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Topical Questions

Volume 733: debated on Tuesday 6 June 2023

As Health Secretary, I have been clear that deploying the latest technology and innovation is essential in order to deliver our priorities: to cut waiting lists, improve access to GPs and improve A&E performance. The NHS app is at the heart of this, including the enhancement of patient choice set out in our recent announcement, which is not available to patients in Wales. The Patients Association estimates that by enabling people to select a different hospital in the same region on the app, we can cut their waiting times by as much as three months.

We have been making major improvements behind the scenes, which are already paying off. Today, I can tell the House that between March 2022 and March of this year, there have been 6 million new registrations for the app; repeat prescriptions via the app have increased from 1.6 million a month to 2.5 million a month; and primary care appointments made on the app have increased from 30,000 a month to 250,000, and secondary care appointment from 30,000 a month to 360,000. We continue to work to increase the app’s functionality, including opening more records and test results and enabling more appointments, as part of our commitment to technology.

Brain tumours are the biggest killer for people under 40, but we are still waiting for the full £40 million that the Government promised to fund brain tumour research. In March, I raised in the House the heartbreaking experience of my constituents Yasmin and Khuram, whose daughter Amani died from a brain tumour just before her 23rd birthday. Once again, I ask whether the Minister for Health and Secondary Care or the Secretary of State will meet with me and my constituents to hear their calls for the full funding allocation to be given to researchers. That funding would be transformational for the treatment of brain tumours.

The Minister of State has met with campaigners, and I know he stands ready to have further such meetings. As we touched on earlier, the £40 million is available; obviously, that needs to be allocated to research bids of the necessary quality, and the remaining money is open to researchers to bid for. I hope they will do so.

T3. I thank my right hon. Friend for reconfirming the investment into North Devon District Hospital. Will he meet with me, the hospital trust and my local housing association to ensure that the housing committed to on the Barnstaple site can rapidly commence? (905249)

I am very keen to meet with my hon. Friend. I know this is an extremely important scheme for her constituency, particularly the key worker accommodation, and I look forward to having that discussion with her and the leadership of her trust.

First, I congratulate the Health Secretary on his recent write-up as the next Leader of the Opposition. According to the i newspaper, his supporters are calling him “Mr Consistent”. Is that because of the consistent rise in waiting lists since he became Health Secretary, the consistently longer waiting times that patients are facing, or the consistent delay to the NHS workforce plan?

The point of consistency is that we gave a manifesto commitment to have 26,000 additional roles in primary care, and we have delivered that. We made a commitment to the largest ever hospital building programme, and we have announced over £20 billion of investment in it. The Government are standing by their manifesto commitments—that is what we are delivering.

I am sure that will do it.

I want to turn to the most recent reports about the NHS workforce plan, because apparently not only is that plan delayed, but we now read in the media that it is unfunded. Labour will pay for our workforce plan by abolishing the non-dom tax status. [Interruption.] Conservative Members do not like it, Mr Speaker, but it is the only tax they have been unwilling to put up. We have a plan, and we have said how we will pay for it. How will the Health Secretary fund his plan when it eventually arrives? Will it be cuts to the NHS, more borrowing, or even more broken promises?

The hon. Gentleman is recycling this question almost as often as he recycles the non-dom funding. As I said at the last Health and Social Care Question Time, it is like the 1p on income tax that the Lib Dems used to promise, which was applied to every scheme going.

We touched on this issue at the last Question Time, and indeed at the one before: we have a commitment to a long-term workforce plan. The Chancellor made that commitment in the autumn statement, but it is a complex piece of work that NHS England is working on. It is important that we get the reforms in that plan right, and that is what we are committed to doing.

T4. Just a couple of weeks ago, the Obesity Health Alliance launched its manifesto to tackle the high levels of diet-related ill health and the impact that has on our economy and society. Can my hon. Friend update the House on the progress being made on implementing the measures in section 172 of and schedule 18 to the Health and Care Act 2022 on the advertising of less healthy food and drink? (905250)

We are still committed to reducing the advertising of unhealthy food, including the junk food watershed that will be implemented in 2025. Ahead of that, we are taking action on obesity across the board, including the sugar tax, which has cut the average sugar content of affected drinks by 46%, the calorie labelling that we have on out-of-home food in cafés and restaurants, and the location restrictions on less healthy food that are coming in from October.

Kidney Research UK has published a report on the health economics of kidney disease, predicting a terrifying rise over the next 10 years. As we know, uncontrolled diabetes is the biggest cause, with Diabetes UK noting that those disproportionately most at risk are those from poverty and from south Asian and black ethnic backgrounds. Reducing health inequalities is therefore key, and it is a key ambition for the Scottish Government. It means tackling poverty in our society. What steps is the Minister’s Department—

I had a useful conversation with the Scottish public health Minister where we discussed many of these issues. We are providing huge cost of living support—some of the most generous in Europe, worth £3,300 a household—and taking action across the piece. Whether it is smoking or obesity, we are tackling the underlying causes of the health inequalities that the hon. Gentleman mentions.

T8. Under the Human Rights Act, do the Government not have a duty of care to deal with the housing of illegal migrants? How can the Government ensure the health of 2,000 migrants cooped up in the former RAF Scampton? In particular, how will they ensure their health given the fact that the site is riddled with asbestos and contamination from 100 years of RAF usage? I see a case coming to the European Court of Human Rights. (905255)

Clearly, an increase in population in a specific area will have an impact on the health needs there. I recognise the concern that my right hon. Friend raises, and I will ask the Minister for Primary Care and Public Health to follow up with him on this important point. While the NHS is well equipped to deal with short-term pressures, this issue highlights the importance of the Prime Minister’s commitment to stop the boats and the Government’s overall strategy on illegal migration.

T5. As chair of the all-party parliamentary health group, I have been hearing so much about the importance of artificial intelligence innovation in mental health, and I was pleased to launch the AVATAR2 clinical trials in three universities across the UK. Will the Secretary of State commend this progress being made in digital innovation? It deserves scrutiny, but can make much progress. (905251)

I very much welcome it. I am delighted to hear that constructive approach to AI from the hon. Lady. The importance of AI is why we have been funding more than 80 AI lab schemes with more than £130 million. AI has huge potential to help patients. We are seeing that, for example, in stroke patients getting care much quicker. She is right that there are also some regulatory and other issues that we need to address, but we should not miss the opportunities of AI, and she is right to highlight them.

T9. Last week, not a single dentist across the city of Southend said that they were taking on new NHS patients, which is concerning for my constituents. Can my hon. Friend confirm again what steps he is taking to make sure that my constituents get the NHS dental treatment that they deserve? (905256)

This is absolutely the top priority I am working on at the moment. I am totally seized of the challenge that my hon. Friend mentions. I have mentioned some of the reforms we are already making, which have increased dental activity by about a fifth in the year to March, but we know that we have to go further and we will do so shortly.

T6. More than one in 10 social care roles are vacant, and the biggest culprit in this recruitment and retention crisis is low pay. According to recent TUC analysis, a £15 an hour minimum wage for care workers would not only tackle staff shortages, but level up places such as the east midlands, introducing an £800 million economic boost. Will the Government introduce that? (905252)

I want to see the care workforce recognised and rewarded for the work that they do. That is one reason why we gave adult social care a record uplift to its funding of up to £7.5 billion in the autumn statement, for local authorities to fund care providers to pay their workforce in turn. That goes hand in hand with our workforce reforms to develop the skills and career opportunities for the care workforce.

Has my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State read the report “Safe and Effective?” produced in April by a group of senior clinicians, which is very critical of the work of the Medicines and Healthcare products Regulatory Agency? If he has not yet read it, will he do so, please?

I thank my hon. Friend for his question. I feel that we had a very productive meeting yesterday with the all-party parliamentary group on covid-19 vaccine damage about the vaccines for covid and the issue of the MHRA. He raised a number of important points during that meeting, including that on the MHRA, and I will be responding to him shortly.

T7. One of my constituents with complex health needs has struggled to get GP appointments for years now. On one occasion when they could not get an appointment, they had to resort to taking out-of-date medicine. Last week, they phoned every morning at 8 am, before finally getting just a telephone appointment. When will the Government finally fix the crisis in primary care and make sure that everyone gets access to a GP appointment? (905253)

As the Under-Secretary of State for Health and Social Care, my hon. Friend the Member for Harborough, said earlier, through the primary care recovery plan we have specific measures to tackle things such as the pressure at 8 am, particularly on a Monday morning. There is the investment in digital telephony, with call-back features, and online booking, as well as the channel shift to enable pharmacists to do more and to prescribe more, the use of the NHS app and the review of 111. There is a range of initiatives that we are taking to address the increased demand. Ultimately, GPs are seeing more patients—up to 10% more patients—but there is more demand, and that is how we are meeting it.

Kettering General Hospital is aiming to submit its final business case for its £34 million net zero energy centre in December, but has been told that when it does so, it can expect at least a 13-week wait for approval. The Secretary of State has been good enough to see for himself the urgent need for this new power plant. Is there anything he can do to speed up this process?

I share my hon. Friend’s desire for us to move at pace on the scheme. As he says, I have seen at first hand the importance of the scheme at Kettering, and I stand ready to work constructively with him to expedite that case, because I do not think anyone is in any doubt of the importance of the work at Kettering. It is a huge tribute to him and the way he has championed the case for Kettering that it was such a central part of the new hospital programme announcement.

In Wakefield, I am pleased to say that our campaign to save our city centre walk-in service has been successful, but every day people are still struggling to get a GP appointment. The latest NHS statistics show that, in April, 12,586 people waited more than 28 days. Quite simply, there are not enough fully qualified GPs. Labour has a workforce plan that is ambitious and costed. Where is the Government’s delayed and fully funded workforce plan?

I have already mentioned that we have nearly 2,000 more doctors in primary care than we did in 2019, as well as the early delivery of the 26,000 extra clinicians we have brought into primary care. [Interruption.] The Opposition may not want to hear it, but the truth is that we have increased funding for general practice by about a fifth in real terms. We have more doctors and other clinicians, and GPs are doing 10% more appointments every month. We want to continue to build on that, which is why we have the primary care recovery plan and why we have invested a further £645 million in enabling people to get treatment from their pharmacists, freeing up 10 million more GP appointments. We know we must go further, but we are making progress.

I know the Minister is very keen to see the numbers of elective waits fall, and they have been falling. My constituents in Newcastle-under-Lyme share that aim. So will he welcome the local hospital trust opening not only a new modular theatre for specialised hand surgery, but a central treatment suite for day patients at the County Hospital in Stafford funded by NHS England’s elective recovery plan, which will help cut waits for planned procedures?

I thank my hon. Friend for his question. He has articulately and eloquently set out the improvements being made at Stafford County Hospital, and he has been a strong champion for those works. This is real, visible, positive change that will benefit both residents and patients in Newcastle-under-Lyme and the surrounding areas.

My constituent Brian Murray lost his wife Roberta six years ago, following years of chronic health conditions after an infected blood transfusion. He wants to know: when will the Government enact all of the recommendations regarding compensation from the second report by Sir Brian Langstaff?

I thank the hon. Gentleman for his question. We take this issue very seriously, and we have already made interim payments to those infected. The Minister for the Cabinet Office came to the Dispatch Box in April when Brian Langstaff’s review was published, and we are working night and day to respond to those recommendations and get that plan out as soon as possible. We recognise the impact on families, and on those infected and affected.

I refer Members to my entry in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests. Today Dr Mike McKean, a respiratory consultant and vice-president of the Royal College of Paediatrics and Child Health, said that vaping is “fast becoming an epidemic” among children. The Royal College of Paediatrics and Child Health said that we should ban disposable cigarettes—e-cigarettes—“without a doubt”. Will the Minister do all he can to prevent children from starting vaping, and will he back my ten-minute rule Bill, which was first introduced in this place in February, to ban disposable e-cigarettes?

I pay tribute to my hon. Friend and her leadership on this issue. Many of the ideas that she has been putting forward are already in the plan that we set out to tackle youth vaping, including the creation of the “flying squad”, the ongoing call for evidence on youth vaping, and all the different things we could do to continue to drive it down.

The non-surgical breast cancer service in South Yorkshire is facing a critical shortage of oncologists. The shortage is so severe that patients are being told to expect months between referral and appointment. What immediate steps are the Government taking to ensure that patients, no matter their postcode, see a specialist as soon as they need to do so?

As reflected in the fact that we met the faster diagnosis standard in February and March for the first time, we are investing more in our cancer services to meet the recognised increase in demand. That is why more patients are being treated sooner and survival rates are improving. I am happy to look at any variation at a local level because of workforce pressure, but the diagnostic centres and surgical hubs are all part of our response to the increase in cancer demand.

A number of dentists across north Staffordshire are stopping NHS treatment, which is extremely concerning. Some of my constituents have reported that they are being told they will have to pay either £120 a year or £14 a month to stay on the books. Will my hon. Friend look into those serious concerns and meet me to discuss the matter further?

I recently learned that my local integrated care board is not allowed to spend the money it wants to spend on securing the best location for a new GP practice and health centre. The reason is that Treasury rules, which are used by the District Valuer Services, are not keeping up with market rents. Will the Secretary of State speak to his colleagues in the Treasury to fix that, before we face an epidemic of health centres and GPs leaving town and city centres, and moving to ring-road locations away from the populations they serve?