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Covid-19: Response

Volume 803: debated on Tuesday 19 May 2020

Statement

The following Statement was made on Monday 18 May in the House of Commons.

“With permission, Mr Speaker, I will make a Statement on coronavirus. This is the most serious public health emergency in 100 years, but through the combined efforts of the whole nation, we have got through the peak. Let us not forget what, together, has been achieved. We flattened the curve, and now the number of people in hospital with coronavirus is half what it was at the peak. We protected the NHS, and the number of patients in critical care is down by two-thirds. Mercifully, the number of deaths across all settings is falling.

This Mental Health Awareness Week is an important reminder that we need to look after ourselves, as well as each other. If someone needs support with their mental health, the NHS is there for them. This is particularly important for front-line staff, and we have supported all NHS trusts to develop 24/7 mental health helplines.

Our plan throughout this crisis has been to slow the spread and protect the NHS. Thanks to the resolve of the British people, the plan is working, and we are now in the second phase of this fight. I will update the House on the next steps that we are taking as part of that plan. First, we are protecting the nation’s care homes, with a further £600 million available directly to care homes in England. We have prioritised testing for care homes throughout, we made sure that every care home has a named NHS clinical lead and we are requiring local authorities to conduct daily reviews of the situation on the ground, so that every care home gets the support it needs each and every day. All this amounts to an unprecedented level of scrutiny and support for the social care system, and a level of integration with the NHS that is long overdue.

Secondly, the four UK chief medical officers have today updated the case definition to include a new symptom. Throughout this pandemic, we have said that someone who develops a new continuous cough or fever should immediately self-isolate. From today, we are including anosmia—losing one’s sense of smell or experiencing a change in the normal sense of smell or taste—which can be a symptom of coronavirus, even where the other symptoms are not present. So, from today, anyone who develops a continuous cough or fever or anosmia should immediately self-isolate for at least seven days, in line with the guidelines. Members of their household should self-isolate for 14 days. By updating the case definition in line with the latest science, we can more easily recognise the presence of the virus and more effectively fight it.

Thirdly, we are expanding eligibility for testing further than ever before. Over the past six weeks, this country has taken a small, specialised diagnostics industry and scaled it at breathtaking pace into a global champion. Yesterday, we conducted 100,678 tests. Every day, we create more capacity, which means that more people can be tested and the virus has fewer places to hide.

Today, I can announce to the House that everyone aged five and over with symptoms is now eligible for a test. That applies right across the UK, in all four nations, from now. Anyone with a new continuous cough, a high temperature or a loss of, or change in, their sense of taste or smell can book a test by visiting nhs.uk/coronavirus. Anyone who is eligible for a test but does not have internet access can call 119 in England and Wales or, in Scotland and Northern Ireland, 0300 303 2713. We will continue to prioritise access to tests for NHS and social care, patients, residents and staff, and as testing ramps up towards our new goal of a total capacity of 200,000 tests a day, ever more people will have the confidence and certainty that comes with an accurate test result.

Fourthly, I want to update the House on building our army of contact tracers. I can confirm that we have recruited more than 21,000 contact tracers in England. That includes 7,500 healthcare professionals who will provide our call handlers with expert clinical advice. They will help to manually trace the contacts of anyone who has had a positive test, and advise them on whether they need to isolate. They have rigorous training, with detailed procedures designed by our experts at Public Health England. They have stepped up to serve their country in its hour of need and I thank them in advance for the life-saving work that they are about to do.

The work of those 21,000 people will be supported by the NHS Covid-19 app, which we are piloting on the Isle of Wight at the moment and will then roll out across the rest of the country. Taken together, that means that we now have the elements that we need to roll out our national test and trace service: the testing capacity, the tracing capability and the technology.

Building that system is incredibly important, but so too are the basics. We need everyone to self-isolate if they or someone in their household has symptoms. We need everyone to keep washing their hands and follow the social distancing rules. We need everyone to stay alert, because this is a national effort and everyone has a part to play. The goal is to protect life and allow us, carefully and cautiously, to get back to doing more of the things that make life worth living. That is our goal and we are making progress towards it. I commend this Statement to the House.”

The Statement was considered in a Virtual Proceeding via video call.

My Lords, I thank the Minister for not repeating the Statement, which I have read.

First, I want to ask about these Covid-19 symptoms: lack of taste and smell. The Minister will know that many healthcare specialists and the World Health Organization were making these warnings eight weeks ago, so can he explain why there has been a time lag in updating the definition?

I start by referring back to the question, on testing and tracing and the NHSX app, which I posed to the Minister yesterday and which he did not answer. I asked him whether it was true that in a Downing Street briefing that morning it was announced that the rollout of the app has been delayed until June. Is that true? When can we expect the rollout? Indeed, will we see the rollout of this app at all? If the Government will not use the app any time soon, does that mean that testing, tracking and isolating have to work smoothly and effectively at local level? That raises many questions.

We on the Benches welcome the wider rollout of testing, of course. Can the Minister update the House on whether the screening of all healthcare workers, whether they are symptomatic or not, has been successfully rolled out? What proportion of healthcare workers have been tested so far? Will they be tested every week? If not, how often? This is important, because it has been reported that 20% of hospital patients got Covid-19 while in hospital for another illness or treatment. So if routine NHS work is to be restarted, patients must be confident that they are in a Covid-free environment.

Can the Minister inform the House of the progress on antibody testing? Are these tests now widely available? If so, for whom? If they are not yet available, when will they be available? I gather from a widely available advertisement that I could have what is said to be a PHE-approved antibody test right now for about 100 quid. Would the results of that test be acceptable if I wished to use it to prove to an employer that I could got to work, go to school or teach at school?

On tracing, we on these Benches have long argued that the safe way to transition out of the lockdown is by having a test, trace and isolation strategy in place. Can the Minister tell us the current median time for test results to be received by someone when the test is carried out by Deloitte and other private sector testing facilities? More crucially, how soon do directors of public health and GPs receive the results of those tests?

Is that how it works: that the test is nationally organised and carried out, and the results are fed back locally? Who are they fed back to, and are those people responsible for tracking and tracing? Are they people the experienced local public health tracers or are they some of the 21,000 tracers who, we are informed, have been recruited? To whom are any or all of them accountable for tracking down people who are infected? As the Minister knows, we on these Benches believe that the Government should have made better use of local public health services. Who will inform people who have been in touch with a person with Covid-19 to isolate? Who is responsible for what happens to those people who must isolate, and for whether their families are supported in doing so? Where does the national call centre delivered by Serco fit in to this system? Can the Minister tell us by what date tracing and tracking services will be operational? Will they be operational by 1 June? I have raised with the Minister the issue of isolation. Why is that not mentioned as one of the key elements of the test-and-trace strategy?

Turning to care homes, I note what the Secretary of State said about social care last week: that he had thrown a “protective ring” around care homes. What constitutes a protective ring? The spread of coronavirus in care homes has become a crisis within a crisis. It was reported by the Guardian on 13 May that during the period coronavirus has been spreading in the UK, there have been as many as 19,938 excess deaths in care homes, well above the figure attributed to coronavirus by the ONS, leaving an urgent question about the causes of these deaths. None of this suggests anything remotely protective.

The reality is that there was no early lockdown of care homes, which was needed, and no early testing of people transferring from hospitals to care homes until mid-April. Prior to 15 April, the Government’s care home advice said:

“Negative tests are not required prior to transfers/admissions into the care home”.

That was not rescinded until mid-April, when the Government eventually issued their care homes strategy. Today, the CQC report says that 36% of care homes have Covid-19. That seems to be a greater proportion than that being admitted by the Government. Weeks later, do we yet have full testing of all residents and care home staff? No wonder Age UK say that this is “too little, too late”. When will they all be routinely tested? What is the date for that?

Turning to the R number, can the Minister guarantee that every easing of restrictions—such as asking children to return to school—is accompanied by a government statement on the expected impact on the R number and the underlying prevalence of the infection? If the R number rises to be greater than one in a region or local area, how will the Government deal with that?

Finally, I want to be clear that we on these Benches are desperate for the Government to succeed in beating this virus. We will and have supported the Government. In return, we expect transparency, as everyone does. Let us see the science. Give us clarity about what people are expected to do, truthfulness when things go wrong, as they inevitably will, accurate communication on all occasions and regular accountability to Parliament. We deserve no less.

My Lords, I thank the Minister for the Statement. The ONS statistics this morning showed that over 44,000 people have lost their lives, with the Financial Times estimating that the total figure is now well over 60,000 when a percentage of excess deaths is taken into account. From these Benches, we send our sympathies to all bereaved families and friends, and our thanks and support to the amazing front-line staff in the NHS, social care and community sector, and to others in key roles working to save lives and keep people safe.

The Secretary of State began his Statement by talking about flattening the curve, but yesterday an article in the British Medical Journal said:

“What is clear is that the UK’s response so far has neither been well prepared nor remotely adequate … Above all, the response to covid-19 is not about flattening epidemic curves, modelling, or epidemiology. It is about protecting lives and communities most obviously at risk in our unequal society.”

We agree.

I echo the points made by the noble Baroness, Lady Thornton, about the acceptance, at last, by the Government of a third symptom, anosmia, but many other countries have more symptoms. France says that you should self-isolate if you have any symptom on a list of 10. Why do our Government still refuse to increase that list?

The Secretary of State has repeated his claim that he has prioritised testing in care homes, yet he still repeats that testing for everyone in care homes, whether staff or residents, will be only “offered” by 6 June. The Adult Social Care APPG is still hearing of care homes waiting for that “offer” of tests, and of others that have had tests but results still going astray or taking 10 to 14 days to be returned. On that basis, if Ministers are really prioritising care homes, why does the Statement announce testing for members of the public over the age of five now while people at the heart of the firestorm of Covid in care homes still have to wait up to two weeks before being offered a test?

Still on testing, can the Minister tell us the percentage breakdown of PCR testing results versus antibody testing results? If not, can he tell the House when this information will be publicly available? We need as many PCR tests as possible as part of an effective test, trace and isolate programme. How many of those carrying out testing are paid roles versus volunteers? A couple of weeks ago, the Minister told your Lordships’ House that testing would be extended through, among other things, a deal with Boots. Five days ago, Boots had an advertisement seeking volunteer testers taken down after public outrage that a company that had been given a commercial contract with the Government was relying on volunteers to carry out the work. Was using volunteers part of its tender to government? If so, does the Minister approve of companies using volunteers while pocketing public money in a contract?

On tracing, it is encouraging to hear that more than 21,000 tracers have been recruited, but today there are reports of people recruited receiving multiple emails congratulating them on being successful or attending online training that has completely fallen over and failed technically. Can the Minister say what percentage of those 21,000 have received full training and are now working as tracers? Last week, the Secretary of State said that local tracers would be used, whether local health or environmental health tracers, as well as central ones. Can the Minister say how many local tracers—that is, not Serco call-centre tracers or central NHS tracers—there will be from the 21,000?

The Statement asserts that the Government now have all the elements to roll out their scheme of test, track and trace, but I repeat that there is no focus on isolation for those who have to quarantine. Test, trace and isolate is used not just by the WHO but by many countries. What plans are in place to support people isolating, whether at home or in a quarantine unit, once lockdown is lifted? They will feel much more vulnerable at that point, when everyone else is moving back into their normal lives. Experience from Taiwan, Germany and South Korea shows that community health support for those in quarantine is more likely to make it successful. Again, countries that have been successful in containing the virus all had fully operational test, trace and isolate programmes up and running from day one. Given that each new venture the Government have undertaken during this crisis, as outlined in the BMJ article—from expanding PCR tests from a low base to manufacturing ventilators, supplying PPE and now the tracer app—has had a very problematic start, to put it kindly, are the Government starting to run full contact tracing now, using new staff in an area that has sufficient cases of coronavirus, before lockdown starts to be lifted but particularly by 1 June? It would be inappropriate for schools to return and people further to return to work without such a system in place.

My Lords, I thank the noble Baronesses for their penetrating and searching questions. I will go through them systematically.

First, I want to say a few words, partly in response to the appeal for transparency from the noble Baroness, Lady Thornton, and partly in response to some of the suggestions about the performance of the Government in their response to Covid. I assure the House that the Government approach this epidemic in a spirit of openness and transparency, and we would like to work in partnership with other parties. I simply reject the suggestion, consistent in some of the questions, that the projects undertaken by the Government have in any way been characterised by failure or disappointment.

I bear testimony to the huge achievements of those who have worked extremely hard to throw up remarkable schemes which have been enormously successful and massively mitigated the effect of this disease. The testing network, the ventilators, the lighthouse labs and the nightingale hospitals were all hugely ambitious ventures, greeted with scepticism when launched and accompanied by complaints while being thrown up. But their achievements have been enormous: they have had a huge impact.

I would therefore like to turn around the tone of this debate, to be a little more positive, and celebrate the huge achievements of those who have thrown their heart and soul into the response to coronavirus. I pay tribute to their achievements and to the personal sacrifices many of them have made by giving up their time, and even putting their lives at risk, to conduct these important roles.

Quite reasonably, both noble Baronesses asked whether the Government regard isolation as part of the programme. I can reassure them that isolation is absolutely the key point. The way to stop transmission is for those who have symptoms, and especially those who have tested positive, to shield themselves from the rest of society in order to prevent the spread of the disease. Everything that we do in the test and trace programme is ultimately to promote good behaviours by the British public, so that people who have symptoms will distance themselves from the rest of society, putting a brake on the disease. It is absolutely imperative, and at the heart of all our communications.

I pay tribute to the British public, who have made huge personal sacrifices during this lockdown. The culture of isolation will be an essential part of keeping a lid on the disease. The Government are committed to providing mental health support, and practical and cultural support, for those who are in a state of isolation. I thank both noble Baronesses for throwing a spotlight on that.

I want to convey to the House the enormous complexity of identifying the key symptoms of this disease. By any common sense, it would seem incredibly obvious how to spot Covid, but I have sat in numerous meetings running through the data and know how difficult it is to have a consistent set of symptoms that can be understood clearly and communicated simply to the public. The data on this disease is extremely complex. As I have said to the House before, this disease is a very difficult adversary, as characterised by the way in which symptom checking is so difficult. We have moved to a new and upgraded set of symptoms, and we may well have to move again. However, we are seeking to encourage absolutely anyone who has any symptoms to declare them and seek a test.

Perhaps I may move quickly through the questions put by the noble Baroness, Lady Thornton. I reassure her that the NHSX app is very much part of our plans. The Isle of Wight programme has been enormously successful and take-up rates have been huge. But it did teach us one important lesson: that people wanted to engage with human contact tracing first, and quite reasonably regarded the app as a supplementary and additional automated means of contact tracing. We have therefore changed the emphasis of our communications and plans to put human contact tracing at the beginning of our plans and to regard the app as something that will come later in support.

I reassure the noble Baroness that the testing of NHS and care staff is an absolute priority. Testing by the NHS of both groups is well under way. As announced by the Secretary of State, we are looking carefully at bringing in antibody testing to answer the question from staff who may query whether they have had the disease in the past, and to understand better what the role of immunity might be. The science is not firm; the lessons are not clear; but we need to understand the role of antibody testing and find out how it can help us combat this disease.

I advise the noble Baroness, Lady Thornton, to be very wary of private tests. They vary enormously in quality, as I know through my own experience. The time after having the disease when you take the test impacts enormously on the test and the assumptions one can make about a positive test are not proven. You cannot currently share with an employer any impression that you might have immunity, on the basis of a test.

I reassure both the noble Baronesses that our involvement with local groups in the tracing operation is being energetically promoted. We have appointed Tom Riordan, the chief executive of Leeds City Council, to lead this part of the programme. He is running an excellent programme to work with local authorities, directors of public health, environmental health officers and local resilience forums to ensure that our tracing system is as local as it possibly can be. It cannot all be done locally: some of it is better done digitally, and the highly automated routines of the app are very good. Some of it must be done at scale on a national basis by the massive call centres that we are throwing up, but some of it is best done by local groups. Those processes are being put in place energetically and I thank GPs, local directors of public health and all those who are engaged in them. We will be putting together local Covid plans that will be implemented by the relevant local authorities. These will form an important part of keeping a lid on this contagion.

I also pay tribute to those who are helping to organise the major test centres, including Serco, and those who have stepped up to take roles as contact tracers. They are going through complex training at the moment; it is a challenging task. No one wants to hit the phone and tell someone that they have to isolate; it is a tough message to have to deliver. I have no doubt that there will be problems with this complex and difficult task, but I pay tribute to those involved and express my gratitude to those running the programme.

On care homes, as the noble Baroness, Lady Thornton, rightly described, every death is a source of great sadness. However, I pay tribute to all those who have put their safety on the line by delivering tests in care homes. I reassure the noble Baroness, Lady Brinton, that there is a website where any care home that wants a test can register their interest and get a response promptly. Any care home worker who wants an individual test can access a site where, as a key worker, their test will be prioritised. There should be no reason why any care home or care home worker should wait two weeks, as suggested in the question.

I put my hand up and explained that mistakes were made 10 days ago when, due to problems with our Northern Irish test laboratory, some care home tests were either delayed or voided. That was an enormously regretful situation, but, when you put together an operation of this scale at such pace, some mistakes will be made. We have done an enormous amount to rectify those mistakes. Bringing in the noble Baroness, Lady Harding, to run the operational side of our testing regime is a great step forward.

I will also say a word in defence of the volunteers who are working at our drive-in test centres. These are often furloughed workers who do not need paid employment, but they are spending their time usefully and are often committed and have a sense of public service. I bridle at the thought that they would be sneered at or in any way insulted. The role of Boots in recruiting them is entirely honourable, legal and appropriate for the times we are in, and I very much thank those volunteers who have dedicated their time and risked their personal safety to do this difficult and possibly risky job. It is not appropriate to suggest that there has been public outrage at this arrangement—quite the opposite. The British public support this kind of individual public service.

The recruitment of tracers is going extremely well indeed: 21,000 have been put in place, which is way beyond our initial expectations, and the training is going well.

This programme is developing very quickly. We will seek to make announcements about it later this week and there will be a further rollout next week. I am extremely proud of the achievements that we have made, and I thank everyone who is involved very much indeed.

My Lords, we now come to the 30 minutes allocated for Back-Bench questions. I ask that questions and answers be brief so that I can call the maximum number of speakers.

My Lords, I thank the Minister for the Statement, which I read. I also listened with great interest to the discussion this morning about the devastating impact that Covid-19 is having on members of black, Asian and minority ethnic communities, particularly those who work in hospitals and care homes. From that discussion, I reiterate the ask from the noble Baroness, Lady Hussein-Ece, to the Minister to meet with black and minority ethnic leaders to discuss a government Covid-19 race equality strategy. It is not just the immediacy of the life and death matters that we are confronting; we face an economic downturn the likes of which we have not seen for 300 years. Unless we have an action plan and acknowledge the challenges, those communities, which are already at a disadvantage, could face a further penalty and devastation, and that must not happen.

My Lords, as I stated this morning, I would be glad to meet with community leaders. However, I emphasise, as I said this morning, that it is the disease that is racist, and the Government and the NHS are doing an enormous amount to try to protect BAME workers, to whom we owe a huge debt of gratitude. I will do everything I can to help protect them.

My Lords, this morning, the ONS revealed that some 50,000 UK citizens are cross-border workers—in other words, English people who work part of the time outside the UK. Roughly 25,000 appear to be businessmen. There is no evidence that they are carriers; there is every evidence that when they fly back or come back on the Eurostar, they would be happy to be tested. The government proposals to suddenly clamp down on this and basically stop international business happening are not welcome and will do enormous damage to the British economy. Can the Minister try to influence his colleagues in transport to the effect that this development is not needed?

My Lords, I pay tribute to my noble friend’s commitment to freedom of travel—and he will remember my father’s own commitment to it. The sad truth, however, is that it is very difficult to prove a negative: to prove that someone does not have the disease or that they have not recently become infected and have the disease in a latent way or that they are young, fit and well. The restrictions are in place for those reasons. I advise my noble friend that we are working on finding a solution, but none is immediately available.

My Lords, with many GP appointments now held online, the public are going to their local pharmacies for advice as never before. Pharmacies have received from the department little or no support with reconfiguring their premises, many have had no support sourcing PPE and staff are not automatically considered for routine testing. Have the Government forgotten the pharmacy profession? Will additional support be made available to our high street pharmacies as they continue to serve patients throughout the Covid-19 pandemic?

The noble Baroness is entirely right: this epidemic has demonstrated, if it needed to be demonstrated at all, the key role that pharmacists play in the health of the nation. I pay tribute to the role of pharmacists in providing support and filling the gap after GPs’ surgeries have closed. I reject, however, the idea that they have had no support. PPE has been provided, any pharmacist is prioritised as a key worker, and we will continue to offer support and to help grow this valuable sector.

My Lords, is there not a danger of sending out mixed messages? The Statement begins by celebrating what has been achieved together by flattening the curve, but the devolved nations in the UK are still behind the flattening of the curve achieved in London. It then says that, thanks to the resolve and shared sacrifice of the British people,

“we are now in the second phase of this fight.”

This is not so in Scotland, where I live. We are still firmly in lockdown and likely to remain so until June. Should those who prepare these Statements not be a bit more careful in their choice of language? Is there not a risk to those who live in Wales and Scotland if people who live in England are misled into believing that those other parts of Great Britain are in the second phase of the fight too?

I first pay tribute to the devolved nations for working so closely together, as characterised by the very close work of the four CMOs. The noble and learned Lord is entirely right that different parts of the country move at different paces—the disease does not respect national boundaries in any way—but public health messages have to be clear to be effective. It is difficult to speak in terms of one region or another being in different phases of the disease, but I completely accept his point that local variations may well be necessary. When they are, and if it is possible, we will have to shape our communications to that cause.

My Lords, if, as the Statement says, we in England are now in the second phase of the fight against coronavirus, and given the need to turn our attention to the huge backlog of operations and procedures for those non-Covid NHS patients on waiting lists, will the Minister inform the House if and when NHS England will renew its current important contract for capacity and diagnostics with independent hospitals? I understand that the contract is coming to a close at the end of June.

The noble Baroness is entirely right: the backlog of operations and procedures will be a daunting task for the NHS to tackle. We have prioritised it. Simon Stevens has told the NHS to throw the doors open to try to get through this backlog. As a result, we will live with the effects of Covid for months to come. I am not fully aware of the contract of which she speaks, but I will try to find out its status and will write to her with additional information.

My Lords, I thank the Minister for his helpful responses so far. The UK had just under 50,000 excess deaths in less than six weeks from 20 March. Does the Minister agree that the NHS was overrun at that time and had the unbearable choice either to let Covid-19 patients die or to deny treatment to patients with life-threatening illnesses such as cancer and kidney failure? Were we unable to make extensive use of the Nightingale hospitals to save lives due to staff shortages or for some other reason? I would be grateful for the Minister’s response.

I am extremely grateful for the noble Baroness’s comments. Since she asks for my personal opinion, I would say that, no, the NHS was not overrun. It has been a huge achievement that the NHS has stood firm on its feet. Operationally, it has been extremely sound. It was never overwhelmed, either by Covid-19 or by other operations. The Nightingale hospitals were not needed in the end because the lockdown was adopted by the British public and the infection rate was reduced. That is a huge testimony both to the British people and to the NHS.

When the Health Secretary told the other place yesterday that he was preparing to roll out his contact-tracing app, he rejected the plea from my colleague, Daisy Cooper MP, for a law providing for specific, rigorous safeguards. When does the Minister expect to get the response from the Information Commissioner on the data protection impact assessment for the app, which has been judged by privacy experts to be confusing and misleading?

The noble Baroness raised the data protection impact statement, which I have read. I did not find it confusing; I thought it was extremely straightforward and it has been welcomed by a large number of the privacy groups I have spoken to.

A few minutes ago, responding to the Front-Bench questions the Minister said that the heart of the Government’s message was that

“people who have symptoms must isolate themselves”.

How does the Minister square this with what he said to me last Thursday? He said:

“No one working in the NHS should go to work if they feel ill or have a temperature”

but that this

“is not necessarily true for people who work in normal workplaces.”—[Official Report, 14/5/20; col. 806.]

We were of course at that point talking about care homes. If we look at the Government’s launch last Tuesday for the document Our Plan to Rebuild, this says:

“If a negative test is returned, then isolation is no longer required.”

If the Government’s position has changed, should this not be made clear to the public?

The noble Baroness undoubtedly knows that anyone who is ill with anything whatever should not go to a hospital. Being ill is not the same as having the symptoms of Covid-19. Anyone who has the symptoms of Covid-19 should isolate immediately.

My Lords, what support is the Department for Health and Social Care giving schools in the provision of the PPE needed before schools open?

My Lords, I find the Government’s Statement very complacent. Sadly, for many in care homes, these initiatives have come too late. I have three questions for the Minister. Given the increasing disquiet over Her Majesty’s Government’s response to Covid-19, will the Minister commit to a public inquiry on the part of the Government?

I return to two other questions asked earlier, which the Minister did not answer. When will the proposed testing, tracking and tracing system go live? Lastly, are the 21,000 contact tracers sufficiently trained in his view?

It will be for others to decide whether an inquiry is necessary. For my part, I am enormously proud of the Government’s response and the NHS’s response to Covid-19, and I stand full square behind the decisions and actions we have taken.

My Lords, I welcome the fact that in the Statement it is clear that the Chief Medical Officers of the four nations of the United Kingdom agreed jointly to amend the identifiable symptoms for Covid-19. That stands in stark contrast to the mixed messaging of the weekend of 10 May and the days thereafter. What action have the Government taken since 10 May to ensure that the next round of announcements by the Prime Minister and the three First Ministers are more coherent and better co-ordinated in the interests of not only a clear public health message across the United Kingdom but the economic recovery that we will need in all four nations afterwards?

My Lords, we work extremely closely with the devolved Assemblies, the four CMOs and the four nations to have a consistent four-nations approach to Covid. We very much welcome Nicola Sturgeon’s support for this consistent approach.

How are vaccines going to work if, as the Government say, the presence of Covid-19 antibodies in a test do not mean that a person is immune? I think that quite a few people are confused.

My Lords, the noble Earl is stretching my scientific knowledge with his question. All I can say is that different vaccines work in different ways. Anyone with antibodies who has beaten the disease has the capability of beating the disease, but vaccines ensure that that capability lasts longer, hopefully for life.

My Lords, does the Minister listen to the excellent BBC Radio 4 programme “More or Less”? If so, he may have heard the total demolition of the claim that 100,000 tests were being conducted each day by the end of April. Much doubt has also been cast on claims that care homes were always included in government figures. Trust in government is vital at the moment, so does the Minister think that a body such as the Office for National Statistics should be given the role of vetting figures that are quoted in the daily Downing Street press conferences?

My Lords, I do listen to “More or Less”. I absolutely love it, and it is a shame that I did not hear the episode to which the noble Lord refers because I would have reprimanded them greatly. The 100,000 tests a day are done very clearly. I would be glad to take the noble Lord, Lord Rennard, to visit our Lighthouse Labs to see the remarkable automation and robotics that achieve that remarkable effect. On the care home figures, we work hard in order to create prompt, immediate, daily figures. Those are then verified and put into the official national figures that are curated by the ONS. Having operational figures that are delivered quickly is important for decision-making. Having figures officially verified by the ONS to audit those results is an entirely appropriate way of doing things. It is a system that works, and we currently have no intention to change it.

Is the Minister confident that the public health surveillance system in the UK is able to detect and manage cases and their contacts and identify at-risk cases—that is, test, track and trace?

I am afraid I did not hear the full question from the noble Baroness, but if I understood her correctly, she referred to track and trace. I reassure her that we are putting a huge amount of resources into that surveillance. It is true that surveillance does not currently exist. We do not have the facilities that some Asian countries, such as Taiwan and South Korea, had following SARS, about which we now know so much. We are putting the correct resources in place, and we hope very much to have a detailed local and demographic understanding of where and how the disease is progressing. That information is essential to beating it.

My Lords, many people in learning disability care services have very complex care needs that make them vulnerable to Covid-19. Indeed, recent numbers from the CQC showed that the provisional number of deaths reported across all settings where autistic people and/or people with learning disabilities may live was 175% greater than expected over the month from 10 April. When will the welcome extension of testing to all care settings announced today roll out? Can he confirm that regular testing will be available, given the potential of the virus to be spread between care homes by so-called bank staff filling temporary vacancies?

The noble Baroness is entirely right that the deaths of those with learning difficulties have been one of the most disturbing and sad aspects of this disease. We are focused very much on ensuring that we protect those with learning difficulties, such as those with autism, in whatever way we can. With regard to recurrent testing, the tests that we have are not a limitless resource and we have to prioritise them. Although we have massively increased the number of tests that we have, it is not possible to test millions of people on a very regular basis with hundreds of thousands of tests. However, we are using them intelligently and prioritising areas where there are infection control problems. We believe that that is the most effective way of using our resources.

I want to return to the issue of face masks, which I have been raising with the Minister since early March. Are Ministers following the intense debate going on among a worldwide line-up of international experts, particularly virologists, who forcefully argue the need for their use? If Ministers are not, will they now ask their civil servants to dig out the hundreds if not thousands of articles and research papers written by those experts, which have convinced over 50 countries worldwide to introduce face masks on a mandatory basis? The position that we are taking looks increasingly ludicrous.

I reassure the noble Lord that we look at this issue constantly. It is a subject that the British public are deeply concerned about. There is an instinctive human belief that face masks make a difference, but the scientific proof that they do so is not crystal clear. Although some countries have committed to them, we are still in the process of reviewing them. We have a positive attitude towards implementation but we are guided by the CMO and by scientists. As the evidence builds up, and the noble Lord is quite right that in many places it is indeed building up, we will make the right decision on face masks.

I call the noble Lord, Lord Low of Dalston. I do not think he is on the call, so I call the noble Baroness, Lady Randerson.

I have listened carefully to this debate, and the Minister seems to say in every answer how well the Government have done throughout this whole pandemic. If that is the case, how have we come to the point where well over 35,000 people have died? I invite the Minister to tell us now where the Government went wrong.

The noble Baroness is entirely reasonable. I apologise if I give the impression that I am in any way complacent or if I am unapologetic about what we have done. She is entirely right: this is an awful disease that has hit this country extremely hard and not everything we have done has worked as well as we had hoped. Undoubtedly, when we look back, it will be judged that the Government have made mistakes; of that I am absolutely sure. I approach this question with humility. I completely take on board her point that questions that resist the idea that we have made mistakes are quite wrong.

However, I want to try to convey the enormous commitment and focus that the Government, the NHS and the people who are involved in the greater project have thrown into this project. It is not a massive shambolic mess littered with political stupidity and corruption, as is implied by some of the critics of the Government. Actually it has been a venture that has had a huge amount of innovation, collaboration and good will behind it. I am afraid I cannot help but seek to salute and pay tribute to those who are involved.

My colleague on the Isle of Wight, Vix Lowthion, tells me that the public there are not clear about the aims and objectives of the trial they are taking part in. Can the Minister tell me now what are the criteria for success of the Isle of Wight trial?

One of the criteria of success is to learn from the pilot, which takes an early version of the app and hopes to develop learnings from it; we now have two or three. One of them, which I have mentioned, is that it is probably a mistake to launch an app before you have got the public used to the idea of tracing. As I mentioned in an earlier answer, that is something we have taken on board. When it comes to launching the test and tracing programme, we will begin with the tracing, not with the app.

I do not think that the noble Lord, Lord Hunt of Kings Heath, is with us this evening, so I call the noble Lord, Lord Bilimoria.

My Lords, the Minister said that isolation is essential for those who have symptoms. It was only yesterday that the Government finally included the loss of the senses of smell and taste as a symptom. I fell ill with coronavirus on 15 March and lost my senses of taste and smell. At the time, it was not an official symptom. I could not even get tested then—indeed, not even doctors and nurses could—yet the WHO has been saying since the middle of March that we should “Test, test, test”. Eventually we have come around to doing it now and we are ramping it up. As the noble Baroness, Lady Thornton, pointed out, the WHO said eight weeks ago that the loss of taste and smell should be considered a symptom. How many hundreds of thousands of people have now been infected and have infected others because this was not an official symptom? The WHO has also said that social distancing should be one metre, but we say two metres. Why are we not listening to the WHO, or only eventually listening to it? Why are there these inconsistencies?

I am very sorry that the noble Lord had coronavirus, and it is good to see him on such fine form and in characteristically enthusiastic shape. The bottom line is that lots of people do not lose their sense of smell or taste, and the addition of this symptom was delayed because we did not want to put off those who had not lost their sense of smell and taste from declaring their symptoms. The WHO is right about many things but not about everything.

I thank the noble Lord, Lord Bethell, for the directness and frankness of his answers tonight, and I agree with his praise for the NHS workers and many others who have played such a valiant role in fighting this virus. However, does he not agree that, as time goes on, it is becoming clear that we have the highest number of deaths in Europe and that this gives a new and very tragic meaning to the concept of British exceptionalism? Does he not agree that there will have to be some kind of independent inquiry into where this all went wrong?

My Lords, the noble Lord is right. As a nation, we have been hit really hard by this disease and it is heart-breaking. I would have loved this country to have somehow dodged the bullet and not been the one that was hit so hard. We all feel it: we feel a great sense of responsibility and a great sense of sadness that so many lives have been lost, and that there are so many for whom the result of having had the disease and survived will be life changing. One thing that we have learned is that this disease hits you really hard and some people will never fully recover from it. However, I cannot help but pay tribute to those involved.

I do not know why we have been hit so hard. I do not know whether it is due to British behaviours and the fact that we have obesity in this country. I do not know whether it is because we are such an international country with such a large number of people coming to and fro, particularly from China. I do not know whether the Government made massive and colossal mistakes, as their critics suggest, and whether we got it all completely wrong. All I know is that the response to this disease by the British public, the NHS and the Government has not lacked energy, innovation and enthusiasm, and I stand here at this virtual Dispatch Box extremely proud of our country and of the people who have played a role in the response to this disease.

My Lords, the public might find it easier to stick within the rules now governing our life with coronavirus if they understood the logic. Therefore, can the Minister explain the logic or the science behind the fact that a household consisting of my son, his wife and their daughter can meet with only one member of a household consisting of his father and his mother at any one time?

It is very simple. If you have one person from another household meeting your household, the chances are that you will all respect the two-metre social distancing recommendation. The moment a second person is present, the proximity gauges and the way in which you all relate to each other become confused. You all start standing nearer to, and breathing all over, each other, and it becomes easier to catch the disease. That is just a simple human observation and is based on human nature and on the physical science of proximity. The example that the noble Baroness gives is a really good one, and I completely feel her frustration that her two families cannot spend time together. However, the behavioural scientists are absolutely adamant on this point, and to me at least it is common sense.

My Lords, I apologise to the noble Baroness, Lady Coussins, who is the only speaker whom we were not able to call within the 30 minutes. The time allotted for the Statement is now up. The day’s Virtual Proceedings are now complete and are adjourned.

Virtual Proceeding adjourned at 8.12 pm.