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House of Lords Hansard
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Covid-19: Deep Cleaning
11 March 2020
Volume 802

Private Notice Question

Asked by

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To ask Her Majesty’s Government what guidance they are giving the public authorities and businesses on the deep cleaning of private and public spaces, buildings and facilities in the wake of COVID-19.

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My Lords, on 26 February, Public Health England published guidance on Covid-19 decontamination in non-healthcare settings. The guidance describes best practice in cleaning, the appropriate disposal of materials, the disinfection of equipment and the personal protective equipment that should be worn. As present, Public Health England advises decontamination only where there has been a possible or confirmed case of Covid-19. In all other situations, normal cleaning procedures should be followed.

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My Lords, I refer to my relevant registered interests. This virus can remain infectious on surfaces for up to 96 hours. My Question stems from my observation that many public and private buildings, facilities and spaces may have been swept and cleaned but not cleansed. There is an important difference here. Does the Minister agree that we have a serious challenge? Can he set out the steps the Government are taking to meet it, particularly how departments are working together and not in silos?

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My Lords, the noble Lord, Lord Kennedy, makes an important point. Cleaning and cleansing will be uppermost in all our minds, and I assure the House that it is a source of great focus in the efforts to combat Covid-19. However, I will try to persuade the noble Lord that we have only limited resources, time of those involved in the cleaning processes and good will from the public, so timing is essential when we are delivering measures to combat the spread of Covid-19. The CMO has been very clear on this: personal hygiene in washing hands and avoiding the spread of the virus to the face and skin should be the priority for us all. That is the focus of the Government’s efforts at this stage.

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My Lords, I declare an interest as chairman of a bank. The issue that the noble Lord has raised is very important. If someone is diagnosed with coronavirus, good practice means that no staff are allowed back into the building until it has been deep cleaned. An alternative would be to deep clean the building every night, so that if there were a case people could continue in their work, but to be able to pursue such a policy you need to know exactly what needs to be done to maintain the welfare and safety of the workforce.

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The noble Lord is entirely right that cleaning is important, but the kind of deep cleaning protocols he described are not those recommended by the CMO at this stage of the epidemic. The SAGE group of statisticians and epidemiologists is modelling the outbreak of the virus very closely. Its computer models track the behaviours of the virus, the demographics of the country and the behaviours of people in different circumstances. Its focus is to try to ensure that we channel all our efforts into effective measures and do not explore red herrings or distracting policies that might prove counterproductive or distract from effective measures.

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Can the Minister assist the House? He said just now that advice was published at the end of February on how to decontaminate non-hospital environments. It is extremely difficult to find; I have not managed to find it yet. It is clearly difficult for cleaning companies to find. One company in the UK which works across a number of our cities published its own advice to its cleaners which was taken from the Singapore standards. If people cannot find this advice, how on earth do they know what the NHS wants people to do in this country?

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I completely take on board the noble Baroness’s observation. I have here a copy of the regulations and I am happy to lay it in the Library. It is on GOV.UK in exactly the place you would expect to find such guidance, but I take on board the comments. We are spending millions of pounds on public information and employer advertising. More will be done to ensure that this kind of information reaches the people who need it. I will ensure that the message is heard loud and clear.

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My Lords, does the Minister recognise that there is some anecdotal evidence—I declare an interest, because my grandson is involved—that the time gap between taking a test and verifying whether it is positive is growing? This involves great distress and problems for the rest of the family concerned. Can he look into whether there is any way of ensuring that this gap does not continue to widen?

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I would like to reassure the House that my understanding is that the gap is not widening, but quite the opposite. An enormous amount of resources have been put into the various elements of the testing process, including the transport of tests to the testing centres, the turnaround of the tests and the return path to the testee. They include technological solutions that speed up that process dramatically. For Peers who are concerned, there is a special helpline for those who think they are displaying symptoms. I highly recommend that anyone who is concerned makes use of it.

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Is the Minister aware that in the city of Brighton, there are notices in almost all the public places advising people to cough only into a tissue and then to bin it? When I went into my local Boots in London, there was no such notice, and I saw four people coughing without any shielding. When I asked the shop assistant if she could advise people not to do that, she said, “There is nothing we can do about it.” Can Her Majesty’s Government not do as well as the government of Brighton?

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The noble Baroness is entirely right to emphasise the importance of personal hygiene. The Government are working hard to drive these messages home. Ultimately, it is up to the public to embrace the messages. A substantial public awareness campaign was launched 10 days ago. From the polling that we have done so far, it appears to have been extremely effective. Based on that polling, we will be launching a further campaign to ensure that everyone is aware of the hygiene protocols the noble Baroness describes.

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My Lords, the Minister made a good point about timing. Sometimes certain measures require preparation by public authorities and the public before they can be initiated. Does he agree that we may be not too far off a point when we ask those who are elderly and have underlying health conditions not to leave home, and that many public authorities—parish councils, town councils, local government, the NHS and Age UK—might soon want to undertake preparations?

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My noble friend is quite right that measures require preparation. This Government are determined not to be caught on the hoof. In his public statements on Monday the CMO was clear that there are three areas where the modelling suggests there might be a major difference to the delay processes that the House has heard about and understands. My noble friend is also right that the safeguarding of older and vulnerable people would be a likely candidate for that. A substantial amount of time is required though, maybe 10 to 12 weeks or more. It is important that social acceptance of that kind of measure is in place before it is initiated. We are also looking at modelling the kinds of changes which would mean that those who display any symptoms might seek to socially distance themselves or that those who have been tested think about ways of putting space between themselves and their families. These are the kinds of illustrative examples that the CMO has already discussed publicly, and the Government are preparing for those kinds of scenarios at the moment.

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My Lords, I am told on good scientific evidence that the Covid-19 virus is surrounded by a fatty skin, and that therefore the only way to deal with it effectively is by using hot water and soap. Can the Government slightly modify their advice? I am not sure that gels or cold water will have the intended effect; only hot water and soap will.

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The CMO has been very clear on this important point, and I thank the noble Baroness for making it. The virus is washable. Sanitisers, cold water and soap work, but undoubtedly, hot water and soap for 20 seconds while singing a song of your choice is by far the best way of dealing with this threat.