming more aware of how poor lifestyles, including with respect to diet, physical activity and stress, can contribute to an increase in the risk of cancer. Research is also highlighting that exercise, particularly moderate-intensity aerobic training, reduces side effects from treatment, anxiety, depression and recurrence rates. With that in mind, will the Secretary of State ensure that alongside diagnostics and treatment, exercise forms a fundamental part of the forthcoming 10-year cancer strategy, not only for preventing cancer but for reducing its recurrence?

My hon. Friend makes an important point. As part of our public health messaging and so on, exercise as a preventive mechanism against cancer is extremely important. We have had a call for evidence; we will consider the evidence that has been provided when we look at the 10-year plan, of which exercise will be an important component.

T4. Despite repeated questions from me and other hon. Members, immunocompromised people still do not have access to the prophylactic drug Evusheld. It appears that some heads might need knocking together, so will the Secretary of State convene an urgent meeting with AstraZeneca and the UK Health Security Agency to ensure that test results can be released? If the results are positive, will he get on with ordering supplies and rolling them out, so that immunocompromised people can finally get on with living their lives? (901176)

The hon. Lady continues to be a loud voice for those who are immunosuppressed, and I commend her for that. As she is aware, Evusheld was awarded conditional marketing authorisation by the Medicines and Healthcare products Regulatory Agency, which outlined some remaining questions, including about the amount of protection and the dose needed. My Department has been conducting an assessment of Evusheld, looking at the data available and the options for the NHS. We have asked clinicians to look at what we can do for future patient cohorts; we are considering their advice and will update the House shortly.

One of the great privileges of the three years that I spent at the Department of Health and Social Care was seeing at first hand the amazing work of our NHS workforce; I put on record once again my gratitude to them. Growing that workforce is vital to meeting the future health needs of our population, so will my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State, whom I welcome to his post, reconfirm the Government’s commitment to the target of 50,000 more nurses, and update the House on progress towards that target?

May I take the opportunity to thank my hon. Friend for his service as Minister of State? I think he was one of the longest-serving Ministers in that role; in fact, I think he took over from me, or shortly after me. He carried out the role with great distinction, as I am sure the whole House recognises.

I am very happy to reconfirm our commitment. I think the number is at about a third of a million, and great progress is being made. That enlarged measure is down to my hon. Friend’s work as Minister of State.

T5. I wrote to the Secretary of State’s immediate predecessor on 16 May and followed that letter with one to the Prime Minister about the case of a young man in my constituency, Elliott Simpson. Sadly, I have not had a response. Elliott was misdiagnosed with a water wart in a telephone consultation with a GP. When Elliott finally got to see someone face to face, he had late-stage skin cancer. National Institute for Health and Care Excellence guidelines do not currently allow him to receive the necessary life-saving treatment. Will the Secretary of State meet me and Elliott’s family to discuss what can be done to get this young man the treatment that he desperately needs? (901177)

I am very sorry, as I am sure the whole House is, to hear of the circumstances that the hon. Lady sets out. I am happy to look at the case, as I said to her ahead of this sitting, when I discovered that she had written to my predecessor. As I also flagged earlier, the number of face-to-face appointments is increasing. Telephone consultations are not a new thing; they have been around for a long time and are an important part of the mix—indeed, some patients prefer the flexibility that they offer. But of course I am happy to meet the hon. Lady in due course.

Long Crendon Parish Council in my constituency has an exciting proposal for an innovative new health and wellbeing centre, including GP services. It has the land from planning gain, and it has an agreement to put Unity Health in as the GP partnership, but we are stretched for funds to build it. I am grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Charnwood (Edward Argar) for his engagement over the past year. Will my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State meet me over the summer to discuss how we can move the project forward?

Again, as I am sure my hon. Friend will appreciate, these decisions should not be run from Whitehall and the centre. We should take a place-based approach, letting local decision-makers and commissioners make the decisions to shape the best services through their integrated care boards. My hon. Friend the Minister of State or I will engage with him to ensure that his representations are very much at the heart of any decisions that are taken.

T6. An estimated 117,000 people are reported to have died while on NHS waiting lists. A record 6.6 million people are waiting on the NHS for treatment, and they are in pain and suffering and, in many cases, fearful for their lives. This is a direct consequence of more than a decade of mismanagement and incompetence. What will the new Health Secretary do to give the British people the guarantees that they need to make sure that more do not die while waiting for treatment on the NHS? (901178)

That is why we have launched a range of initiatives, such as surgery hubs and diagnostic centres, to address the very real backlog resulting from the pandemic. Indeed, the NHS has published its delivery plan for tackling the covid-19 backlog of elective care, and that is focused on four areas: increasing health service capacity, prioritising diagnosis and treatment, transforming the way that NHS provides elective care, and providing better information and support to patients.

I welcome both the Secretary of State and the new Minister to their places and warn them that the one statistic that they will hear me say time and again is that cancer is the biggest cause of death of children under the age of 14. Both of their predecessors met my constituent Charlotte Fairall, who lost her daughter, Sophie, to a very aggressive form of rhabdomyosarcoma. Their story inspired the speech that the former Secretary of State, my right hon. Friend the Member for Bromsgrove (Sajid Javid), gave when he launched the 10-year cancer strategy. With that in mind, I would really appreciate it if the new Secretary of State restated his commitment to that strategy and to including a childhood cancer mission at its very heart.

The House recognises how my right hon. Friend has championed this issue over many years. There can be few more emotive issues than the one she draws to our attention. Of course, in keeping with my predecessors, I would be very happy to engage with her on this important issue.

T7. [R] I refer hon. Members to my entry in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests. I am asking specifically about intractable epilepsy. Three NHS prescriptions have been written for the appropriate medicine, so we have proven that that can be done and that the medicine can be provided free on the NHS. When can families and friends, who scramble every month to raise thousands of pounds to pay for private prescriptions, reasonably expect to receive this medicine on the NHS? (901179)

I thank the hon. Gentleman for his question, and I deeply sympathise with patients and families who are dealing so courageously with the difficult conditions that he describes. The Government are taking an evidence-based approach to unlicensed cannabis-based products to ensure that treatments are safe and effective before they can be considered for routine funding within the NHS. Whether to prescribe cannabis for medicinal use must remain a clinical decision, and public funding arrangements apply, as they do for all other medicines. The Government remain committed to research and catalysing the generation of evidence to support the use of these products. The National Institute for Health and Care Research remains open—

The National Institute for Health and Care Research remains open to receiving research proposals in this area as a priority.

Order. Minister, when I stand up, please do stop. You are the one who is dragging this out, so you tell these people why they cannot get in.

I welcome the confirmation of the cohorts to be vaccinated against covid-19 and flu this autumn. Will my hon. Friend advise the House and my constituents whether the two vaccines will be co-administered?

My hon. Friend asks a really important question. The Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation has advised that covid and flu vaccines can be given at the same time where that is operationally possible, and we will seek to maximise opportunities to co-promote and co-administer the flu and covid vaccines where it is possible and clinically advised, especially where this improves patient experience and vaccine uptake. Regardless of whether co-administration is offered, it is important that eligible people come forward as soon as they are called by the NHS for their jab, whether for flu or covid.

T8. Today, the Office for National Statistics reports that real pay is dropping at the fastest rate since records began in 2001. However, it is reported that the Government are going to punish our hard-working NHS staff even further by forcing through a real pay cut of between 5% and 6%. Will the Minister please dispel that by confirming that NHS staff will be awarded an inflation-proof pay rise? (901180)

The Government have committed to giving NHS workers a pay rise this year, on top of last year’s 3% rise when pay was frozen in the wider public sector. The independent pay review bodies base their recommendations on a number of factors, which include but are not limited to the cost of living and inflation, as well as the economic context and issues such as recruitment and retention. The Government are considering carefully the content of the pay review body’s report and will respond shortly.

I want to raise the case of 10-year-old Lucas from my constituency, who has a rare form of cancer called DIPG—diffuse intrinsic pontine glioma. The only drug that would prolong his life has to come from Germany. The family have raised the funds to pay for the drug, but they are now being charged £530 per shipment in import duty. Will my right hon. Friend please help me to lobby the Treasury for an exemption, because it should not be making money off the back of this poor boy’s lasting difficulties?

As my hon. Friend recognises in her question, that is a decision for Her Majesty’s Treasury, but I am very happy to highlight with the Chancellor the case that she brings to the attention of the House.

T9. Many people in the Chamber will know of my passion for addressing alcohol harm and addiction. However, 2022 marks a decade since the last alcohol strategy was introduced, and a decade of Government inaction. With deaths reaching the highest level in 20 years and the number of those drinking at high risk rising steadily, what plans do Ministers have to introduce a new comprehensive alcohol strategy to reduce the number of lives lost to alcohol harm and save the vast cost that alcohol imposes on our society? (901181)

I have heard the hon. Gentleman speak passionately about the impact alcohol has had on his family, and I commend him for his continued campaigning on the matter. It is not just about plans; it is about action. Through the drugs strategy, we are making the largest ever single increase in drug treatment and recovery funding, with £532 million being invested to rebuild local authority-commissioned treatment services. That will benefit people seeking support for alcohol addiction, as alcohol and drugs services are often commissioned together. In addition, £27 million has been invested in an ambitious programme to establish alcohol care teams in the 25% of hospitals that are most affected by alcohol dependency.

Last week, I chaired a joint meeting of the all-party parliamentary groups on maternity and on baby loss, where we heard from bereaved parents, maternity staff, and the fabulous and dedicated Donna Ockenden. Given that the women’s health strategy is about to be published, can the Minister or the Secretary of State reassure everybody in the sector that it will address maternity safety and the maternity staff numbers we so badly need?

I thank my hon. Friend for all her hard work campaigning on pregnancy and baby loss. We will publish the women’s health strategy shortly. Baby loss featured heavily in the call for evidence, and we committed to provide more than £200 million of funding to improve maternity staffing after the Ockenden review.

On a point of order, Mr Speaker. Today’s Order Paper states that the Secretary of State for Health and Social Care has released three statements. Two have been released—those on dental system improvement and the health update on the Down Syndrome Act 2022—but there is no sign of the Department of Health and Social Care update. We have just had the last oral questions to the Department of Health and Social Care for three months, so will you advise me what we can do to ensure that statements are released in time to be referred to in ministerial Question Time?

I thank the hon. Lady for notice of her point of order. The Government’s guidance states:

“Written statements should be issued at 9.30am where possible…If the statement cannot be issued by 12.30pm, the department should endeavour to notify the Chair of the relevant select committee and/or any other member with an interest.”

It states that that should include “Opposition front bench spokespersons”. Hopefully, the Chief Whip has heard the message and will want to deal with it.