With your permission, Mr Speaker, I would like to update the House on covid-19, or coronavirus. As of this morning, 7,132 people in the UK have been tested for the virus. So far, 13 people in the UK have tested positive, of whom eight have now been discharged from hospital. We expect more cases here. As planned, 115 people left supported isolation at Kents Hill Park in Milton Keynes on 23 February. All tested negative for covid-19. On Saturday, 32 people from the Diamond Princess cruise ship were repatriated and taken to Arrowe Park, where they will remain in supported isolation. Four of those have tested positive and been transferred to specialist centres. British tourists are currently being quarantined in a hotel in Tenerife, and the Foreign Office is in contact with them.
We have a clear four-part plan to respond to the outbreak of this disease: contain, delay, research and mitigate. We are taking all necessary measures to minimise the risk to the public. We have put in place enhanced monitoring measures at UK airports, and health information is available at all international airports, ports and international train stations. We have established a supported isolation facility at Heathrow to cater for international passengers who are tested, and to maximise infection control and free up NHS resources.
The NHS is testing a very large number of people who have travelled back from affected countries, the vast majority of whom test negative. In the past few days, we have published guidance for schools, employers, first responders, social care and the travel industry on how to handle suspected cases. If anyone has been in contact with a suspected case in a childcare or an educational setting, no special measures are required while test results are awaited. There is no need to close the school or send other students or staff home. Once the results arrive, those who test negative will be advised individually about returning to education. In most cases, closure of the childcare or education setting will be unnecessary, but this will be a local decision based on various factors, including professional advice. Schools should be guided by the advice on the gov.uk website, and contact their regional schools commissioner in case of queries. I can tell the House that in the coming days we will roll out a wider public information campaign.
While the Government and the NHS have plans in place for all eventualities, everyone can play their part. To reiterate, our advice is for everyone to take sensible precautions, such as using tissues and washing hands more. Yesterday we updated our advice to returning travellers from northern Italy—defined as anywhere north of, but not including, Pisa and Florence—as well as from Vietnam, Cambodia, Laos and Myanmar. Those returning from Iran, the lockdown areas of northern Italy and the special care zone in South Korea should self-isolate and call NHS 111, even if they have no symptoms.
We are working closely with the World Health Organisation, the G7 and the wider international community to ensure that we are ready for all eventualities. We are co-ordinating research efforts with international partners. Our approach has at all times been guided by the chief medical officer, working on the basis of the best possible scientific evidence. The public can be assured that we have a clear plan to contain, delay, research and mitigate, and that we are working methodically through each step to keep the public safe. I commend this statement to the House.
I thank the Secretary of State for advance notice of his announcement and for sight of his statement. Again, all our thoughts must be with those who have been diagnosed with coronavirus—covid-19—in the UK and across Europe, and again we reiterate our support and put on record our thanks to all NHS staff and public health staff, as well as to the chief medical officer for the leadership he is showing.
The World Health Organisation has warned that countries are “simply not ready” for a pandemic. There has now been significant spread of the virus across the European continent—in Italy in particular, but other cases have been identified in Austria, Croatia and Switzerland. This is clearly now very serious. Yesterday there did appear to be a little bit of a discrepancy, if I may say so, between the travel advice from the CMO and the Secretary of State. Can the Secretary of State clarify for the House what exactly the travel advice is for those travelling or seeking to travel to northern Italy? I think that would be welcome.
We welcome the Secretary of State’s plans for Heathrow. Could he explain to the House why that facility is proposed only for Heathrow, and why similar facilities will not be in place at other major airports, particularly the bigger airports such as Manchester and so on. The Secretary of State mentioned the situation in Tenerife. We are all obviously very concerned about the situation there. Could he offer a little more detail about what advice and support are being offered to British nationals at this hotel?
I note what the Secretary of State says about schools, and I entirely understand it, but we do have several schools in England and Northern Ireland shut completely at the moment for a deep clean, after students and teachers returned from skiing trips. I understand that schools should check relevant websites and get local advice, but does the Secretary of State expect advice to be sent to schools from the Department for Education? If schools have to start shutting, will the Government consider arrangements for alternative schooling provision for those affected?
Will the Secretary of State update the House on how many specialist and extracorporeal membrane oxygenation beds are available across the NHS? We know that the NHS is under intense pressure at this time of year—indeed, today the BBC is running a story about people waiting on trolleys in hospital corridors and so on. The Nuffield Trust has warned that there is “little in the tank” to cope with coronavirus, and Public Health England has announced that tests for the condition are being increased to include people displaying flu-like symptoms at 11 hospitals and 100 GP surgeries across the UK.
Will community trusts and clinical commissioning groups fund the extra work related to coronavirus from their existing baselines, and is the Secretary of State making representations to the Treasury for additional emergency NHS revenue resource in the coming weeks? Will he update the House on how much has been drawn from the capital facility for hospitals to develop specialist pods to quarantine patients, which he announced in his previous statement?
I reiterate that the Opposition want to work constructively with the Government on this issue. We are broadly supportive of the steps taken by the Secretary of State, and I hope he understands that we are trying to be constructive in our questions. We continue to thank all NHS staff for their work at this difficult time.
I join the hon. Gentleman in reiterating our thanks to all NHS and Public Health England staff, and others, who have been working so hard on this issue. I also express my thanks to the hon. Gentleman, and to every Member of the House with whom my Ministers and I have had dealings. In each and every case, everyone has taken a responsible and proportionate approach. This is not a political matter; this is a matter of keeping the public safe, and everybody in this House has played their part.
Plans are in place in case of the virus becoming a pandemic, but it is not yet certain that that will happen. The plan is still in the phase of “contain”: we aim to contain the virus both abroad and here at home, and prevent it from becoming a pandemic, while of course ensuring that plans are in place should that happen. On travel to Italy, our advice is that all but essential travel is not recommended to the quarantined areas of northern Italy. The advice for people returning from northern Italy is clear: those returning from the quarantined areas should self-isolate, and those returning from the rest of northern Italy should self-isolate if they have symptoms. I hope that advice is clear, and it is available on the Government website.
The hon. Gentleman asked about Heathrow, and we have expanded the availability of supported isolation facilities. Just having Arrowe Park and the facility at Milton Keynes is not appropriate for individual travellers whom we think need to be quarantined, but at the moment those numbers are low, which is why we need only one facility. We chose a facility near Heathrow because that is the point of biggest throughput, but we do not rule out rolling that out more broadly if we think it necessary.
The Department for Education has repeatedly issued advice to schools—I am glad to see the Minister for School Standards in his place—and we issued revised advice this morning. Our goal is to keep schools open wherever we can, as long as that protects the public. Our wider goal is to have minimum social and economic disruption, or disruption to the NHS, subject to keeping the public safe. The message that we do not have a policy of blanket school closures is important. Unless there is specific professional advice, or until there is a positive test, schools should stay open and follow the advice on the GOV.UK website. If they have queries they should contact their regional schools commissioner.
The hon. Gentleman asked about the availability of testing, and as far as we know, we now have testing sites at all A and E facilities across England. We are also planning to introduce home testing, some of which has started already, so that people do not have to go to the pod in front of A and E—that pod has been placed there to ensure that people do not go into A and E, where they might infect others. Home testing is the safest place to be tested because people do not have to go anywhere, and that will allow us to roll out testing to a larger number of people. The hon. Gentleman asked about the available funding. Funding is available from the Treasury. So far we have used it for capital funding, but we will obviously keep this issue under review.
Order. I expect to run this statement until around 1.30 pm.
Has the roll-out of diagnostic testing facilities to 11 laboratories in the UK been completed? Does my right hon. Friend have plans to extend that coverage if there were to be a wider outbreak?
There has been a roll-out to a wider number of laboratories, and we are working through plans for wider commercial diagnostic testing. We are working with around a dozen private companies, and using private diagnostic testing companies, not least because globally there is a search for a “by the side of the bed” testing capability. At the moment, all testing is done in labs, which means that someone has to take a swab to the lab and get the result. We want testing capabilities that involve a bit of kit by the bedside of the patient, so that tests can be run onsite. There is a global search for that capability, but it does not yet exist. We are putting funding and support into making that happen, and I hope we will soon get to that solution.
Worldwide we are looking at about 80,000 cases of coronavirus. That is 10 times the number that we saw with SARS, which suggests it is a very infectious condition. Will the UK Government liaise with international partners to ensure accurate reporting? It is critical to map the spread of coronavirus, and there will be a danger that some countries under-report because they are afraid of economic impacts. Has any consideration been given to using thermal detection technology at Heathrow, and for that to be spread across more sites? We can no longer think that this only involves people who come from a few countries—people follow different routes, and almost everyone coming in would need to be screened.
As the Secretary of State said, there is only a small window of opportunity when it is possible to prevent or contain the initial spread of coronavirus. As I have previously said, I am concerned about not self-isolating asymptomatic people, particularly when we are aware that the case that spread the condition to others in the UK involved someone who was not significantly symptomatic. We do not know what the prodromal phase of coronavirus is, and people could be spreading the condition without our knowledge. The advice must be clear.
Does the Secretary of State recognise the confusion there is that those returning from certain parts of north Italy must self-isolate, even if asymptomatic, but those coming from China do not need to self-isolate if asymptomatic? That is causing confusion and we may end up behind the curve. If containment is to work, we must be ahead of the curve. Self-isolating does not count as illness, so will the Government send a clear message to employers, so that those who are advised to self-isolate will still be paid or receive sickness cover? Otherwise, there will be people who feel that they must go to work, because they simply cannot afford to have no income for two weeks.
The Secretary of State suggested that he would not go to wider northern Italy, and the Chief Medical Officer suggested that people with health conditions should not go there. Travel insurance kicks in only when the Foreign and Commonwealth Office gives clear guidance. Will that guidance be changed to state that people should not be travelling to wider northern Italy, and other areas, so that people are not disadvantaged by not having travel insurance if they choose not to put themselves, and indeed all of us, at risk of the disease spreading?
The hon. Lady is right with regard to concerns about under-reporting, especially in some countries. I am afraid I do not recognise some of her clinical observations, and I do not recognise the idea that we should change travel advice between China and Italy. We should base travel advice on expert clinical evidence. I am very happy to ensure that she receives a full briefing from medical experts, so that she can get the clinical points right.
On thermal detection, rather like stopping flights this is against clinical advice. The clinical advice is not to undertake thermal detection, because we get a lot of false positives. Indeed, the only country I know of in Europe that undertook thermal detection at the border was Italy and that is now the scene of the largest outbreak.
Finally, the hon. Lady made a very important point about people in work and self-isolation. Self-isolation on medical advice is considered sickness for employment purposes. That is a very important message for employers and those who can go home and self-isolate as if they were sick, because it is for medical reasons.
Mercifully, nobody in this country has yet died of coronavirus, but every year 600 people die of seasonal flu. In the phase to which my right hon. Friend refers, is he redoubling our efforts to ensure that the elderly and the vulnerable in particular are vaccinated against seasonal flu, therefore perhaps mitigating pressures on our national health service in the event that coronavirus becomes more of a problem here and makes demands particularly on intensive care beds?
My right hon. Friend is absolutely right. The vaccination rate was, I think, at a record level this year, and it is very important. The simple measures that everybody can take, such as washing hands and using tissues, protect us against flu as well as coronavirus.
The four people who were welcomed to Arrowe Park Hospital developed symptoms subsequent to coming to this country, despite being tested extensively before they were allowed to fly. Does that cause the Secretary of State any worry? Will he say what that might mean for whether people are infectious before they are symptomatic?
It is my job to worry about all those things. The answer is that that sequence of events confirms to me the importance of quarantining people. I know that there were some concerns about quarantine, but I think it showed that we were dead right to quarantine people because it turned out that they tested positive during the quarantine. Mr Speaker, I just want to put on the record my thanks to the hon. Lady, and everyone in her constituency and the Wirral more broadly, who have risen to this challenge.
Constituents have been writing to me with regard to travel advice. They are planning holidays to countries that are currently affected and for which the travel advice is to isolate on return if symptomatic. Some do not want to go on those holidays because, understandably, they are genuinely frightened, but they cannot reclaim the money because the travel advice is not saying that they cannot go. If they do go, they then have to isolate when they come back, which effectively lengthens their holidays and creates significant difficulties in relation to their responsibilities. Will the Secretary of State advise my constituents on what they should do in that circumstance and what discussions have taken place with the Foreign Office on this matter?
Decisions on precise travel advice for each country is of course a matter for the Foreign Office, but I can tell my hon. Friend that all those considerations are taken into account. We have to base decisions on the best possible science and clinical advice.
What assessment have the Government made of the potential economic consequences of the spread of the coronavirus, globally as well as in Europe and in the UK? The Secretary of State will know that northern Italy is in lockdown and that other countries with a much greater spread of the disease have provided an economic stimulus because whole areas are shutting down. We are not there at all in the UK, but has he discussed this issue with the Treasury, because the potential impact on growth and the nervousness of financial markets is very real?
The hon. Lady is absolutely right to raise this issue. I have of course talked to the Treasury and the new Chancellor of the Exchequer on this question. Another important consideration is that overreaction has economic and social costs too. We have to keep the public safe, but we need to act in a way that is proportionate, so that does come into our considerations. My primary goal is to keep the public safe—of course it is—but we also have to take into account other impacts. For instance, as I set out in the statement, schools should stay open, with no blanket ban, unless there are specific reasons for them not to. Closing a school does not just have an impact on children’s education—there are wider social and economic impacts too.
I thank the Secretary of State for the very responsible way he is handling this very serious situation. He is clearly working very closely—as his predecessor did and I did when I worked with him—with Professor Chris Whitty, the chief medical officer, and following the evidence. That has to be right. Last time the Secretary of State made a statement to the House, he said that he felt it would get worse before it got better. I think that that has been borne out by events. What level of personal responsibility should individuals and employers take—there are alternatives to travel, especially business travel, where there are technological solutions—to help with containment?
That is a very wise question and my hon. Friend is absolutely right to ask it. The NHS has a very important role to play in responding to this crisis, Public Health England is leading the public health response brilliantly, and Professor Chris Whitty, as chief medical officer, has done an amazing job over the past two months and is one of the finest epidemiologists in the world, but the truth is that everybody has a role to play, from the simple action of washing hands all the way through to responding in a sensible and proportionate way. It is important to dwell on that.
I join others in thanking NHS staff in advance for the work they will have to do to contain and deal with the coronavirus. Will the Secretary of State join me in commending the work of Professor Gilbert and others at the Jenner Institute, who are working tirelessly to develop a vaccine? As he said in his statement, the NHS 111 service is now in effect the frontline service. We may have received text messages from our GP surgeries telling us to contact them first. What are we doing to ensure they are properly staffed and trained? Finally—this is very important, Mr Speaker—will he join me in condemning those who are hurling racist abuse at British Asians, both in Oxford and elsewhere? There is a worry that we could racially profile those who may have this disease and that is not acceptable. We all need to calm down.
I abhor any racist attacks that people might say have resulted from this situation. The circumstances do not matter—racism does not help; it hinders any response. I can assure the hon. Lady that 111 staff have the support they need and we have back-up plans. That is all part of the plan and 111 is responding brilliantly. Thank goodness we have 111. It is only a couple of years old and it is absolutely delivering in these circumstances. Everybody in the country knows that if they are worried that they have coronavirus they should call 111.
I pay tribute to the Secretary of State at this very difficult time. His statement was very measured. He mentions four means: containment, delay, research and mitigation. Containment and delay come with serious economic and social disruption, and we are seeing that in the markets at the moment. I would say that what we must be doing the most is mitigation. This is a very strange virus with a very long period between infection and symptoms. The number of interactions people make during that two-week period—perhaps even longer—will be innumerable, and that makes thermal testing, which is often the first way forward, difficult to analyse. Will the Secretary of State, the chief medical officer and other international experts look seriously at whether this is simply A. N. Other flu virus that is difficult and problematic, but recoverable from?
I thank my hon. Friend; I will certainly do that. I agree with him on the importance of mitigation. The mitigation strand is really about what would happen should this become a full-scale pandemic, and the very significant impact that that would have on the country— including, of course, on the NHS. On the purpose of the delay strand of this work, even if we do not succeed in containing the virus, we want to delay its arrival so that it does not all arrive in one big peak, but arrives over time so that we can better cope with it. Of course, the contain strand is about trying to stop that from happening at all.
As the House knows, I was in self-isolation last week because Harry Horton of ITV alerted me to the fact that there had been a confirmed case at the UK bus summit, which I attended. I rang 111 and the advice was that, if I had been in contact with the person who had coronavirus, I should self-isolate, but if I had not, I need not. Yet no agency could confirm or deny whether I had been in contact. So more work on tracking needs to be done. Will the Secretary of State consider developing, like the Chinese Government, a tracking app to help people in that situation?
I am very happy, subject to consent, to look at that. I would also say that the way that contact tracing works is that, once the positive case is identified, you trace out from the positive case, rather than starting from the wider population—including attendees at the bus conference—and focusing in. Contact tracing was undertaken in the correct way. Indeed, the majority of cases that we have found in the UK have been found through the proactive contact tracing undertaken by Public Health England; that commends its approach.
I thank the Secretary of State for the statement. Obviously, this issue affects all our constituencies, so can he confirm that he will continue to provide further information to the House as the situation develops and as more information becomes available to us, so that we can keep our constituents’ minds at rest that everything that can be done is being done?
Yes, absolutely; of course I will keep the House and the wider public updated. That is an incredibly important part of our work. Of course, for any colleague, my door, and that of the Minister for Public Health, my hon. Friend the Member for Bury St Edmunds (Jo Churchill), is always open to answer any questions.
What steps are the Government taking, in partnership with tech companies, to battle fake news on coronavirus?
That is a very important subject. In fact, I have been working on that in the past 24 hours, to ensure that tech companies, social media companies, Google and others promote the right answers to questions about coronavirus. Most of the social media companies—we have been in contact with them—have behaved in an exemplary fashion, ensuring that information from, for example, the NHS gets promoted.
I commend my right hon. Friend for his statement today. Following on from the previous question, it is clear that everybody has heeded the advice to self-isolate, but exactly what self-isolation might mean for certain groups—such as a family in which one person may be symptomatic, or groups of university students—is difficult to ascertain. I urge my right hon. Friend to pursue a public health initiative.
We updated the advice on exactly what self-isolation means earlier this week. It does, for instance, mean going home, and if other people live with you at home, trying to keep out of contact with them. It means, obviously, not going on public transport, leaving the house as little as possible, and trying to get other people to do things like collecting groceries. It also means, within a house where lots of people are living, trying to stay away from others living in that house. I appreciate that that is, practically, challenging and difficult—as a father of three small children, I get it—but that is the goal of self-isolation.
I thank the Secretary of State for his statement. What communication is his Department having with the devolved Administrations concerning precautions? Schools, such as one in my constituency, are flummoxed, not knowing how to manage the situation. What is he doing with the ports in Belfast to ensure that precautions are put in place?
The Secretary of State mentioned financial support. Will he outline whether there will be additional support for Northern Ireland if this disease comes to Northern Ireland?
Public health crises such as this are a UK-wide reserved matter, but we have had excellent working with all the devolveds, particularly the new Administration in Belfast. They join our weekly Cobras. We will have a Cobra this afternoon at which they will be present. Some matters—especially in the mitigate strand of work—are of course devolved, such as schools and healthcare. We work very hard on that, and I am sure that we will ensure that any financial consequentials are appropriately dealt with, too.
If someone starts feeling unwell on their journey home, what should they do when they arrive at the airport? Presumably, they ought to report to someone before travelling on public transport.
Yes; they should make themselves known to the public health presence at the port, and of course they can call 111 from mobiles, too.
We heard what the Secretary of State told the hon. Member for Wimbledon (Stephen Hammond) about a person who is self-isolating, keeping away from other family members, but what is the advice to the other family members about whether they should go about their normal business—go to work or go to school if they are children—in those circumstances?
Other family members who are asymptomatic should go about their normal business in the normal way. It is those who have tested positively who should self-isolate.
The Health Secretary is absolutely right that containment of covid-19 is very important. In that vein, will he keep under review isolation facilities being made available at London Gatwick airport, which of course has many flights to and from both Asia and Europe?
Yes, of course, that would be the obvious next step. I will not confirm that—we do not need it yet—but that is all part of the plan.
The Irish authorities have already advised the Irish Rugby Football Union to call off the Six Nations game against Italy, which obviously affects the north, as it is a Northern Ireland team as well. England are due to play Italy in the Six Nations in a few weeks. What discussions has the Secretary of State had with his colleagues in the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport and with the sporting authorities about advising what to do in relation to the Six Nations championship and other sporting events?
Obviously, DDCMS is involved in the cross-Government decision making on these things. Our goal is to minimise social disruption—of which this is an important part for any rugby fan—subject to keeping the public safe. These are difficult balances to strike sometimes, and I will be discussing the matter with the new Secretary of State at DDCMS.
I thank my right hon. Friend for what he has said, particularly in relation to schools. He may be aware that a school in my constituency has closed as a precautionary measure, after students returned from northern Italy. Would he contact both me and the school to reassure parents and staff?
I would be very happy to discuss the specific case with my hon. Friend—either I or the Minister for Public Health—and I am looking into that specific example. A small number of schools have taken that step. I understand why they have, and it is of course a decision for the head, taking into account local factors. We are putting in place, through the regional schools commissioners, the structures to make it possible to ensure that every school can get the advice it needs, but in the first instance every school should go to the website, because there is a huge amount of advice on that.
What action is the Minister taking to ensure that the support and communication being given is adequate and clear to British nationals currently quarantined in the hotel in Tenerife, and to their families, who are rightly worried?
It is a very important question. We are getting as much information as we possibly can, through the Foreign Office, to those who are in Tenerife. As I announced in the statement, we will shortly be strengthening our domestic communications programme to ensure that people have all the information they need.
I was very pleased when, yesterday evening, the Health Minister took me aside and said how well the whole of Milton Keynes had reacted to hosting a quarantine centre, and he was right of course. The professionals in the NHS— clinical and managerial—were fantastic, as were the officers in the council. I think we should recognise that the whole health team—the Secretary of State and his Ministers, advisers and officials—and, indeed, parliamentarians on any Bench in this House, have reacted incredibly well to this situation. So can the Secretary of State reassure us that this is part of the UK being the best prepared—or among the very well prepared —in the world to deal with this kind of outbreak?
My hon. Friend is right about Milton Keynes. The people of Milton Keynes have done exactly the right thing, and I would add to his list Milton Keynes University Hospital, which has done a brilliant job. More broadly, I would also add the media, who have in very large part responded in an incredibly responsible way to a very big story. We have detailed operational plans for dealing with this situation, including if it gets much worse, and those plans are worked on and updated in response to all the information we get, but part of the plan is about the behaviour of people and how people respond in this House and in the country. Thus far we have seen an exemplary response. I hope that continues.
Many wedding dresses in this country are designed here but made in China, and wedding dress companies in the UK, including in my constituency, have found it difficult because the factories in China have closed; they are suffering as a result. I am aware, having married many women in my time—when I was a vicar—that this is time sensitive. There is a real danger that many of these businesses will suffer enormous financial loss, not to mention the impact on the families. Will the Secretary of State chase up replies from Ministers in other Departments to ensure financial support for those companies?
The hon. Member raises an important point and through the medium of the wedding dress makes a much broader point, which is that many things are made in China, especially drugs and pharmaceuticals and clothing, which means that the impact in China will have an impact here through the supply chain problems. I am working with the Treasury on the appropriate response. Containing the virus will obviously have health benefits, but it will have economic benefits, too.
The hon. Member for Cardiff West (Kevin Brennan) nicked my question about the number of cancelled sporting events around the world, which the Secretary of State will be aware of, but can he be clear about the advice to those who host or attend these events in order to prevent the spread of coronavirus? Can he confirm that, contrary to rumours on the internet, 111 call handlers are not advising people to go to their GP?
People should call 111 if they are concerned; they should not attend A&E or go to their GP, unless 111 has correctly told them to do that. The 111 call handlers are highly trained. There are GPs at the other end of the line to make sure people get the best advice. It is the place to go to.
Having experienced the outbreak in my home town of Brighton and Hove, I would like to commend the work of the Secretary the State’s Department, his officials and public health officials across the country. In particular, I would like to thank the Under-Secretary of State for Health and Social Care, the hon. Member for Bury St Edmunds (Jo Churchill), who personally went beyond the call of duty to keep me and my colleagues informed at every step. I am convinced that the strategy that was unfolded in our city was the correct one, but what was not quite good enough was the explanation given to residents of why that strategy was chosen. Those who came into contact with people with coronavirus were contacted proactively, but those in the same space who were concerned had no information at all. Is this something that will get better?
The hon. Gentleman is right to praise my colleague. It is a pity, Mr Speaker, that you did not call him earlier, because she has just left the Chamber. He is right; we are constantly learning. Communication in this area is always a challenge, because we have to get some quite technical information over to a large number of people in a very short time. We do our very best, but we are constantly learning from what goes well and what goes badly, so I would love to hear more from him about how we can improve.
Following on from the last question, in his statement, the Secretary of State referenced a public information campaign. Can he provide more detail about that and confirm that it will be updated as the situation changes?
That is right. We have an existing public information campaign to explain to people that the best thing to do is to call 111, but we will be strengthening that. In particular, we want to persuade people to wash their hands more and to look out for themselves, especially if they have a sneeze, in order to slow the spread; we want to explain what they should to do if they think they are infected. It is incredibly important that we get this information out across the whole population.
I welcome the level-headed clarion certainty in the Secretary of State’s approach to this difficult event; it gives confidence to many people across the country. Cambridge House Grammar School in my constituency had to send pupils home yesterday. It appears to have acted absolutely by the book in terms of the advice given, so I welcome the communication between the Department of Health and Social Care here and the Departments of Education and Health in Northern Ireland, and I hope it continues. With regard to the game to be played on Saturday between Italy and Ireland, many Ulster players and Ulster fans are following that closely. His counterpart in the Republic of Ireland, Simon Harris, has said the game should be stopped, but the Department here has taken a much more level-headed approach and said it will monitor the situation. The IRFU, which will ultimately take the decision, does not seem to know what to do. Can the Secretary of State give clear and clarion advice to the IRFU?
I will ask the chief medical officer to speak to the Republic of Ireland chief medical officer and to ensure that the best and appropriate clinical advice is given. Rather than me giving advice from the Dispatch Box, I will ensure we get the best clinical advice and join up with the Republic.
I hear what the Secretary of State says about how people should go about their ordinary lives if they have not tested positive, but where parents self-isolate while awaiting testing, should their children go to school before they know the outcome of the test? Schools being what they are, it is bound to cause alarm. Should children not be kept away until such time as the all-clear is given?
It is best here that we follow the clinical advice, which is as I set out. One of the good things about the covid-19 coronavirus, compared with similar illnesses, is that it seems to be much less impactful in terms of symptoms on children, which is good news, because with the flu it is normally the other way around. That observation underpins the clinical advice. We need to listen to the scientists.
I thank the Secretary of State for his statement to the House. What advice and help is being given to airport staff, given that they are often the gatekeepers?
We should thank Border Force, which has done a fantastic job, and the staff at the international ports. We are constantly engaged with them, through the Department for Transport—and the Home Office in the case of Border Force—to ensure they get the right information and support, but if the hon. Member has any specific worries, I would be happy to answer them.
The Secretary of State and the Government have done a fantastic job on public information, but does he agree that it would be helpful, given our reach on social media and through our constituency surgeries, if Members were to put up posters and broadcast the necessary information to our constituents in our tweets and elsewhere on social media in order to maximise that reach?
I am very happy to do that. More broadly, I am open to ideas on how to improve our response, including learning from where things have not gone well. Our approach is to make the UK response the best it can be—that is my only goal—and when there are good ideas, such as that one from my hon. Friend, we will act on them.
I congratulate the Secretary of State on his clear leadership on this matter and his determination to deal with the issues. He referred to schools in Northern Ireland. Some of them have concerns about upcoming trips that they have planned and paid for in advance. What advice can he give to schools in Northern Ireland and across the United Kingdom? Should they travel?
The critical thing is to follow the Foreign Office travel advice, which is informed by the evidence, including evidence from scientists. It is kept constantly under review and is clearly published on its website.