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House of Lords Hansard
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Covid-19: Critical Care Capacity
23 March 2020
Volume 802

Private Notice Question

Asked by

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To ask Her Majesty’s Government, in the light of Northwick Park Hospital’s declaration of a “critical incident” and an increasing number of patients across the UK with Covid-19, what steps are they taking to increase critical care capacity in the NHS.

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My Lords, Covid-19 is the major challenge of our generation. This Government’s priority is to protect life, which is why we are taking urgent action significantly to increase care-bed capacity throughout the NHS, including freeing up almost a third of existing beds. Yesterday, the Government announced a major deal with independent hospitals. That will add to the NHS’s pandemic response 8,000 hospital beds, 1,200 more ventilators and a significant front-line staff number of 10,000 nurses, 700 doctors and 8,000 other clinical staff.

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I thank the Minister for that Answer. It is of course incredibly worrying that, at this stage in the pandemic, Northwick Park Hospital was forced to declare a critical incident over the weekend. That means that it ran out of critical care beds and had to ask neighbouring hospitals to take its Covid-19 patients. It is likely to be two weeks before we may see a steadying of the spread as a result of social distancing measures. If one hospital is already finding itself in such a position, then more might do so in the coming weeks and months. As the Minister said, it is urgent to expand capacity by increasing the number of intensive care beds and ventilators available. Will the Minister detail how many ICU beds and ventilators the Government aim to have in place by the end of the two-week period, at which we hope infection rates will reflect the new measures?

Also, the House may be aware that a fit and healthy 36 year-old nurse is now on a ventilator in Walsall Manor Hospital, having contracted Covid-19. Are the Government confident that the supply of personal protective equipment is no longer an issue after an increase in delivery in recent days and that there are plans to further increase the production of such equipment?

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My Lords, the decision by Northwick Park was entirely welcome, because we welcome the realism and practicality on the part of the management in seeking help when it is needed. We are moving at pace to address the issues around PPE, and I can confirm that there is a massive amount going into the system as we speak. We currently have 3,700 critical care beds; total usage is currently 2,428, of which 237 are Covid-19 related; and our ambition is to increase this dramatically to perhaps 30,000 in time for the crisis arriving in full.

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My Lords, to increase the number of freelance locums working in the health system, will the Government make specific changes to the NHS Pension Scheme, in particular the death in service benefits, so that we can increase the number of qualified staff? Can the Minister also confirm that the Government are making sure that all GPs and pharmacists have sufficient stocks of asthma and COPD medicines to keep people out of hospital?

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My Lords, we are greatly relying on an influx of staff such as freelance locums in order to increase the numbers at the front line in dealing with Covid-19. Arrangements for the pension scheme are included in the Bill that we will bring to the House tomorrow. On supplies to GPs and pharmacies, a huge procurement programme is going on at the moment, and we are taking stocks out of our no-deal preparations in order to ensure that both GPs and pharmacies are well stocked.

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My Lords, many healthcare workers are concerned about their own health, particularly with regard to carrying the virus from their work into their homes and infecting their families. The Financial Times reported this morning that the Government have approached Amazon to deliver coronavirus tests urgently to front-line health and social care workers. This of course would provide some reassurance to staff and enable them to know whether they are infected, and therefore whether they should stay at work. Can the Minister offer an estimate as to when such a scheme could be rolled out?

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My Lords, the bravery and commitment of our front-line staff are to be commended. I think I speak for all of us when I pay tribute to everyone who has put their safety and health on the line. There is no doubt that those in the NHS who are working with those affected with Covid-19 are taking a huge risk, and it is our commitment to support them where we can. Hotel rooms are being booked for NHS staff who are reluctant to return home and who would quite wisely prefer to seek alternative accommodation. Tests are absolutely essential in order to get not only front-line clinical and ancillary staff but the whole country back to work. The Government are committed to finding a way to roll out a testing programme that gives British people confidence that we can beat this virus.

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My Lords, can the Minister be a bit more specific on the diagnostic front? The deal with the private sector is incredibly welcome, and the situation with Northwick Park demonstrates how important it is. However, it is not just about beds and ventilators but people. We know that staff are having to self-isolate because someone at home seems to be ill but they themselves may not be. What kind of numbers are we talking about? The Prime Minister has talked about getting up to 25,000 a day; there are 65 million people in the country. What is the ambition, not just in four weeks but in eight and 12 weeks, of what we might get to and how we will get there?

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My noble friend Lord O’Shaughnessy asks entirely reasonable questions, and he is quite right to press me for numbers. The tests we are talking about for this virus are new—some of them are only a few weeks old. It requires the tests to be tested to ensure that they are delivering accurate results, and for that reason it is difficult to commit to the kinds of numbers my noble friend searches for. However, it is very much the Prime Minister’s desire to have testing as a central part in our battle against the virus, and that is why we are putting enormous resources into it.

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My Lords, I think I was the first in your Lordships’ House to go through this virus, and I wish other noble Lords the best should they face what I did. I would like to flag to the Minister my experience of the lack of capacity in the NHS only a few days ago. It included: paramedics not knowing that breathing difficulties were associated with coronavirus; no proper delineation of red and green zones when we were in the isolation part of the hospital—we were taken through the A&E part to get there; and inadequate protective clothing of those in that isolation unit. Above all, the poor doctor who was looking after me told me that her colleagues could not be tested for coronavirus even though they were getting ill and had treated and given transfusions to known coronavirus cases. That was two or three days after Chris Whitty briefed us here about how testing was vital and would be continued during what was coming down the track—that is, the so-called delay phase. Can the Minister reassure us that such lack of capacity, which was astonishing in a north London hospital, is being actively addressed?

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My Lords, I welcome the testimony of the noble Baroness and cannot help but be moved by the situation she describes. This virus has moved incredibly quickly. Hospitals are doing amazing work to adapt to the conditions that dealing with the virus requires, and everyone is learning how to do it on the job.

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My Lords, I welcome the reassurance that we have been given by the Minister that testing is being scaled up, especially for health workers, but surely a serological or immunity test will be the real game-changer, because it will allow us to track those who have already had the virus, even unawares, and who are safe to return to work and help the most vulnerable. It is also essential that PPE is available, especially on the front line, to ensure infection control. Can my noble friend update us on whether availability of that is improving and on the training available to ensure that it is used most effectively?

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My noble friend Lady Blackwood is right that there are two types of test. The first is an antigen test to ensure that those in hospital, as workers or patients, do not currently carry the virus, and the second is a serological or antibody test that will confirm that a person has the antibodies and can therefore return to work, either on the front line or elsewhere. Both those tests exist, but mass production is restrained. We are working extremely hard with manufacturers around the world, and with British firms, massively to escalate our capacity.