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Topical Questions

Volume 724: debated on Tuesday 6 December 2022

We know that women can benefit from more personalised care, especially in pregnancy. The Tommy’s app is a new clinical decision tool for the NHS and for women, another example of how we are using artificial intelligence to improve our maternity system. That will help to end some of the variation in maternity care from hospital to hospital. I am pleased to tell hon. Members, particularly my hon. Friend the Member for Rutland and Melton (Alicia Kearns), who is a great champion of improved mental health, that today my Department, through our National Institute for Health and Care Research, has agreed to provide the funding needed for the next stage of the app’s development. I pay tribute to Sienna and all those other babies born stillborn to their parents and thank all those in this Chamber who have campaigned passionately on this important issue.

Another dental practice in my constituency recently handed back its NHS contract. When I contacted local NHS management about the impact of the closure, it stated that the area in question was adjudged to be well served for NHS dentistry practices because there are 11 practices within a half-mile radius. The experience of my constituents, now left searching for NHS dental services, is that none of those practices is accepting new NHS patients. What is the Secretary of State doing to ensure that assessments of the sufficiency of NHS dental services reflect the real situation on the ground, and when will we see a sustainable solution to the problems my constituents face?

The hon. Lady raises an important issue that is of concern across the House, as we have already seen in the exchanges the Under-Secretary of State for Health and Social Care, my hon. Friend the Member for Harborough (Neil O’Brien) answered. That in part was why, during the pandemic, we used £1.7 billion of funding to protect dentistry and why we got a commitment through the £3 billion a year funding of dentistry, but we are looking at how we localise that commissioning to get better value out of the contract, which was the point my hon. Friend raised.

T2. At 1 o’clock today, patient safety expert Dr Bill Kirkup will be speaking to MPs at the all-party parliamentary group for whistleblowing, to which all colleagues are invited. It is a timely meeting following last week’s “Newsnight” programme, which highlighted yet another NHS trust where a culture of fear left staff unable to speak up on patient safety concerns. It is clear change is needed. Does my hon. Friend agree that supporting whistleblowers in the NHS is crucial to patient safety? (902633)

My hon. Friend is so right. I praise her work with the APPG and I know many colleagues will want to attend. Whistleblowers can save lives and improve healthcare, as I have seen in my own constituency, and she is right to be pressing on this matter.

The chairman of the Conservative party claims that NHS strikes are exactly what Vladimir Putin wants, so why is not the Health Secretary negotiating to prevent them from going ahead?

I have seen the hon. Gentleman make that claim across the media a number of times. Just to reassure him, my door is open and I have been clear with the trade unions that I am available; I am available to them this afternoon or tomorrow. It is not I who set a precondition for those talks. When I met the trade unions, they raised a number of issues; not only pay, but safety of staff and other conditions, the estate, tech and so forth, and I am happy to engage with them on those points.

We get the warm words about wanting to negotiate, but a Government source briefed The Times last week that the Secretary of State’s plan is to wait for public sentiment to turn against striking nurses, saying:

“This is going to affect a lot of people…it could have a big impact on a lot of them and…in the end they will get fed up”.

He knows that this winter is going to be the most difficult that the NHS has ever faced, and he is using nurses as scapegoats to avoid the blame. That is the shameful truth, isn’t it?

First, it is a bit bizarre that, at departmental questions, the best the hon. Gentleman can manage is “a Government source”. Secondly, the revelation from that Government source is that this will affect “a lot of people”. I do not think that comes as any surprise. That is why we regret the action and are very open to having talks. The point is that he himself does not support the 19% pay demand of the trade unions. He stands here saying that we should be talking while he himself does not accept their proposal.

T4. There have been several changes of Ministers, as we know, but officials have carried on working through these changes, so can we know on what day, date and time the long-promised and overdue tobacco control plan will finally be published? (902636)

Whatever format our next steps forward are set out in, we will be pushing forward very quickly and aggressively on this. This year, we are putting £35 million into the NHS to support our services for everyone who goes in to stop smoking. We have doubled duty on cigarettes and brought in a minimum excise tax. Women who are pregnant now routinely get a carbon monoxide test. National campaigns such as Stoptober have now helped 2.1 million people to quit smoking. We are also supporting a future medically licensed vaping product as a quitting aid. We will be pressing forward at the greatest speed.

Intellectual property protections are an important way of protecting healthcare companies’ innovations, as we know. However, developments on intellectual property can also impact the rights of individuals, limiting access to affordable, life-saving and essential medical products. What recent representations has the Secretary of State made to colleagues in the Department for International Trade to seek assurances that nothing in the proposed free trade agreement with India will impact or jeopardise access to affordable medicines for NHS patients in Scotland?

I can reassure the hon. Gentleman on that. I would have thought that he would also welcome the commitment to a £15 billion to £20 billion increase in R&D investment, the championing of life sciences that the Minister for Health, my hon. Friend the Member for Colchester (Will Quince), has been leading on, and the opportunity we have to address greater variation within the NHS by bringing forward the innovations from our life industry and applying them much more quickly.

T7. Several GP practices in Rother Valley, such as Swallownest Health Centre, operate a policy of having to ring the doctor’s surgery at 8 am for an appointment. Residents find themselves being placed 50th or 60th in the queue, and are then told that no appointment is available and to call back the next day. This is clearly an unacceptable way to offer appointments. What steps are my hon. Friends taking to stop the current failed booking system and instead guarantee a system of pre-booked appointments at all GP surgeries? (902639)

That is something that we are working on very actively. As well as financially supporting GPs to roll out new and better ways of managing their appointments, we are looking at what criteria we expect from GPs. We already set out some moves in our summer action plan, but we will be looking further at preventing the lamentable situation my hon. Friend describes of people being asked to ring back or being held in long phone queues. That is not acceptable.

T3.   The public are not daft. They know that the backlogs in the NHS existed well before the pandemic, they know that the NHS was already on its knees, and they know that it was this Tory Government who brought it to its knees. So why do the Government not take up Labour’s policy of scrapping non-dom status, use the £3.6 billion to train nurses, doctors and midwives, and get the NHS back on its feet? People in east Hull want nurses, not non-doms. (902634)

The data is very clear; in fact, it is very stark on the extent to which the backlog is driven predominantly by the pandemic. That is why we have a programme, through the extra investment in the autumn statement: the £6.6 billion over the next two years going into the NHS, but also the £2.8 billion next year and £4.7 billion the year after into social care, and £8 billion in 2024. We recognise the size of those backlogs, so we can fund the surgical hubs and diagnostic centres.

I met local care providers last Friday, and they raised two main points with me: concerns about energy costs and covid in care homes. They were keen to see their nursing staff vaccinated with residents, all at the same time. I recognise that that happens in some places, but can we look at making it the norm throughout the country?

My hon. Friend makes an important point. The NHS is strongly encouraging local vaccination teams to vaccinate staff, as well as residents when they visit care homes. That should be normal practice. I am happy to look into it, if that is not happening in her area. I take this opportunity to encourage any health or social care worker who has not had their covid or flu jab this winter to please go ahead and get one.

T5. Parents are becoming increasingly worried about the current prevalence of strep A. It is a time of year when parents are going to have children with high temperatures and sore throats, so concern is likely to be very high. There are also concerns about the availability of antibiotics. Does the Secretary of State believe that this is a moment where the Government need to make a statement and show clear leadership to calm people down and reassure them about the situation? (902637)

We held a cross-party briefing last night on strep A. We want to reassure parents, and if their children have symptoms and they are concerned, please seek help. GPs are ready and A&E departments are ready, and we have directors of public health proactively going into schools where there are cases. There is no shortage of antibiotics—we want to reassure people on that—and we are keeping an eye on that on a daily basis.

The East Lancashire community diagnosis centre already includes Burnley hospital, and as part of that we are opening two new endoscopy rooms in the spring. Residents, the trust and I know that the local hospital can do even more to reduce the covid backlog with the right Government investment. Will the Minister agree to meet me to discuss phase 9 of the hospital’s development, which would bring a brand-new radiology suite?

My hon. Friend is a strong champion for Burnley, and I congratulate Burnley General Teaching Hospital on the incredible innovative work it is doing. He is right that rolling out 91 out of 160 CDCs is a tremendous effort, but we want to go further, and I would be delighted to meet my hon. Friend to discuss these plans further.

T8.   Last week, the First Minister of Wales, Mark Drakeford, said that pay awards are not being funded at the level they should be. The Wales TUC general secretary said that unless we have a fairer funding settlement for Wales, we are going to struggle going forward. When will this Government listen to the Welsh Government and the Welsh trade unions and provide the proper funded pay award that NHS staff deserve? (902640)

I simply direct the hon. Member to the Barnett consequentials. As a former Chief Secretary who has had those discussions with the Welsh Finance Minister I know, and the hon. Lady should know, that Wales gets significantly more funding per head of population than England. I hope she welcomes the fact that, through the extra £6.6 billion in the autumn statement, the First Minister will have a significant uplift, and it is for him to decide how he wishes to spend that money.

I was recently contacted by Amanda in my beautiful constituency of South West Hertfordshire, whose 88-year-old mother had fallen in her flat and unfortunately broken her hip. After waiting for five hours and making two calls to 999, her mother was still lying on the floor. Once they arrived at A&E, Amanda and her mother waited several more hours before being seen. Can my right hon. Friend assure the House that he is doing everything possible to find a solution to this system-wide issue?

My hon. Friend raises an extremely important case. I am happy to meet him to discuss it further, because it is a concerning case and I am keen to engage with him on it.

T9. My hon. Friend the Member for Denton and Reddish (Andrew Gwynne), the shadow Minister for public health, touched on health inequalities earlier, but I did not hear the Health Secretary recommit to publishing the White Paper by the deadline. Does he understand that the cost of living crisis and poverty are leading to greater health inequalities and that action is needed urgently? Can he recommit to that White Paper being published? (902641)

We are absolutely committed to addressing health inequalities. Rather than simply looking at 10 years’ time, we are looking at the immediate actions we can take, because what matters—[Interruption.] Those on the Opposition Front Bench chunter about White Papers, but what I am interested in is immediate delivery—what we can be doing now, rather than speculating about what is done in 10 years’ time.

We are seeing a sad increase in suicide rates across the country. In 2012, the then Government published a 10-year cross-Government suicide prevention plan. Earlier this year, the Government under the leadership of my right hon. Friend the Member for Uxbridge and South Ruislip (Boris Johnson) committed to a new 10-year plan that would be published before the start of 2023. There is no sign of that cross-Government 10-year suicide prevention plan, but maybe I am wrong, and perhaps the Government are about to publish it, because I know that so much of the work has already been done. May I ask my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State to show that he takes suicide prevention seriously and publish this plan as soon as possible?

I thank my right hon. Friend and pay tribute to him for all his work in this area; he has driven this agenda forward. I want to reassure him that we are looking at that. He will understand that we have had some changes in recent weeks, but I assure him that tackling the issue of suicide is a high priority, and we will make an announcement shortly.

In a case that is sadly all too typical, a GP in Ealing, who has seen their patient list go up from 3,000 to 9,000 in the last decade, had plans approved for expansion, but NHS estates now will not cough up. What are the Government doing to support doctors in inadequate premises who cannot increase their patient lists to expand and modernise in the current climate?

The total activity done by GPs was about 7% up in October compared with the previous year. We are actively looking at the way that capital works and the contributions of section 106 and the local integrated care board, to ensure that, as well as having those 2,300 extra doctors and 21,000 extra staff, GPs also have good facilities to work in.

Access to dentistry is an acute issue for West Oxfordshire. Can Ministers explain what they are doing to help rural areas such as mine, and can we meet to discuss it further?

I have mentioned the fact that the number of NHS dentists was up 2% to 2.3% last year, as well as the extra £50 million and the reforms we have made to the contract, but we will go further. We want to address those areas, and particularly rural areas, where more provision is urgently needed.

The chair of the Royal College of General Practitioners has expressed concerns about patients with chronic conditions such as asthma, diabetes and even serious mental health conditions refusing sick notes because they cannot afford time off work. What discussions has the Secretary of State had with Cabinet colleagues about the adequacy of statutory sick pay during this cost of living crisis?

I refer the hon. Lady to the autumn statement, in which my right hon. Friend the Chancellor set out a wide range of support packages to help with the cost of living across the United Kingdom, including the cost of energy. That is part of wider discussions that we have on a regular basis with the Treasury.

The pandemic has had a devastating effect on the number of people waiting for treatment. In 2019, there were 54 women waiting more than a year to see a gynaecologist. That number is now more than 40,000. What is my right hon. Friend doing to reduce this wait?

This is a good illustration of the challenge the country faces with backlogs that are very much driven by the pandemic. We are working with senior figures such as Jim Mackey and Professor Tim Briggs and the Getting It Right First Time programme to look at patient pathways, how we use our diagnostics and our surgical hubs and streamlining the way we get services to patients where backlogs have built up.

This morning, we tragically learned that a five-year-old girl who was a P2 pupil at Black Mountain Primary School died yesterday in Belfast with strep A. I am grateful to the Minister for the answer she gave to the hon. Member for Eltham (Clive Efford) on strep A and her encouraging commitment that antibiotics including penicillin are available, but can she ensure that our public health agencies across this United Kingdom co-operate with one another and that if additional resource is required, it will be made available?

I am very sorry to hear about that tragic case in Northern Ireland. We want to reassure people that, while there is a slightly higher number of cases than usual for this time of year, the UK Health Security Agency is on top of this and is not concerned that there is a wider outbreak than would be expected. We want to encourage parents who are concerned that their children are not responding to get help as soon as possible. Antibiotics are available, and local directors of public health should be co-ordinating local activity, but if there are any concerns, Members should come and see me.

On Saturday, I visited Chalkwell Grange, a brilliant new care home in picturesque Leigh-on-Sea which is struggling to recruit due to the guidance that all care workers should wear face masks. Will the Secretary of State give care homes the best Christmas present ever and change the word “should” to “can” or “may”, to put them in charge of their own infection control?

I thank my hon. Friend; it is good to hear that she has visited a local care home. I have also heard what she heard from staff. Although face masks are important for infection control, we know that they have downsides, such as making communication harder. I have asked for updated public health advice on the use of masks in care homes and I look forward to updating hon. Members and the social care sector on the guidance about that shortly.

My constituent is a victim of sexual misconduct by a medical professional, but they cannot challenge that professional’s fitness to practice because of the five-year rule. The General Medical Council wants that rule to be scrapped and the Government consulted on whether to get rid of it more than a year ago. Can the Minister say whether it is the Government’s intention to scrap it? Will she meet me to discuss how important it is that the GMC can explore whether a potentially dangerous medical professional who is still practising may be unfit to do so?

I thank the hon. Lady for her campaigning on this serious issue. I am happy to meet her and I suggest that we also meet the patient safety commissioner, Henrietta Hughes, to discuss it further.

Can the Secretary of State give the House an undertaking that no NHS or social care facility will be decommissioned and used to house asylum seekers in Northamptonshire or the rest of the country?

I am not aware of any proposal on those lines. On my hon. Friend’s earlier point, as I said, I am happy to meet him to discuss the issue of step-down care and I am sure that there will be an opportunity to discuss any other concerns that he has at the same time.

My constituent Margaret Cramman is a full-time carer for her daughter. Throughout the pandemic, she was denied respite care. Now the care setting insists on testing for visitors and mask wearing for staff, which causes distress to some of the young people being cared for, who rely on vital facial recognition. Nearly all the other covid guidance has been reviewed, but the guidance for respite care remains the same. Why are carers and those they care for always an afterthought for the Government?

I point the hon. Member to the answer that I gave to my hon. Friend the Member for Southend West (Anna Firth) a moment ago specifically about face masks. I have asked for updated guidance for the social care sector on the use of face masks. I recognise the difficulties they cause—for instance, in communication—and I am looking forward to being able to give an update to hon. Members and the sector on that shortly.

What assessment has the Secretary of State made of geographic variation in access to innovative liver cancer treatments, such as selective internal radiation therapy?

It is a brilliant question on which to close, because one of the things that all hon. Members should be hugely interested in is how we are adopting innovation more quickly and industrialising that innovation across the NHS as a whole, as opposed to in silos. That is something that we are focused on in the Department and it is a key priority. I am happy to speak to the Scottish Government and others about how we can work together on that.