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Covid-19: Rise of Positive Tests

Volume 805: debated on Wednesday 9 September 2020

Private Notice Question

Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what assessment they have made of the rise in the number of people testing positive for Covid-19.

My Lords, our assessment of the recent rise in positive tests is that we are deeply concerned, particularly about rates among young people, and particularly at a time when children are returning to schools and people are returning to the workplace. We are constantly looking at the latest data on the spread of coronavirus and have worked hard to contain outbreaks early to reduce the spread, protect the NHS and social care sectors, and save lives.

I thank the Minister for that Answer. I was finding it difficult to know in which direction to point myself in framing a question about our testing system, but he has given me the two issues that I want to raise. First, can he tell the House what effect the increase in Covid infections is having on R? What is SAGE advising? The second question is to do with schools. What is a head teacher to do when they have successfully got their pupils back into school and then inevitably have pupils who have symptoms, are at home and need a test—as do their families—but are unable to get one because the nearest centres are either not carrying out tests or have run out of them, the labs cannot process them, or they have been offered testing many miles away and may not even have a car? How are our schools to remain open and safe if the national testing system is not working as it should, and when will this be resolved?

My Lords, the impact on R is not entirely clear at the moment. ONS and REACT figures will be published shortly, and they will have the statistical analysis that the noble Baroness asks for. However, it is safe to say that R is up. With regard to schools, the Government have made it clear that our support for the return to schools is completely emphatic. However, I remind the noble Baroness that the average distance travelled for tests, even at this stage, remains 6.4 miles. Ninety per cent of people who book a test travel less than 23 miles, and 90% of tests undertaken in our mobile sites are still converted in 24 hours.

My Lords, the Government have imposed 14 days’ isolation on people travelling from certain countries where the virus is increasing. What steps have Her Majesty’s Government taken to ensure that children travelling back with their parents are not returning to schools—so that a child with the virus goes to school on day one and the children then have to be isolated?

My Lords, the quarantine arrangements we have put in place are essential for containing the spread of the disease. We completely sympathise with parents who have found themselves caught overseas. However, we implore them to abide by the quarantine arrangements and return their children to school once the 14-day quarantine has passed.

My Lords, when Covid-19 first struck, care homes were almost forgotten. Will the Minister explain to the House what is the recommended Covid-19 testing regime for residents, visitors and staff in care homes, and what organisation monitors the tests in those local care settings?

Testing arrangements for care homes have, as the noble Baroness, Lady Jolly, alluded to, risen dramatically. Testing is done in a large variety of ways. For large care homes, mobile testing facilities are put in place; for care staff, facilities at local NHS hospitals are in place; and we invite visitors to have tests in advance of visiting their loved ones. This is all overseen by the NHS Test and Trace programme, and the CQC remains the auditor of the care sector.

My Lords, I draw noble Lords’ attention to my registered interests, in particular my membership of your Lordships’ Science and Technology Committee. In his appearance before that committee in July, the Government’s Chief Scientific Adviser suggested that the higher the number of cases in circulation at the beginning of winter, the greater the likelihood of a significant peak of disease. What assessment have Her Majesty’s Government made of scientific evidence on the threshold at which the number of new cases might suggest that we can no longer be confident that the NHS will have sufficient capacity to deliver both its routine winter service and manage resurgent Covid-19 admissions?

My Lords, we are well within the threshold that the noble Lord, Lord Kakkar, alludes to, but we are concerned about winter. That is why we are putting in place new restrictions and new arrangements to stop the spread of this disease, protect the NHS and save lives.

My Lords, the level of coronavirus has risen significantly since late July and, as my noble friend the Minister knows, the disease is having a disproportionate effect on black and ethnic minority people. Can he therefore say exactly what the Government are doing to ensure that these groups are fully accessing NHS Test and Trace, and what additional support is being given to those who work in the hospital and care sectors?

My Lords, we are deeply concerned about the BAME incidence of this horrible disease. We have put in place extensive new marketing arrangements targeted at BAME audiences. We have targeted our testing arrangements through mobile testing and door-to-door availability at that communities that have been hardest hit, and there are guidelines to NHS trusts to put in place the necessary safety arrangements for those with a BAME background.

My Lords, following the Government’s statement that the rise in infection rates is due largely to increased spread of the virus among young people, what strategies do the Government propose to adopt to ensure that returning students, for example, and others, comply more stringently with public health regulations?

We are deeply concerned about the spread among students. Some of that spread will take place in universities, and I pay tribute to the efforts of vice-chancellors to put in place social distancing arrangements in universities; we hope that they will have an impact. However, some of the effect is in their social life—in pubs, clubs and bedrooms up and down the country. That is the responsibility of the students themselves, and we are looking at measures to enhance and enforce the social distancing measures that will stop the spread of this disease.

My Lords, on a day when the Prime Minister will order us not to meet in large groups of more than six, why have the Government agreed to support 3,600 people congregating at Doncaster Racecourse today? Have the Government not learned the lessons of the superspreader event in Cheltenham?

My Lords, any new regulations will be in place from Monday and will capture events such as the one the noble Lord describes.

My Lords, I was delighted to hear the Secretary of State, Matt Hancock, announce the Government’s investment of £0.5 billion for testing innovation. Is the Minister aware of Abbott Laboratories’ new $5 antigen test, released just two weeks ago in the United States? On a card, within 15 minutes it can give results anywhere—at a school, a university, in the workplace or at the airport. Ten million are being produced this month in America, and 50 million next month. How soon will we have access to those sorts of tests, which will be a true game-changer in being able to have mass testing around the country?

My Lords, I am aware of the Abbott test. I spoke to Chris Scoggins from Abbott yesterday, and I pay tribute to innovators in this country, in America, and around the world for the dramatic increase in the speed, accuracy and scale of these tests. We hope that they will make a big difference.

My Lords, given that the virus is spreading and we are fast approaching autumn and winter pressures, can my noble friend ensure that the NHS and local authorities are communicating in different languages to communities to encourage them to go and get their flu injections as quickly as possible?

The use of different languages for promoting all aspects of our Covid response is critical. We have massively increased the number, accuracy and stylistic resonance of our marketing materials in order to reach all audiences. I very much welcome the noble Baroness’s remarks.

My Lords, many law-abiding people are offended by the organisation of raves in blatant contravention of the rules on numbers and social distancing. What assessment have the Government made of the use of intelligence by the police to stop people travelling long distances to attend such illegal gatherings?

My Lords, I used to organise raves, and I used to love them—but I implore all those who organise raves to stop, because they are creating a massive public health disaster. Fines have been put in place, and we will come after them. But I ask them, “Please, look into your conscience. Stop the raves. Protect lives.”

Moving on from the question asked by the noble Baroness, Lady Jolly, about care homes, and the Minister’s response, are the Government publishing the number of cases and deaths due to Covid in care homes? If not, why not?

I advise the noble and right reverend Lord that those figures are published on the PHE website. I would be glad to send him an email with the link.

My Lords, what I am about to ask implies no criticism, because this is such a difficult question. The increase in restrictions on social gatherings that have just been announced will be so difficult to enforce. Is there at least a case for us to consider focusing more on mortality rates rather than simply on infection rates, and finding better ways of identifying and protecting the truly vulnerable, while allowing the rest of society to get on sensibly with their lives as best they can in the circumstances, before the costs of trying to protect everyone become both economically and politically unsustainable?

My noble friend is entirely right to say that the measures that the Prime Minister will describe will impose a huge burden on the whole country. However, he alludes to a hope that I am afraid cannot be borne out in practice, because we have seen, in country after country, that after prevalence follows hospitalisation and mortality, as night follows day. There is an immediate and strong connection between the rise of mortality and the rate of prevalence in the country as a whole. Children see their parents, and parents see the grandparents, so if we really want to protect all those in society, we have to lean into the disease at every level. In addition, it is emerging that the long-term effects of Covid on young people can be profound. Even those with relatively low or asymptomatic reactions to the disease can be affected by fatigue, loss of memory, breathing difficulties and other long-term effects. It is for those reasons that I ask all young people to ensure that they take every step to avoid catching this disease.