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Volume 804: debated on Wednesday 8 July 2020

Commons Urgent Question

The following Answer to an Urgent Question was given on Tuesday 7 July in the House of Commons.

“We are bringing coronavirus under control. Yesterday’s figures showed 352 new cases, the lowest since lockdown began. That is down from over 5,000 a day at the peak. Two hundred and nine patients are currently in mechanical ventilator beds with coronavirus, down from 3,300 at the peak. The latest number of deaths recorded in all settings in the UK was 16. New figures this morning show that for the last two weeks, the number of people who have died from all causes has been lower than the normal average for this time of year.

Because we are bringing the virus under control, we have been able to restore some of the things that make life worth living. This weekend, restaurants, pubs and hairdressers were buzzing with activity for the first time in months, and yesterday we were able to ease restrictions for the 2.2 million people who have been shielding across England so that they can now spend more time outdoors in a group of up to six, of course while maintaining social distancing.

Our plan has always been to lift the national lockdown while taking ever more targeted action to suppress the virus. We are seeing a similar approach in other countries, such as Germany, Spain and Australia, where overnight they locked down Melbourne. Last week, we took difficult but vital decisions about Leicester. Since then, we have been working with Leicester and Leicestershire, and I am pleased to say that together, we have brought down the seven-day infection rate from 135 to 117 cases per 100,000 people.

In reopening hospitality, we have also introduced contact tracing for customers. This system is working. I want to thank all those who are making the system work, and to pay tribute in particular to three pubs that have taken specific action: the Lighthouse in Burnham-on-Sea, the Fox and Hounds in Batley, and the Village Home in Gosport. They have all closed for a deep clean and staff testing after, in each case, a customer tested positive. They are doing the right thing by their customers and their communities. This is NHS Test and Trace working precisely as intended. Three pubs shut so that others can be open, and I think the whole House is grateful.

Coronavirus has been the worst global pandemic in a generation. Here, we protected the NHS. We built the new Nightingale hospitals in 10 days. At all times, treatment was available for all. Our medical research has discovered the only drug known to work. We have built, almost from scratch, one of the biggest testing capabilities in the world. We are getting coronavirus cornered, but this is no time to lose our resolve. The virus exists only to spread, so we must all stay alert and enjoy summer safely.”

Last Wednesday, the Minister advised noble Lords that the lockdown in Leicester was being carried out under the Public Health (Control of Disease) Act 1984 and that regulations would not be brought to the House. However, on Friday, Leicester regulations were laid. Can the Minister clarify that and explain why there was some confusion and whether this has any practical consequences for implementation and enforcement in Leicester? Will this apply to other cities such as Bradford, Barnsley or Oldham? At Prime Minister’s Questions just now, the Prime Minister stated that the risks associated with asymptomatic transmission were unknown until recently. This is not the case. I am very happy to provide the Minister with SAGE minutes from 4 February, for example, when precisely that was recorded. Can the Minister clarify that statement for the House?

My understanding regarding the 1984 Act is that the regulations are published under the appropriate section. They have been published as is appropriate, but they are not brought to the House for debate. If I am wrong, I will be happy to write to the noble Baroness.

Today, the Public Accounts Committee has reported real concerns that the Government have no realistic plan for supplying PPE in the event of a second wave. Can the Minister comment on that? I know I ask this regularly, but can the Minister tell the House when all NHS and social care staff, including those working in people’s homes, can get regular, repeated testing that is not dependent on symptoms? Yesterday, Matt Hancock said that, finally, some day centres, sheltered living and non-care home settings will be able to access tests. Which ones and when? I noticed that, on Monday, the Covid data dashboard was changed, removing posted-out but not returned tests. Does that mean that, in future, posted-out tests will not be counted unless they are returned?

On PPE, I pay tribute to my noble friend Lord Deighton, who has performed an amazing task in providing an enormous supply of PPE. There is sufficient PPE in the NHS, social care and other parts of the healthcare system for all those who need it. There is a PPE hotline for those who would like to order it directly and, at this stage, stockpiles are being created to get us through the winter months. On tests, a testing portal is available to all of social care. It can be accessed either by social care employers or, if employees or residents want a test, they can order one themselves through the public testing portal. It is my understanding that posted tests are no longer counted in the same way: they are counted not on dispatch but when they are processed. The “test and trace” programme initiated this change in the recent change of data, which I think was 10 days ago.

My Lords, last week I understated the figures on the deadly combination of Covid-19 and obesity. House of Commons Library figures show that 72% of UK people are either obese or overweight. What is even more tragic, 33% of 10 year- old children are overweight or obese. These appalling figures may help explain the high mortality from the coronavirus in the United Kingdom, so will the Minister endorse the urgent need to persuade people to lose weight? To save lives, we should follow the advice of the Prime Minister himself, who said, “Don’t be a fatty in your fifties”.

I think my noble friend and I need to have a chat about statistics, because the statistics I have differ from his. Mine suggest that 28% of the public are either obese or overweight, and it does defy common sense that 72% the public are obese or overweight. Maybe he and I can have a chat about that offline: I would be glad to clear it up. However, my noble friend makes a really important point that I and the Government completely endorse: the Covid epidemic has been a wake-up call for the country—in that, he is right. There is an urgent need to address the obesity epidemic and the Government are looking at ways to do so. The Prime Minister is personally vested in it and my noble friend’s points are extremely well made and supported on these Benches.

My Lords, it is very good to see the Statement saying that new cases are at their lowest since the lockdown began. Will the Minister confirm that 30,000 excess deaths have taken place in care homes, and that almost 20,000—almost 50%—of all the sad deaths have been in care homes? Are care home staff, the 1.6 million people who work in the care sector, as well as the 1 million patients in care homes and at home, being tested every week? Just today, we heard that the accident and emergency department at a London hospital has closed because of infection among the staff. Are all staff at NHS hospitals around the whole country being tested regularly, every single week? Looking ahead, will there be a large-scale flu vaccination campaign as an extra precaution leading up to this winter?

The noble Lord is entirely right to emphasise the importance of flu vaccination. We are very focused on getting the right amount of flu vaccination stocks and encouraging take-up once the WHO has nominated the right vaccination and we have stocks of it in this country.

Small sports clubs are particularly vulnerable to the lack of people paying to go in. When will the Government come forward with plans to allow small numbers of people to pay to be spectators at sports such as football or rugby league, socially distancing in the same way as is now allowed in cinemas, pubs and restaurants?

I welcome the start of cricket, which I understand began today. I correct the noble Lord on one small thing: cinemas are not open, nor are they likely to be in the near future. The CMO, under the advice of SAGE, is considering the provision of new guidelines for spectators at sports. I do not know exactly when that will be, but it is certainly under review.

My Lords, when our Prime Minister was Mayor of London and I was on the London Assembly, part of my job was to keep a close eye on what he said and did. It is my informed opinion that when he spoke about care homes and the 20,000 deaths, he was intending to pass criticism and blame away from himself and his Ministers. Is the Minister prepared to disagree with my informed opinion?

I completely understand the history of the noble Baroness’s role at City Hall, but I completely push back against her characterisation of the Prime Minister’s intentions. He has made it very clear that he is incredibly grateful for the hard work and sacrifice of those who work in the care homes sector, and I think we can take him at his word on that.

There is a real degree of confusion about masks. Originally, Ministers said that they did not do much good; now, the President of the Royal Society claims they are essential. A study at Jena, west of Leipzig in Germany, underlines their value. Will my noble friend clarify the position and explain his reasoning?

The Government’s approach to the epidemic is to emphasise the three main pillars of our strategy: hygiene, social distancing and isolation. They are based on clear science and evidence. The issue of masks is highly contested. There is possibly a benefit from wearing masks—that is why we have put in place the requirement to wear masks on public transport—but the science remains clear that they are not a replacement for hygiene, social distancing or isolation. On that, we are clear.

My Lords, the fall in cases is welcome, but is it not becoming clearer that in aiming to create spare bed capacity in the NHS at the expense of the elderly, Her Majesty’s Government ended up putting saving the NHS ahead of saving lives? Another example of that is the strict criteria applied to hospital admissions. Should these criteria not be immediately relaxed to save lives?

The noble Lord make his point well; however, I did not hear all of it. We are working extremely hard to increase the number of admissions in hospitals and all parts of healthcare. We are trying to restore confidence in the healthcare service to address public concerns, and I appeal to all those who have appointments or who are feeling poorly to take the opportunity to phone 111 and book themselves into hospitals or into the appointments they need, because we desperately need people to return to the NHS.

My Lords, the time allowed for this Question has now elapsed. I apologise to the noble Lords, Lord Balfe and Lord Rogan, that there was not time to fit them in.